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Finding Zombieland in Chicagoland

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Finding Zombieland in Chicagoland

The WISCH LIST

Oct. 31, 2009

Earlier this week on his Facebook page, a friend of mine wrote how “the economy is so bad that millions of children will hit the streets this weekend to beg for food.”

He called it the Trick-or-Treat Recovery Act of 2009.

Dental costs aren’t included.

Yeah, times may be tough right now. In spite of it, though, the business of Halloween remains scary good this October for many in Chicago.

The low-budget horror flick “Paranormal Activity” is earning big-budget dollars at the box office. People are paying $20 a pop to scare themselves silly at haunted houses. And I have friends who will probably spend more cash on their Halloween costumes this month than they will on their workday wardrobe.

For the cost-conscious thrill-seekers among us, though, I thought that I’d take you on a free tour of Chicagoland’s very own Ghost Town this Halloween.

It’s real (very). It’s open to the public (but, just barely). It’s creepy (quite).

And it can be found sitting in the shadow of one of the world’s busiest airports.

Or lurking there.

In the summer of 2001, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unveiled his plans for the O’Hare Modernization Project, an effort designed to increase capacity and limit delays at the airport by extending old runways and building new ones.

The ongoing $6 billion project (it’s since grown to an estimated $8 billion, which the city attributes to inflation) called for the acquisition of more than 400 acres of land and the demolition of hundreds of suburban homes and business, most of them in Bensenville and Elk Grove Village.

A couple of months ago, I switched up my commute home to Chicago from work in the western suburbs. The new route cuts through Bensenville, and the first time I turned from northbound York Road onto eastbound Irving Park Road in the town, I was stunned at what I discovered.

For a mile long stretch along Irving Park, a post-apocalyptic world unfolded before me. Car dealerships, gas stations, restaurants and auto body repair shops stood shuttered and unoccupied. Weeds the size of children sprouted up from cracked concrete in front of them. And beyond the businesses, I could see down desolate neighborhood streets where houses sat unoccupied amidst a tangle of overgrown yards.

The “O’Hare Modernization Project” signs along Irving Park allowed me to quickly deduce the reason behind this bizarre scene. But I still found it surprising that a literal Ghost Town could exist so near Chicago and, judging by the amount of overgrowth, for so long.

For weeks, I’ve driven through this eerie stretch of suburbia. But it wasn’t until last week that I finally veered off of Irving Park Road and into the heart of Zombieland.

As I slowly drove through the neighborhoods, I found streets named Garden, Green Lawn and Orchard that are now suburban jungles. Along each, scores of houses and apartment buildings sat abandoned with plywood slapped over windows and doors. Basketball hoops and satellite dishes still stood outside some.

At one point, an enormous white-tailed buck and three does darted across the street, startling me. However, I was even more shocked when I turned down another street and found a home with its lights on, two cars in the driveway and a neatly manicured lawn with signs reading, “Don’t Meigs With Us” and “Build a Third Airport.”

Curious, I parked and knocked on the front door of the “survivors” in this wasteland. The man who answered didn’t much want to talk, but did tell me that he and his family had lived alone in the neighborhood for three years. Soon, they would be moving themselves, he said.

As I walked away, I wondered what this family’s life must be like in this neighborless hood. So, on Monday, I decided to find out and made my return to Zombieland, A.D.

After Dark.

As creepy as the neighborhood was in daylight, it was tenfold after dusk. The were sparse and flickering. Every “No Outlet” sign registered in my head as “Dead End.” And with my window down, the only sounds I could hear were my car’s tires passing over wet pavement, along with the occasional roar of an airliner from nearby O’Hare.

After enough shivers down my spine, I headed home.

The next day, though, to fully satisfy my curiosity, I did visit one other location in Bensenville that’s slated to be removed as part of the O’Hare Modernization Project.

It’s called St. Johannes, a 160-year-old cemetery.

Let’s just say I’d rather sleep there than on Garden Street.