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Calumet City

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Calumet City is a city in Cook County, Illinois, United States. The population was 39,072 at the 2000 census. The ZIP code is 60409.

Calumet City (commonly referred to locally as “Cal City”) was founded in 1892 when the villages of Schrumville and Sobieski Park merged under the name of West Hammond, since it lies on the west side of the Illinois-Indiana border from Hammond, Indiana. In 1924, West Hammond officially changed its name to Calumet City.

In addition to being bordered to the east by Hammond, it is also bordered by Burnham to the north, Lansing to the south, and South Holland and Dolton to the west.

The First World War

When the United States entered the Great War (later known as World War I) in 1917, patriotic fervor led to many young men enlisting in the armed forces, and nowhere was that patriotism greater than in West Hammond, which saw a larger percentage of its population, per capita, enlist than any other community in the nation. Even many members of the town’s sizable German population signed up for the military to fight the Central Powers. A bronze plaque bearing the names of every citizen who served in the war was dedicated at West Hammond’s Memorial Park in 1922.

“Sin City”

However, with the onset of Prohibition in 1919, West Hammond/Calumet City quickly became known for something other than its patriotism. Bootleggers found local officials and police willing to turn a blind eye, and the town became a magnet for speakeasies, gambling, and prostitution. A multitude of illegal nightclubs sprang up throughout the town, and were particularly concentrated on a stretch of State Street that quickly became known regionally and, eventually, nationally as “The Strip,” just as Calumet City was dubbed the original American “Sin City.” With the repeal of the Volstead Act and the return of legal liquor in 1933, Calumet City’s speakeasies converted into lawful nightclubs, many of them owned or influenced by organized crime elements from Chicago (including Al Capone, who owned a “getaway” home in Calumet City). Clubs, saloons and taverns continued to prosper in Calumet City, and a new record was set when it was determined that the town had more liquor licenses per capita than any other community in the nation. Many of the clubs featured Las Vegas-style showgirl revues, as well as such marquee talent as Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Keith Speaks, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

By the 1960s, shadier elements had moved in to control the town’s bars, gambling, narcotics and prostitution rings when the federal government began cracking down on the large crime families, breaking up their illicit holdings and sending mob bosses to prison. In the following decades, Calumet City’s Strip was no longer seen as a sort of “Northern Las Vegas,” but instead was infamous as a place to acquire drugs and prostitutes, and as home to a string of seedy bars that were a shadow of the nightclubs that had once reigned there.

In the 1980s and after, reformist efforts succeeded in closing down many of Calumet City’s bars, and the State Street Strip today is essentially an industrial park.

The Smiley Towers

A notable landmark and point of pride among Cal City residents is their two large water towers painted like the popular “Have a Nice Day” smiley faces: The Smiley Towers (external link) The following history of the Smiley Towers was found in the 1995 Calumet City Community Guide:

“The Story Behind the Smile”

Some huge smiles have been shedding a positive light on Calumet City since 1973.
The lemon-yellow Smiley Face water towers — one at River Oaks Center and the other at Paxton Avenue and Dolton Ave — were an idea suggested by Kim Fornero. Then a child, she could see one of the towers from her home and thought it would “look cute with a smiley face on it,” recalled Dennis Bonic, director of the Calumet City Water Department.
The 1970s were the era of the smiley face. These happy faces appeared on everything from buttons to lunch boxes.
Fornero appealed to then Mayor Robert Stefaniak, and he and the city council agreed to have the towers painted. The move made national headlines.
“There was a big to-do about it when they went up on 1973,” Bonic said. “It went national. It was on network TV before I even came to the Water Department.”
It was one of the first times anybody thought to use a water tower as a municipal billboard, he said. Other cities soon followed Calumet City’s example and began putting symbols, slogans and insignias on their water towers.
The Smiley Face towers were heralded as a “progressive community project and a daily reminder to smile,” Bonic said.
The River Oaks tower, known as “Mr. Smiley Face”, sports a bow tie on its “neck”. The other tie-less tower is affectionately known as either “Mrs.” or “Miss” Smiley Face”.
“I think everyone likes to see a smiley face and think about the city in a positive light,” he said “It’s just a reminder to look on the bright side of things.”