About the Neighborhood
North Lawndale’s story is one of evolution.
In its early days — then known simply as Lawndale — the community was home to droves of white factory workers. This was 1870, when the McCormick Reaper Company’s plant drew workers to this western edge of Chicago.
Within 20 years, large numbers of Czech immigrants had arrived. These Bohemians gave the neighborhood a distinctly Eastern European flavor.
Add another 30 years, and the Czechs had largely moved away while a strong community of Russian Jewish émigrés had settled in.
In the 1950s, African Americans from the Deep South and other parts of Chicago began to call North Lawndale home, initiating a decade that saw North Lawndale’s population shift overwhelming from white to black.
Today, as 29% of the neighborhood’s residents identify themselves as Hispanic, the evolution continues.
This rich quilt of racial, ethnic, and vocational backgrounds has lent a unique texture to this community. Take its industrial beginnings, for instance. In 1870, after the real estate firm Millard and Decker drew its boundaries and dubbed it Lawndale, the neighborhood welcomed the McCormick Reaper Company (which later became International Harvester). This proved an ideal destination for laborers displaced after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And so began a century of industrial contributions to Chicago and the nation. Sears, Zenith, Sunbeam, and Western Electric were among the companies to root their efforts in the North Lawndale community.
More examples: Many of the Czech immigrants who arrived in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were the first to occupy those stately greystone homes that North Lawndale is still known for today. The Russian Jews — who came in such waves that for a time North Lawndale was the third largest Jewish community on earth — built schools, synagogues, community centers, and eateries that, in one form or another, still resonate in the community today. And the black community welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., who moved there, along with his family, after choosing North Lawndale as the headquarters of the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966.
But King’s celebrated tenure in North Lawndale also highlights some of the more troubling circumstances that have accompanied the community’s evolution. In the middle of the twentieth century, as the South continued to lose black workers who migrated northward in search of new work and better living, North Lawndale became a convenient port of entry to Chicago. Racial tensions at this time were high — in Chicago as well as across the United States. This contributed to a decade of “white flight,” when the white population of North Lawndale went from 99% to just 9%, taking much of the community’s economic infrastructure with it. On top of this, most of the laborers working at nearby factories commuted in from other parts of the city, leaving no substantial job opportunities for neighborhood residents. Poverty and discontent quickly became pervasive. This is why King selected North Lawndale as one of his civil rights hubs.
When King was assassinated in 1968, North Lawndale was not spared by the violent riots that swept across Chicago’s West Side. Along Roosevelt Road — once one of Chicago’s bustling commercial centers — buildings were destroyed, businesses ruined, and feelings of safety shattered. Forty years later, the scars are still visible.
The devastation of the riots was intensified during the late 1960s and 1970s when nearly every industrial employer in the area shut down. International Harvester, Sears, Zenith, Sunbeam, Western Electric — by the 1980s, they had all moved away from North Lawndale. Between 1970 and 2000, the community’s population dropped by 45%. According to the 2000 census, the median household income sat below $25,000.
But a new day is dawning in North Lawndale. Nearly 30% of the population is now Hispanic, bringing new traditions, values, and economic ventures to the neighborhood. Homan Square, which occupies the site of the former Sears headquarters, boasts a wealth of new commercial, living, and learning opportunities that are benefitting the community. And institutions like the Catalyst Schools—Howland Charter are investing in the community by devoting themselves to the education of North Lawndale’s children.
North Lawndale is a community that continues to evolve. As it writes the next chapter in its story, North Lawndale will use the lessons and influences of its varied past to carve a distinct and flourishing future.
The Catalyst Schools—Howland Charter opens its doors in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. This is the first Catalyst School.
Once the home of the mail order facility and the administrative headquarters for the Sears, Roebuck & Co., North Lawndale sees the last Sears facilities in the community close their doors. The moving process began in 1974.
Martin Luther King, Jr. chooses North Lawndale for the headquarters of the Chicago Freedom Movement, one of the most ambitious civil rights campaigns of the era.
The unofficial year that Czech Bohemians become less prominent in North Lawndale as an influx of Russian Jews move into the community.
Millard and Decker, a Chicago real estate firm, name an area of Chicago's West Side "Lawndale."