North Lawndale was organized in 1857 as part of Cicero Township. It was crossed by a French and Indian portage trail that underlies today's Ogden Avenue. In 1869, the eastern section of North Lawndale to Crawford Avenue (Pulaski Road) was annexed to Chicago by an act of the state legislature. Thereafter, streets were platted and drainage ditches were installed between Western and Crawford Avenue. The name "Lawndale" was supplied by Millard and Deeker, a real estate firm that subdivided the area in 1870. In 1871, after the Fire, the McCormick Reaper Company (later International Harvester) occupied a new large plant in the South Lawndale neighborhood. As a result, many plant workers moved to eastern North Lawndale. The remaining area west of Crawford Avenue was annexed by a resolution of the Cook County Commissioners in 1889.
Population surged in North Lawndale in the early 20th century. Russian Jews became the dominant foreign-born group. North Lawndale doubled its population between 1910 and 1920, from 46,226 to 93,750, and added 18,000 more by 1930, when almost half of the 112,000 residents were Russian Jews (by one account over 140,000). The majority of the residential property in the neighborhood still dates from that period. Benny Goodman and Golda Meier were among the many notable residents of North Lawndale, which for a time was the heart of Jewish Chicago, with its many synagogues, schools, and cultural institutions. Roosevelt Road became the best-known Jewish commercial street in Chicago.
The population peaked in 1930 and steadily declined through 1950 due to Jewish migration northward to communities such as Albany Park and Rogers Park. In the 1950's the neighborhood experienced an influx of African Americans as the great black migration brought millions of individuals and families to the industrialized cities of the north, with their promise of greater freedoms and new opportunities. Although current "old-timers" will speak of a largely peaceful coexistence of the different races in the neighborhood, nearly all the original inhabitants relocated to other neighborhoods and the suburbs in the coming decades. The white population dropped from 87,000 in 1950 to less than 11,000 in 1960 and the black population grew from 13,000 to more than 113,000. By 1960s North Lawndale's population was nearly 125,000, and was 91% African-American.
A devastating blow to the formal commercial activity of North Lawndale came in the form of several riots which devastated the neighborhood in the late 1960's. It was during this time that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to reside for a period in North Lawndale to draw attention to poor housing conditions and other problems in the neighborhood. Riots followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, destroying many of the stores along Roosevelt Road and accelerating a decline that lead to a loss of 75% of the businesses in the community by 1970. Industries closed: International Harvester in 1969, Sears (partially in 1974 and completely by 1987), Zenith and Sunbeam in the 1970s, Western Electric in the 1980s. By 1970 African-Americans who could were also leaving North Lawndale, beginning a precipitous population decline that continues to this day. Housing deteriorated or was abandoned, until North Lawndale experienced a loss of almost half of its housing units.
The 1990's saw renewed investment activity in the neighborhood, particularly as housing prices began to rebound and as extensive development was targeted in the Homan Square area, a vast tract that was previously home to Sears' headquarters and catalog operations (and now the site of LCHC's second site, opened in December 2001). Western Electric's famed Hawthorne Works, at the far western edge of the neighborhood between Ogden and Cermak, is still partially an industrial site, but also includes some retail development. Cook County Jail was built where International Harvester once stood.
On many "quality of life" indicators, the neighborhood has found itself no longer at the bottom of the heap, but rather a focus of renewed interest by the public and private sectors as people rediscover the many strengths of this community. It has a great location, an affordable housing stock that is fundamentally among the best to be found in Chicago, good parks, very little congestion, close knit blocks, and many churches and associations working diligently to improve the life of the community.