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South Lawndale History

Although South Lawndale may be the official name of North Lawndale's southern neighbor, this community is much better known as La Villita, meaning "Little Village" in Spanish. This nickname is particularly fitting as La Villita is the largest Mexican neighborhood in the city of Chicago, possesses one of the most active commercial districts in the city, and serves as a gateway for Mexican-American immigrants for much of the midwestern United States.

The predecessor to the South Lawndale neighborhood (and the southern edge of present day North Lawndale) was the Lawndale-Crawford area, established in 1827, when the United States Congress passed legislation granting the State of Illinois 284,000 acres of land alongside of what would become the Illinois-Michigan Canal. By 1860, many farms dotted this "Mud Lake" area, as it was then called due to the constant flooding of the Chicago River. The area continued to grow, and in 1863, the expansion of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad produced two separate communities, one around the Lawndale railroad station, and the other around the Crawford station. Population increased further after 1871, as a direct result of the Chicago Fire, which produced a great influx of families into the district. Some of the early homes were built from stone quarried in Lemont, as a precaution because of the recent devastation of the Fire. After a few years, the Lawndale area was sub-divided into lots and became mainly residential, while Crawford remained a farming section. The original McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, circa 1885 Western Electric's Hawthorne Works, early 20th century.

Both Lawndale and Crawford were two distinct suburbs of Chicago until the late 1880’s. As more industries moved to sites along the railroads near South Lawndale, including the McCormick plant (later the International Harvester Company) and the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero, just northwest of the area, the workingmen's families moved in as well. Along with the general westward expansion of Chicago bringing residents to the area around 1885, the population continued to grow and the communities merged into one. Germans and Czechoslovakians moved westward on 22nd Street (which would later become Cermak Road), and the rest of the area, west of Crawford Avenue (which would later become Pulaski Road) was annexed to the city in 1889.


The original McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, circa 1885
 Western Electric's Hawthorne Works, early 20th century

 The original McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, circa 1885 Western Electric's Hawthorne Works, early 20th century One of the early residents was John G. Shedd, who became president of the Marshall Field Company, and whose name is best remembered as the benefactor of Chicago's famous John G. Shedd Aquarium. Shedd's home in La Villita is still standing on Millard Ave., just down the block from the home of Mayor Anton Cermak.

By 1900, Bohemian immigration into the Lawndale-Crawford area replaced the earlier settlers of Dutch, German, Irish, and Scotch extraction. Within a few years, the community was considered the largest Bohemian settlement, outside of Prague, Czechoslovakia. By 1914 the area had reached residential maturity, with only a few vacant lots remaining. South Lawndale developed rapidly, reaching a population of 84,000 by 1920.

The area did not change substantially from 1920-1950. This ethnic group was very politically and socially active throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s which resulted in the formation of numerous civic and social organizations as well as a close-knit community. The population declined steadily until 1960. In 1950, the largest nationality group was Polish, followed by Czechoslovakians and Germans. African-Americans also moved in slowly during this period. Since 1960, the area has become predominantly Latino.

Only Los Angeles and New York have larger Hispanic populations than Latino, which was 15.8 percent Latino in the year 2010. The first of Chicago's nearly 600,000 Mexicans arrived to work on the railroad just after the turn of the century; more came to man steel mills during World War II. Its Latinos mirror the national profile in that 60 percent are native-born and two thirds lack high school diplomas, but only one fourth are poor (the national rate is 31 percent).

The commercial heart of La Villita, and Mexican Chicago as a whole, is 26th Street. It's lined with hundreds of stores like La Villita Dry Cleaner, a pinata shop, Nuevo Leon restaurant, and many more. South Lawndale is a dense and vibrant neighborhood, possessing the youngest median age of any community area in the city of Chicago.

As a predominantly Latino area, South Lawndale's health statistics present disparites primarily in the form of access. Many of the community's 81,000 person population are uninsured by virtue of either being of non-citizen residency status or by being employed in low-wage positions that do not provide insurance coverage. South Lawndale's household income average places it in the bottom 30% in the City of Chicago, indicating that many residents have poor paying jobs that are not likely to provide health insurance. It has been estimated that 33% of Latinos living in Illinois are uninsured, meaning that at least 27,000 people in South Lawndale are uninsured. The American College of Physicians report that uninsured Hispanics are 1.8 times less likely to obtain prenatal care in the first trimester and are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a later stage. Access to care issues for South Lawndale residents are complicated by the fact that 70% of its residents do not have a high school education, reducing the likelihood that access to appropriate health care being sought for issues such as diabetes. Issues of access and disparities continue to exist for the South Lawndale community.