Little Village History
Chicago is situated on the aboriginal homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, and the Illinois Confederacy: the Peoria and Kaskaskia Nations. Many other nations call this region home, including Hoocąk (Winnebago/Ho’Chunk), Jiwere (Otoe), Nutachi (Missouria), and Baxoje (Iowas), Kiash Matchitiwuk (Menominee), Meshkwahkîha (Meskwaki), Asâkîwaki (Sauk), Myaamiaki (Miami), Waayaahtanwaki (Wea), and Peeyankihšiaki (Piankashaw), Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Inoka (Illini Confederacy), Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Odawak (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi).
Prior to the arrival of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who is credited as being the first non-indigenous settler in the area, indigenous peoples had established trade, travel and agricultural systems that remain today. In Little Village, what is now the contaminated Collateral Channel, located on 31st and Albany, was used by indigenous peoples as a connection between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. What is now known as Ogden, and as Route 66 in other parts of the country, was a main trail. Through a series of coercive treaties with the U.S. government, most indigenous peoples were displaced from the Chicago region by 1833.
Little Village, or La Villita, is located on the southwest side of Chicago and roughly shares the boundaries of the Chicago Community Area of South Lawndale. In 1869, Chicago annexed the area that was to become Lawndale from Cicero Township. After the Great Fire in 1871, Alden C. Millard and Edwin J. Decker, two stationery business owners, gave up their business to build an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the city for predominantly Anglo-Saxon residents. They chose this location because land was reasonably priced and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, which was elevated in 1908 to create the viaduct that currently exists, ran through the area. Homes were advertised as made only of brick and ranged from $2,500 to $8,500 in price. Millard was developed as a main street, with churches, stores, a park, a hotel, a post office and other amenities. Their business venture failed in May 1876, but this laid the groundwork for the future development of Little Village.
In the early days of the neighborhood, the area west of Crawford Avenue, later to be renamed Pulaski, was known as Crawford. This area was named after Peter Crawford, who bought this 160 acres of land and gave a piece to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad to ensure that there would be a stop in his community. In 1933, Polish leaders from the North Side petitioned the mayor to rename Crawford after Casamir Pulaski, a Polish American Revolutionary War hero. The change was made, although many businesses owners fought against the renaming because they had invested money in marketing with the Crawford name. The street is still known as Crawford in some suburbs.
In the beginning of the 20th century, many Bohemians and other Eastern European immigrants became upwardly mobile and began to leave the overcrowded Pilsen neighborhood and move west. The growth of industrialization in the area created manufacturing jobs and the ability to sustain a larger population. Many of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon settlers of the area moved away as these new residents moved in, and the large brick buildings were replaced with two-flats and bungalows for the new working class residents. By World World II, Czechoslovakian Bohemians were the dominant ethnic group in the neighborhood, ethnic businesses blossomed on 26th street, and the area began to be referred to as “Czech California.”
Blacks began to move into North Lawndale in large numbers in the 50’s and 60’s. They were only allowed to buy in certain areas of the city, where they were forced to buy homes for more than their value without having access to the loans and subsidies that whites were able to access. Growing black neighborhoods suffered from deteriorated housing stock, decline in industrial jobs, overcrowded schools and a lack of city services. When Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his northern campaign to Chicago in 1965, he chose to live in North Lawndale in order to highlight sever inequality in housing.
Business and political interests in what was then referred to as South Lawndale worked to retain local business and to keep the neighborhood “stable.” In order to separate the image of South Lawndale from North Lawndale as it “became black,” the area was renamed Little Village to represent the backgrounds of many Eastern Europeans who lived in the area. A sharp racial boundary between the two neighborhoods still exists today.
With the expansion of the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) campus as part of urban renewal, many Mexicans were pushed out of the Pilsen area and began moving to Little Village. Many Bohemian families were moving to the already predominantly Eastern European suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, as housing and employment opportunities for whites expanded in those areas and fear of neighborhood change in Little Village grew. By 1980, Latinos represented 47% of the population with Mexicans as the dominant ethnic group, which was a huge increase from only 4% in 1970. By 2000, the population had grown to 91,071 people, with 27% of residents classified as children. The arch, which reads “Bienvenidos a Little Village” was installed in 1991 and was donated by the Mexican government.
Little Village has been a hotbed for politics since its development. It is the home of Anton Cermak, who became Chicago’s mayor in 1931 with the support of a diverse coalition. He brought representatives from German, Polish, Czech, Jewish and eventually African American communities into leadership positions. Because of the strategies that he used to consolidate power, he is often considered to be the originator of the Democratic machine. Little Village is also the home of Rudy Lozano, who was well-known locally as an activist and an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and with tortilla factory workers. He came close to an electoral victory that would have made him the first Mexican-American alderman in the Chicago City Council, and he was key in organizing the Latino vote behind Harold Washington’s successful campaign for mayor. On June 8th, 1983, he was murdered in his home and, although the details of the murder remain unclear, many feel that there was a political motive behind his assassination.
The neighborhood also houses the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus, four small schools that are the result of a 19-day hunger strike held by community residents to pressure the board of education to fulfill their commitment to build a new local high school; the Jorge Prieto clinic, a community-based Cook County Clinic named in honor a Mexican immigrant who worked to bring family-oriented preventative health care to communities in need; Second Federal Savings, a bank that broke from normal discriminatory lending practices by offering fair mortgages to Mexicans and opening bank accounts for the undocumented; La Villita Park, the result of over 20 years of community organizing to clean a contaminated “Superfund” site and create much needed green space on the east side of the neighborhood; and a host of community-based organizations, clinics, churches and community projects that make Little Village the thriving Mexican and Mexican American community that it is today.
Thank you to:
Encyclopedia of Chicago: http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1174.html
Magallon, Frank S. Images of America: Chicago’s Little Village: Lawndale-Crawford. Arcadia Publishing, Chicago IL: 2010.