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Table of Contents > Chapter 7

Lower West Side (continued)

Despite the onset of the Depression, the Lower West Side continued to be a stable area. In her 1935 canvass of the area around 20th and Loomis, sociologist Edith Abbott reported that the district showed no deterioration since 1908. "It still had a foreign look, but the rather well-built Czech tenements had weathered the years, and industry had made slight encroachments there."

As late as 1944, city planners agreed that the Lower West Side could not be described as a slum. Although more than half of Pilsen's homes were built between 1885 and 1895, and ninety-two percent of the structures lacked central heating, Homer Hoyt concluded that area residents "have sought to preserve a semblance of neatness in their drab surroundings." The housing picture for South Lawndale was much brighter. Harold M. Mayer described the area as "a foreign island in the city of Chicago, ... a residential Island in a sea of industry." Although half the homes in the area dated from before 1902, Mayer found that ninety-seven percent of the dwelling units were located in buildings that needed only minor repairs. Among the other positive factors cited by Mayer were the neighborhood's high rate of owner occupancy and the tendency of families to live in their homes for more than fifteen years.

All three neighborhoods on the Lower West Side declined in population from the 1930s on. This decrease did much to relieve the problems of overcrowding which had characterized industrial neighborhoods throughout the city. Even more critical for the future of these areas, however, was the change in the neighborhood's industrial base (See Fig. 1). Although some businesses remained in the area, such as the Edward Hines Lumber Company, 2431 S. Wolcott, and Ryerson Steel, 2558 West 16th Street, others such as International Harvester closed their operations along the South Branch of the river in the 1950s. Ironically, at the time some manufacturing plants were moving out of the area, plans were underway for the construction of a new expressway paralleling the old Sanitary & Ship Canal. The Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway, which opened in 1964, linked the Lower West Side to the city and to the western suburbs, making this part of Chicago one of the city's most accessible. The recent closing of Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero along with other factory shutdowns has further changed the economic picture of this part of Chicago.

As a result of urban renewal in the area around Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road, Mexican families moved into Pilsen in the 1950s and early 1960s. Since that time Pilsen has become the port of entry for thousands of Spanish-speaking families from rural Mexico and Texas. Moreover, the newcomers have followed the same path taken by the earlier Bohemian and Polish residents. As soon as Mexican families could afford to do so, they purchased homes in the Heart of Chicago and South Lawndale neighborhoods. By the late 1960s Spanish businesses along 18th and 26th Streets stood side-by-side with shops which catered to the Eastern Europeans who still lived in the area. According to one estimate, more than seventy-five percent of businesses along 26th Street are now owned by Mexican-Americans. In a relatively short time. South Lawndale took on a new identity as a Mexican neighborhood. Just as earlier Bohemian immigrants referred to their neighborhood as Czech California, Mexican families now call it "Pueblo Pequeno" (Little Village).

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Figure 1: Commonwealth Edison's oldest generating plant at 1111 W. Cermak Road, known as the Fisk Street station. 

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