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Table of Contents > Chapter 7

Lower West Side

From the 1870s through the 1950s, the Lower West Side of Chicago was a port of entry for thousands of Europeans: Irish, Bohemians, Germans, Poles, Swedes, Slovaks, Slovenes, Lithuanians, Italians, and Croatians. Today, the neighborhoods known as Pilsen, Heart of Chicago, and Little Village form the center of Chicago's flourishing Mexican community. Not only have Mexican newcomers revitalized older ethnic institutions here, but they have established their own businesses, restaurants, and social centers.

Throughout its history, the Lower West Side has been a relatively isolated area, bounded by railroad tracks on the north and west and by the South Branch of the Chicago River on the south and east. Despite the fact that the Burlington Railroad linked this part of the city to the downtown business district, the area developed as a working-class neighborhood. Large manufacturing plants such as the McCormick Reaper Works (later known as International Harvester) and the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero were responsible for much of the growth of the Lower West Side, and they reinforced its character as an industrial neighborhood.

Like the Back of the Yards district on Chicago's South Side, Pilsen and its adjoining communities supported a wide range of ethnic institutions and businesses. In addition to building homes in the area, residents established churches and fraternal organizations which met their special needs, first as immigrants and later as second- and third-generation Americans. Home ownership set these neighborhoods apart from the nearby Lawndale district, where families rented apartments in multi-unit buildings. While social mobility did occur in each of the area's ethnic groups, the Lower West Side has remained a stable area. Just as Bohemians who settled in Pilsen relocated further west as they moved up the economic ladder, so Mexican families have also purchased homes, especially in Heart of Chicago and Little Village. These latter neighborhoods are in many respects "suburbs" of Pilsen, which continues to be the port of entry for Spanish-speaking families from rural Mexico and Texas.

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Map of the Lower West Side. »

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