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Table of Contents > Chapter 7

Lower West Side (continued)

In 1886, an estimated sixty percent of Chicago's Bohemians were property owners, and they supported twenty-eight building and loan associations. According to the Tribune, nearly all the "fine brick buildings" in Pilsen were financed by these local savings groups. Once the area west of Halsted Street was built up, Bohemians, Germans, Scandinavians, .and Poles began to erect houses in the district between Ashland and Western.

By the 1890s, Blue Island Avenue from 18th to 22nd Streets was a bustling shopping district. In addition to the shops which catered to the needs of the expanding community, Blue Island Avenue included a large number of saloons and tailor shops where garments were "finished." Strikes in the garment district located just west of the Loop also spread to Pilsen, where immigrants worked for low wages as part of the infamous piecework system.

New construction such as Thalia Hall (1892) at the southeast corner of 18th and Allport provided Pilsen residents with a theater, stores, and "Hats" (See Fig. 1). While brick homes and shops in the neighborhood testified to the stability of the district, congestion remained a serious problem. In 1894 the Chicago Times painted a graphic picture of overcrowding in the Bohemian Quarter. When a smallpox epidemic ravaged the area bounded by 18th, Loomis, 20th, and Carpenter, the Times reported that:

The block on Allport street where the disease is worst contains over 360 families. The houses are frequently three deep; one set of families occupying the house facing the street and others the (frame) dwellings one behind the other in the rear.

According to Robert Hunter, in 1901 more than 7,000 persons lived on nine blocks in the heart of the Bohemian Quarter. Then as now, there were many children in Pilsen. Because of the lack of parks and yards, youngsters played in the neighborhood s crowded streets and alleys and along the railroad tracks. Local churches and settlement houses provided much-needed clubrooms and activities for neighborhood children.

In 1898 Leila A. Martin, a Protestant, and Hettie Peary French, a convert to Roman Catholicism, joined forces to establish Gads Hill Social Settlement at 22nd and Robey Street (Damen Avenue). Unlike other local settlements, Gads Hill was nondenominational and nonsectarian. In its early years the chief concerns of the settlement were temperance, social activity, and citizenship classes. Although Gads Hill has always promoted music and art, it was not named for Charles Dickens's birthplace in Rochester, England. According to a history of the center, a lieutenant in the local police station in the 1870s named this rough-and-tumble part of Chicago after Gads Hill, Missouri, the scene of "a notoriously bold bank robbery." The name stuck, but following the opening of the social center, Gads Hill became synonymous with "good fellowship, brotherly love, the true Christ spirit." Since 1916, Gads Hill Center has been located at 1919 W. Cullerton Street (See Fig. 2).

Another institution which has served the Lower West Side since 1905 is located at 1831 S. Racine Avenue. Established as the Howell Neighborhood House and supported for many years by the Fourth Presbyterian Church, this center is now an independent organization known as Casa Aztlan.

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Figure 1: Thalia Hall, built in 1892 at 1807 S. Allport.  

Figure 2: Gads Hill Center, 1919 W. Cullerton, c. 1960. 

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