Lawndale community memorial march on behalf of a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 | Photo courtesy of Peter Alter [Chicago History Museum]
This story is published on in partnership with The Real Chi, an experimental “learning newsroom” in North Lawndale for young adults.

The Chicago History Museum boasts of a collection of manuscripts, prints, drawings and photographs of North Lawndale, but for some reason, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the documenting stopped.

Even when searching newspaper archives, such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender and the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago History Museum’s Chief Historian Peter Alter found that there is little coverage of West Side communities after 1968. 

“I think, especially, on behalf of the city’s political leadership at that time, there was never a real interest in how West or South Side communities were doing other than at election time,” Alter said.

The year 2019 is the 150th birthday of North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Its beginnings trace back to 1869, when an eastern portion of Cicero Township, known as Community Area 29, was annexed by Chicago. Over the next 150 years, the neighborhood, christened “Lawndale” by real estate firm Millard & Decker, witnessed an abundance of comings and goings. 

Industrial companies including Sears and International Harvester brought a surge in population as workers moved to the neighborhood seeking employment. The racial makeup of the neighborhood was first Bohemian immigrants in the late 1800s, followed by European Jews in the 1920s.

Aerial view of crowds standing in front of Anshe Kenesses Israel Synagogue, located at West Douglas Boulevard and South Homan Avenue in the North Lawndale community area of Chicago, in May 1914 | Photo courtesy of Peter Alter [Chicago History Museum]

The economic and industrial vibrancy of the neighborhood would soon change by mid-century. The neighborhood saw a surge in its Black population, from almost none in the 1940s to around 125,000 in the 1960s. After the 1968 MLK uprisings, North Lawndale became one of the West Side areas that suffered the most from the destruction and chaos. 

Businesses moved out: International Harvester in 1969, Sears in 1974 and Zenith and Sunbeam in the 1970s. People left too: in 1940, white residents made up 95% of North Lawndale’s population, but by 1970, they only made up 3% of the neighborhood’s population. With jobs gone, housing and roads deteriorating and the population experiencing a stark racial change, the West Side became neglected by historians, the media and policymakers.

“I can’t really imagine what people were thinking at that time about these issues, because they weren’t necessarily talking about them,” Alter mentioned.

To commemorate the area’s 150th birthday, the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Committee (NLSC), a community-driven nonprofit, has spent 2019 collecting oral histories from local residents for a time capsule. According to NLSC organizer Paul Norrington, the time capsule will include video interviews of everyday people living in North Lawndale. 

“Initially, [the time capsule] will be kept at a secure, public location,” Norrington said.

Working in the Chicago History Museum’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, Alter has spent the last five years collecting oral histories for the museum in an effort to mitigate the lack of historical records from the West and South sides, communities he lamented as being “woefully” underdocumented. He later joined NLSC because he wanted to partner with neighborhood residents to give them agency in telling their historical narratives. 

“We think the gathering of first-person narratives is very important,” Alter said. “We think that it’s an excellent and perhaps one of the best ways to document the history of communities like North Lawndale.”

24th Ward Alderman Benjamin Lewis holding a young child during a crowded luncheon, Chicago, circa 1950s | Photo courtesy of Peter Alter [Chicago History Museum]
Representatives of Greater Lawndale Block Clubs gathered around table: (seated L-R) Mrs. S. Jones, Mrs. J. Eller, Mrs. M. Collins (standing L-R) Mrs. A Hawkins, Mrs. E. Copeland, Mrs. L. Nicks, Mrs. S. Berman | Photo courtesy of Peter Alter [Chicago History Museum]

In the spirit of capsuling a slice of North Lawndale’s past and present, we asked residents to share their personal thoughts on the neighborhood’s 150th anniversary, including how they’ve seen the neighborhood change over the years and their views on the future of North Lawndale.

Gloria Matthews, 64, has lived in North Lawndale since 1969. She’s seen the level of love and compassion among neighbors decrease over the years which, in her opinion, has resulted in the degradation of the community’s wellbeing. 

“Looking at North Lawndale today, it’s terrible. There is just no love for one another,” Matthews said. 

Condemning the proliferation of drugs, killings and gangs, Matthews said she wishes for a better future for North Lawndale, one where everyone greets each other with a smile and a wave, and one where children can ride bikes and play hopscotch on the street without the fear of violence. But she also considers any current effort for change to be inadequate.

“I think that’s up to God; He’s the only one to do all this, man cannot do it,” Matthews said. “I feel that man cannot govern themselves. I mean, look at the president. You think he’s aware of what’s going on in Chicago?”

Sheila Orris, 47, also hopes North Lawndale will change for the better. She’s lived in her house on West Polk Street since her mother bought the property in 1962. Over the years, Orris said, the younger generation lost respect for its elders. The neighborhood used to be more of a community, but as mindsets change with younger generations, it seems that no one looks out for their neighbors anymore. 

“Everybody looked out for everybody,” Orris remembered about her childhood. “I’m hoping the community can come back to the way it used to be, where mothers can watch out for each other’s kids and grandkids.”

Orris also spoke about the need for elected officials to be more personally active in the neighborhood, especially her 24th Ward alderman, Michael Scott Jr. Calls to interview Ald. Scott for comment went unanswered.

“I think that the alderman needs to get out and come to his blocks and see what it’s like from where he lives to where we stand,” Orris said. “Come to your blocks. See what the taxpayers are paying you to do that made you an alderman. Don’t sit there and send a foot soldier out there when you could walk through. I know [he] has a lot of blocks that he got to cover, but come out here, see what our tax dollars are paying for.”

North Lawndale on a snowy November 2019 day | Photo by Kay Yang [The Real Chi]

Orris envisions North Lawndale as a place with better housing, better jobs and better resource centers that residents can turn to for information and assistance when they need them. Though, she acknowledged, to achieve such a future, a few things need to change.

“The alleys need to be cleaned out. The drugs need to go. The gangs need to go. It’s a lot,” Orris said. “I’m hoping for a big change. I’m praying for a big change because we need it.”

Sergio Davis, 30, who lives near St. Louis Ave., identified police brutality as one of the major problems of this era in North Lawndale’s history. 

“The police back in the day were friendly. They had the Officer Friendly Program, and they would come play basketball or football with us,” Davis said.

The Chicago Officer Friendly Program started around 1966 amid various riots and demonstrations happening across the city. It targeted children enrolled in kindergarten to third grade. In the 1980s, though, the program faded out. According to the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the lack of manpower as crime rates rose contributed to the defunding of the program — although, the department created newer programs with similar objectives. CPD revived the Officer Friendly Program in 2016.

“Now when the police come through, they are literally going to assume that you’re doing some bad,” Davis said.

Police brutality in Chicago is not news, and west side neighborhoods have especially suffered. In 2015, a Homan Square police warehouse — located in North Lawndale where the old Sears headquarters used to be — came under fire for unlawfully detaining and possibly torturing people for possessing narcotics or committing minor offenses. Those who were detained were not allowed access to family or lawyers, and many claim to have been handcuffed to chairs, punched and tased. The Guardian estimates the number of unlawful detainments to be in the thousands.

Davis added that despite the negative experience he has had with the police he is still hopeful for a better future where cooperation instead of conflict becomes the relationship norm between residents and the police force. 

“This is our land and we will treat it as such,” Davis said. “We can come together and make something better.”