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Entries : Near West Side
Near West Side

Near West Side

The Near West Side Community Area 28, 2 miles W of the Loop. is bounded by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to the north, the Pennsylvania Railroad to the west, the South Branch of the Chicago River to the east, and 16th Street at its southern edge. Between the 1840s and the early 1860s, the district was easily accessible from the Lake Street business district. At a convenient distance from the business center, the wealthy residents of Union Park sought to make the West Side an elite refuge from the daily commotion of the growing city. They created Jefferson Park (1850) and Union Park (1854) as small, safe public resorts.

"Playground Ball," 1907
By the 1870s a small middle class had gradually replaced the wealthy families around Union Park. But as early as the city's incorporation in 1837, the area already contained the seeds of what would come: residential areas divided along ethnic, economic, and racial lines. The first African American settlement in Chicago emerged around Lake and Kinzie streets in the 1830s. After 1837, Irish immigrants settled in wooden cottages west of the river. The Irish were soon followed by German, Czechs and Bohemians, and French immigrants. The section south of Harrison, bounded by Halsted on the west and 12th Street (later Roosevelt Road) on the south, would remain a port of entry for poor European immigrants. After the fire of 1871, over 200,000 people took refuge on the Near West Side, creating overcrowded conditions. Toward the end of the century, Jews from Russia and Poland, along with Italians, replaced the Irish and Germans, with the Italians settling between Polk and Taylor Streets, and the Jews southward to 16th Street. The center of the Jewish business community, the Maxwell Street Market, or “Jew town,” came to life at the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell. A Greek settlement known as the “Delta” developed between Harrison, Halsted, Polk, and Blue Island.

Wholesale trade businesses and manufacturers located on the north along an east-west axis in the 1870s and the 1880s. Lined with three and four-story buildings, many of which housed several business establishments, the area provided a dense center of employment opportunity.

In the middle of this rapidly changing area in 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House, one of the few institutions inclined to combine a policy of Americanization with celebration of the neighborhood's ethnic diversity. African Americans were less welcome, relegated instead to the less comprehensive institutions that catered only to blacks.

Most institution building on the Near West Side emerged out of the efforts of individual ethnic groups to reconstruct cultural worlds left behind in Europe. The struggles among ethnic groups over urban space materialized in the construction and relocation of religious and educational institutions, along with the succession of saloons and small businesses. These tensions, sometimes marked by violence, along with economic mobility, led to an ongoing process of neighborhood succession, as older groups were replaced by newcomers. Those who left sold institutions to groups who stayed behind, or to the newcomers. The home of Sacred Heart Academy (1860), for example, became the site of the Chicago Hebrew Institute (1903).

Polk Street, c.1957
African Americans and Mexicans moved into the Near West Side in larger numbers during the 1930s and 1940s. Approximately 26,000 African Americans lived there by 1940, with the number increasing to more than 68,000 by 1960, in part due to the “ Great Migration ” of black southerners. On the West Side as a whole the African American community grew rapidly during the 1940s and 1950s, as residential opportunities remained largely limited to ghettoes on the South and West Sides. Rivalry between the two districts developed as a significant aspect of local African American neighborhood culture.

The second half of the twentieth century brought major alterations to the Near West Side. The Chicago Circle expressway interchange wiped out a significant section of “Greek town.” The construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), resulted in the demolition of most of the Hull House complex, as well as the historic Italian neighborhood. Neither urban renewal nor the construction of public housing, both of which began before 1950 and continued into the 1960s, could alleviate the poverty that had resulted from continued migration in the face of a declining economic base on the West Side. The riots after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 left a physical devastation on the West Side as a whole that reinforced existing images of the area as crime-ridden and bereft of hope.

University expansion toward the end of twentieth century once again reshaped the Near West Side, almost completely destroying the historical Maxwell Street Market and contributing to the gentrification that followed patterns established by other neighborhoods bordering the Loop. With the increase in real-estate values around UIC, and the construction of the new United Center, parts of the Near West Side became increasingly attractive to middle-class and upper-middle-class Chicagoans interested in living near the downtown.

Near West Side (CA 28)
Year Total
(and by category)
  Foreign Born Native with foreign parentage Males per 100 females
1930 152,457   25.1% 33.4% 127
  119,696 White (78.5%)      
  25,239 Negro (16.6%)      
  7,522 Other (4.9%)      
1960 126,610   7.5% 10.5% 113
  788 White (0.6%)      
  68,146 Negro (53.8%)      
  57,676 Other races (45.6%)      
1990 46,197   9.8% 88
  10,332 White (22.4%)      
  31,052 Black (67.2%)      
  109 American Indian (0.2%)      
  2,374 Asian/Pacific Islander (5.1%)      
  2,321 Other race (5.0%)      
  4,416 Hispanic Origin* (9.6%)      
2000 46,419   12.6% 95
  13,486 White alone (29.1%)      
  24,706 Black or African American alone (53.2%)      
  88 American Indian and Alaska Native alone (0.2%)      
  4,926 Asian alone (10.6%)      
  95 Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone (0.2%)      
  2,212 Some other race alone (4.8%)      
  906 Two or more races (2.0%)      
  4,415 Hispanic or Latino* (9.5%)      
Suttles, Gerald D. The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City. 1968.
Bryan, Mary Lynn McCree, and Allen F. Davis, eds. 100 Years at Hull-House. 1990.
Rosen, George. Decision-Making Chicago-Style: The Genesis of a University of Illinois Campus. 1980.