By Ken Hare
Chicago Defender Staff Writer
In a series of investigative reports, the Chicago Defender newspaper takes an in-depth look at the West Side of Chicago, it’s residents, businesses, politicians, and church leaders. Located due west of the Loop, the west side boundaries vary depending on the realty company. However, city officials roughly define the west side proper as the Chicago River on the east, all the way to Austin Avenue on the far west side; 31st Street on the southern border to North Avenue on the north.
The West Side is the smallest of Chicago’s three geographical areas with an estimated 37.4 square miles. Today, it is the home to some of the city’s poorest and economically challenged citizens and deprived neighborhoods. Comprised predominately of people of color; namely Blacks (44%), and Hispanic/Latino (34%), and some White (17%), together totaling over 480,500 citizens, it wasn’t always this way.
During the early 1800s, the West Side hardly extended west to Halsted as early settlers preferred to stay close to downtown for proximity and convenience. It wasn’t until the 1840s and 50s that wealthy white residents seeking to escape the busy downtown bustle decided to create a haven on the west side of Chicago. Thus, Union Park was born in 1854 which attracted wealthy residents who desired its serene settings compared to downtown. As a result, Lake Street began to grow as a retail district connecting downtown to the expanding West Side.
By the 1860s, poorer European immigrants began to move into the area transforming it into an “ethnically diverse” area. And one of Chicago’s first Black settlement could be found along Kinzie and Lake Streets, according to Encyclopedia Chicago.
At the close of the 19th century, and the dawning of the early 20th century, European immigrants continued to pour into Chicago’s west side with each group laying claim to a part of town. Greek immigrants settled at Halsted and Harrison establishing Greek Town. Jewish immigrants settled at Roosevelt Road and Maxwell streets establishing what became known as “Jew town.” Italians settled along Taylor and Polk streets in what is known as Little Italy. By this time, Chicago had annexed East and West Garfield Parks and Humboldt Park.
The West Side was flux with white European immigrants many who had fled Europe due to persecution, economic and religious reasons; many who came with little more than the shirts on their backs. This sudden surge in numbers caused tension between the white ethnic immigrants who now found themselves living in cramped, overcrowded and unsanitary housing competing for jobs.
This set the stage for the next wave of migrants that would flood into Chicago – this time from within the country – the Great Migration. During the first half of the 20th century, Blacks had been fleeing the South from Jim Crow laws, violence and segregation in pursuit of education and economic freedoms. Settling primarily in the Black Belt on the south side and small pockets on the west side; Black migrants were squeezed into predetermined areas.
Much like their poor European counterparts, many Blacks who migrated from the rural south who settled on the west side had little more than the shirt on their backs. But the one thing that they did have that you couldn’t take away was their dignity. As noted by the founder of the Chicago Defender, Robert S. Abbot “West Side residents [are] paragons of virtue when compared to the more numerous and culturally acclaimated South Siders,” a group from which he frequently felt alienated, according to the book: “Black Migration to Chicago 1900-1919.”
In an editorial titled “The Great West Side,” Abbot praised the West Siders for their “devotion to home, church, work, and community,” while criticizing South Siders for indulging in wasteful activities like leisurely strolling down the promenade.
Through a series of one on one interviews with elected gatekeepers, and men of faith: activist and entrepreneurs: educators and instigators; the Chicago Defender will take you into the heart of the West Side. Uncovering what precipitated the breakdown of our Black brothers and sisters on the West Side? Which in turn, has led to the demise of the entire community and has left an entire generation grappling with uncertainty.
Starting out with community residents, both working and middle class; the Chicago Defender, beginning in June presents you with the first of our investigative reports “West Side Stories.” Personal accounts that can only be told by those that have lived to see their once thriving communities transformed before their very eyes. We are at a critical moment in Chicago’s history and it’s up to us to define who and what we are going to be. Stay tuned you don’t want to miss this series …