North Lawndale: History, Challenges & Opportunities‍

North Lawndale, one of the 77 community areas in Chicago, is located on the city’s West Side and is one of the most architecturally eccentric and socially complex neighborhoods in Chicago. The area has gone through many cultural shifts, beginning with its origins as a largely Italian and Irish population at its inception in the mid-1800s. In the early 1900s, Lawndale became the third largest Jewish community in the world.

Today, the area contains the K-Town Historic District, the Foundation for Homan Square, the Homan Square interrogation facility, and the greatest concentration of greystones in the city. In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in an apartment in North Lawndale to highlight the dire conditions in the area and used the experience to pave the way to the Fair Housing Act.

Decades of redlining and disinvestment in commercial real estate persist. North Lawndale has more than 60 acres of vacant commercially zoned land and 27% of housing units stand vacant. While the decline is often attributed to the damage caused by the 1968 rioting in response to the assassination of Dr. King, systemic, institutional racism, (typified by redlining and lack of government investment), has prevented the rebuilding of the community.

Following World War II, the neighborhood transitioned to become the first African-American community on Chicago’s West Side. As a community experiencing frequent waves of migrants and cultures, Lawndale was a testing ground for ideas and activism. Its residents provided important contributions to Zionism, civil rights, housing policies, industrial psychology and scientific management, community organizing and the Black Power movement.

Beginning in the 1960s, riots, housing discrimination, predatory lending and other social and economic disasters led to many businesses and residents leaving, with waves of job loss, abandoned property, and poverty ensuing. Residents formed the grassroots organization the Contract Buyers League in 1968 to combat the discriminatory and predatory housing practices targeting the area. Assisted by a Jesuit seminarian and 12 white college students, the organization fought the discriminatory real estate practice known as "contract selling", renegotiating around 400 housing contracts and saving an estimated $25,000,000 for exploited black homeowners.

In 1986, the Steans Family Foundation was founded to concentrate on grant making and programs in the community; the foundation noted signs of revitalization by the 1990s with new shopping and dining, the creation of Homan Square, and new residents moving in – this time Hispanic, and a stabilization in population decrease.

Beginning in 2021, violence prevention groups began using large-scale, relationship-based intervention tactics in the neighborhood, and city funds created a Community Safety and Coordination Center to centralize community resources. From 2021-22, North Lawndale, known as the “buckle on the Greystone belt” as it contains a high concentration of historic homes with limestone facades, recorded a 58% decrease in gun violence.

North Lawndale is on the brink of major revitalization with new employers like Cinespace and Lagunitas, national festivals in historic Douglass Park, and for-profit developers eyeing swaths of vacant property. Yet North Lawndale still lacks private and public investment.

Ongoing challenges include:

  • 41% of residents live below poverty.
  • Residents spend $71 million annually on goods outside of the community because there are few opportunities to spend within the neighborhood.
  • Only 25% of residents are homeowners.

Opportunities include:

  • North Lawndale is rich with current and aspiring entrepreneurs and freelancers who are full of creativity and big ideas.
  • A new full-service grocery store is being developed.
  • A plan for building 1,000 affordable homes is being executed.
  • A new workforce development campus is in place to reduce unemployment.

Reach out to learn more about upcoming community events and long-term volunteer engagements.

“Together, we are able to change lives.”
Debra Brown
Debra Brown
Cofounder, The Investment Basketball Program
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