Here's a little-known fact. US Route 66--the Mother Road--passes through North Lawndale. It's called Ogden Avenue in Chicago and that's how I entered the neighborhood.
Just a block north of Ogden on Ridgeway is this abandoned Chicago Greystone. North Lawndale has been called "the buckle of the Greystone Belt," there are 1,500 of them there. Many of the neighborhood's greystones didn't survive into the 21st Century. Next to this vacant house is much newer home. Yes, new houses are being built in North Lawndale.
A block north from that greystone is the Israel of God, White Horse Army Church at 3737 W. 18th Street. Decades ago it was the Anshe Motele Synagogue, which was formed over 100 years ago in the Maxwell Street neighborhood on the Near West Side, founded by carpenters from the town of Motol (spellings vary) in what is now Belarus. That shtetl was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president who spoke to the congregants of Anshe Motele in 1927, although I haven't been able to ascertain if it was here or on Maxwell Street. By that time North Lawndale was the third largest community of Jews in the world--my guess is that Weizmann spoke here.
Anshe Motele, like many of the Jews of North Lawndale, migrated north in the 1950s to West Rogers Park on the Far North Side. It still exists.
The church kept the Stars of David.
So much for the good part. A twitchy teen who kept pulling his hood over his head was quickly pacing back and forth in front of me as I photographed the house of worship. "Whatcha takin' pitchers of mah church, fo?" he asked. "It's an historic building," I sharply replied. Then the kid asked me for "a couple of bucks." After that, he turned around, pulled his hood over his head again, and then stopped moving. I slowly placed my right hand in my pocket as if I had something other than my other camera in it and stared at him and I didn't move. He put his right hand in his pocket. Then he ran away.
I was lucky. This time.
After he sped off I walked in the opposite direction to Lawndale Avenue where I discovered the peach-colored stone home. Many of the abandoned homes of North Lawndale now serve as murals.
As for that kid, here we are 45 years after the end of the Great Migration and we have still have youngsters speaking in that Mississippi-inflected urban patois. After my family moved out of the city in the late 1960s my teachers corrected most of the harshness of my Shi-caw-goh axe-cent. I'm grateful for that. Of course in the 21st century the politically-correct unionized teachers of Chicago Public Schools would never even consider attempting to get their students to speak clearly. How is this kid going to find a job when people can barely understand what he is saying?
Call it "talking white" if you will, but first generation Asian kids have no problem speaking standard American English. Inner city students should be taught elocution, it will help them escape poverty. Go ahead and call me names. I can take it.
A Chicago Frame Two-Flat sits vacant on the 1500 block of South Springfield.
In the last month, according to the Chicago Tribune North Lawndale ranked second, tied with Englewood, among the city's 77 designated community area in regards to its violent crime rate. West Garfield Park was first.
North Lawndale's most famous resident was Dr. Martin Luther King, who moved into an apartment on this site at 1550 South Hamlin 50 years ago last week to draw attention to racial discrimination in the north. Mayor Richard J. Daley was at best indifferent to King's move, after all besides municipal government, the legendary boss of Chicago believed the only community presence needed by the city's blacks was the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization. MLK obviously disagreed.
After King's assassination, as with West Garfield Park, North Lawndale was hit hard by the riots that followed. King's apartment was damaged during that upheaval and later torn down and for decades a vacant lot was all that was left at 1550 S. Hamlin. Five years ago the Dr. King Legacy Apartments opened on the site--and they look darn sharp.
But on that same corner is a honorary street sign for Alderman Bill Henry of the 24th Ward. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks of "Chicago values" I think of crooks like Henry.
Shortly after US Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), a longtime Chicago Democratic ward boss, found himself in legal trouble, the Los Angeles Times looked back at Henry:
In 1990, Henry was indicted on a bunch of federal bribery charges--including one scam in which he allegedly secured a no-show city job for a convicted felon who, in return, was supposed to pay the insurance premium on a Cadillac used by Henry's girlfriend. Henry denied any wrongdoing. His case never came to trial because he died of lung cancer. Never tried. Never convicted. Now there's an epithet any Chicago politician, Rostenkowski included, would be proud of.
A fallen tree for now is being held up be an old staircase in front of this vacant brick house.
For decades North Lawndale and Chicago's 24th Ward have been largely one and the same. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it "the best Democratic ward in the country." In 1936 he carried the 24th with 24,000 votes over 700 cast for his Republican opponent. Chicago was just three years removed from its last GOP mayor. In 2012 Barack Obama did even better, winning 18,765 votes while Mitt Romney was the choice of a microscopic 127 voters. In four 24th Ward precincts Romney was shut out.
The first black alderman of the 24th was Ben Lewis. He was murdered gangland style in 1963 the day after winning reelection.
From ABC 7 Chicago:
"Lewis made $8,000 a year as alderman but yet he was living a million dollar lifestyle. He vacationed in Acapulco quite frequently, he was living well beyond his means," said historian and author Richard Lindberg.The only murder of a Chicago alderman remains unsolved.
Lewis was found by a janitor manacled to his office chair; the 53-year old alderman shot three times in the back of his head. Police said the .38 caliber gun barrel had been pressed against his scalp.
"It was clear he was tortured by his assailant, cigarettes had been burned into his skin, and then he was shot," said Lindberg.
From the Chicago Tribune:
Retired police Capt. Frank Flanagan, homicide commander at the time, recalled last week that the biggest problem police faced was "too many motives."
"He (Lewis) was defrauding people right and left in his insurance company. He was an embezzler. That guy had a broad for every night of the week," Flanagan said.
Within eyesight of the King Legacy Apartments and the Henry sign is this muraled greystone.
This smart-looking apartment complex at 3556 W. Central Park advertises that it welcomes Section 8 housing vouchers. Nearly half of the residents of North Lawndale live below the poverty line.
Beyond the vacant lots is the Central Park Pumping Station.
North Lawndale's population peaked in 1960 when 124,000 people lived there. Now it's home to just 35,000 people.
Rothschild Liquors on Roosevelt Road has one of Chicago's best neon signs. As the booze store has no windows and its parking lot is protected by a wrought-iron gate it must be a very dangerous place. Immediately a panhandler approached me. It was past sunset and I knew it was time to go home.
(Photos) Abandoned homes in Chicago's most violent neighborhood--West Garfield Park
(Photos) The abandoned homes of Chicago's violent Englewood neighborhood