The neighborhood of Lawndale began as home to many displaced victims of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but soon became the home of Chicago’s largest Jewish community. Throughout the late 19th Century, many industrial workers settled in Lawndale, as it was close to many of Chicago’s largest employers. Ryerson Steel, International Harvester, Western Electric, and Sears Roebuck and Company were in (or a short distance from) the community.
Sears, Roebuck, and Company constructed what is today known as the Original Sears Tower at Homan and Arthington Avenues in the northern end of the Lawndale community. In the adjoining Sears complex, 9,000 employees processed and shipped 35,000 orders a day to its customers. This was also the location from which Sears introduced Allstate, its own insurance firm. In 1924, the corporation even had its own radio station, WLS, which stood for World’s Largest Store. Although much of this 40-acre complex was demolished, the tower has been preserved. To date, the foundation owning the tower has not determined how to use it.
As Jewish Chicagoans moved from the less desirable community surrounding Maxwell Street to Lawndale, they brought their culture and traditions with them. There were more than 60 synagogues to the area; the largest seated more than 3,000. One local synagogue had a remarkable clarinetist named Benny Goodman. The Douglas Park Auditorium housed a popular Yiddish-language theater where Bernie Schwartz, who would later change his name to Tony Curtis, performed. The local library had a large collection of Yiddish and Hebrew books managed by a young librarian named Golda Meir who would become the fourth prime minister of Israel.
Following World War II, most of the Jewish residents left Lawndale. Within a few years, Lawndale transformed from being Chicago’s largest Jewish neighborhood to one of the city’s most densely populated African-American communities. (ibid.) At the same time, many of the opportunities for employment within the community were not made available to black residents. By the 1960s, Lawndale had deteriorated and became a neighborhood mired in unemployment, poverty, and crime. In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family to a dilapidated apartment within the community to bring attention to the living conditions within the urban slums. This was the beginning of a new campaign called the Chicago Freedom Movement. King’s visit attracted extensive media attention and resulted in numerous promises from the city, but the promises were not kept and little changed. When King was assassinated two years later on April 4, 1968, the neighborhood was engulfed by riots. Seven people died, 500 were injured, and 175 buildings had been destroyed.
The riots left scars on the neighborhood that can still be seen today. However, there have been a number of positive developments throughout the community in recent years. New shopping centers and market-rate housing have begun to appear. Homan Square is a recent complex that includes housing, schools, and a community center. A new charter school has replaced the old Power House that once generated the electricity for the Sears complex. The community has also become a model for urban gardening.