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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Happy Birthday, North Lawndale: Residents Celebrate 150 Years Of Neighborhood’s History

Neighbors are marking the anniversary of Lawndale's annexation with a time capsule and grand plans for a decorative gateway similar to the Chinatown's gateway.

Lawndale residents celebrate the neighborhood's 150th birthday.
Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Just over 150 years ago, North Lawndale was incorporated into the city of Chicago, and residents are pulling out all stops to celebrate their beloved neighborhood’s birthday.

To mark the anniversary of Lawndale’s annexation from Cicero Township into the city of Chicago on Feb. 27, 1869, the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Committee hosted a gala to commemorate the closing of the neighborhood’s first 150 years. The committee of neighbors, artists, gardeners and group leaders also launched a series of projects to usher in the next 150 years by reflecting on the West Side neighborhood’s nuanced and evolving history.

As part of the sesquicentennial celebration, a time capsule will be buried and unearthed in 50 years. Residents filled the capsule with videos, personal mementos, photographs, and letters to future Lawndalians so they can what life was like in the early days of the neighborhood.

Lilian Booker, who has lived in Lawndale for most of her life, decided to bury photographs of Ogden Avenue in the time capsule, showing how the backbone of Lawndale’s business district had changed over the years. One photograph she contributed shows the construction of the Ogden (10th) District Police Station, which was built as dilapidated and vacant storefronts that lined the corridor were torn down after business dwindled following decades of disinvestment.

“Before they built that, it was just almost shacks that had to be torn down … people had abandoned the buildings and most of our businesses,” Booker said. “It’s just a part of me and I just hated to see it just go down.”

Booker also buried photos of the Greyhound bus station, now gone from Lawndale, because she wants folks to remember there was a time when residents didn’t have to go downtown access services like coach buses.

“It stopped right on the corner where I lived,” she said.

“I got all this old stuff and I been in one place for years, since ’63, I’ve been in one spot. So that means a lot of stuff in the basement,” Booker said of the memories.

Jars of honey from the North Lawndale Employment Network’s social enterprise Sweet Beginnings will also be buried in the capsule. The honey produced by formerly incarcerated people represents the neighborhood’s commitment to overcoming the damage caused by the criminal justice system that has targeted black people on the West Side, said Chaundra Van Dyk McGee, the group’s community outreach coordinator

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sweet Beginnings
Sweet Beginnings helps support job readiness among formerly incarcerated people in Lawndale.

Gloria Rutues, who has lived in Lawndale for more 30 years, included a family tree with the names of her descendants and a history of where her family has lived in Chicago. She wants future generations to know where they came from because it took a lot of work on her behalf to dig up some of her own family’s forgotten history, much of which was wiped away during slave times, Jim Crow and generations of migration and economic hardship.

“I work a lot with telling the oral stories to my grandkids and great-grandkids, the history of my family. …My great-great-grandfather that was in slavery and how he was sold throughout the family,” Rutues said. “My mom died young so they didn’t know my mom. She was an entrepreneur she had she made drapery… and she used to work at Chicago Maternity Center where she used to go out with the doctors and help deliver babies.”

In addition to photos, letters and memorabilia, the time capsule was stocked with videos recorded by Free Spirit Media, a North Lawndale-based youth media lab, of the community storytelling series the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial hosted over the past year. At the recent Music of North Lawndale event, residents heard about the neighborhood’s vast contributions to the blues, jazz, ragtime, gospel and house music and listened to local musicians play some selections illustrating the Polish, Jewish, and Black communities that have made Lawndale their home at different eras.

Credit: Provided
A picture of the early days of North Lawndale.

At the gala, Peter Alter, chief historian and director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, said these histories are incredibly important because much of the documentation of North Lawndale goes dark around 1968, when the riots burned down much of the neighborhood and began a period of disinvestment that has lasted until now. Alter has been working with students at DRW College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep and Noble Charter School to collect oral histories of the neighborhood.

Besides the time capsule, new welcome signs under the underpasses that lead into the neighborhood will also recognize North Lawndale’s long history.

“North Lawndale is surrounded by railroad tracks. No matter which way you come into North Lawndale you have to go through a viaduct,” said Paul Norrington, head of the sesquicentennial committee.

Neighbors also plan to build a gateway over Lawndale’s main commercial corridor, similar to the Chinatown gateway that overlooks many of the neighborhood’s Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants. The gate aims to help put Lawndale back on the map as a viable place for Chicagoans and tourists alike to patronize, and will help push back against the narrative of the West Side as desolate and uninhabitable, Norrington said.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) express his commitment to helping neighbors land the funding needed to build the gate.

“With all of your help we can move North Lawndale to the place that we want it to be,” Scott said.

Alderman Michael Scott Jr. speaks at the sesquicentennial gala.

Norrington said if residents knew more about how important North Lawndale’s history is to the destiny of Chicago, and felt like they were connected to something bigger, the neighborhood would be better equipped to heal from the generational trauma, violence, health inequality and disinvested schools residents have struggled with.

“It’s not completely surprising the amount of violence in our community… the amount of litter, or the poor school performance. We’re trying to raise their self-esteem,” Norrington said of the neighborhood’s youth. “We’re trying to do that by raising community pride.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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