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History of Pilsen and Little Village


Pilsen is a neighborhood made up of the residential sections of the Lower West Side of Chicago. In the late 19th century, Pilsen was inhabited by Czech immigrants who named the district after the fourth largest city in what is now the Czech Republic. The population also included other ethnic groups from the Austro-Hungarian Empire including Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, and Austrians, as well as immigrants of Polish and Lithuanian heritage. Many of the immigrants worked in the stockyards and the surrounding factories. Like many early 20th Century American urban neighborhoods, Pilsen was home to the wealthy as well as the working class and doctors lived next to maids and laborers.

The Czechs replaced the Germans and Irish who settled who settled there in the mid 1800s. Beginning in the early 1970s, Pilsen became increasingly Mexican as people were forced to move when their former small enclave to the North of Pilsen was torn down to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mexico's racial breakdown is officially presented as 9-17% white, 60% Mestizo (Indigenous-European hybrid), 30% Indigenous, and 1% other but the majority of Pilsen's most recent immigrants are those of the Mestizaje (mixture) of Indians and Spaniards. Mexico, like the United States, is a pan-cultural society. The neighborhood continued to serve as port of entry for immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Many elderly central Europeans still reside in Pilsen, but today, the community's largely Mexican population is increasingly dwarfed by what has become the largest Mexican neighborhood in Chicago - Little Village. Famed author Stuart Dybek hails from Pilsen and explores issues such as ethnic change and acculturation in his short fiction.

There is also a former county seat in Poland named Pilsen (Pilzno) from which a number of Polish Chicagoans hail, and in 2004, the 'Pilsen' Society of Chicago, Klub Pilznian, celebrated its 80th anniversary.

Pilsen's rich Neo-Bohemian Baroque architectural heritage as well as its proximity to the Loop continue to strengthen its position as a neighborhood set for revival as reinvestment in Chicago's inner-city neighborhoods continues to strengthen. While these developments have a positive impact on the local economy, a negative side effect is that some lower-income individuals and families within the community are forced to move to other neighborhoods because of the rise in housing costs. Pilsen has begun to see a decline in the community's Latino population, which reached a peak of 89% in 2000.

Development north of Pilsen grew significantly over the past decade, including new construction as well as restoration of National Historic Register properties such as the 800+ unit South Water Market, an old concrete Cold Storage Warehouse, and the CHA's transformation of the ABLA projects. Development has now spilled over into Pilsen proper.

Eighteenth Street is a lively walking district replete with Mexican bakeries, restaurants, and groceries. The East Side of Pilsen is one of Chicago's largest art districts, and the neighborhood is also home to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Pilsen is also famous for its murals. The original murals in Pilsen along 16th Street started as a cooperative effort between Slavs and Mexicans when the neighborhood was undergoing change. If one looks closely, one finds amongst the murals images that include storks, scenic European farms, and Lipizzaner Horses.

The Pink Line El stops at 18th Street in the northwest corner of Pilsen and the Orange Line stops at Halsted and Archer Avenue, just south of Pilsen. Metra's BNSF Railway Line stops on the east at Halsted and 16th Street, and on the west at Western and 18th Street, and highways run near the eastern and southern parts of the neighborhood.

Little Village

Now in 2010 most predominant by new Mexican immigrants Little Village contribute tremendously to the city of Chicago revenue; (part of the South Lawndale Community Area) was originally settled by Irish and Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th century, after the Great Chicago Fire sent the population of Chicago rippling out from the city's center to the outlying countryside. Jobs created by industrial development in the early 20th century also attracted residents to the Little Village area, adding to the community's strength and viability as its own independent borough. By the mid-20th century, Little Village saw a marked increase in Polish immigrants, escaping the ravages of war-torn Europe, and in the '80s a large influx of Mexicans moved to the neighborhood. Many of these new residents were transplants from neighboring Pilsen. They were displaced during the construction of the University of Illinois Chicago campus, which chewed up a large section of residential land, pushing inhabitants further west from downtown.

But it is the injection of Latino culture that gives the Little Village neighborhood its vibrant and distinct character today. In fact, the neighborhood is called "Mexico of the Midwest" by many of its residents. Little Village celebrates Mexican Independence Day every September with a parade down 26th Street. It's the second largest Hispanic parade in Chicago behind the Puerto Rican day parade. The Mexican Independence parade down 26th St attracts thousands of spectators each year who flock to the neighborhood to show support and pride for their heritage. Of course, Little Village has a wealth of great Mexican restaurants that also help to reinforce the community's strong cultural ties.

For green spaces and recreation in Little Village, residents can make a visit the community parks. Washtenaw Park has a baseball diamond and offers up a variety of arts and crafts classes for adults as well as day camps for kids. Shedd Park is a little park in Little Village named for John G. Shedd (known to most Chicagoans as the founder of the Shedd Aquarium). There may not be an abundance of fish and sea life here, but there's plenty of room for land lubbers to have a picnic or lay out and enjoy the summer sun. Piotrowski Park is the neighborhood's largest public park and is the most popular outdoor retreat for Little Village residents. With an outside pool, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and jogging paths (plus a soft surface play ground for tots), this good-size patch of green has something for every member of the family.

Famous past residents of Little Village include Mayor Anton Cermak, who lived in the 2300 block of S. Millard Avenue, across the street from Lazaro Cardenas Elementary. Pat Sajak was also a Little Village resident. He attended Gary Elementary Schools and Farragut High School. The bulk of Little Village falls within the aldermanic boundaries of the 22nd ward (Muñoz). The commercial strip along 26th Street is said to have the second highest business revenue in the city after N. Michigan Avenue.

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