Lower West Side, Chicago

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Lower West Side
Community area
Community Area 31 - Lower West Side
Homes in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Homes in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Location within the city of Chicago
Location within the city of Chicago
Coordinates: 41°51′N 87°39.6′W / 41.850°N 87.6600°W / 41.850; -87.6600Coordinates: 41°51′N 87°39.6′W / 41.850°N 87.6600°W / 41.850; -87.6600
Country United States
State Illinois
County Cook
City Chicago
 • Total 2.80 sq mi (7.25 km2)
Population (2015)
 • Total 34,410[1]
Demographics 2015[1]
 • White 13.42%
 • Black 3.25%
 • Hispanic 80.48%
 • Asian 1.74%
 • Other 1.12%
Time zone CST (UTC-6)
 • Summer (DST) CDT (UTC-5)
ZIP Codes parts of 60608 and 60616
Median household income $36,090[1]
Source: U.S. Census, Record Information Services

Lower West Side is a community area on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois, United States. It is three miles southwest of the Chicago Loop and its main neighborhood is Pilsen (/ˈpɪlsɪn/). The Heart of Chicago is a neighborhood in the southwest corner of the Lower West Side.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1930 66,198
1940 57,908 −12.5%
1950 53,991 −6.8%
1960 48,448 −10.3%
1970 44,535 −8.1%
1980 44,951 0.9%
1990 45,654 1.6%
2000 44,031 −3.6%
2010 35,769 −18.8%
Est. 2015 34,410 −3.8%

In the late 19th century, Pilsen was inhabited by German, Polish, Italian, and Czech immigrants. Czech immigrants were the most prominent and named the district after Plzeň, the fourth largest city in what is now the Czech Republic, they replaced the Germans and Irish who had settled there before them, in the mid-nineteenth century. These German and Irish residents lived in poor conditions throughout the 1850s and ‘60s, the Pilsen area was overcrowded and suffered from flooding, lack of indoor plumbing, and illness. A cholera outbreak that killed hundreds, eventually led the German and Irish residents to move in search of better living conditions,[3] the population also included smaller numbers of other ethnic groups from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats and Austrians, as well as immigrants of Polish and Lithuanian heritage. Many of the immigrants worked in the stockyards and surrounding factories. Like many early 20th century American urban neighborhoods, however, Pilsen was home to both wealthy professionals and the working class, with the whole area knitted together based on the ethnicities, mostly of Slavic descent, who were not readily welcome in other areas of the city.[4]

Although there was some increase in the Hispanic presence in the late 1950s, it was not until the early 1960s that there was a great spurt in the numbers of Latinos in Pilsen,[3] this was due to the displacement of Latinos from the neighborhood UIC currently occupies,[5] south of Hull House,[6] and from other urban revitalization projects.[5] In 1970, Latinos became the majority population in Pilsen, with about 25,000 people out of the community's 43,341 people surpassing the population of people of Eastern European descent; in particular, Mexicans made up about 36% of the residents of Pilsen in 1973.[7]

Mexican dancers in Pilsen in 2006

In the 1980s, the Mexican-origin population grew, during that decade 95% of the people in Pilsen had some Mexican descent, and 80% of the overall population of Pilsen were first or second generation immigrants from Mexico and Mexican-Americans. Mexican growth continued into the 1990s, during that decade 40% of the Mexican-origin population in Pilsen had migrated directly there from Mexico, and about 33% of the Mexican-origin population in the Chicago area lived in Pilsen.[7]

As of 2005 many of the newer residents of the neighborhood were not Latino, and it is projected that the neighborhood will continue to become more diversified in the years ahead,[8] the non-Latino population in Pilsen is still a minority as of the 2010 Census.

The Chicago Housing Authority's plan for transformation of the ABLA projects has spilled over into Pilsen proper, with the now nearly complete Chantico Loft development, Union Row Townhomes, as well as the defunct Centro 18 on 18th Street in East Pilsen. Infill construction of condominiums and single-family homes is now in full force on the east side of the neighborhood, as Pilsen becomes one of the next major development areas for infill construction.[9] Some local advocacy groups, including one led by Michael A. Martone, have formed urging the neighborhood's alderman to curtail gentrification to preserve the Mexican-American culture.

Gentrification in Pilsen[edit]

Evidence from United States’ census data records shows that gentrifiers in the Pilsen area have primarily been white. Modern and upper-class retail has replaced original small Mexican owned businesses. Mexican population was constant between from 1970s-1990s, but since then the population has declined-specifically after the year 2000. Loss of population has scattered throughout Pilsen, the largest decline has been found in West and Central Pilsen and over three sections of Pilsen have lost over 20% of their population.[10]

The decline of families and the increase of one-person households’ has also been significant in Pilsen. Census data shows the decline of families in Pilsen is 20.4% and families with children under 18 is 40.9%. Meanwhile, one-person households have increased by 17.8% and non-family households have increased to 88.6%. This evidence suggests an increase of gentrification from 2000-2010 in Pilsen.[10]

National Register of Historic Places[edit]

In 2006, Pilsen Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. South Water Market has also been listed on the Register.


The east side of the neighborhood along Halsted Street is one of Chicago's largest art districts, and the neighborhood is also home to the National Museum of Mexican Art. St. Adalbert's dominates the skyline with the opulence typical of churches in the Polish Cathedral style.[citation needed]

Pilsen is home to a multitude of murals and other forms of street art, with an initiative from the Chicago Urban Art Society and support from the National Museum of Mexican Art artists have been able to construct murals around the Pilsen neighborhood, adding to the history, culture, and community of the area.[11][12]

W 18th Street is an active commercial corridor, with Mexican bakeries, restaurants, and groceries, though the principal district for Mexican shopping is W 26th Street in Little Village, Chicago's other formerly majority Pan-Slavic community.

The United States Postal Service operates the Pilsen Post Office on 1859 S Ashland Avenue.[13]

The National Museum of Mexican Art is located in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Podmajersky incorporated is a major property owner in the Pilsen area.

Street art[edit]

The Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago has become a hub for muralists and street artists to convey their identity, passion, and activism. Murals are historically connected to Mayan and Aztec cultures which have influenced Mexican artists from the 1920s-present day.[14]

Mario Castillo painted Peace or Metafisico in 1968, this piece was the first Mexican and anti-Vietnam War murals in Pilsen. In 1969, he painted The Wall of Brotherhood which was inspired by an artwork located in the Bronzeville neighborhood.[14]

Some murals have remained the same or have been updated throughout the years and others have been modified to portray current events; in 1980, Marcos Raya created Fallen Dictator which portrays an anti-war and anti-imperialist message. This particular mural has been redone three times, the most recent update has images of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drawn as snakes and battling each other.[14]

In 2016, Sam Kirk and Sandra Atongiori created Weaving Cultures to highlight women of different backgrounds, the mural paints five different women, including a transgender Latina, with the goal of representing women of all demographics and promote acceptance of others.[14]


Robb Walsh of the Houston Press wrote that the Mexican restaurants in Pilsen are "unconsciously authentic" to original Mexican cuisine. According to Rick Bayless, the chef and owner of Frontera Grill, this is because Mexican-Americans in Chicago do not encounter a substantial Chicano community in the United States that prefers a Tex Mex-style of cuisine, so the immigrants use the same frame of reference that they had in Mexico.[15]


A retired 4400-series TMC RTS bus in the Pilsen neighborhood in May 2008

The community area is connected to the rest of the city by both Chicago Transit Authority and Metra transportation services.

CTA Pink Line train stops
CTA bus services
  • 18 16th/18th
  • 49 Western
  • 60 Blue Island/26th

Metra's BNSF Railway Line[18] stops on the east at Halsted and 16th Street, and on the west at Western and 18th Street.

There are also bikeways on Blue Island Avenue, 18th, and Halsted Streets.[19]


Residents are zoned to Chicago Public Schools. Benito Juarez Community Academy, located in the Lower West Side, serves much of it. Other parts are zoned to Thomas Kelly High School.[20]

Lower West Side is home to the following educational institutions:

  • Jungman Elementary School
  • Irma C. Ruiz Elementary School
  • Jose Clemente Orozco Community Academy
  • Peter Cooper Duo Language Academy
  • Cristo Rey Jesuit High School – private, Jesuit 9-12 school of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
  • Gads Hill Center – nonprofit youth and adult education center
  • Rudy Lozano Library – Chicago Public Library branch
  • Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy – charter high school
  • Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy – alternative high school
  • St. Ann School - Catholic, pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade school
  • St. Pius V School - Catholic, pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade school
  • St. Procopius School – Catholic, dual language elementary school
  • Whittier Dual Language Community School – pre-kindergarten through 8 school
  • John A. Walsh Elementary School

History of education[edit]

Prior to the 1970s, Pilsen residents attended many elementary and Catholic schools. Jungman Elementary School for grades 1-6 was just one of these schools; Peter Cooper Upper Grade Center (grades 6-8), adjacent to Peter Cooper Elementary (grades K-5;) Prior to the construction of Peter Cooper UGC, "Little" Cooper went up to 8th grade. Frederich Froebel School for ONLY 9th grade.[21]Harrison Technical High School in South Lawndale for grades 11-12.[22]

Jungman opened in 1903; in 1914 an addition was installed. The building was converted into a junior high school in 1933 due to a decision by the Chicago Board of Education, it later became a branch of Harrison Tech, and then in 1947 a branch of Walsh Elementary.[22]

Froebel served as a branch for Harrison Tech due to overcrowding on the main campus; it was originally an elementary school.[22]

Teresa Fraga, Mary Gonzales and Raquel Guerrero are the three founding mothers of Benito Juarez Community High School. In the late 1960s, the three mothers shared concerns for their own children when the only public high school available was Harrison High school. Harrison high School was located in a neighborhood plagued with gang territory and racial tension between African Americans and Mexican Americans, the mother’s wanted a safe and conducive school for Spanish speaking students. The school was proposed to Chicago’s Board of Education multiple times but ultimately rejected, this led to protests and boycotts from many Mexican students and families. Finally, in June 1974, Chicago’s Board of Education approved $8.9 million in funding to build a high school in Pilsen. Benito Juarez Community Academy opened in 1977 and now has a 94 percent Latino student body, the school is decorated with murals and statues that portray Mexican culture and famous leaders such as Benito Jaurez.[23]

Notable former residents[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Alvarez, René Luis. "A Community that Would Not Take 'No' for an Answer: Mexican Americans, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Founding of Benito Juarez High School," Journal of Illinois History (2014) 17:1 pp 78–98.


  1. ^ a b c d "Community Data Snapshot - Lower West Side" (PDF). cmap.illinois.gov. MetroPulse. Retrieved December 1, 2017. 
  2. ^ Paral, Rob. "Chicago Community Areas Historical Data". Archived from the original on 18 March 2013. Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "History of Pilsen". WTTW Chicago Public Media - Television and Interactive. 2017-04-12. Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  4. ^ "Pilsen". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org. Retrieved 2016-03-11. 
  5. ^ a b Alvarez, p. 83.
  6. ^ Arredondo, Gabriela F. and Derek Vaillant. "Mexicans" (Archive). Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved on April 24, 2014.
  7. ^ a b Alvarez, p. 84.
  8. ^ Betancur, John (2005). "Gentrification before Gentrification? The Plight of Pilsen in Chicago" (PDF). University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  9. ^ "Vol. 98, No. 3, Autumn, 2005 of Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) on JSTOR". www.jstor.org. Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  10. ^ a b Betancur and Youngjun, John and Kim. "The Trajectory and Impact of Ongoing Gentrification in Pilsen" (PDF). Natalie P. Voorhees Center. Retrieved October 6, 2017 – via Natalie P. Voorhees Center. 
  11. ^ "On the Grid | Pilsen Murals". On the Grid. Retrieved 2017-03-31. 
  12. ^ "Street Art in Pilsen: Murals in Chicago's Mexican Neighborhood | Frugal Frolicker". Frugal Frolicker. 2014-09-07. Retrieved 2017-03-31. 
  13. ^ "PILSEN Post Office Location". United States Postal Service. Retrieved April 17, 2009. [permanent dead link]
  14. ^ a b c d "Pilsen Murals Blend Art and Activism". WTTW. April 17, 2017. Retrieved November 3, 2017. 
  15. ^ Walsh, Robb (October 26, 2000). "The Authenticity Myth: The Mex Mex Issue". Houston Press. Retrieved November 16, 2009. 
  16. ^ "18th - CTA 'L' Train Station Information". Chicago Transit Authority. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Damen (Pink Line Station) - CTA 'L' Train Station Information". Chicago Transit Authority. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  18. ^ "Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Station". Metra. Archived from the original on May 31, 2012. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  19. ^ "Chicago Bike Map". City of Chicago. Archived from the original on June 13, 2012. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  20. ^ "West/Central/South High Schools" (). Chicago Public Schools. May 17, 2013. Retrieved on May 25, 2015.
  21. ^ Abe Gonzalez, Pilsen resident from 1954-1979
  22. ^ a b c Alvarez, p. 88.
  23. ^ "How Pilsen's Founding Mothers Built a High School". WTTW Chicago Public Media - Television and Interactive. 2017-10-13. Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  24. ^ Pero, Peter N. (2011). "Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood". Arcadia Publishing. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  25. ^ "James Foley, Slain by ISIS, Honored With Pilsen Mural". DNAinfo Chicago. Archived from the original on 12 September 2017. Retrieved 11 September 2017. 

External links[edit]