10 Hidden Gems in North Lawndale
The Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale has a rich history, a vibrant community, and a lot of exciting new neighborhood initiatives. So much more is happening in North Lawndale than what is often portrayed in the media. Here are 10 hidden gems for those who may not be familiar with the west side neighborhood of North Lawndale, and for those who may need to take another look at this historic and iconic community.
1. The Original Sears Tower
Many may be surprised to know that North Lawndale is home to the original Sears Tower. The national headquarters for Sears and Roebuck was in North Lawndale, and at its height had 22,000 employees. Renamed the Nichols Tower, the 14-story building is now a collaborative office space for a host of community organizations, including a satellite office of the Art Institute of Chicago, which offers youth and community classes. Take the elevator to the 14th floor or brave the stairs to see some incredible views of the west side and an epic view of the former Sears Tower (the Willis Tower) from the original Sears Tower (the Nichols Tower). The Nichols Tower is managed by the Foundation of Homan Square.
2. Douglas Park
Douglas Park, a beautiful 218 acre historic regional park with a prairie style of landscape and architecture, is a great place for rest and recreation. Named after Stephen A. Douglas, a gifted orator and U.S. Senator from Illinois who lost the presidential election to Abraham Lincoln, Douglas Park provides a number of outdoor amenities including playgrounds, tennis courts, artificial turf soccer field, football field, walking track and trails, baseball fields, public pool, lily ponds, and small golf range. Douglas Park plays host to several large outdoor events including Ravina’s summer concert series, Westside Music Festival, the annual Junta Hispana festival, Run to End Homeless 5K, and Riot Fest to name a few. Douglas Park has even been deemed one of the best up and coming places to live in Chicago by Chicago Magazine. Douglas Park is a popular community resource and a vital part of the North Lawndale neighborhood.
3. MLK Memorial District and Museum
In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr and his family moved into a third floor apartment building in North Lawndale (1550 S. Hamlin Ave) to highlight the deplorable living conditions and racism in the urban north. The Dr. King Legacy Apartments sit near the site where King lived, now providing affordable housing for community residents. On the first floor is the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center, a small multi-media museum operated by Lawndale Community Development Corporation with artifacts and exhibits on the fight for fair housing. The history of discriminatory housing practices in North Lawndale are highlighted in Beryl Satter’s book: Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America.
4. Homan Square Pool
Homan Square pool, part of the Homan Square Community Center campus, is an olympic sized indoor pool and one of the cities’ finest public pools. The pool holds weekly open swim times, and adult and children classes for free or very low cost. According to the Chicago Park District website, in the late 1980s, developer Charles Shaw began efforts to transform the North Lawndale site into the Homan Square Community Center, a vibrant mixed-income community which now includes housing, two schools, a medical facility, and a 5-acre Chicago Park District facility that opened in 2001.
North Lawndale boasts the greatest concentration of greystone buildings in all of Chicago. Go down almost any residential street in North Lawndale and see the amazing greystone houses. Pay attention to the subtle artistic differences on the crest of each house. During the Christmas holiday, make sure to drive down the block on Flournoy and Homan to see the entire block lit up with Christmas lights, a well coordinated block effort and one of the best outdoor Christmas light displays you’ll see in all Chicago.
6. Historic Jewish Landmarks
Between the 1920s and 1950s, North Lawndale was known as the “Jerusalem of Chicago,” and still bears many vestiges of its Jewish past. Hebrew architectural markings can be seen etched on the outside walls of many buildings throughout the neighborhood. Hertzl Elementary School, which sits on Douglas Park Boulevard, was once a Jewish Junior College and Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, once a synagogue, has preserved many of the original furnishings and Jewish architectural features. More information on North Lawndale’s Jewish roots can be found in Images of America: Chicago’s Jewish West Side.
7. Community-based Cafes
North Lawndale is home to two of the best community-based coffeeshops in the city: Green Tomato Cafe and Hope Cafe. Green Tomato Cafe, run by Lawndale Christian Health Clinic, and Hope Cafe, run by Chicago Hope Academy, are both spaces where community members can connect while enjoying great coffee. Green Tomato Cafe utilizes fresh veggies from a North Lawndale community garden and is conveniently located off Ogden Avenue (Historic Route 66). Hope Cafe sits inside a beautifully renovated building which provides great ambiance for coffee dates or community events and parties (proceeds support Chicago Hope students).
8. Strong Community Organizations
While North Lawndale has some very real challenges, there’s plenty of good happening here, and numerous opportunities to get involved. North Lawndale is home to many strong community organizations such as A Safe Haven, Better Boys Foundation, Celestial Ministries School of Fine Arts, I Am Able Family Counseling Center, Lawndale Christian Health Clinic, Lawndale Christian Fitness Center, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, New Covenant Community Development Corporation, North Lawndale Employment Network, Mission Year, The Firehouse Community Arts Center, Young Men’s Empowerment Network (YMEN), and many, many others. Steans Family Foundation, a small family foundation, invests exclusively in the North Lawndale community. With nearly 200 churches, North Lawndale is believed to have the most storefront churches in the city. North Lawndale also has 20+ schools. Recently, the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council launched the largest community-wide initiative in 50 years to revitalize North Lawndale through bold, community-driven initiatives.
9. Cinespace Film Studies
Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, the second largest film studio behind Hollywood Studios, is a family-owned company based in North Lawndale specializing in development, management, and operation of studio space and support facilities for the film, television, and digital media production industry. Cinespace is where many of the Chicago based television shows are filmed including Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago MED, Chicago Justice, Empire, as well as many blockbuster movies. HBO’s Shameless is another notable show that regularly films in North Lawndale and recently, a new series called The Chi, has been filming in the neighborhood.
10. Lagunitas Brewing Company
A great way to end a visit to North Lawndale is at Lagunitas Brewery around the corner from Cinespace, in the south eastern tip of the community. Lagunitas is a magical experience, complete with Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” playing as you enter through a long corridor with neon lights and lasers. Lagunitas, open Wednesday-Sunday, is a fully functioning brewery along with a restaurant and bar called the Tap Room. Take a tasting tour, no reservations needed, or walk around the brewery at your leisure while you wait for your food. They also open their space for local bands and nonprofit fundraisers on a regular basis.
Honorary Mentions: K-town Historic District, Route 66 Car Show, North Lawndale Restorative Justice Hub, Lawndale 5K, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria with special West Side menu, State Representative Arthur Turner Jr’s office, Cinema Entertainment 10 (renovated movie theater), and Liberty Bank, one of the only black owned banks on the west side.
There are too many gems in North Lawndale to limit to 10, so be sure to take some time to get to know this amazing neighborhood and the incredible people who call it home!
Shawn Casselberry is a Chicago writer and nonprofit Director who lives and works in North Lawndale. He is on the board of a community arts organization in the neighborhood and on the Economic Development committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.