The Burlington Northern railroad tracks, which cut a bend sinister across the Southwest Side of Chicago, form the most enduring ethnic barrier in this segregated city. In the old days, before World War II, Jews lived north of the tracks, Czechs and Poles south. Today, the tracks separate the neighborhoods of North Lawndale, which is 87 percent Black, and Little Village, which is 85 percent Latino.
Laura Ramirez, who moved to Little Village from Mexico when she was 13, only crossed the tracks to catch the “L” at Pulaski, on her way to Whitney Young High School.
“I would rush across the dividing line and go back home,” Ramirez remembers. “It was just kind of understood you didn’t go there. Across the tracks, it looked more disheveled — a lot of vacant lots, empty buildings. Little Village was overcrowded. My sister went to Farragut, and she would talk about how they would block out the cafeteria, because they had gang fights that were racially motivated.”
The two sides of the tracks were once united in name — North and South Lawndale — but in the 1960s, when Black Chicagoans began replacing Jewish residents on the North Side, boosters on the South Side disassociated themselves from the newcomers by rechristening their neighborhood Little Village, a name that evoked “the kind of peasant hamlet that many…Bohemian and Polish immigrant-stock neighbors remembered or imagined as their place of origin in the old country,” wrote A.K. Sandoval-Strausz in Barrio America, a study of Little Village. When Mexicans began arriving in the 1970s, they called it La Villita. (It remains South Lawndale on the city’s community areas map.)
“It’s always been the dividing line, even before the communities were separated in name,” says Charles Buckhanan, who has lived all his 62 years in North Lawndale, and is involved with Boxing Out Negativity, a West Side youth boxing organization. “One side was thriving, the other trying to get by.”
North Lawndale has lost three quarters of its population since 1960. Little Village, a magnet for Mexican immigration, has more people than it did then, and they’ve made 26th Street a bustling and colorful thoroughfare of taquerias and street vendors. In Shedd Park, bordered on the north by the tracks, the boys playing basketball are Mexican. In the parking lot of Kingdom Culture International Ministries, at 19th and Kedzie, the boys playing basketball are Black.
There have been efforts at cross-tracks unity. In 2001, when a new high school opened at 31st and Kostner, then-22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Munoz helped make sure it was named Little Village Lawndale High, and drew students from both neighborhoods. A mural at now-closed Paderewski Elementary, just north of the tracks, depicts Black and Latino pupils studying together. It took a violent crisis, though, to make the two sides of the tracks realize their common problems were greater than their differences.
Last year, when downtown Chicago was looted during the protests over George Floyd’s murder, gang members from North Lawndale stole 90 pairs of shoes from a Korean-owned store in Little Village. In response, Latin Kings stood guard outside businesses on 26th Street to make sure the looting didn’t spread in their neighborhood. They went beyond protection, though, using bats and bricks to attack cars driven by Black people. At Cermak and Kedzie, a Black mother and son were pulled from a car, which was then set on fire.
Community organizations in both neighborhoods brokered an end to the violence, then organized peace marches under the banner of “One Lawndale.” In one, marchers from North Lawndale and Little Village set out from their own neighborhoods, meeting at 19th and Pulaski. Another began at 26th and Keeler, and ended in Douglass Park.
“It was the most beautiful experience, to be honest, as an organizer,” Ramirez, who works as a community organizer with El Foro Del Pueblo, said of the latter march. “Some of us have definitely started that consciousness about needing to collaborate.”
During the crisis, an organization called Brown Folks for Black Lives raised money to buy toiletries and food for people afraid to leave home to shop. Now, Ramirez participates in a Mutual Aid Pop-Up at Ogden and Pulaski, just north of the tracks, distributing toiletries, toothpaste, and diapers to those in need from both neighborhoods.
The Firehouse Community Arts Center, in North Lawndale, hosted get-togethers in which young people from both sides of the tracks designed a “One Lawndale” t-shirt: it included the Little Village Arch and the original Sears headquarters. “We was all getting to know each other, exchanging information,” says Kemonte Johnson, who attended an event last August, and has also attended inter-neighborhood boxing matches at the Shedd Park Fieldhouse with “a guy named Garcia.”
The George Floyd disturbances were “a tipping point,” says Pastor Philip Jackson of Firehouse Church. “Once they marched in each others’ areas, it became real. From that tension, that’s when the One Lawndale movement accelerated.”
Aldo Medina, worship director of Nueva Vida, a non-denominational church at 27th and Lawndale, says his church has held several joint services with congregations from the other side of the tracks. (Nueva Vida is across the street from a “Lawndale Unido” mural which depicts Black and Latino basketball players, and a woman holding a sign reading “BLACK AND BROWN UNITED.”)
“I feel like there’s been a community between the pastors,” Medina says, “but I feel like this year, they’ve tried to be more intentional about getting the churches together.”
Churches from both neighborhoods participated in marches to protest the killing of Adam Toledo, a Latino teenager shot by Chicago police — an incident that demonstrated that police violence affects both Black and Latino communities.
“I think we just share in the pain of being minorities trying to strengthen each other,” Medina says. “For the young generation, we want to show we have to be together.”
In August, Boxing Out Negativity sponsored a Street Love Ride that began in North Lawndale and ended in Little Village.
“It’s a night ride,” says Olatunji Oboi Reed of the Equiticity Racial Equity Movement, which participated. “A lot of energy, music, both for the people on the ride and the people watching. We certainly had a strong Latinx representation.”
The Burlington Northern Railroad will always be there, but activists on both sides hope it will become less of a barrier. Latino residents have been moving north of the tracks, as far as Cermak and Ogden.
“We’re bridging that divide between both spaces,” Ramirez says. “There’s violence and oppression on both sides. The One Lawndale movement gained a lot of traction after what happened last year. There’s always been the intention to unite the communities, but there hasn’t been the absolute will.”