Located just north of downtown and on the eastern side of Chicago’s man-made Goose Island and North Branch Canal, the Lower Near North Side has been called many names, and served as home to Chicago’s poor working class and multi-ethnic waves of immigrants.
It was notably put under a microscope by urban sociologist Harvey Warren Zorbaugh in his highly-influential and precedential book The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), where he chronicled its notorious living conditions, detailed its socio-economic makeup, and elucidated tangled patterns of dysfunction sustaining this “slum’s” existence, blocks from one of Chicago’s wealthiest communities to the east. Central to his philosophy was the idea of “natural areas” within a city–the unplanned, organic enclaves that emerge out of a coincidence of physical geography and cultural segregration: the Lower Near North Side being a prime example of this urban phenomena.
Beginning in the 1840s, this area was first occupied by German immigrants when it was on the edge of Chicago and provided cheap, accessible land for both home and farm. Irish immigrants displaced by the Great Potato Famine replaced the Germans who had achieved the means to move on to more “desirable” neighborhoods. The neighborhood was known by many titles, maybe the most infamous is “Little Hell,” due to the overwhelming stench and sight of People’s Gas Light & Coke Co. plant on the riverbank.
As more industries and plants such as lumberyards and tanneries were constructed along the banks of Goose Island to the west, the area became populated with Swedish immigrants, whose numbers in the area exploded after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
One remaining artifact from their settlement is the former First Swedish Baptist Church building at Cleveland and Elm. Built in 1889, it is currently the Wayman AME Church.
Visions of the “Old Neighborhood”
The square quarter-mile of Division and Oak Streets on the north and south, and Larrabee and Orleans Streets on the west and east, was once criss-crossed by neighborhood thru-streets which were completely saturated with low-quality residential housing, usually multiple buildings on one lot as seen in the 1906 Sanborn Fire Insurance map details below.
Hastily-built wooden tenements and workers’ cottages were the predominant style since this area was just outside the boundaries prohibiting wood framing, enacted by new fire codes after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
After the Chicago Housing Authority successfully established the two-story Francis Cabrini Rowhomes in 1942, what infrastructure was left of this old neighborhood and its residences was leveled to build a second development of public housing: the “Cabrini Extension” modernist mid- and high-rises completed in 1958.
Around 1900, the area population shifted again, and it became the place of “first settlement” for many Sicilian and Italian immigrants, developing into “Little Sicily” as the former Central European community began moving further north and west of the city center.
One remaining and beautiful structure from that era is Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church at 357 West Locust Street.
Vacant and disused since it last held services in 1990, this building is now on the waiting list for its demolition, to be replaced with plans for a 40-unit condo development as another part of the area’s rapid redevelopment within the past few years.
Another important part of the area’s former Sicilian community was the Saint Philip Benizi Church at 988 North Cambridge.
The adjoining school of Saint Philip Benizi Church at 515 West Oak Street, with 1000 children at one time enrolled across the Sunday, nursery, and primary school services offered there, was demolished in June 2012.
Built in 1919, this school served the Saint Philip Benizi Catholic Church to the south, which was demolished approximately 1965.
North of Division Street, few remnants of the historic communities exist except for some late-19th Century Italianate storefront-with-flats buildings on the 1200-1300 block of North Clybourn Avenue, and a church surrounded by open land at 617 West Evergreen Avenue.
Originally built in 1901 as the Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, in 1927, Saint Philip Benizi Catholic Church purchased and rededicated this church as the San Marcello Mission.
Its cornerstone reads, “S. Marcello, Dicatum, A.D. 1927” which translates to “San Marcello, dedicated 1927 A.D.” The mission was established here until 1974 when the building became the home of the Northside Strangers’ Home MB Church.
At the same time, pioneering public street artist William Walker was commissioned by the leader of San Marcello to create a socially-conscious mural, depicting the multi-ethnic makeup of the area and themes of social justice, peace, and harmony.
The mural still survives as only one of three remaining Walker murals in the city of Chicago. Now recently listed (again) for sale, at $1.7 million this time, the fate of the church and its historic mural is unknown and seems especially vulnerable, given the acceleration of upscale development in this historically “poor” area of Chicago.
References and Further Reading
- The Gold Coast and the Slum
- “A Brief History of Chicago’s Little Sicily Neighborhood and the Saint Philip Benizi Parish”
- William Walker’s “All Of Mankind”, via Chicago Public Art Group
- 956 North Larrabee Street demolition permit, via Licensed Chicago Contractors