Settlement of the South Lawndale community area began in the immediate years following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by German, Irish, and various Eastern European immigrant communities. Bohemians, fleeing overcrowding in Pilsen to the east, had become the predominant ethnic group by WWII. The bustling neighborhood centered around 26th street became known as “Czech California”. In the second half of the 20th century, as most Bohemian, Polish, and other Eastern European residents gravitated west past the city limits to Cicero and Berwyn, the area increasingly became resettled by Latino immigrants, mostly of Mexican descent. While the initial wave were mostly migrants from Pilsen, by the 1990s, Little Village had become the primary entry point for newly arriving Mexican immigrants to Chicago and the Midwest. Technically, South Lawndale is made of up both Marshall Square to the east of Kedzie Ave. and Little Village to the west, but most residents refer to entire area as “La Villita”. With 26th Street as its commercial anchor, which is the city’s second-highest-grossing shopping strip after only the Magnificent Mile, Little Village has the energy and density of a major city, but with a close-knit community of independent businesses and non-profits that make it one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in Chicago.
A Great Day in Little Village (La Villita)
Tackling the neighborhood’s wealth of fantastic eateries can begin as early as daybreak. Serving up a variety of Mexican egg dishes, from chilaquiles to huevos rancheros, and a wide range of coffee and fruit based beverages, La Catedral Café is an inviting breakfast destination. While the interior space was staged as the bakery for the filming of Stranger than Fiction, it’s currently a canvas for religious relics donated from friends and customers. Another good breakfast option is Los Candiles. The quaint neighborhood spot adorned with artesian crafts and photos of early Mexican cinema stars is well-known for their excellent huevos divorciados (fried eggs covered with green and red sauce).
There are several options for a leisurely post-breakfast walk. Though part of Chicago’s extensive boulevard system, Marshall Boulevard and 24th Boulevard are unique in that the buffer of park space extends from the sidewalk fronting the prewar brick and Greystone two flats, single family homes, and apartment buildings all the way to the main roadway. Without the interruption of an inner arterial road, these boulevards feel even more “parklike” than their counterparts in other neighborhoods.
A great way to get to know Little Village better is by ambling down 26th St. and crisscrossing many of the residential blocks between Cermak and 31st St. in search of the neighborhood’s impressive murals. Some of the most notable include Jeff Zimmerman’s “Un Milagro” (3050 W. 26th St.) depicting residents of Little Village, Epifanio Monarrez’s “Aztec Princess” (3800 block of W. 31st St.), and the Yollocalli Arts Reach commissions “With All of Our Might” (2801 S. Ridgeway), “Loyal Yolotl” (W. 28th and Lawndale), and “Flower Shop” (W. 25th and Cristiana).
While lunch options may seem limitless, narrowing down the best taquerias by their signature items can help inform your decision. La Chaparitta Grocery is the spot for tripa (small intestine) and longaniza (pork sausage) tacos. Taqueria los Barilitos and Atotonilco Restaurant are reliable purveyors of high quality al pastor (Middle Eastern influenced, shawarma style pork) and carne asada. For excellent gorditas (Mexican savory pastries), Los Olivos is among the best in the city. Taqueria El Milagro provides fresh tortillas straight from the factory next door. For those looking for a variety of quality vegetarian dishes, El Faro Restaurant is a great choice.
There are also plenty of dessert focused establishments for an after lunch confection. Azúcar offers a wide variety of ice cream, sorbets, smoothies, and shakes infused with traditional Mexican ingredients such as guayaba (guava), elote (corn), mango, chile, and lime. Refreshing Mexican drinks like horchata (sweet rice) and jamaica (hibiscus) are also popular menu items. With a staggering selection of imported Mexican candy, party favors, and piñatas, Dulcelandia is a must visit. Behind the various candy displays, each wall contains a different mural representing the candy’s cultural significance: the Mayans’ discovery of chocolate, an interpretation “Mexican Candyland” with an exploding piñata, and upcoming commission by Chicago artist Naomi Martinez of a sugar skull. Additionally, the broad, colorful space now houses Yogolandia Yogurt and Botana Bar, which provides Mexican inspired frozen yogurt flavors and ingredients including churro, flan, marzipan, and pepino (cucumber) as well as some savory snacks.
For a shopping experience and environment modeled after markets in Mexico, Little Village Discount Mall is well worth a visit. Among the more than 100 booths that fill the expansive space, a patron can find items as wide ranging as Mexican handcrafts, Western wear, kids’ mariachi suits, top of the line accordions, quinceañera dresses, and even a scarlet macaw.
Another exceptional institution within the South Lawndale boundary is Working Bikes. Not only is it one of city’s best spots to pick up a recycled and refurbished bicycle or get bike repairs, but the proceeds from sales support their tremendous outreach. Each year the organization sends thousands of recycled bikes to various countries in Latin America and Africa, as well as donates bikes for those in need locally.
Serving as one of the neighborhood’s only brick and mortar gallery and art spaces, OPEN Center for the Arts is an outstanding venue to appreciate both the community’s creative output and curated work coming from all over the U.S. and abroad. Opened in 2014, the former storefront and apartment building is now home to the theater program Teatro Americano, art and dance classes, and rotating exhibits including the current “We Are All Migrants”, an exhibition of 50 selected poster submissions from graphic designers around the world.
With Little Village’s density and industrial heritage, neighborhood green spaces are actively cherished. One of the best examples is La Villita Park, a 22-acre expanse featuring five athletic fields, a skate park, basketball courts, and a massive playground. Formerly a toxic brownfield, the celebrated park came about after years of advocating by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and collaboration between the non-profit, the Chicago Park District, and residents. Just across the street of the park’s northwest border, LVEJO organized another brownfield conversion to the Semillas de Justicia Community Garden. A range of programming is offered, including educational workshops throughout the year and weekly community potlucks during the warmer months.
A neighborhood gem for younger kids is the nature play garden, Jardincito. The small nature park emphasizing children’s interaction with natural structures made of wood and stone resulted from the alliance of neighborhood groups, the Trust for Public Land, and Chicago’s land trust non-profit, NeighborSpace.
A visit to two of Little Village’s oldest Mexican-American owned businesses is a memorable way to cap off the day. Nuevo León has been providing the community northern Mexico style cuisine for over four decades. With the fire and closing of the Pilsen location last year, the 26th St. site is even more prized as a family-style, sit-down destination. The flour tortillas made in-house, signature entrees, and warm, attentive service are just part of what maintains their loyal customer base.
Jacaranda Bar has been a dependable watering hole since the 1960s. The neighborhood institution is revered by locals and visitors for the welcoming, friendly bartenders and stellar micheladas.
Enlace Chicago has been working to improve the lives of Little Village residents since 2008. Formerly the Little Village Community Development Corporation, whose first Executive Director was Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the organization’s contributions include, among others, free legal and immigration services, fair housing advocacy, promoting community schools and college assistance, and a series of violence prevention programs. For more information and volunteering options visit here.
The Take Away
After spending just a few hours in Little Village, the deep appreciation of community and strong social networks should become palpable to any visitor. The organizing and advocacy work that is making the neighborhood healthier and bringing more green space to the community, such as the forthcoming Paseo Trail, is undoubtedly improving the quality of life for residents. However, while the majority of the media coverage focuses on neighborhood gang violence, many people we spoke with were equally if not more concerned about the threat of draconian immigration policies and rising housing costs. The anti-immigrant fervor is profoundly troubling for neighborhood families. Likewise, as outsiders become increasingly aware of the neighborhood’s allure and developers see a housing market to exploit, the fear of eventual Pilsen-esque gentrification seems to be building. A visitor would be hard pressed to encounter a neighborhood that is as simultaneously welcoming, compellingly cohesive with independent mom and pop shops, and interconnected with community organizations that work on the behalf of residents and families, regardless of their legal status. We believe these are attributes worth celebrating and protecting.