Years ago, I made one of my first trips to Chicago to pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio out in Oak Park. With that mission accomplished, my friend and I decided to see if we could make it down to the Robie House on the south side as well. I was driving, and elected to take a long, leisurely route through the city streets rather than jumping on a highway. It was on this trip that I discovered W. 18th Street.
I was sufficiently blown away by its endless ranks of 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, all seeming to date from the post-Fire years, that I made another trip down to Chicago just a week later, for the express purpose of paying a lengthy visit to this remarkable street.
Years later, the Pilsen neighborhood usually figures into my plans at least every few months. As a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, it’s home to scads of restaurants, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.
It’s also just a comfortable and friendly place to wander and photograph. The street is rich with details – signs, graffiti, ad hoc renovations, store displays, half-completed projects, murals, rusting fire escapes, and of course block after block of ornate vintage architecture.
In light of this commercially and aesthetically rich strip, I was surprised to find not one but two additional commercial streets nearby, both equal to W. 18th Street in architecture and culture.
The first one I encountered only this weekend. I was a bit tired and hungry, but the major buildings on this stretch of Cermak Road were just too amazing to pass up. I stopped the car and walked for an hour or so. The strip is west and a bit south from 18th Street.
The prize find, and the building that compelled me to stop, was the old Marshall Square Theater, now called Apollo’s 2000.
The building was, after a fashion, familiar to me from a striking photograph in Camilo Jose Vergara’s wonderful Unexpected Chicagoland, but not till I was standing in front of it did I have the “ah hah!” moment of recognition, when I saw the remorselessly vandalized goddess figure on the front facade, her face obliterated by a box beam ramming through it.
A second theater, last operated as the West Theatre, stands a few blocks east. It’s not as ornate, but still lovely.
The neighborhood’s official names include South Lawndale and Little Village; demographically speaking, today it’s a westward extension of Pilsen, with a heavily Mexican-American population.
Further west and south again from Cermak, W. 26th Street forms the core of the Little Village neighborhood. Founded and first settled by Eastern European immigrants, the area’s current name originated in the 1970s from its more recent Mexican immigrant population.
The street’s centerpiece is the former Atlantic Theater building, now converted to mundane commercial use.
Any one of these streets would be a marvel by itself; finding them all in such close conjunction is simply amazing.
Someone who researches urban economic development ought to make a study of how all these commercial streets thrive so near each other in a neighborhood that isn’t wealthy. Maybe people there are more inclined to do their shopping on foot? It is interesting. And really magnificently pretty, too. I should get to Pilsen more often.
“The neighborhood’s official names include South Lawndale and Little Village…”The area with the Marshall Square Theater is still called Marshall Square, too. I live a block from the theater. I’m never sure what to tell people when they ask me where I live, my neighborhood has three names.Great post, by the way.
Well, the pedantic choice is to go by community area. No place is in more than one community area, and those are the only official designations. Neighborhoods are pretty ad hoc and fluid.
My Polish grandmother grew up near 19th and Rockwell in the teens, and she referred to it as Pilsen. But now most people call that area Little Village. Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame grew up in what is now called Little Village.
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I’ve lived in Plisen since 2000, and am sad to see it gentrify. That means beautiful old buildings come down, ugly new iones go up.
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