A neighborhood which first came to prominence as a refuge from the Great Chicago Fire, only to be nearly destroyed by arson a century later, Homan Square proudly stands today as one of the city's prime examples of urban renewal and revitalization. New commercial and residential development, coupled with strong support from the city and private investors, has made Homan Square a thriving community with a shopping, dining and entertainment scene. The modern homes, green commons and planned layout of the neighborhood provide a pleasant and spacious backdrop that is rather rare in Chicago. Homan Square incorporates curving drives and mini-subdivisions – a nice change to the city's conventional grid-like block arrangement. A public community center is the icing on the cake for Homan Square residents. The campus offers family, health, recreation and education services in a beautiful indoor facility that even boasts an Olympic-size swimming pool and state-of-the-art exercise equipment.
The mix of residential streets and businesses in Homan Square neighborhood occupy a distinct section within the larger community of North Lawndale. It had been part of Cicero Township until Chicago annexed the entire area in the mid 19th century. This western part of town first came to the attention of many city dwellers in 1871 when refugees from the Great Chicago Fire streamed into the region, leaving the ashes of their downtown homes for land untouched by the flames. Most were attracted by the well-advertised 'fireproof brick' buildings that were quickly constructed here—a pretty appealing selling point at a time when much of the city to the east lay in charred ruins.
As the city rebuilt itself several major industrial sites sprang up in the area, which in turn drew more and more people looking for work and a new place to live. The McCormick Reaper Works opened nearby in 1873, and Western Electric constructed a huge plant to the west in Cicero in 1903. But the biggest impact on the community came in 1906 with the arrival of a new kind of company founded on some groundbreaking notions about the potential of mail-order retail sales. That was Sears, Roebuck and Company, which established its world headquarters in what is today the heart of Homan Square neighborhood.
In the 1920s the area west of downtown was home to many of the city’s Russian and German Jews. By mid-century, a quarter of Chicago’s Jewish population lived here, creating significant institutions in the vicinity like Mt. Sinai Hospital and Herzl Junior College (Malcolm X College today) as well as establishing a vital business district along Roosevelt Road. But the ethnic make-up of the neighborhood shifted radically in little more than a decade. By 1960, 91 percent of North Lawndale’s residents were African-American, and the East European Jews who once dominated the area had all moved north to Rogers Park neighborhood and outside the city limits to Skokie, Illinois.
Business investment in the area had declined in the 1950s and ‘60s, and without any new construction, North Lawndale grew increasingly overpopulated and impoverished. Residents’ frustration and despair climaxed on April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. African-American communities across Chicago’s west side rose up in bitter fury, much of it directed at white-owned businesses, and soon the once vibrant section of town had fallen to the wayside. Even the National Guard was called into Chicago in an attempt to quell the riots, but looters managed to smash storefronts and entire city blocks were burnt to the ground. Once the smoke cleared, few business owners had any desire to rebuild here. Even Sears, the area’s anchor for over half a century, pulled up stakes and headed downtown to build its world famous tower overlooking the Chicago River. In the 1970s North Lawndale lost 35 percent of its population. For years it continued to decay, a burned-out shell of its former self. It became a sad symbol of the urban blight that seemed to plague many of the cities in America’s so-called 'Rust Belt.'
Now we’ve painted a pretty grim picture here, but don’t worry because in the late 1980s, things took a dramatic turn for the better. Ed Brennan, chairman of Sears—an original cornerstone of the community—decided to join forces with Mayor Daley and local real estate mogul Charlie Shaw to infuse life back into the long-neglected region on Chicago’s west side. In 1988 they embarked on an ambitious plan to redevelop the site of Sears’ old headquarters in North Lawndale as a residential, retail and family services center to be known as Homan Square.
Where others saw only hopelessness, Shaw and Brennan saw potential. Though much of the neighborhood had been destroyed during the riots of the 1960s, there was one huge and impressive survivor: the solidly-built Sears complex. Many of the buildings first constructed in 1906 and 1907 were still there but abandoned, just waiting to be put back to use. And thanks to reinvestment, renovation, and the concerted efforts of Sears, City Hall and the private developer, this once-famous industrial center is now the site of over a million square feet of new commercial development and home to over 300 middle-income families occupying a range of single-family homes, townhouses, duplexes and rental apartments.
One of the prime movers behind the creation of Homan Square, real estate developer Charlie Shaw, passed away in 2006. Happily, he lived long enough to see most of his hopes for the community achieved, and his memory will be honored in the next step of the neighborhood’s development with the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center. Due to open in 2008 inside the Sears complex’s former power house, it will share its space with the soon-to-open Henry Ford Power House Charter High School. With the completion of the school and the Shaw TLC, the master plan envisioned for Homan Square by Shaw and his colleagues nearly twenty years ago will be fulfilled at last.