Italian ice,the origins of the hotdog and backpack-toting college students are just a sampling of the rich cultural backdrop of this near southwest side Chicago setting.University Village/Little Italy is a union of two separate communities that have merged as one, bringing the best of both worlds to a single Chicago neighborhood. The University of Illinois Chicago campus instills a collegiate sensibility with faculty and students milling about, while the blocks of Little Italy present a much quainter appeal with friendly front stoops occupied by groups of neighbors gathered to chat. Much anticipated Little Italy street festivals and holiday parades give community members even more reason to congregate, along with throngs of other Chicagoans who come to partake in the fun. Lying catty-corner to the Chicago Loop, this neighborhood's proximity to the bustling city center is convenient, without marring the area's characteristic Old World charm. A quick ride on the Blue Line Eltrain or a short trip on the Eisenhower Expressway will get you right downtown in minutes.
Another point-of-entry neighborhood for many immigrants to Chicago, these adjoining communities of strong cultural heritage have evolved over the years to become hubs of growth and development. Local landmarks like the Jane Addams Hull House Museum remind residents of rich traditions and the struggle for upward mobility that faced many of their ancestors. The area known as Little Italy was named for the once dense population of Italian immigrants and its near west side neighbor, University Village, was informally known as the Maxwell Street neighborhood after the bustling street that is one of the oldest residential areas in Chicago.
At the turn of the 20th century, University Village played an important role in Chicago’s Jewish community, with shops and outdoor markets replicating their life in Europe. A wave of African Americans from southern states migrated to this region in the early 1920s, but most of the local businesses remained Jewish-owned. Still, there was a distinct energy brewing in the neighborhood, and it came out in the form of the Chicago Blues movement. Musicians played this new sound on Maxwell Street, the famous University Village outdoor market where you could buy anything from used furniture and household cleaning products to fresh produce. The market was relocated to make way for the ever-sprawling campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1990s to nearby Canal Street between Taylor and 16th streets. Considered by many to be a shadow of what it used to be, street vendors continue the tradition, setting up for business at sunrise every Sunday.
In recent years, the old Maxwell Street area has been reinvigorated with shops catering to middle and upper class residents and college students. Restaurants, retail chains and clothing boutiques are the new heart of the shopping district. It is surrounded by the UIC campus and recreation field to the west and north, and new housing developments to the south.
As its name might suggest, Little Italy has a rich immigrant history as well. Many ethnicities have always resided on the stretch of streets along Taylor Street in either direction, but the strong Italian influence earned this area its moniker. Historic Roman Catholic churches stand as proud references to a time when the community was built up between 1898 and 1911. Parishes may have once fed the spiritual needs of Little Italy’s population, but later on parks and restaurants sprouted up, taking their place by fulfilling appetites and creating meeting places.
Now, the two communities of distinctly different characteristics and names are considered one neighborhood and share one zip code. Students attending the area college take up residence in both University Village and Little Italy, as do many families and young professionals of varying heritage.
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