A pleasant, family-friendly — almost suburban — quality lends a special warmth to this attractive bungalow community situated east of Midway Airport. But Westlawn isn't just your typical bedroom neighborhood. This distinctive west side address oozes rich culture, sparked by strong heritage and survived by healthy community ties. Westlawn is home to the country's only Lithuanian museum, established because of the neighborhood's largely Lithuanian population, which happens to top that of any other place in the world — besides Lithuania. The rise of a strong Latin-American populace in more recent years is apparent in the number of Mexican restaurants, taquerias and cantinas that have popped up throughout Westlawn. Mostly independent and family-owned, these popular dining spots have come to define the Westlawn neighborhood today, although consider the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture to be the area's most precious treasure.
Back in the 1800s, the area known as Chicago Lawn was a lightly populated farming community bordered by the city of Chicago on the east and the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks to the west. To the folks who lived there, 'Westlawn' was what they called the prairie land beyond those tracks. It was a place they visited for swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter, thanks to a large pond left over from an abandoned artesian well project.
Both Chicago Lawn and Westlawn were annexed by the city in 1889, but Westlawn remained an undeveloped marsh for many years. Then, after the turn of the century, industry sprang up in the town of Clearing to the west, which developers connected to Chicago with a system of horse-drawn street cars. So, with greater Chicago ever expanding on one side, jobs opportunities in Clearing on the other, and public transportation rumbling through the middle, it wasn't long before the marshes were finally drained, making way for the development of Westlawn into a residential community. Its population more than tripled between 1920 and 1930 to around 8,900 people, mostly hard-working immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Lithuania.
Though Westlawn's development was inevitable, it did stumble during the Great Depression (as did most of the country). Streets had been paved in anticipation of good times, but bad times came first, creating an odd sight recorded by one observer at the corner of Pulaski Road and 67th Street in the early 1940s: nicely paved but empty streets to the west, and unpaved, bustling streets with new home construction to the east.
Fortunately, more prosperous days were just around the corner. With the industrial growth prompted by World War II, along with the expansion of nearby Midway Airportâ€”the world's busiest at the timeâ€”Westlawn neighborhood soon enjoyed its long-awaited building boom. Overshadowing the progress, though, were conflicts between ethnic groups which hit Westlawn hard during the time, culminating in violent race riots in 1946. Still, nothing could stop the area's growth, with its population nearly doubling between 1950 and 1970.
Descendants of European immigrants still dominated the area well into the 1980s, as evidenced by the move of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture to Westlawn in 1986, but the neighborhood's demographics have changed since then. Today, Latin Americans make up close to 50 percent of the community, imbuing portions of the neighborhood with a distinctly Mexican flavorâ€”figuratively and literally, considering some of the truly outstanding Mexican restaurants found here. [Back To Top]