The Story of the Near West Side
The Near West Side has been home to a wide array of groups. Its proximity to downtown but separation by the South Branch of the river has caused diverse communities to reside there as cultures shifted over the decades.
Watch: Near West Side
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Poorer Irish, German, Czech, and French immigrants lived west of downtown near the river in the early days of Chicago, especially in the area between Harrison, Halsted, and what is now Roosevelt Road. It was here that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started in an Irish shantytown – and in the wake of that tragedy, droves of people who had lost their homes moved away from the burned district, crossing the river to settle on the Near West Side.
Over the next decades, the area became a crowded patchwork of immigrant enclaves, from Eastern European Jews congregating around the legendary Maxwell Street Market at Halsted and Maxwell streets, Italians building a Little Italy between Polk and Taylor streets, and Greeks settling north of the Italians. It was on the Near West Side that Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House in 1889 to serve immigrants by offering English classes as well as other educational, social, and artistic programs.
Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans – many of them recently arrived in Chicago in the Great Migration – and Mexicans – many encouraged by the US government to immigrate to fill labor shortages — began replacing the ethnic European immigrants. Both new and remaining groups in turn were then largely displaced by urban renewal projects: the construction of expressways in the 1950s and of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1960s. (This displacement helped begin the transformation of neighboring Pilsen into a prominent Mexican community.)
In addition to the university campus, the Near West Side also contains an extensive medical district with four major hospitals, including one associated with the University of Illinois.
The Blue Line runs along the Eisenhower Expressway through the Near West Side and has stops at Clinton, UIC-Halsted, Racine, and Western. Parts of the Green and Pink lines also make stops in the large community area, including at Clinton, Morgan, Ashland, and Polk.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Pitchfork Music Festival
Every July since 2006, the Pitchfork Music Festival has offered a lower key, more independent alternative to Grant Park’s massive Lollapalooza. Held in the Near West Side’s Union Park, just off the Pink and Green lines, the festival is organized by the Chicago-based Pitchfork Media, a music news and review site founded in 1995. A precursor to the festival was held in 2005, when Pitchfork curated the Intonation Music Festival in Union Park. The festival expanded from two to three days in its second year in 2007, and in 2011 added a second festival in Paris, France.
In addition to performances by acts ranging from Sonic Youth to Robyn to ASAP Rocky, the Pitchfork Music Festival also includes a record fair organized by CHIRP Radio. It also has held voting drives during the festival, encouraged attendees to utilize eco-friendly means of transportation to the festival, and has purchased carbon credits to offset the pollution caused by musicians’ travel.
Things to Do
Grab a bite at one of the Chicago institutions on the Near West Side: the original Billy Goat Tavern, Manny’s Deli, or Greek Islands in Greektown. Catch a Bulls or Blackhawks game or a concert at the United Center, or check out the Hull-House Museum.