Little Village Chicago

Did Latino Immigrants Save America’s Cities?

Nearly 30 years ago, Nicholas Lemann wrote the first widely read book about the “Great Migration”—the movement between 1916 and 1970 of more than 6 million African Americans from poverty and repression in the South to broader (though incomplete) opportunity in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Lemann’s The Promised Land vividly captured one of the most consequential migrations in American urban history.

Now comes A.K. Sandoval-Strausz to chronicle a migration four times as large: the movement, between roughly 1960 and 2010, of 25 million people from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean to large swaths of the United States. In Barrio America (Basic Books), Sandoval-Strausz, director of Latina/o Studies at Pennsylvania State University, offers a deeply researched account of the impact Latinos have had on American cities. 

At the 20th century’s midpoint, people of Spanish or Latin American origin were a tiny portion of the U.S. populace: only 4 million of the 151 million people counted by the 1950 census bore Spanish surnames. Today, one of every six U.S. residents has a Hispanic name, some of them—Cisneros, Rubio, Sotomayor, Ocasio-Cortez—newly or recently prominent in the nation’s public life. Latinos have grown to 55 million from fewer than 6 million in the 1960s. People of Latin American background make up more than a quarter of the population in 12 of America’s 25 largest cities. Their presence, writes Sandoval-Strausz, goes a long way toward explaining why many U.S. cities are better off than they were 40 or 50 years ago. 

In his view, analysts have given too much of the credit for urban revival to the “creative class” and “the lifestyle preferences of high-earning professionals.” Overlooked has been “the indispensable role played by Latina and Latino migrants and immigrants, who had started to repopulate and revive declining neighborhoods at least two decades before the ‘back-to-the-city’ movement became a significant trend among prosperous and mostly white Anglo professionals.” 

Hispanic newcomers, Sandoval-Strausz says, far outnumbered the educated professionals trekking to cities: “Moreover, the big-city lives of urban professionals would have been impossible without the kinds of work performed by Latinos and Latinas in key sectors of the urban economy, from home construction and building maintenance to restaurant food preparation and child care.”

Sandoval-Strausz’s book is subtitled How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City. Whether he’s right about Latinos being the chief source of urban rejuvenation is something I’ll get to later. First, let’s look at how the Latin migration came about: As late as the 1940s, two-thirds of the people in Latin America lived in small towns and villages, mainly doing agricultural work. Theirs was a rudimentary existence that became even more precarious when elites in countries such as Mexico unleashed policies aimed at modernizing the economy. 

“Beginning in the 1940s, successive Mexican governments spent decades using the power of the state to foster industrial growth,” writes Sandoval-Strausz. Investment was steered toward the building of factories, power stations, railroads, bridges, and other infrastructure in cities. To keep food prices low for the growing ranks of industrial workers, the government imposed price controls on basic agricultural products. 

At the same time, early forms of agribusiness, attuned more to machinery than to human labor, took root. Small farmers found it hard to support themselves, Sandoval-Strausz writes: “The countryside was impoverished and increasingly abandoned as millions of Mexican peasants reacted in the only reasonable way: by seeking work in the growing cities.” 

At times, setbacks to the modernization campaign reverberated through the economy. By the early 1970s, nearly a third of Mexicans were suffering malnutrition; the death rate among children climbed to more than 350,000 a year. Faced with such calamity, it’s no wonder millions of Mexicans moved north. From the 1960s on, there also were spurts of migration to the U.S. from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. 

The cities on the receiving end of the exodus were, for the most part, ailing. White families were relocating to the suburbs, a move that undercut the cities’ vitality but opened up a stock of houses and apartments that working-class Latinos could squeeze into. This is the point at which Barrio America becomes fascinating. The bulk of the book tells, in absorbing detail, how the Mexican influx reenergized two big-city neighborhoods that were teetering on the edge of decline. 

One of those was South Lawndale, a predominantly Czech area on the Southwest Side of Chicago. The other was Oakcliff, southwest of downtown Dallas. The crux of Sandoval-Strausz’s thesis: “[T]he millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans who migrated to the United States showed up when the nation’s cities needed them most.” 

South Lawndale, a 4.4-square-mile area five miles out from the Loop, had reached its peak—84,000 inhabitants—in 1920, and then dwindled for four straight decades: down 9% in the 1920s, more than 7% in the 1930s, more than 5% in the 1940s, and another 8% in the 1950s. By 1960, the population had dropped to 60,900. Bohemians, Germans, Poles, and Hungarians moved from South Lawndale’s bungalows, brick cottages, and three-story, three-flat buildings to Chicago’s western suburbs. 

The first Mexican-Americans arrived in South Lawndale in the late 1950s, driven there mainly by displacement as Chicago authorities knocked down part of the Near West Side to build a University of Illinois campus. Often, they got the cold shoulder from the white ethnics. “Families would call police if we played at the kiddie park,” one woman recalled. At midcentury, many white Americans had trouble categorizing Latinos, just as, a few decades earlier, they’d had trouble categorizing dark-complected Italian immigrants. Were the newcomers people of color? If that was the case, there would be strong resistance. But if they were seen as just another ethnic group, acceptance was possible. Over time, many ethnic whites viewed migrants from Mexico as the latest addition to America’s array of nationalities. 

The big fear in South Lawndale in the 1950s and 1960s was not Mexican Americans but African Americans, who until the midcentury had largely been confined to the overcrowded South Side. South Lawndale residents were apprehensive about the changes taking place in neighboring North Lawndale. Once home to a quarter of Chicago’s Jewish population, North Lawndale rapidly turned over when barriers to black movement in the city began to fall. North Lawndale entered the 1950s 87% white and ended the decade 91% African American. 

Unscrupulous real estate agents accelerated the white exodus through scare tactics, and often charged incoming blacks premium prices for North Lawndale’s decades-old houses. Redlining prevented most African Americans from obtaining standard mortgages; they had to settle for weak contracts allowing the lender to take back the property if the owner missed a payment. Many black homebuyers lost their equity. Wounded by problems like these, North Lawndale deteriorated.

In pursuit of a secure (nonblack) future, leaders in South Lawndale decided to welcome, rather than to resist, Mexican Americans. Richard Dolejs, a local real estate broker who was third-generation Czech American, led the turnaround. In 1963, he and other South Lawndale notables campaigned to give South Lawndale a new name: Little Village, which was meant to suggest a quaint European hamlet. The aim of the new moniker was to separate South Lawndale from North Lawndale in the public’s mind. “This is to assure the white community that we aren’t part of the black community,” a local woman explained.

In 1964, Dolejs helped newcomers of Mexican lineage organize a parade down West 26th Street celebrating Mexican Independence Day. He supplied a Cadillac convertible festooned with Mexican and U.S. flags. The parade, which has now continued for 55 years, drew a new group of customers to the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. Little Village proceeded—first slowly, then in a rush—toward its Latino destiny.

Dolejs hired bilingual agents at his real estate firm and lobbied the Czech American managers of the neighborhood’s savings and loan associations to grant mortgages to Mexican Americans. Latinos, unlike blacks in North Lawndale, thus acquired a long-term financial stake in the place where they lived. After a few years, the flow of newcomers consisted mainly of people born in Mexico, rather than assimilated Mexican Americans. By 1980, Little Village’s population swelled to 75,000, and by 2000 it reached 91,000 and was overwhelmingly Latino.

Incomes lagged far below those of the metropolitan area, but because Little Village had so many residents, and because they were doing much of their shopping close by, corner stores inherited from the Bohemians remained viable. Vacant storefronts on West 26th Street boasted new businesses. A 2-mile stretch of that street became the city’s second-highest-grossing retail corridor, surpassed only by the posh North Michigan Avenue.

Barrio commercial districts, Sandoval-Strausz writes, are known for offering “such a variety of goods and services—from basic food shopping to restaurants and bars, from housewares and gifts to clothing and footwear, from basic personal services like hairstyling to professional providers like lawyers, bankers, and physicians—that [people] could attend to virtually all their needs within the community.” By the turn of the 21st century, greater Chicago had 568,000 Hispanics, and many of them traveled to 26th Street to buy cowboy boots, Mexican cooking ingredients, quinceañera dresses—fancy outfits for girls’ 15th-birthday parties—and other merchandise. West 26th Street was flourishing. 

Though density rose to 20,000 residents per square mile, Little Village didn’t give the outward appearance of being overcrowded. Few buildings were more than three stories high. A continuous and generally pleasant sidewalk network, much of it bordered by tree-shaded front yards, tied the walking environment together. On the principal streets, peddlers—protected by Alderman Ricardo Muñoz from police harassment—sold Mexican food and other items to passing pedestrians.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in his 2002 book Heat Wave, credited Little Village’s street life, density, and low crime rate with helping residents stay in touch with one another and know where to turn in an emergency. Klinenberg noted that when a 1995 heat wave killed hundreds of elderly Chicagoans (most of them isolated in their sweltering apartments), Little Village came through unscathed. Social ties kept the elderly out of danger.

When I studied Little Village for my 2017 book, Within Walking Distance, one thing that perplexed me was the plethora of tall black fences defending the front yards. Little Village didn’t feel dangerous, yet there were fences of imitation wrought iron nearly everywhere. Sandoval-Strausz explains that protected but visible front yards are common in Mexican American neighborhoods. He maintains that this configuration “fosters strong social ties.” 

“People spent time in front of their homes, creating social scenes along sidewalks and streets,” he observes. “Children played safely in the enclosed area of the front yard, where they were supervised by parents and grandparents. The adults could chat with friends and neighbors, creating an expectation of conviviality on the block as people strolled down the street.… This social atmosphere in turn kept the public spaces of the neighborhood consistently occupied.” The protected front yard is sometimes called “la yarda.” 

In Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, a 2012 study of urban communities, sociologist Robert J. Sampson observed, “Cities of concentrated immigration are some of the safest places around.” In Little Village, one exception to that generalization is street gangs, a subject that Sandoval-Strausz doesn’t address. For over half a century, the Latin Kings, who claim the eastern half of Little Village as their turf, and the Two Six Nation (named for 26th Street), who claim the western half, have been battling each other, bullets from their guns sometimes ending the lives of bystanders. 

Rarely, if ever, are immigrants the offenders. The danger comes from a number of their sons or grandsons, who are recruited into gangs at an early age, usually between fifth and eighth grade. To dissuade boys from joining gangs, churches and nonprofit groups have launched athletic programs, mentorship endeavors, and other initiatives, which have achieved some success. 

At a playground outside Ortiz de Dominguez Elementary School, I talked with Rob Casteñada, a civic-minded man who started a program that enticed families to build kites, hold a huge picnic, play schoolyard games, and join in other activities aimed at bringing healthy activity to land where they’d been preyed on by gang members, close to the school. Casteñada now heads a nonprofit organization called Beyond the Ball, which uses sports to teach boys about personal and community responsibility and help them resist gang life. Efforts like these have made a difference. The corner of South Lawndale Avenue and 31st Street has been reclaimed for normal community life.

On what it discusses, Barrio America is clear and persuasive. I’m concerned that the book’s subtitle, “How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City,” may be misinterpreted. Latinos certainly contributed to urban vitality, but they were hardly the only people, or even the only immigrants, who were bringing distressed places back from the brink. Since the passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, immigrants have poured into the U.S. from every corner of the world. 

Immigrants from Asia are a chief reason for New York City’s spectacular turnaround over the last 40 years. In her 2017 book, The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back, Kay S. Hymowitz tells about development of a 150,000-population Chinatown in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. The Chinese, she notes, are “the largest and fastest-growing of the borough’s proliferating non-European immigrant groups.” As of 2016, the Community Survey of the U.S. Census identified 5.1 million Chinese Americans as living in the U.S.

From mid-2006 onward, Mexican migration to the U.S. declined rapidly, and within a few years, more people of Mexican ancestry were heading south, back to Mexico, than moving here. Whatever the exact mix of reasons—the Great Recession, tougher border enforcement, stepped-up deportation, or a desire by immigrants to reunite their families in the old country—“the era of large-scale Mexican migration had basically run its course,” Sandoval-Strausz acknowledges. 

By 2018, the biggest source of new immigrants was India. The number of people of Indian origin in the U.S. rose from 12,000 in 1960 to 2.4 million by 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Sandoval-Strausz recognizes that Asian Americans have been “exceptionally important to local economies and cultures.” He just doesn’t say much about them. Unfortunately for cities, Indian immigrants, who are generally well off, prefer the suburbs. 

If I were tracing the urban resurgence in the U.S., I’d emphasize more factors than Sandoval-Strausz does. One logical starting point is the emergence of a forceful historic preservation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Distressed by the orgy of destruction during the urban renewal era, preservationists set about persuading Americans that well-crafted old buildings and pedestrian-scale neighborhoods ought to be saved, not razed, whenever feasible. 

In the early 1960s, Everett Ortner, an editor at Popular Science, his wife Evelyn, and others rediscovered the Victorian brownstones of Park Slope, Brooklyn; started meticulously restoring them; and launched the Brownstone Revival Committee. By 1978, when I met him, Ortner had founded Back to the City Inc., a grassroots group that fueled interest in neighborhood rehabilitation and improvement in many cities. Mounting enthusiasm for old architecture and traditional city-building laid the foundation, in turn, for the New Urbanism movement in the 1980s and 1990s. 

By the start of the 21st century, Richard Florida at Carnegie Mellon noticed that workers in science and engineering, arts and culture, business and management, and education and medicine were gravitating to mixed-use urban neighborhoods that offered a more dynamic daily life than they could find in office parks or strictly residential suburbs. Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class brought widespread attention to that phenomenon, beginning in 2002. Urban investment achieved liftoff.

Sandoval-Strausz thinks the lionization of the creative class has caused people to skip over the contributions of Latinos. But there’s a simpler explanation for why Hispanics received so little credit for urban revival: Most Latinos settled in working-class neighborhoods that had always been off the elite radar; these plainer, yet fundamentally livable, neighborhoods were less endowed with amenities such as Olmsted parks and designated-historic architecture, so they were not widely celebrated. What they possessed were houses and apartments that immigrants on tight budgets could afford. 

In Little Village, Sandoval-Strausz gives us a neighborhood laid out on the functional Chicago grid. Rectilinear organization of streets and blocks, without cul-de-sacs or dead ends, helps residents reach many destinations on foot—the cheapest, healthiest, most sociable method of circulation. The sidewalks of Little Village lead pedestrians past low-rise buildings conforming to Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street.” Nearly three-quarters of the neighborhood’s housing is at least 80 years old, and the disappearance of tens of thousands of industrial jobs since the 1950, mostly on the neighborhood’s periphery, has put a crimp on residents’ earning power. Yet Latinos have made the neighborhood better than they found it. 

A few key examples:

• Until a few years ago, Little Village had less than one-third of an acre of park space per resident, the skimpiest park acreage of any section of Chicago. But in 2014, 22 acres that had been polluted by an asphalt roofing plant were remediated and became the La Villita park. That project, “the largest brownfield conversion in America,” according to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, reflected community organizing by the Little Village Environmental Organization (LVEJO). 

At other sites, community gardens were created by LVEJO and the forceful community organization Enlace Chicago. Community gardens not only grew food, they educated residents about health and nutrition, and they gave women a place to obtain free, low-key assistance with domestic or psychological problems while tending to tasks in the garden. “We try to respond to mental health needs through informal social gathering spaces because it’s really taboo to see a therapist,” explained Enlace community organizer Simone Alexander.

• Public transit was too sparse, considering how many residents depended on transit to reach jobs at downtown hotels and restaurants, O’Hare Airport, and other locations. Little Villagers, including the prominent political leader Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, opposed discontinuation of Chicago Transit Authority rail service along the neighborhood’s northern edge. Neighborhood insistence on rail transit culminated in the establishment of the Pink Line, which connected Little Village to downtown and other points. A new east-west bus route, proposed by students working with LVEJO, also won official approval. “Now you can get to the lake in 30 minutes instead of two hours,” said LVEJO leader Kim Wasserman.

• Schools were chronically overcrowded. “When I graduated from eighth grade in 1979, my math class was in a hallway,” Alderman Muñoz told me. “In 1993, it was still in a hallway,” said the alderman, who represented Little Village from 1993 to 2019. Several new schools opened their doors, but when a critically needed high school was repeatedly delayed, the Little Village penchant for protest and organizing kicked in again. Fifteen Mexican and Mexican-American mothers and grandmothers pitched tents on the empty school site and began a hunger strike, remaining there—they called the encampment “Camp Cesar Chavez”—until officials responded. The result was construction of a 1,600-person school made up of four autonomous academies, each small enough to create strong bonds between teachers and students. 

• Pollution harmed public health. Two coal-burning power plants—one in Little Village, the other in nearby Pilsen—aggravated problems such as asthma, so LVEJO and other groups insisted they be shut down. Protesters wore gas masks during Day of the Dead marches and carried out other demonstrations. In 2012, both plants closed, ending Chicago’s dubious distinction as the only major U.S. city having two coal-fired plants operating within its borders. 

Overall, Mexican-Americans have made Little Village a better place than it was before their arrival. Latinos nurtured neighborhood businesses, energized public spaces, created parks and gardens, and improved transit. All of which supports Sandoval-Strausz’s point that “a group of people who earned modest incomes and were socially marginalized, politically demonized, and sometimes undocumented managed to redeem so much of metropolitan America.” 

The future is not guaranteed. Since its peak in 2000, Little Village’s population has declined from 91,000 to under 75,000. Though many cities are more vital now than they were a few decades ago, no city is secured forever against the forces of decay. Populations come, populations go. Vitality waxes and wanes. Urban wellbeing depends, in part, on whether the U.S. shuts the door on immigration or keeps it open.

All photos by the author.

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