The Burlington Northern railroad tracks, which describe a bend sinister across the Southwest Side of Chicago, are the most impregnable racial dividing line in the city of Chicago. They run atop a 10-foot tall berm, buttressed with corrugated steel. On the north side of the tracks, in Lawndale, the neighborhoods are 99 percent African-American, according to census figures. Drive south, under a viaduct, and you come out in Little Village, where neighborhoods are 99 percent Latino. In the space of a few feet, you’ve traveled from the West Side to the Southwest Side.
“In this part of the city, the racial boundaries coalesce around the railroad tracks,” says Ald. Ricardo Munoz, whose 22-nd Ward contains the dividing line. “There’s a very, very clear ‘other side of the tracks’ phenomenon here.”
The phenomenon goes back to the 1950s, when Little Village was an Eastern European neighborhood, and Lawndale was turning from Jewish to African-American. In fact, the neighborhoods used to be sisters: North Lawndale and South Lawndale. But South Lawndale changed its name to Little Village after the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination made “Lawndale” synonymous with arson and looting.
Munoz, who represents three precincts north of tracks, has worked to integrate his Latino and African-American constituents. In the 1990s, when the CTA talked of closing what was then the Blue Line, Lawndale and Little Village successfully fought the plan. When Little Village Lawndale High School was in the planning stages, Munoz made sure it included students from both neighborhoods.
“There was a lot of resistance in the Latino part of the neighborhood, because they kept saying, ‘If it’s to relieve overcrowding in Little Village, why are we letting African-Americans in? But the African-Americans were also in the overcrowded Farragut, so we just took the western end, that included African-Amercians on the north side and Latinos on the South Side,” he said.
Paderewski Elementary, which is north of the tracks, is also multicultural. One wall of the school features a mural of black and Latino children.
Although they don’t live together, residents cross the tracks to do their daily business. African-Americans shop on 26th Street, and Latinos catch the Pink Line at the Central Park station. There are mixed police beats, and a mixed youth basketball league, B-Ball on the Block.
“The whole issue of race relations always boils down to the same thing: relationships,” Munoz said. “The African-American on 23rd and Kostner wants the same thing as the Latino on 26th and Kostner: a safe neighborhood, clean street, lights that turn on and water than runs.”
The only thing they don't want is to live together.
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