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Molly Born/MEDILL

Parents pick up children outside St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic School in South Lawndale, one of Chicago's predominately Latino neighborhoods.

Once a bustling point of entry for Latinos, now Little Village has a sleepier feel

by Molly Born
Jan 20, 2011

lawndale newsaper

Molly Born/MEDILL

Businesses and local publications serve both the English and Spanish speaking residents in South Lawndale.

While a half-dozen guests chat in Spanish and English at Los Candiles restaurant in South Lawndale, its owner, Lola Lopez, said she remembers the neighborhood as a much livelier place.

“Seventeen years ago it was much more busy,” she said. “You could distinguish
a Monday through Friday from a [weekend].”

The restaurant owner, now 30, said the streets are quieter these days and she’s noticed people are moving out of the Chicago neighborhood.

The area known to residents as the Mexico of the Midwest, South Lawndale’s Little Village community became a veritable hub for Latinos as Mexicans began to settle in the area in the 1980s.

But the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey statistics released in December estimate the neighborhood’s Latino population will have dropped by nearly 12,000. And unlike other densely populated Latino areas, South Lawndale is seeing few new faces taking their place.

Rob Paral, an expert on Latino issues and consultant on immigration matters, analyzed the ACS data and said it provides the first good look at the city’s demographic breakdown in a decade. He said the data shows that Chicago welcomed about 21,000 Latinos since 2000 but saw significant declines in South Lawndale, West Town, Logan Square and Lower West Side, traditionally Latino communities.

“We've known for a long time that the Latino population has been migrating from the city,” Paral said.

But while the statistics show whites are moving into West Town – which saw the largest Latino drop-off at 15,000 – they don’t appear to be relocating to South Lawndale in appreciable numbers.

One possible explanation for the shift is that, since Sept. 11, Americans have become more security conscious and it has become increasingly harder for undocumented residents to find jobs, said the Rev. Don Nevins of South Lawndale’s St. Agnes of Bohemia Church. Coupled with the economic downturn, he said some Latinos are forced to move to the suburbs or return to their native countries when they can’t find work.

“When people have a hard time surviving, they say, ‘I’m better off going home,’” Nevins said.

In terms of gentrification, Nevins said the movement tends to move east to west. Unlike Pilsen, its eastern neighbor, South Lawndale has not experienced much urban renewal or seen many new faces move to the area.

“I think people are reluctant,” Nevins said. “I’m not sure they know if they’ll really feel welcome.”

Lopez said she doesn’t think South Lawndale residents would discriminate against new faces. But she said she understands the tough economy and the demands of taking care of a family means the area may not be for everyone.

“I don’t think it upsets me. I think people are looking for more,” she said.

Final Census data released this spring will provide official numbers on population trends in Chicago. But there’s one thing the city can count on before those figures are released.

“The city keeps evolving and is never the same from one decade to another,” Paral said.