Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

Berlin and North Lawndale

Story and Photos by Lena Birkholz

Imagine you live in a neighborhood where everything you need is within walking distance. There’s grocery stores all along the major streets, fish shops, car dealerships, beautiful parks, schools, churches, historic monuments, and even your job. You and most of your neighbors work at one of a few companies that provides plenty of jobs for everyone, powerful companies that make their way into world historical events. You and all your neighbors know each other: the children play in the street until the streetlights turn on, and any news about any child spreads through the neighborhood like wildfire, waiting for them by the time they get home. If anyone is hungry, they can expect food from their neighbors. Everybody is hungry at some time or another, because this isn’t a rich neighborhood. Nothing is perfect, but it’s not a bad life either. Now imagine, one day, everything is burned down.

Alternately, imagine you’re in a city burned down, then paradoxically cut in half, with telephone wires and train lines snaking around a wall that runs like a scar across the urban fabric. This isn’t a rich city either, but, like your earlier imagining, full of life. Imagine this city is at the forefront of global politics, a pawn to larger actors and practically helpless to reach across its own divides, until, one day, it does. A city that has sworn it will never forget.

These are both real places. Both places that must not forget, both places struggling to look to the future and remember the past, places trying to hold on in the present. But the world remembers Berlin. Nobody thinks about North Lawndale.

On a chilly October day, I sat in the reception room at St. Agatha’s church on the corner of Douglas and Kedzie boulevards in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale. I was assisting my former boss—Peter Alter, curator at the Chicago History Museum—as he conducted oral histories of North Lawndale residents for the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society. I felt very distinctly how we were the only two white people in the room. In the room with us were six old ladies from the neighborhood, who had grown up in the area, lived their lives teaching in the schools or working in the police department or working at Sears. One was the daughter of the first female alderman from the area. For many of them, they’ve devoted their retirement to restoring North Lawndale’s narrative.

North Lawndale nowadays doesn’t have much of a reputation among the rest of the world or even among Chicago at large (certainly very few UChicago students could tell you anything about it)—and the reputation it does have is one of crime. In some ways, this is not wrong. The ladies bemoaned the decadence of the modern youth, the prevalence of drugs that spiraled from generation to generation, and, tragically, the fact that more young people are dying than old people every year. Something is wrong, certainly.

But North Lawndale is much more than the crime ridden inner city or ‘Chiraq’. For one thing, it’s one of the most historical neighborhoods in the city, including the K-Town historic district with some of the best specimens of brownstones in the city. In the first half of the 19th century, North Lawndale was Chicago’s Jewish Mecca, a 90% Jewish neighborhood with synagogues on every block. After (relatively peaceful) ethnic succession made the neighborhood 90% African American by midcentury, it became a hotbed of the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King, for example, stayed on S. Hamlin avenue when he lived in Chicago to briefly lead the Chicago Freedom Movement, while the area also saw important members of groups like Operation Breadbasket, the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the Contract Buyer’s League.

Part of the reason for this activism, perhaps, was the relative poverty of the Black West Side compared to the South Side (especially in the Black Belt), where residents had been established longer and were more likely to own their own homes. North Lawndale suffered from slum lords and the practice of contract leasing, where residents who thought that they owned their homes could get them taken away on the least missed payment. Because of their poverty and the racism and the struggles they faced together, North Lawndale was especially strong. But it was also especially vulnerable to the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Half the neighborhood was destroyed, and never rebuilt.

A lot of the people in the reception room at St. Agatha’s emphasized this loss. For the people born after 1968, even more than falling victim to the crack epidemic or increased crime, they never had a neighborhood to be proud of. North Lawndale went from a community to a place to get out of, with nothing in it but violence. Even those kids who managed to succeed only went on to move somewhere else. That’s why they wanted to talk to the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society: to remember a neighborhood their kids could be proud of, and make sure it would still exist into the future. To tell the world that North Lawndale was more than the news made it out to be.

Between working at the Chicago History Museum over the summer, where I wrote blog posts and transcribed oral histories about North Lawndale, and later meeting many of the residents in person at the Oral History event, I did a three week study abroad program in Berlin. Berlin on the surface isn’t anything like North Lawndale: it’s a global destination for tourists who come to experience the legendary club scene, experience the history of the wall and two world wars, and take in a burgeoning arts scene. But in some ways, Berlin is everything North Lawndale is trying to become.

Both places, after all, have their fair share of history to alternately remember or forget. Berlin, in fact, seems to drown in its own history. While on the program, I made a video about a former prison that’s been made into a residential housing complex. But there are also numerous monuments throughout the city, from the plaques at the train platforms where holocaust victims were deported to fully preserved Stasi buildings and Nazi airports turned into museums. It’s hard to avoid Berlin’s history. North Lawndale isn’t the same of course—it’s not the capital of a major world power, and nobody ever split it in half. Even more important, North Lawndale needs to remember not because it should be ashamed of its past, but because without it it risks turning into the crime ridden neighborhood it’s deemed. Like Berlin, it’s still a battleground for its own historic narrative, and its history is still a marketing tool for its future.

Berlin wasn’t always the “world- class city” it is now, of course. That’s a marketing trick. Berlin before the fall of the wall was two totally separate worlds, neither of which really looked anything like the rest of modern day Germany. West Berlin was a symbol of the west, it’s true, but in practice it became something of a backwater, surrounded by East Germany as it was. West Berliners tended to be people who objected to war, since West Berliners were exempt from the draft, and people who had no choice.

West Berlin was much poorer, and cheaper, than the rest of Germany, and preserved a certain artsiness. Berlin had an active squatters movement, a vibrant street art culture, and leftist political leanings. After reunification, however, this artsiness became monetized. The government legalized graffiti on certain walls, marketed Berlin’s distinctive club scene to the point that some clubs had more tourists than locals, and tried to make the city a “cultural capital”.

Rents went up and Berlin entered capitalism like the rest of the country. It’s not to say that none of the authentic Berlin remains that hasn’t been monetized—far more does, even to a tourist like me, than in someplace like Paris. Berlin has a strong cooperative housing movement, the public transit and environmental infrastructure is fantastic, there is street art everywhere, beer is still absurdly cheap, and people still socialize at all hours of the night. The city is still very much alive. But there’s not really any squats left, anymore, and Kreuzberg is beginning to acquire more boutiques and touristy clubs than immigrants.

North Lawndale’s battle is much different, of course. There’s little danger right now of gentrification (seemingly— though there’s some ominous talk I’ve heard about new developments ignoring the needs of current residents. In an oral history I transcribed, one resident said she envisioned the North Lawndale of the future as another West Loop.) But it’s still a battle over representation, and over culture. The first time I went to North Lawndale, to take pictures of former Polish synagogues for an exhibition at the museum, I felt as if I passed a million moments of cultural reclamation. On one street corner, I saw a group making a mosaic on a storefront. I passed the African Heritage Garden that planted African plants in the shape of the continent, and saw a map for a series of gardens across the neighborhood. I ran into the Lawndale Pop Up Spot eating lunch as it put up a temporary exhibition in a shipping crate on some important figure.

They told me about their yearly celebration of Sukkot (the Jewish harvest festival) where they invited the former Jewish congregations from the area, visionary architects from around the city and current residents to think about historical memory and avant garde architecture. I passed the former Sears tower, once the employer of most of the area’s residents before being scared away in 1968, which has been preserved and now hosts the headquarters to several nonprofits helping youth in the area. I passed an after school program run out of a storefront church, aiming to keep kids off the streets.

I visited Douglass Park, a park fought over by the neighborhood numerous times: from the battle to change the name from that of a slaveholder to an abolitionist, to the ongoing fight to remove the destructive yearly Riotfest music festival. As I biked around Lawndale, I saw hope. And as I walked around Berlin two weeks later, I saw the same impulses, magnified, watched, marketed.

I don’t know what to think about the similarities between North Lawndale and Berlin. Two places literally pocked with vacancies from their recent traumas, fighting over their own narratives: whether as a “cultural city of the future”, or simply a community that is more than its crime statistics. And two neighborhoods grappling with their histories, and how and why to remember them.

I don’t want to make so facetious an argument that Berlin is the ultimate destination of North Lawndale, if it continues to reclaim its narrative this way, just like the squatters and the street artists of a past Berlin. I’d like to think that North Lawndale won’t become another West Loop, but something better, that the residents will live there as they deserve to live without getting displaced by tourists or boutiques like so many of the interesting parts of Berlin before them. But I would also like North Lawndale to be able to do some of what Berlin has done—to try to rebuild from its past without forgetting it, to become in some ways a destination without selling its soul entirely. It’s impossible to go to Berlin and not feel like this is what a city is meant to be, this is what Jane Jacobs would have wanted. Despite all its struggles, despite the impending gentrification, despite the fact that the city paradoxically markets itself as authentic, it’s impossible not to feel that Berlin is a real place. I know that North Lawndale can be one—is one already—too.