Chicago/Far West Side

Chicago's Far West Side is best known (somewhat unfairly) for being impoverished and crime-ridden, but it has at least one major attraction as well as some fabulous parks, vibrant immigrant communities, and blues legends. Regardless, you're definitely off the tourist map on the Far West Side.

Understand

Adam and Eve in Garfield Park

The Far West Side represents a very large, heterodox slice of Chicago life ranging from some of Chicago's most blighted neighborhoods to the solidly middle-class bungalow belt, with some strong immigrant communities in between. The Garfield Park Conservatory is a lovely and easy excursion from downtown for any visitor to Chicago, but beyond this one attraction, the Far West Side is untrodden by the camera-wielding tourist masses of the Loop and Near North. Pat yourself on the back if you make it this far into Chicago — you are really seeing the city.

Neighborhoods

Humboldt Park Lagoon
Downtown Little Village

Garfield Park is the Far West Side's most notorious neighborhood for violent crime and visitors with low tolerance for urban grit should probably keep their distance. But on the other hand, the park from which the neighborhood derives its name is one of the city's best laid out and it contains a major attraction in the form of the Garfield Park Conservatory, in addition to a gorgeous fieldhouse. Don't be afraid to visit the park itself — there is an L stop hovering right over the conservatory and the park is quite safe.

South Lawndale is the heart of Chicago's enormous Mexican community and is a great escape from Chicago's gringo downtown. Although mostly residential, the long "downtown" strip (known as Little Village, or La Villita) along 26th Street between Sacramento and Pulaski is a vibrant, smile-filled strip jam-packed with Mexican musical instruments, weekend festivals, bars, Virgin Mary towels, media-shops, and (most importantly) taquerías. As a matter of fact, La Villita feels like not just an escape from Chicago, but from the United States generally — it's certainly as close to Mexico as you can get in the Midwest.

North Lawndale bears little resemblance to South Lawndale. Unlike its very safe neighbor, North Lawndale is still recovering from very high levels of violent crime in the 1970s1980s. During this time, the northern section of the neighborhood, known as K-Town for its countless streets beginning with the letter K, was jokingly referred to as "Kill-Town" for its violence problem. The neighborhood has some history to its name, but fairly little remains to interest a visitor by way of shopping or sights. Sears used to have its headquarters here and you might be interested in driving by Chicago's first "Sears Tower" (and other gargantuan Sears buildings) which the city is now restoring in hopes of rejuvenating the long-impoverished community around Homan Square.

Humboldt Park sits between gentrifying Logan Square and blighted Garfield Park and, somehow, here the twain do meet. The neighborhood has for some time been a cultural stronghold of Chicago's Puerto Rican community, centered around the long commercial strip on Division Street. The association between Division Street and Puerto Rican Chicagoans is pretty firmly cemented in the minds of most Chicagoans owing to the Division Street riots of 1966. The riots began during a Puerto Rican community parade, as a result of an economic downturn and high tensions between Chicago's Puerto Ricans and the police (and neighboring Polish-American communities) that came to a head after the Chicago Police shot a young Puerto Rican man in the neighborhood. Any legacy of violence, however, is long gone and visitors should feel comfortable visiting Division Street during the day to soak up the Puerto Rican vibes.

Humboldt Park's populace is diverse, but awkwardly unintegrated. Its Puerto Rican community now sits between the less affluent black community to the west and southwest, and a new, burgeoning white community seeking lower rents than in the neighborhoods to the east and north. The eponymous park is a lovely spot to observe the neighborhood's contrasts — between the three communities who flock there to enjoy the big lagoon, playgrounds, and fields, but never quite mix socially.

Austin is a fairly unique, albeit not terribly interesting section of the city. It is the largest single Chicago community area in terms of area and population, but it sits at the extreme periphery of Chicago life along the western border of the city, having only been annexed in 1899. The jewel in this neighborhood's crown is Columbus Park, considered the best work by Prairie School landscape artist Jens Jensen. The park has a nice lagoon and 9 holes of golf and is just off the Eisenhower Expressway (which was built over the southern end of the original park). The neighborhood is overwhelmingly African-American and middle class, and can't quite make up its mind whether it is urban or suburban.

Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, and Montclare have a somewhat mixed identity between the Far West Side and the Far Northwest Side, as the residents of these areas are a mix of what you would find in the overwhelmingly Polish-American neighborhoods to the north and the Puerto Rican and Mexican-American neighborhoods directly to the south. The neighborhoods are experiencing a huge influx of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans trading up for nicer houses from Pilsen and Humboldt Park. For the most part, these are quiet, residential communities lacking significant tourist draws.


Get in

By train

The Forest Park branch of the CTA Blue Line runs from the Loop through the Near West Side and on into the Far West, with stops in South and North Lawndale.

The Pink Line runs through the Near West Side and Pilsen and heads to South Lawndale.

The Green Line runs to the Far West Side, with a stop in Garfield Park (Conservatory) and on to Oak Park across the city border. This is the oldest part of the CTA system, although the tracks and stations were renovated in the late 1990s. Looking through the window of the train gives you a picture of a different part of Chicago. On the trip from the Loop, you might also notice the gentrification spreading west from downtown — there are startlingly rapid changes from gentrified to decayed neighborhoods.

By bus

The CTA runs several bus routes through the West Side:

By car

The Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) is the major thoroughfare crossing the Far West Side, although travelers along the historic Route 66 will pass through the area as well, on Ogden Avenue, which leads from downtown. If you are going to Garfield Park or Humboldt Park, the main I-290 exits are at Pulaski, Kedzie, and Western. For Little Village, it's usually faster, though, to take the Pulaski or Kedzie Avenue exits from the Stevenson Expressway instead.

See

The Original Sears Tower and Headquarters buildings

The Garfield Park Conservatory is the one real sightseeing draw on the Far West. The Sears Tower is quite interesting as well, but it's hard to get to without a car, and the old Sears buildings are technically not open to visitors.

Do

Events & festivals

Buy

For the most part, if you are out shopping in the Far West Side of Chicago, you somewhere got lost. The one exception being the endless Little Village strip along 26th St, which is after the Magnificent Mile, the largest commercial strip in the city in terms of revenue. The miles of colorful, bargain knickknack shops along the Little Village strip make for very fun window shopping, and can produce kitschy souvenirs that look like you took a trip to a different country.

Eat

The Far West has virtually no high-end dining options, but if you are fine with spending less, a ton of great food experiences await. Little Village boasts some of the best authentic Mexican food in the city, Garfield Park and Austin have some fine down-home cooking, and Humboldt Park has a veritable monopoly on Chicago's Puerto Rican fare.

Budget

Mid-range

Drink

Most of Chicago's bar hoppers couldn't locate the Far West Side on a map, but if you are looking for something different, there are some real gems. And rest assured you will successfully evade the Lincoln Park frat-boy crowd.

Sleep

Options are few in these parts; if you are looking for cheaper accommodations away from the city center, there are better options elsewhere. If you are looking to stay on the Far West specifically, you might also consider hotels in the neighboring suburbs of Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero.

Connect

The following libraries offer free public internet access:

Stay safe

The usual advice given by Chicagoans for staying safe on the Far West Side is to simply stay away from the Far West Side, given its notorious reputation for violent crime. Garfield Park (the neighborhood, not the park) and much of North Lawndale do their best to live up to this reputation, but the reality across the district is quite varied. The northern neighborhoods around Belmont-Cragin rank among some of the safest in the city. While certain residential areas of South Lawndale can be a little edgy at night, visitors should have no worries walking 26th St, night or day — you would be more likely to run into trouble on Navy Pier.

On the other hand, if you are visiting North Lawndale, Garfield Park, or much of Austin, usual rules for blighted urban neighborhoods apply: know where you're going, stick to well-lit main streets, arrange/plan transportation in advance, and don't leave anything visible (even trash) in a parked car. Anything you'd want to see in Garfield Park is fortunately located within one block of the Conservatory L stop along main streets, although you still might want to avoid walking back to the stop after dark if you are by yourself. If you are visiting any of the sights in North Lawndale or Austin, it's best to travel by car.

The more traveled sections of Humboldt Park (i.e., east of the park) are pretty safe by big city standards any time of the day. Other areas, especially southwest of the park, however, have some rougher streets you may want to avoid.

Go next

Routes through Far West Side

Forest Park Oak Park  W  E  Near West Side The Loop
END Cicero  W  E  Pilsen The Loop


This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, January 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.