From Maxwell Street to “The Great Vest Side”

west side chicago chitribe

From Maxwell street to ”The Great Vest Side” (aka the west side) 

Chicago was and always will be a city influenced by her Jewish population. From Music to politics, Jews have been all over the windy city sharing culture, literature, and Jewish food since 1841 when the first permanent Jewish settlers made Chicago their home.

Did you know that the Jewish population of Chicago today live in some of the same general areas as the early 1900s including Albany Park, West Rogers Park, Rogers Park, near west side, West loop, and Maxwell Street.

Since the turn of the century, Jews primarily lived in the Southside. Actually, Hyde Park was settled by the German Jews in the late 1800s and Maxwell Street was settled by Eastern European Jews. The Maxwell Street area is the origin of many Chicago families. The area is now called University Village due to its proximity to UIC.

Maxwell Street was by every sense an overpopulated ghetto. In the early 1900s, the Maxwell street area started to change as the population migrated west primarily to Lawndale and Douglas Park.

The west side would come to be known as The Great Vest.

There were vast social and financial differences between the Southside and Westside Jews. Unlike the reform Southside Jews, the Westside Jews were primarily orthodox Yiddish speaking. In the early 1900s, the differences were so great that a Southside German Jew marrying an Eastern European Jew from the west side was comparable to marrying outside of the faith.

The Great Vest side

As the population of Maxwell Street shifted west, they entered heavily Irish and Bohemian neighborhoods and were not met with open arms. There were many incidents of violence between Jewish youth and their neighbors.

By the 1950s, Lawndale was the largest Jewish neighborhood in the Westside and one of the largest Jewish areas in America at the time. At one point in time, there were 70 different Synagogues on the West Side. In other words, 40% of all the Chicagoland area Jews lived on the west side.

Roosevelt Avenue was lined with kosher butchers, grocery stores, diners, and candy stores. Mount Sinai hospital was built by the community and was the only hospital to serve kosher food.

Leaving the Westside 

Post-war prosperity is the main reason for the great migration away from the west side. Once WWII ended and the troops returned, with the help of VA home loans, the west side Jews aimed for a new American dream:  a house with a yard.

The west side has very few single-family homes as it is mostly apartments. Slowly the neighborhood started to change and the Jews moved into the northern suburbs. The neighborhood transitioned peacefully from predominately Jewish to African-American and Latino. 

The Jewish population and establishments that used to fill Roosevelt Avenue may be gone, but the great synagogues of the west side still stand. Many of the synagogues have been converted into churches that cater to the local community. People do not speak Yiddish on the streets anymore. Chicago Jewish life continues to shift and develop but always remains a staple of this city.

From Maxwell street to ”The Great Vest Side” (aka the west side) 

Additional Reading: Chicago’s Jewish West Side

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Hesh Jacobson

Hesh Jacobson