Homan Square History

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Since receiving its name in the 1870s, the West Side Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale has been home to Czech immigrants, Russian and Eastern European Jews (it was once known as “Chicago’s Jerusalem”), and later, African Americans relocating from the city’s South to West Side. In 1917, future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir briefly lived in North Lawndale and worked at the local library. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. moved into the neighborhood and used it as the base for his Chicago Freedom Movement.

Notably, North Lawndale was once the home of Sears, Roebuck and Co. In 1906, Sears opened a 40-acre mail-order plant and office complex in North Lawndale, which became the center of the neighborhood and its main employer until the company moved its headquarters to downtown Chicago in 1969. Starting in the 1960s, and especially after the closure of the Sears plant, residents have seen jobs steadily move to the suburbs, resulting in unemployment, poverty, and the housing stock’s physical deterioration.

Over the past two decades, North Lawndale has mobilized with drive and vision to build a safer and more connected neighborhood at the center of the former Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus—an area that has come to be known as Homan Square.

The Foundation for Homan Square has been guiding the redevelopment. Since its founding in 1995, the Foundation and its partners have overseen the building of 350 new housing units, a school and technology center, a child development center, and a community center that includes recreational, health, and social services facilities and receives more than 5,000 visits each month.

The initiative to revitalize Homan Square harnessed the energy and assets already in the community, fostered collaborations among area residents and organizations, and supported innovation that improved the lives of those who live there. The Foundation for Homan Square has been so successful because it has been open to the voices of the community and has used them to enlarge the civic fabric of Chicago through creative participation and dialogue. We use it as a model in developing our own programs. 

A History of Homan Square

1890s The Bohemian Club—Česká beseda is founded in North Lawndale and is frequented by Chicago's Czech elite, as well as the visiting elite from Czechoslovakia. The club is used as a place to share Czech culture, drama, music, and literature and is visited by numerous well-known people. It also serves as host to Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia.

1905–06 Sears, Roebuck and Co.—the mail-order giant that helped build America—develops its world headquarters and catalog facility on nearly 42 acres in Chicago’s Homan Square, part of the North Lawndale neighborhood then populated by Slovak and Jewish immigrants. The complex houses what was then the largest business building and the original Sears Tower, then the tallest building in Chicago at 14 stories tall.

1950s–60s African American people begin moving to Chicago’s West Side from the South Side. Real estate speculators exploit White homeowners’ fears of plummeting real estate values and buy homes at below-market-value prices. Black homebuyers are then subject to a “race tax” when properties are typically bought from White homeowners for $10,000 and resold a week later to a Black family for $25,000. The Federal Housing Administration’s refusal to lend to African American buyers means they cannot buy overpriced homes except on contract, meaning the title to a property bought will not be transferred to the buyer until all contract payments had been made. This process of “blockbusting” was a national phenomenon; but the practice of contract selling reached its peak in North Lawndale, where an estimated 3,000 buildings were sold on contract. This contributed to the neighborhood’s population changing from 87 percent White people in 1950 to 91 percent Black people in 1960.

1966 Civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., moves in to the neighborhood briefly and sets up a northern base for the civil rights movement.

1968 The grassroots Contract Buyers League is formed in 1968 by residents of North Lawndale to fight the discriminatory real estate practice known as “contract selling.”

1968 Riots and fires that follow King’s assassination destroy large portions of Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods; North Lawndale loses the majority of its remaining businesses, nearly 20 percent of its buildings, and half its population.

1973–74 Sears builds the new 110-story Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, in downtown Chicago. The retailer leaves Homan Square and moves its headquarters to the new Sears Tower.

1988 Sears donates 55 acres of its former warehouse facility to a public/private/community partnership that includes the City of Chicago and the North Lawndale Community to build community services, new housing, and commercial development.

1989 Developer Charlie Shaw, Sears Chairman Ed Brennan, and retired Sears Vice President Charley Moran begin working with community leaders to develop a concept plan to reinvigorate and revitalize the North Lawndale neighborhood.

1993 The Shaw Company begins building single-family homes on the property. Rental housing is added later to reach a total of 350 affordable housing units by 2011.

1995 The Homan Arthington Foundation is formed as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization to oversee and guide the Homan Square redevelopment plan. The Foundation later shortens its name to the Foundation for Homan Square and acts as an umbrella for all planned entities on the Homan campus.

2001 The Foundation opens the 70,000-square-foot Homan Square Community Center, offering local residents recreation, health, and social services.

2009 The Foundation opens the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, which houses the Henry Ford Academy: Power House High School, in the 104-year-old former Sears Power House. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the public charter high school undergoes a $40 million restoration, wins a LEED Platinum certification, and opens with 250 students.

2009 John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols sponsor the renovation of the original Sears Tower so it can contribute to North Lawndale’s economic, educational, and cultural life.

2013 Seeking to establish a model of collaboration between art, community, and activism, the Foundation for Homan Square and North Lawndale business and civic leaders invite the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to open its first classroom space outside of downtown in Nichols Tower.

2015 As part of the Homan Square Arts Initiative (HSAI), SAIC opens its space on Nichols Tower’s 10th and 12th floors. Programming includes artist residencies, free community art courses, and civically engaged design projects. After consulting with community members, HSAI expands in 2016 to offer courses geared toward getting jobs, increased teen programming, and intergenerational and senior classes.

SAIC’s Artist-In-Residence program begins in April with SAIC alum Scheherazade Tillet (MA 2005) as the inaugural artist. Tillet’s nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to help end violence against women and girls. While in residence, she collaborates with community members to establish a memorial for police-shooting victim Rekia Boyd and teaches community photography workshops showing African American girls how to tell their stories.

2016 The National Endowment for the Arts awards SAIC the prestigious Our Town $75,000 grant in May to help beautify Homan Square, promote the work of local artists, and give underserved high school students mentorship and valuable skills to help them to achieve their goals.