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Hey, urban planners: 15-minute neighborhoods aren’t a new idea in Chicago

There’s been a lot of talk lately among urban planners and other people who think about cities about the so-called 15-minute neighborhood. In these districts, everything necessary for everyday life is within walking distance of one’s home. Naturally, this will reduce consumption of fossil fuels and pollution.

For those of us of a certain age, this is not a new concept. I, like many Chicagoans, grew up in a place like that. In my case it was Back of the Yards on the South Side.

Ours was in a three-story apartment just a short walk from Sacred Heart Church and its parish school, or, if you are Lithuanian American, from Holy Cross parish. Each of the 14 Catholic churches in the neighborhood has one or two funeral homes located nearby. Public schools serve the neighborhood. Columbia Hall, Pulaski Hall, and the bar hall provide locations for wedding receptions, funeral lunches, ethnic celebrations, and other communal events. Davis Square Park and Cornell Square Park are very close.

Almost every corner has a small grocery store, candy store, bakery, butcher market or tavern. Some of these cater to specific ethnic groups, but most are open to anyone in the neighborhood. Two busy streets, West 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, have many businesses, including the Goldblatt and Meyer Brother department stores.

Grocery chains such as National Tea Co., Jewel Foods, A&P, and later, IGA, also served the neighborhood. Fuka Men’s Wear and Goldberg’s provide sources for fashionable clothing. Small restaurants, Army and Navy Stores, florists and laundries, as well as toy shops, line the street.

Union Stockyards provides jobs for many people in the Back of the Yards community.

Even a good used bookstore is located near the railroad bridge on 49th and Ashland streets. Five and 10 cent stores and pharmacies abound. The doctor’s office maintains regular hours, and the small but important hospital also provides care.

Livestock, whose stench and pollution cover the environment, provides jobs, as do the many other industries that surround society. Everything is within a short walking distance. Tram lines, and later buses, connected neighborhoods to the rest of the city.

This is not uncommon in many of the city’s ethnic and racial neighborhoods. Actually many of these environments also have a dark side. They can be very petty and suspicious of outsiders. They are racially segregated and, in many ways, ethnically segregated within neighborhood boundaries. Polish Chicagoans mostly attend their own church and send their children to Polish parish schools, as do other ethnic groups. The houses around the church tend to be occupied by the ethnic group that the parish serves. Street gangs often reinforce those boundaries. While they have a small-town feel, they also create the feeling that everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Better past version

What has happened? Cars make residents more mobile. They started shopping at large stores that offered more goods at lower prices and free parking. This eventually put the small shops out of business. Once the older generation died, many of their children moved away, leaving little reason for churches and ethnic businesses to exist. Many feel they left crowded communities in search of more space in the suburbs and for single-family homes away from the industrial pollution that enveloped the old neighborhoods.

Suburban zoning laws do not allow for the population density or mix of uses that prevail in the Back of the Yards and other such places. As a result, the neighborhood is 15 minutes away from the motorway and suburbs that transform the city.

Race changes occurred, and as these new groups moved in, they found environments disinvested, and many became food wastelands.

Back of the Yards survived in truncated form thanks to the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and the many new entrepreneurs, of various ethnicities and races, who took over the shop. The storage areas are gone, but the industrial estates that replaced them still provide jobs.

The 15-Minute Neighborhood is an ideal that provides employment, for both adults and youth who work in the many local shops and businesses. That results in an engine for upward mobility. The model provides a secure base that city planners once shunned for being old-fashioned. Now may be the time to bring it back in a way that is less narrow, more cosmopolitan, and more inclusive.

Dominic A. Pacyga is professor emeritus of history at Columbia College Chicago and author of several books on Chicago history, including his most recent book, “American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago.”

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