1927: The widening of Cermak and the colonizing of Wentworth

In early 1927 a major change occurred: 22nd Street, later renamed Cermak Avenue, was widened by as much as 25 feet. We are not certain why. One informant tells us that a wider street was needed for access to the 1933 World Fair, one of whose main entrances would be where 22nd Street reached the Lakefront by a viaduct over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. But we have difficulty believing that Chicago’s civic authorities could have been so far-sighted as to begin spending money on Fair-related construction as much as six years before the Fair was to begin. Another possibility is that the planners’ real motive was to destroy part of the notorious vice area, the Levee District, that lay just east of Chinatown.

In any case, the effect on Chinatown was profound. The fronts of all buildings on the south side of 22nd Street between Wentworth and Princeton, then the heart of the Chinese business district, were moved back by twenty-five feet, and many buildings just to the east were demolished. The Parisian Novelty Company, formerly an employer of Chinese workers, moved out of the neighborhood. As the Chicago Tribune (7/22/1927) reported, Chinese shopkeepers complained that because “more than 25 feet have been cut from our stores,” “now merchants are being forced to move to Wentworth Avenue.”

Before this, there had been little Chinese activity on Wentworth south of 22nd, perhaps partly because of ethnic tensions between the Chinese and the long-term Italian residents of the area.  Now, however, the move down Wentworth seems to have been unstoppable. It was spearheaded by the On Leong Association, which in 1926 started planning its new million-dollar “Chinese Center” at the corner of Wentworth and 22nd Place (Tribune 9/8/26). That center, called by almost everyone the On Leong Building or the “City Hall of Chinatown” (now the Pui Tak Center), opened in the spring of 1928 (Tribune 4/27/1928). As shown on the Historic Places page, many other Chinese associations and businesses followed On Leong’s lead. By the early 1930s, Chinese settlement extended south on Wentworth as far as 24th Street and beyond.