‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: West Lawn

Chicago — like cities and states across the country — is seeing a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a stay-at-home advisory that will go into effect on Monday morning in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. 

The city’s Southwest Side is a hot spot for the virus. According to the most recent city data available, the 60629 ZIP code, which includes parts of Gage Park, Chicago Lawn and West Elsdon, has a 24.3% weekly positivity rate — one of the highest of zip codes in the city.

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“The COVID positivity rates, particularly on the Southwest Side of the city have been in the double digits for quite a while,” said state Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Democrat who represents the 11th District on Chicago’s Southwest Side, including most of West Lawn, along with parts of the city’s surrounding suburbs. “This is not anything new. This isn’t something in the past week or two. This has literally been months.”

A 25-minute drive southwest of the Loop, the 60629 ZIP code encompasses most of Chicago’s West Lawn community. According to recent city data, more than 80% of its residents are Hispanic or Latino, a community that has disproportionately endured the impact COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. 

“The fact that it is a working-class neighborhood. The fact that it is the unfortunate reality that a lot of the members who live here do not have the luxury of working from home and that really their source of income requires them to step outside of their home and expose themselves to COVID. Our community members are essential workers,” said Miguel Blancarte Jr., Community Organized Relief Effort’s regional director of community engagement, health equity and partnerships. 

Video: Our full interview with state Sen. Celina Villanueva.

The Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) has been working with the city of Chicago and Rainbow Push Coalition, and Curative to increase access to testing across the city. CORE partners with Metropolitan Family Services Midway Center (MFS) to host testing in the community 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday.

This Thursday marked their first time trying a new winter-friendly indoor facility for testing one mile east of where it originally took place in West Lawn on 63rd Street. This new testing location, located at 6422 S. Kedzie Ave., is a building MFS is renovating, though construction has paused for the winter.

This testing center typically serves more than 700 residents, a number that has been rapidly increasing this fall. On Thursday the line wrapped around the building, stretching for blocks. As the mobile testing site adjusts to its indoor testing, residents had to wait much longer to get their test, said Laurie Sedio, executive director at MFS’ Midway Center.

After an increase in cases, an increase in hospitalizations often follow. 

Enrique Mendoza, a West Lawn resident, said the community isn’t equipped with the necessary health resources to deal with the pandemic. 

“There’s a lack of health care infrastructure here on the Southwest Side in general,” he said. “We don’t have as many federally qualified health centers, the nearest hospital we have is Holy Cross Hospital. It’s a safety net hospital and it’s already pretty much at capacity. 

Mendoza is the vice president of The Southwest Collective, which works to address issues affecting the community. Since the pandemic, Mendoza has been leading the collective’s COVID-19 efforts. 

A lot of the nonprofits and organizations in the area are already at capacity, Mendoza said, “Resources are already scarce.” 

COVID-19’s Economic Impact in West Lawn

In addition to the testing site, MFS offers a variety of services, including child care. Roughly 20% of the children it serves have had to quarantine because they have been exposed to the virus, Sedio said. 

“We are scrambling to try to have enough staff to actually work with the children,” Sedio said. “Parents in this area, 80%, have chosen to have their children in our in-person child care center. That just shows the need that parents have to be working. That they don’t have other kinds of arrangements. They can’t work from home.”

Video: Our full interview with Enrique Mendoza, a West Lawn resident.

Many residents of West Lawn work in essential industries. Amid changing coronavirus restrictions, some are struggling to pay for rent and are concerned about what might happen if the moratorium is lifted. They’re also trying to afford additional essential costs they incur.

“As they have lost their jobs, people are unable to repair cars, they’re unable to make repairs on anything really because they are struggling to put food on the table,” Sedio said. One resident needed financial assistance to repair a broken furnace. MFS has already given out over $90,000 to residents in need, she said. 

As restrictions change, businesses in the area are trying to keep up. La Michoacana Favorita, an ice cream shop on Pulaski Road and 63rd Street, has turned to food delivery apps. However, a portion of their customer base, older community members, have a difficult time using the software. 

“They don’t know how to use social media and stuff, so they can’t really go on and order on GrubHub and UberEats,” said Josue Amascote, an ice cream maker at La Michoacana. “They don’t know how to do that. Since most of them have their young kids, 20, 25, they are the ones that do it for them.”

Palermo’s of 63rd, a pizza restaurant and banquet hall, is a staple in the community. Indoor dining and parties are key parts of the business, said owner Frank Calderone. Though the virus has taken a toll on the business, he hopes the community — and country — can unify. 

“We’ve been so separated in our country,” said Calderone. “Whoever is the president, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to get together... it’s the only way we can survive.”

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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