‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: West Elsdon

West Elsdon lies about three blocks east of Midway Airport and is one of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

Residents say it’s a hidden part of the city that offers a suburban feel, home to many families, including a population of about 20,000 residents, a majority of whom are Latino.

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Gerardo Trujillo is principal of Louis Pasteur Elementary. He organized a mural to be painted on the side of the school, and says that he wanted to give the almost 100-year-old school building some color and inspiration for the community.

“It’s a nice middle-class working community, everybody has lots of hopes and dreams for their children, thus the result of the mural,” Trujillo said. “The theme of the mural is that this is a starting point, that education is the first step into reaching your dreams. This is why I’ve been here for so long. I hope that my son gets the same thing that I’m offering these kids and their families.”

Trujillo has been a principal at Pasteur Elementary for 10 years and lives in the neighborhood. He describes the West Elsdon community as having a large Latino population that was also hit hard during the pandemic. At one point, the area was a hot spot for COVID-19 cases and he says it created many challenges for families. 

“Lots of our families lost family members, so there were many mental health issues because of sadness and trauma and depression,” Trujillo said. “We were very happy when we had the opportunity to re-open the doors and bring kids back even though we’re still in the pandemic. We do take safety precautions, but we do see that it’s better having children in our classroom than having them virtually.” 

The Latino Organization of the Southwest has been providing crucial services for youth, adults, and families since 1992. Anything from assistance for citizenship to English classes is offered at the center.

Board president Graciela Guel says the need for financial assistance is increasing. She says hundreds of people have come in to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

“Now it’s more needed because everyone is coming out and a lot of people didn’t have the need to pay for gas because they had no job,” Guel said. “Now they have to pay for gas and we know how expensive that is so the need is growing.”

There is also an effort to battle food insecurity and health disparities in the community, starting with a new comprehensive clinical care center that opened in February 2021.

Dr. Heather Prendergast, Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs for the University of Illinois College of Medicine, was instrumental behind the opening of the 55th & Pulaski Health Collaborative.

The clinic has since welcomed more than 400 patients.

“It’s really a partnership with the community,” Prendergast said. “We’ve assembled a nice team of partners where we’re able to really meet the needs. This is really about access for the community in the community … We often hear about patients with complex conditions having to go to four different specialists, but how nice is it to have everything under one roof within their community and not have to travel far.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Heather Prendergast

The city has also recently expanded the 911 alternative response program to West Elsdon and the larger South West area, meaning paramedics and trained mental health professionals will be responding to certain 911 calls aimed at reshaping the way the city responds to mental health crises.

“That’s amazing because many times law enforcement are not ready to deal with certain situations and it’s not easy. It would be better if someone can deescalate a situation before the police get there,” Guel said. 

This area was once represented by former House Speaker Michael Madigan for more than 40 years. He was recently indicted on criminal charges but has pleaded not guilty. 

His position has since been filled by state representative Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar who now represents the 22nd district, becoming the first Latina to do so.

“It’s an honor to be the first woman, the first Latina woman and I’m very humbled by the opportunity,” Guerrero-Cuellar said. “A long list of plans … the plan is to be here for a while. Right now, it’s really about assessing what the community needs are.”

She, along with Ald. Marty Quinn, recently organized an outdoor roll call meant to create solidarity between the police and the community following a recent shooting.

“We have kids out here,” Guerrero-Cuellar said as she pointed to Pasteur Park behind her. “I want the residents to know that public safety is our number one priority. We’re going to make sure that the negativity understands that we as a community own the parks. We’re going to be here collaborating with police officers so kids know they can have a safe summer.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar

Amidst leadership changes, residents remain passionate to see their community thrive. It might be small, but locals have access to the CTA, Midway Airport, and a variety of restaurants and businesses.

Many would like to see students in the area succeed in their education, including muralist Pablo Serrano who is painting the mural on the side of Pasteur Elementary.

“As much as it is about inspiring these young kids to recognize their own beauty and their own potential, it’s about reminding parents, reminding teachers and administrators that they are responsible, to not forget that young people deserve constant consideration,” Serrano said.

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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