History of the Near West Side Historic Neighborhood
The Near West Side (West Washington) Neighborhood mirrors the
history of South Bend from its founding in the Canal project, its expansion in
the late nineteenth-century to its decline in the twentieth century and its
recent renaissance. Soon after its founding by Althrop Taylor and Alexis
Coquillard, Coquillard began a canal project to link the St. Joseph River with
the Kankakee. The canal was to pass through the Near West Side, but encountered
construction problems and the company went bankrupt. Traces of “Coquillard’s
Folly” remain in the City Cemetery, where several bridges with no apparent
purpose were built to span the “canal.” The State Bank of Indiana, which had
underwritten the project, recouped its losses by subdividing the area into
The first house in the “Bank Outlot Subdivision” is thought
to be Joseph Bartlett’s home (720 West Washington), erected in 1850 in the
Federal style reminiscent of the houses of his native New Hampshire. With the
relocation of South Bend’s factories from the river to the south and west of
the city, all classes of society built houses in the Near West Side
Neighborhood. Because nineteenth century modes of transportation were horse,
carriage, buggy or foot, the owners, the managers and the craftsmen all chose
to live within the same neighborhood, close to the factory.
The industrialists and managers — including the O’Briens, the
Bakers, the Adlers, the Bowshers, the Birdsells and the Casadays — built along
West Washington and West Colfax (originally Market Street). The Studebaker
brothers and the Olivers built their mansions along Washington Street (620 and
808 W. Washington), as replacements for older, smaller houses that they did not
demolish, but moved to new locations within the neighborhood where examples
still survive (e.g. the old Studebaker House at 627 W. Washington) The
craftsmen built homes to the south and north of Washington and Colfax, along
Lassalle, Jefferson, Wayne, Taylor, Scott, Laurel and Thomas.
The twentieth century changed the dynamic of the
neighborhood. With the invention of the automobile, people could live farther
from their work, and some industrialists built new homes on the other side of
the river along East Jefferson Boulevard. In the Depression era, many houses
were converted to apartments or rooming houses because the owners no longer had
the means to maintain them. During World War II, these conversions accelerated
(sometimes with government support) in order to house the large number of
workers flocking to the city to work in its factories. After the War, the
neighborhood was forgotten as the city’s factories declined and with them, the
jobs that had maintained the neighborhood’s residents. In the 1960s, the city
of South Bend demolished several fine houses to construct an inner beltway
linking Chapin Street to Lincolnway. The impact of this misguided intrusion
into the nineteenth-century neighborhood was minimized in 2006 through the
influence of the Neighborhood Association with the cooperation of the city.
In the 1970s the residents of the area worked with the
federally-funded Model Cities program to revitalize the neighborhood, and
founded the Near West Side Neighborhood Organization as an offshoot of that
project. In the same period, the city of South Bend embarked on a more
destructive form of urban renewal, and threatened to demolish Tippecanoe Place
to construct a parking lot. The prospect of such a loss of heritage galvanized
residents. Ruth Price surveyed the neighborhood and applied to the Department
of the Interior for National Registry District Status, which was granted in
1975. A few years later, Southold Heritage Foundation (now South Bend Heritage
Foundation) was organized to work actively in the neighborhood to foster
investment and the preservation of houses. In 1988, the descendants of the
Oliver family donated Copshaholm to the Northern Indiana Historical Society,
which maintains it as a house museum in conjunction with the Northern Indiana
Center for History.
The twenty-first century promises to be the renaissance of
the Near West Side. In 2005, the Studebaker Museum moved its collections and
archives to the adjoining site on Chapin Street. In the near future, the Civil
Rights Heritage Center will open on West Washington Street, and Notre Dame’s
Center for Latino Studies plans to move into the old Hansel Center across the
street. With concerns about global warming and sustainable living, South Bend’s
residents increasingly choose the city’s most walkable neighborhood.
In 1831, Lathrop Taylor and Alexis Coquillard laid out the
town of South Bend, which had a population of 128. By 1840, the population had
increased to 728, and with the introduction of railroads in the 1850s the city
continued to grow and develop. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the
foundation of a number of factories, including the Oliver Chilled Plow Works
(1868), the Singer Sewing Machine Company (1868), the Birdsell Manufacturing
Company (ca. 1870), the South Bend Toy Works (1874), and the O’Brien Varnish
Corporation (1875), the Wilson Brothers Shirt Company (1883), most along the St.
Joseph river or on the West Side. These factories attracted immigrants in search
of jobs and opportunity to South Bend.
The proportion of foreign-born immigrants increased steadily, from 17% in 1850
to 47% in 1880. In the 1850s, people of German origin were the largest ethnic
group. South Bend’s Jewish community was also mainly of German origin, and rose
from 125 in 1878 to 1,200 in 1912. In the 1850s the second largest group of
foreign-born immigrants were English speakers from Great Britain, Ireland and
Canada. In the 1860s and 1870s, large numbers of Polish immigrants arrived and
settled on the West Side beyond the Oliver factory. The Oliver Chilled Plow
Works, along with other factories actively recruited immigrants from Belgium in
this period. In the 1880s settlers from Belgium, Hungary and Italy arrived in
large numbers to work for local manufacturers and for the railroads.
The architectural traces of this history are visible today
in the neighborhood. St. Patrick’s Parish, founded in 1858 was made up primarily
of German and Irish settlers, while nearby St. Hedwig’s was the center of Polish
immigrants. Jewish residents established first the Orthodox Shul (420 S. William
St.) near the Stadium, and then in 1923 built the Hebrew Orthodox Synagogue on
S. Taylor St. When Belgian immigrants began to arrive in the 1880s, they first
attended St. Patrick’s Church before founding a parish of their own at Sacred
Heart (1124 Thomas St.) in 1896. The Hungarian community settled mainly south of
the Near West Side and worshiped at St. Steven’s Church on Thomas St.; more
recently, and until its demolition, St. Steven’s served the Hispanic community;
its school (1024 Thomas St.) now houses El Campito Day Care. The Italians in
South Bend were centered on St. Joseph’s parish to the east of the city.
Around 1820 free African Americans began to settle in the
area. They were later joined by runaway slaves coming through Kentucky although
many of these settled just across the border in Vandalia and Cass County,
Michigan, because that state gave greater protection. In 1836, a Kentucky slave
owner seized a Mrs. Powell and her three children, seeking to reclaim his
"property." Abolitionists and some 200 African Americans from Michigan
prevented the return of the slaves. The Powells were able to stay in the area,
and were among the leadership of the African American community.
After the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle
Tom's Cabin (1852) churches took up the issue from the pulpit, and many women's
clubs formed groups to raise funds in support the Abolitionist movement.
Sojourner Truth’s visit in 1858 added intensity to the movement. Schuyler Colfax
moved to South Bend in 1841, and settled on Market Street (now Colfax Avenue).
An opponent of slavery, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1855,
becoming the first Republican Speaker of the House (1863-69).
In 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed that Blacks could
serve in the Civil War and eventually 1500 from Indiana joined the Union Army.
From South Bend, Elijah, Colon, and Squire Powell served in the Union army. The
Powell family were among the founders of the first African American church,
Olivet AME in 1873, beginning a great chain of Black churches.
Between 1870 and 1910, as the general population of South
Bend grew from 7,200 to 54,000, the African American population increased from
73 to 640. In 1903 when Booker T. Washington visited South Bend, he found many
opportunities for employment for African Americans. When he heard from John
Studebaker of the large number of Blacks living in Cass county, he went there to
inform them of the opportunities in South Bend. Many moved to the Near West Side
neighborhood to work in the Studebaker, Oliver Plow, and Singer Sewing Machine
factories. With steady jobs and reasonable salaries life was comparatively good.
However, the aftermath of World War I brought a struggle among the European
immigrants and African Americans for available jobs. During World War II, the
increased industrial production of the war effort created new jobs, and many
African Americans moved from southern states to the Near West Side in response
to the demand for workers.