Berwyn’s Bohemian History

ccaccOn June 6, 1908, Berwyn became a city, receiving its official charter from the State of Illinois. The first two decades of the twentieth century saw Berwyn develop in much the same way as other Chicago suburbs. It was a place in which, as “The WPA Guide to Illinois” states, “harried commuters relaxed in the evening, weeded gardens, set hens, and mowed their lawns.” In 1921, the central portion of the city began its rapid development. Large numbers of Czechs moved from the Pilsen area on Chicago’s near West Side to Berwyn and its neighbor on the east, Cicero. Literally thousands of new homes were built each year. Berwyn was known as the center of Czech life and culture in the Chicago area. At one time, Berwyn’s population was approximately 60% Czech.

Through the decades, the heart of town, from a retail standpoint, has been 22nd Street, more commonly known as Cermak Road. The road honors the legacy of Anton J. Cermak, famous Czech statesman and former mayor of Chicago, whose life was cut short in 1933 during a public appearance in Miami when he was hit by a bullet intended for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. For a period Cermak Road earned the nickname “The Bohemian Wall Street” due to the large number of savings and loans that served the famously-frugal Czech residents of the area. In 1991, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that “Berwyn has the highest concentration of financial institutions in the world – a tribute to the frugality of its forebears.”

Families with Czech and Bohemian roots, together with many Italian-Americans, Greeks, Lithuanians, Poles, Yugoslavians and Ukrainians, have been joined in recent years by Latinos, African and Asian Americans who now call Berwyn home. As Berwyn grows in the 21st century, its traditionally hard-working, middle-class, mostly blue collar families, who were admittedly conservative in their outlook, are joined by young, professional families and a growing population of LGBTQ residents.

Today, Berwyn keeps its proud Czech history alive through the Chicagoland Czech American Cultural Center.