Chicago Gang History

Lower West Side

NameLower West Side
Location16th Street on the north, Chicago River on the south, Canal Street to the Chicago River on the east, Western Avenue on the west; Pilsen: 16th Street on the north, Chicago River on the south, Chicago River on the east, Ashland Avenue on the west; Heart Of Chicago: 16th Street on the north, Chicago River on the south, Ashland Avenue on the east, Western Avenue on the west
Settled1840s
FounderN/A
Year annexed1889

 

This area was first settled in the 1840s when German and Irish immigrants settled in the area because of the Southwestern Plank Road that eased trade routes all the way up and down the Illinois Michigan Canal.  The early settlers also worked on the canal in the 1840s which was another reason for settling in the area.  The area experienced some small growth in the proceeding decades. 

It was not until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that immigrants from Czechoslovakia settled in the area looking for refuge from the destruction the fire caused; however, the bigger boom did not happen until after 1873 when McCormick Reaper Works opened in nearby South Lawndale which provided countless jobs to many west siders.  Most of the settlement happened around where 18th Street is, as several businesses were also opened along this strip starting in the 1870s.  One such business was a restaurant named “At The City Of Plzen” which paid tribute to the City Of Plzen in Bohemia which was the motherland of these early immigrant settlers.  The people in this community started calling the area “Pilsen” because of this popular restaurant.

Right next to Pilsen was an area settled by Germans and Irish in the 1860s then later some Italians in the 1880s that became known as the “Heart of Chicago” that had their own community which was actually a community better off economically.  If Pilsen residents experienced upward mobility they moved to the Heart of Chicago neighborhood. 

In the year 1889 the Lower West Side was annexed into the city of Chicago now the Lower West Side area would thrive even more as the city was able to pave roads and offer mass transit. 

The Great Depression era was rough on this community in the 1930s as many lost their jobs and local industries closed their doors.  Many residents stayed in the Lower West Side until the late 1950s when Mexican families began moving in. 

In the year 1958 massive highway and UIC construction began in the Near West Side neighborhood which effectively razed many of the dwellings Mexican people live in.  Mexican people then took up residence along 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood and also 26th Street in the Little Village neighborhood.  Pilsen was not too thrilled about the arrival of Mexican immigrants because these were foreign born Mexican people that could change the look and identity of the neighborhood.  Another issue was the Mexican migration wave to Pilsen brought in gangs that were born on the Near West Side like the Latin Counts, Morgan Deuces, Ambrose and the Rampants,  these gangs and others fought for control of 18th Street. White gangs were not a major force in Pilsen as the white greaser clubs could mainly be found in the Heart of Chicago such as the Gay Lords

As the 1960s progressed Pilsen became a war zone of several Mexican gangs and many more gangs were starting up.  The war between Latin Counts and Ambrose was legendary as both gangs were the biggest forces on 18th Street. 

White flight became a major factor in this neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s as more Mexican people move in.  Many of the Lower West Sides’ residents were experiencing upward mobility and left the live in the suburbs, even in the Heart of Chicago many whites were leaving, while the Mexican people of the Lower West Side struggled with poverty.  In the decades to come Pilsen and the Heart of Chicago would become one of the more violent neighborhoods in Chicago and also had one of the largest varieties of street gangs.  The Lower West Side became the most gang crowded area in the city with many different organizations bidding for control of the various streets. 

The 1980s and 1990s showed to be the ugliest decades on these streets as poverty sunk in deeper and more jobs were lost in the area, redlining and disinvestment in the neighborhood also took their toll. 

Beginning in the 2000s decade yuppies and hipsters began moving into the neighborhood bringing gentrification to the area, then in the 2010s decade hipsters became the dominating force and gentrification has become a major issue here as many residents feel this is threatening the Mexican culture of the neighborhood.  Pilsen is one of the only neighborhoods that are completely dedicated to the celebration of Mexican culture and identity, gentrification is seen as something that can threaten that and change it.  It will also raise the cost of living in the neighborhood and drive Mexican working classes and lower income classes out. 

The Lower West Side neighborhood has become a safer area in recent years as crime and gang activity has slowed down.  18th Street has now become a safer place to walk at night and much gang activity has been removed on this main strip; however, Pilsen still does have significant gang activity. 

Pilsen is the birth place of the Latin Brothers, Kool Gang, Bishops, Party People, La Raza, Racine Boys, Morgan Boys, Laflin LoversBrazers and several others.  

One thing to clarify, this neighborhood is not a south side neighborhood; it is technically a part of Chicago’s west side, hence, the name “Lower West Side.”  Also, everyone in and around Chicago calls this entire area Pilsen; however, only the majority is technically Pilsen, the Heart of Chicago is a section of its own and has been since the 19th century.

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