Chicago Gang History

Near West Side

NameNear West Side
LocationRailroad track near Kinzie Avenue on the north, 16th Street on the south, Chicago River on the east, Tallman Avenue and the Pennsylvania railroad tracks on the west
SettledCirca 1830
FounderN/A
Year annexed1837

 

The Near West Side neighborhood is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Chicago as settlement started where the current West Loop section is near the Chicago River by Irish immigrants that built small cottages there. 

This area was settled in 1830 or prior and annexed during the first annexations of the city in 1837.  Anywhere from Wood Street to the River was annexed into the city. 

Before annexation the area was already starting to experience settlement, including the very first African American settlement in the northwest quadrant of the neighborhood between present day Lake Street and Kinzie Street in the present day United Center neighborhood section. 

Beginning in the 1840s many of Chicago’s elite made their way into this neighborhood and built up a grand society lined with elegant mansions and also several shopping strips and easy access to the business district that led right across the river to the downtown Loop.  These wealthy elites were of German, Czech, Bohemian and French decent. The neighborhood was ideal for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the down town Loop and even some of the crime that could be found there. 

In the early 1860s this neighborhood began to experience an influx of underclass German and Irish immigrants (mainly Irish) as they came to the more south east section in the present day University Village/Little Italy area, this was the beginning of the arrival of the impoverished in this neighborhood that would begin the legacy of socioeconomic problems this neighborhood would face throughout the years.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the neighborhood experienced another onslaught of underclasses as many packed into the lower half of the neighborhood seeking refuge from the damage of the fire.  200,000 underclass, poor and hungry migrants came to the area causing a housing crisis as many were stuffed into overcrowded buildings; once again these were Irish underclasses. 

In the 1880s and 1890s many Irish and Germans began to leave the southern part of this neighborhood as Italians moved in between Polk Street and Taylor Streets forming “Little Italy” that was swarming with Italian culture.  Russian and Polish Jews also come in at the same time and settled around 16th Street around Maxwell Street and Halsted to create an area in the far southern part of the neighborhood known as “Jew Town” or the “Jewish Ghetto” because of the good amount of poverty the Jewish residents faced, and this is where the famous Maxwell Street Market was at the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell.  Also at this same time in the late 19th century Greek immigrants made their way north of the Italians and Jews in an area that became known as “Greek Town.” 

Although these neighborhoods were thriving with vive rant European businesses and churches, there was still an issue with poverty and that is what brought about the need for the Jane Addams Hull House that was constructed in 1889 located in Greek Town.  This house was to help impoverished immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture and to also understand the cultures of others around them in order for these immigrants to find employment easier and get around in the city.  The Hull House also provided recreation and networking and small levels of basic education, the Hull House did not allow African Americans as they were forced to look into programs for blacks which were of lower quality, another case of racial discrimination that impoverished blacks faced. 

The Near West Side became an epicenter of several cultures as African Americans, Italians, Irish, Greeks and Jews clashed which would sometimes resort in violence, this also made each ethnic group very guarded of their individual neighborhoods and did not like their borders crossed, this led to some early street gang activity as far back as the 19th century. 

In the year 1925 the notorious “Forty Two Gang” formed on Taylor Street in the Little Italy section that comprised of teenage Italian youths that protected the borders of Little Italy from other ethnic groups, many of these youths went on the assimilate into the Chicago Outfit when they grew into their twenties. 

Another ethnic group came to this neighborhood beginning in the year 1917, the Mexican immigrants.  With the start of World War I many young white men went to serve their country in the war, this opened up several manufacturing jobs in Chicago.  Thousands of Mexican men immigrated to Chicago seeking these vacant jobs and the majority settled in the Near West Side in between west of Greek town and east of the African Americans.  Mexican men were only there to work and they even lived in the shabbiest and most deteriorated dwellings; therefore, there was not much envy toward this group especially since their standards for employment and living conditions were much lower than the rest of the neighborhood.  When the Great Depression Era began in late October of 1929 the neighborhood was suddenly jealous of the Mexican immigrants’ employment and now those low rate job were looking awfully attractive to the other racial and ethnic groups in the neighborhood and this brought about hate and animosity. 

As the year 1930 ushered in the United States government enacted the Repatriation Act that gave the government unlimited jurisdiction to deport any Latino with no due process that migrated into Chicago .  Thousands of Mexican people were deported out of Chicago during these hard times all the way up until 1936.  Once repatriation was over, a small cluster of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in the neighborhood that still housed the remaining Mexicans right near Madison Avenue.  The Mexicans and Puerto Ricans that remained formed political groups and labor groups in order to prevent this type of treatment from happening in the future. 

African American migration began to pick up in this neighborhood in the 1930s and many found a life of poverty once they arrived, the African Americans were in the largest state of poverty and suffered the worst living conditions and employment opportunities.  The Jane Addams Hull House did not cater to African Americans which did not help them achieve the education and networking they sorely needed, then to add insult to injury the very first Chicago Housing Authority project building built in this neighborhood, the Jane Addams Homes in 1938 was a project building only for poor Jews and Italians when it opened.  African Americans were in the most desperate need of public housing; however, the three project complexes that were built in Chicago in 1938 were only for whites; however, roughly 2.5% of the Jane Addams was populated with African American families, which probably meant there was still room after all the poor whites got what they needed. 

As World War II first started and eventually the United States became involved, more African American migration poured into the city as the Great Depression era was coming to a close and more manufacturing jobs opened up, especially once the U.S. entered into the war in 1942 right after the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941.  The Near West Side neighborhood was the only west side neighborhood that allowed blacks because restrictive covenants prevented them from going elsewhere on the west side.  Not only were African Americans coming in high volumes, but as of 1942 Mexican immigrants were once again flooding into Chicago and once again they arrived in the Near West Side community right where they originally settled just west of Greek Town, and once again they were in Chicago to work just like the blacks. 

In the year 1942 another public housing project was built right near the Jane Addams homes called the Robert Brooks Homes that was named after a recently killed African American soldier that was killed in the Philippians by the Japanese.  This project was for African American residents unlike the Jane Addams Homes and many impoverished black families were lining up to get in, to help the demand an extension was built in 1943. 

When the war was over there was much protest for Mexican immigrants to leave the country now that the war effort was no longer needed, but repatriation was not brought back into effect this time and the Mexican immigrants did not want to leave the Near West Side.  Even though the rest of the country was enjoying much better employment opportunities after the war, Chicago lagged behind for a while due to having been so heavily vested in the war industry now there were not enough jobs to go around catering to the growing city, and once again whites felt they should have employment priority.  This led to hate and animosity and as Mexican and Puerto Rican labor groups struggled to defend “Braceros” that wanted to stay in the U.S.  

In the later 1940s more Puerto Rican immigrants began showing up in this neighborhood to join the few that arrived in the later 30s.  The Puerto Ricans settled among the Mexicans near Madison Avenue in a settlement known as “La Madison.” 

By the early 1950s there became worries in the Italian community that African Americans and Latinos would soon spill over into their neighborhood especially since some Italian families experienced upward mobility and moved to the growing Chicago suburbs.  Their old properties were not worth as much money when they left which could be prime opportunity for Latinos and blacks to move in.  Italian greaser gangs sprung up all along Taylor Street that geared to fight off invaders that had recently moved there from other countries or the south.  These gangs took in Latinos as long as they grew up in the neighborhood and their parents did too.  The biggest and toughest of these Italian gangs of Little Italy was the “Taylor Street Dukes.”  There was also outrage of another project building constructed for African Americans known as the Loomis Courts that were built in 1951 within the same cluster as the Jane Addams and Robert Brooks Homes

Then in 1952 the Grace Abbott Homes were also built in the same cluster that became known as the “ALBA Homes” that was in the vicinity of Cabrini Street on the north, 15th Street on the south, Blue Island Avenue on the east and Ashland Avenue on the west.  By this point in time the Jane Addams Homes were also becoming African American as the white families experienced upward mobility. 

As the 1950s progressed the hatred and violence between the street gangs only escalated as more blacks and Latinos moved in and more project buildings were going up like the Henry Horner Homes that were built in 1957-1961 in the nearby United Center neighborhood and the Rockwell Gardens that were built just west of the Henry Horners in 1958-1959. 

African American street gangs from the nearby North Lawndale neighborhood such as the Egyptian Cobras and Vice Lords that drifted into these projects and caused a lot of violence. 

Famous Latino gangs to start in this neighborhood were the Morgan Deuces, the Latin Counts, Ambrose and the mixed race gang of Latinos and blacks the Harrison Gents from Harrison and Western. 

Just as the gang wars were heating up by 1958, the city of Chicago began sending out notices for residents of Greek Town, La Madison, Little Italy and the black community to vacate their homes to make way for the Kennedy Expressway construction.  Many Puerto Ricans relocated to the Lincoln Park neighborhood while Mexicans moved to Pilsen and Little Village; gangs like Latin Counts, Ambrose and Morgan Deuces were relocated to Pilsen.  The Italians relocated to southern West Town while the Greeks relocated to Lincoln Square

In the year 1960 the city kicked more people from their homes to build the University Of Illinois At Chicago campus and the Circle Interchange which displaced the vast majority of Little Italy as it now became known as “University Village.”  Greek Town was completely eradicated with the exception of the Greek restaurants and more of the Latino community moved to Pilsen and Little Village

African American survived the most of all these ethnic groups as the public housing projects kept them in the neighborhood.  The Maplewood Courts projects were built in 1961 to house even more impoverished blacks. 

Little Italy still had a flicker of life left in it for the next 10-15 years and greaser gangs remained on Taylor Street; however, most would die out in the mid-1960s, the biggest one the “Taylor Jousters” would be the last to survive as they were the predecessors of the retired Taylor Street Dukes.  The Jousters fought Vice Lords, Egyptian Cobras and Harrison Gents tooth and nail in the 1960s and early 1970s as they were a part of the white minority in the Near West Side community. 

The late 1970s saw the departure of the last of the Italian community as the neighborhood became majority African American. 

By the 1980s the Near West Side became a neighborhood of high crime, severe deterioration where gangs and drugs ran rampant.  The Vice Lords were the most dominating gang in this neighborhood as they sold millions of dollars worth of Heroin and crack cocaine in these public housing dwellings and the New Breeds dominated with them in the ABLA projects. 

In the 1990s the neighborhood was in an even deeper state of crisis and was now well over 80% African American, the vast majority of which were in a state of extreme poverty.  The Near West Side was deemed to be too valuable of a property to be in such a crumbling state, driving through the area you could swear you were driving through an area similar to Berlin after the World War II bombings. 

A massive urban renewal project started in the mid-1990s that first geared at tearing down some of the projects in the ABLA Homes and in the Henry Horner Homes.   In the 2000s decade several project buildings were razed to the point where the Horners were all gone, the Rockwells were all gone, Maplewood was closed down, and all the ABLAs were torn down except for the Jane Addams Homes that were left abandoned in 2002. 

In the 20th century and very early 2000s decade a drive to the United Center to catch a Chicago Bulls or Chicago Blackhawks game meant driving through the hard up United Center neighborhood that was full of projects and slums, it made for a scary venture for suburbanites that had no street smarts, this meant the family had to lock the doors to their minivan for a feeling of security as they drove through this neighborhood while destined to watch the Chicago Bulls hopefully pull of a victory.  In the 21st century venturing to these professional sports venues no longer meant passing through the streets full of urban eyesores.

The Near West Side once again became a highly diverse cultural melting pot with the difference in the fact that it was a mixed race neighborhood of upper classes living in brand new condos and town homes.  Brand new businesses opened and a whole new nightlife and restaurant life sprouted up.  The neighborhood has dramatically changed in the 21st century and UIC students are now safe to walk the streets; however, there are still street gangs dwelling near what is left of the ABLA projects such as the New Breeds that sell drugs in the area.  This area may not be the gangster neighborhood it once was but it is the motherland of the Ambrose, Latin Counts, Morgan Deuces, Taylor Jousters, New Breeds and the Harrison Gents.

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