|Origins||Settled in 1836 and annexed in 1853|
Roosevelt Road on the north, 26th Street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, Chicago River or Federal/Clark Streets; South Loop: Roosevelt Road on the north, Cermak Road on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, Clark Street on the west; Black belt or former slum area: Cermak Road on the north, 26th Street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, Federal Street on the west
In the year 1836 construction began on the Illinois & Michigan Canal that employed several Irish, German and Swedish immigrants. Many of these workers settled in the land that would eventually become the Near South Side neighborhood in the year 1836 as they lived in log cabins.
In the early 1840s, this area became the site of the first permanent settlement of black Chicagoans as they also arrived to work on the canal creating the largest concentration of blacks in the city at that time as they settled in the vicinity around 18th and State which was close to where the canal is located.
After the canal was complete in 1848, the workers stayed in the area finding employment in the various lumber yards around this area.
In the year 1853 this territory was annexed into the city of Chicago and construction began for housing, paved roads, shopping and a railroad line. The area began to attract many upper classes as they built elegant mansions beginning in the 1850s.
One of the first African American communities started up in the South Loop section of the Near South Side as well. The Great Chicago Fire wiped out much of the progress in the neighborhood as many upper classes and a lot of the African American community were relocated but many remained. Many just moved a little further south just south or Cermak Road in the present day Motor Row District. The neighborhood rebuilt itself back up after the fire, progressively over the rest of the 19th century.
During the time of rebuilding, Chicago’s notorious “Vice District” extended from the Loop neighborhood into the South Loop section of the Near South Side bringing the first criminal element to the neighborhood. Since there was a section of lower income classes along this State Street strip from Roosevelt Road to Cermak Road, this area of it between 18th Street and Cermak Road became known as the “Levee,” which was sang about in the famous Led Zeppelin song “When The Levee Breaks.” The Levee operated until the year 1912 when these brothels and gambling dens were raided and shut down permanently. The Levee operated for about 30 years and over that course of time the notorious “Grey Wolves” corrupt ward bosses kept the Levee operating successfully by making sure the city government did not shut it down. The cities’ first Italian Mafia crime boss “Big Jim” Colosimo also owned some of this district and collected many dues. The former Levee area retained a bad reputation despite the fact that the Levee was all shut down.
One of the notorious gambling/brother buildings was the Four Deuces at 2222. South Wabash (Cermak and Wabash) that was owned by those that set up gambling rackets and saloons until the building was taken over by Big Jim Colosimo in late 1919. The Four Deuces was a major hub of gambling activity and then when Colosimo took the building it was also a major brothel. Around this same time the South Side Gang set up their headquarters at the Metropole Hotel located at 2300. Michigan Avenue (23rd and Michigan), by 1928 Al Capone left this property as the Outfit’s headquarters and instead made The Lexington Hotel as the new headquarters at 2315. South Michigan Avenue (23rd and Michigan) until he was incarcerated in 1932, then the Mafia left this piece of property.
The property value and rent values went way down and the oldest houses in the neighborhood went vacant and unattended. The city then had a plan to move many African Americans into this area as much as possible. The northern most part of this plan that became known as the “Black Belt” started at 22nd Street (Cermak Road) in the Near South Side neighborhood along State Street, and the Near South Side part extended to 26th Street which borders with the Douglas neighborhood that housed more of the Black Belt. These wooden homes in the Black Belt were some of Chicago’s oldest houses and were severely deteriorated. Once elegant mansions were converted into several small and run down apartments that were kitchenette sized, the area was a slum full of poverty stricken African Americans. The city pushed as many blacks to move into this area as possible starting in about 1917 once black migration increased greatly.
In the years during and after World War II the Chicago Housing Authority came up with a revised plan of how to contain the black community into the Black Belt area while also providing better more humane living conditions, this brought about the construction of the Chicago housing projects to the black community on the south and west sides of the city.
The top of the Black Belt was razed in 1954 between Cermak Road down to 25th Street along State Street and outward to Federal Street on the west. This razing made way for the notorious Harold Ickes Homes to be built that was a public housing project solely for African Americans.
At first the projects were a great thing for these former black southerners but by the 1960s street gangs took control of the buildings bringing about violence and the drug trade. At the same time the CHA constructed the Raymond Hilliard Homes that stood north of Cermak Road to Cullerton Street than out to State Street and out to Clark Street which was located within the South Loop section of the Near South Side. The Hilliard Homes were originally for African Americans and were a pretty rough project building until the 21st century when they were closed and rehabbed.
The early half of the 20th century brought excellent progress to the northern half of the Near South Side in the South Loop section with the construction of the McCormick Center, Soldier Field, The Adler Planetarium, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History and several famous buildings between the 1920s to the 1960s but in the southern part of the neighborhood below Cermak Road there was nothing but extreme poverty, vacant lots and severely deteriorated buildings. Once elegant hotels including Al Capone’s former hideouts were crumbling and became drug addict hideouts while some still operated as hotels but sleazy hotels for criminal and drug addicted transients. The highlight of it all was the buildup of two public housing complexes but these would soon turn into a curse by the 1970s when CHA neglected renovations and the Chicago police stopped patrolling these buildings as they were taken over by gangs like the Black Gangster Disciples and the Black P Stones. This made way for drugs, guns and gangs to take over the buildings and the whole area of the southern Near South Side.
I remember back in the days when driving down I-55 and the fork would come up for Lake Shore Drive no one ever wanted to mess up and go south on the LSD because that was when you entered the black ghetto, the north bound LSD exit was where you accessed all the sites to see but to the south was a site of poverty and misery. The Harold Ickes projects became very dangerous over the decades and the entire area around them became crime ridden. In the year 2009 until 2010 the city demolished these project buildings as they were not scheduled for renovation like the Hilliard towers instead they were condemned and razed.
In the 21st century much of the southern part of the Near South Side has been heavily renovated and has become a much safer neighborhood as crime rates have plummeted.