|Origins||Settled by Samuel Ellis in 1831 and annexed c. 1889|
35th Street on the north, 43rd Street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, Vincennes Avenue to Cottage Grove Avenue on the west
The land that is now the Oakland neighborhood was first settled by Samuel Ellis (Ellis Avenue is named after him) in the year 1831 as he purchased 135 acres of property along the lake front. Ellis also had a tavern where present day 35th and Lake Park Avenue are located. Over the years the area was farmland and housed a few cottages and farms.
In the year 1851 Charles Cleaver came to Chicago and purchased 22 of those acres from Ellis so he could build a soap factory and a rendering shop at the intersection of 38th Street and Lake Michigan. Cleaver had a vision to build a community that houses his workers from the soap factory that he called “Cleaverville.” Cleaver also named all the roads he dug like Cottage Grove Avenue that currently stretches into the far south side of the city. When Camp Douglas was built in the nearby Douglas neighborhood more people flocked to Cleaverville. Part of the area was annexed into Chicago in 1863.
Another wave came when the Union Stock Yards opened in the Back of The Yards neighborhood in 1865. The area then experienced the opening of multiple saloons that attracted many Chicagoans flocking here for a good time then fell in love with the area and then had their homes built.
In the year 1871 the area was subdivided and the name changed to “Oakland.” In the 1870s and 1880s wealthy residents moved into Oakland and had mansions built turning the area into an elite community, this did not last as Irish immigrant workers became interested in the area and had houses built or moved into apartments.
The wealthy elite began moving out in the 1890s as their mansions were divided into smaller apartments that housed the Irish working classes and lower classes. The Irish were not the only ones to take up residence in Oakland, Japanese, Canadian, English, Jewish and German immigrants came to live in this community by the turn of the century.
During World War I African Americans began taking up residence in this community and By the 1920s many black families moved into the neighborhood despite several objections from white residents.
The 1920s was a decade of violence and hate in this neighborhood as blacks continued to move in while white residents tried to flush them out using violence and enforcing restrictive covenants; however, the African American population refused to leave and by 1930 nearly 30% of the neighborhood was black. By the end of the 1930s more than 50% of Oakland was African American and Oakland became a part of Bronzeville.
The Chicago Housing Authority built the Ida B. Wells Homes from 37th Street to Pershing Road and Cottage Grove Avenue to Martin Luther King Drive; however, the part of the projects that was located in Oakland was from Cottage Grove to Vincennes Avenue. These projects were built right over the site of the Aldine Square town homes that were beginning to crumble after the white community left them in the 1920s. These projects were a godsend to the impoverished black community living in homes that were close to 100 years old and dilapidated. The projects were new and clean and it was more affordable. The Ida B. Wells were also the first projects built for African Americans in 1939, by 1941 the projects were complete.
In the 1940s decade Canadians, Japanese, German, Irish, Jewish and English residents packed their bags and left the neighborhood except about maybe 25% of the neighborhood that would leave in the 1950s.
The later 1940s saw more hardships for the black community as poverty became an issue after the war industry came to a halt in 1945. The Policy racket that was controlled by African Americans on the south and west sides helped stimulate the local African American economy in Bronzeville but by 1946 the Chicago Outfit’s Sam Giancana had completely muscled in on this racket and most Policy Kings left the area by 1946. This caused many black owned businesses to close down that provided employment to the black community.
In the later 1940s black street gangs began roaming the streets of Bronzeville causing trouble but a gang called the “Deacons” organized gang activity and decided when wars would happen including their own wars. The Deacons ruled the Ida B. Wells projects and by the 1950s they ruled the entire Bronzeville area as they grew to over 1,000 members.
In the year 1952 Teddy Roe, the Chief Graf Collector and last remaining black Policy Racket kingpin was gunned down by Sam Giancana’s men in Washington Park, after this the Chicago Outfit took over the Policy racket entirely which effectively closed down all the Policy owned businesses in the black community causing more poverty and joblessness. Giancana then introduced the black community in Bronzeville to drugs especially Heroin. Ex Policy workers and other adult drug dealers began selling drugs in the black community while they forbid doing business with black youths and the gangs they were in. The biggest street corner for drug dealing and drug use was the intersection of Pershing Road and Cottage Grove that still had fancy hotels and drug trafficking became a big issue here which attracted crime and by the 1960s the hotels were no longer elegant hotels and went abandoned.
The 1960s saw the area fall into a slum as street gangs that originated from outside of Bronzeville took over the streets of this neighborhood and flushed out the less violent Deacons and other gangs as Black P Stones and Black Disciples took over, several buildings fell into severe deterioration and went vacant. CHA tried to help the community by building more projects in the 1960s such as the Clarence Darrow Homes from 38th Street to Pershing Road and Evans to Langley in 1961 and Lake Park Place in 1963 at The Oakwood Boulevard to 40th Street Lake Park Avenue to Lake Shore Drive.
The 1970s was even worse as many of the abandoned buildings were torn down leaving several vacant lots which Oakland was known for. The projects became conquered by violent street gangs and CHA abandoned these building along with the Chicago police leaving them to deteriorate and become crime infested, the last ditch effort of CHA was in 1970 when they built the Madden Park Homes between 37th Street to Pershing Road and Lake Park Avenue to Ellis; however, these projects along with the others in Oakland soon fell into disrepair and violence. The neighborhood experienced a higher rate of poverty as the middle class black families experienced upward mobility and moved to the further south side neighborhoods.
One major landmark in the neighborhood was the Oakland Square Theater at 3947 S. Drexel (Oakwood and Drexel). This theater was a popular destination and a center for fine cinema and arts from 1915 until the late 1960s, but by the later 1960s high crime in the neighborhood and the extortions by the Black P Stones forced the theater to close its doors in March of 1968. The Afro Arts Theater opened up that same year for African American theater and arts until it closed in 1971 and the building was left abandoned. In the year 1978 the El Rukns (Black P Stones) bought the theater to make it their gang headquarters called “The Fort,” this just proved that street gangs had completely conquered the Oakland neighborhood.
The 1980s and 1990s decades saw the worst times for Oakland as it was left to rot and fall deeper into a depression. Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones took over this neighborhood and engaged in violent gang wars.
The Fort was closed down and completely torn down in 1990 and from there plans came into play to fix the Oakland neighborhood. Demolition began in 1996 and carried on until 2011 of the various housing projects in Oakland as they were condemned. The only building saved and revamped was the Lake Park projects that became the “Lake Parc” buildings that became the home for elderly black residents. The area of The Fort was built back up into several high priced, brand new homes, condos and town homes.
The entire 21st century so far has seen great progress at reinventing the neighborhood back into a black metropolis and restoring the Bronzeville roots from many years ago. Oakland has once again begun becoming a hub of African American arts and culture and new buildings, businesses and restaurants have been built as the crime and gang activity has greatly declined. There is more in store for positive change in this community as many African American upper and middle classes have moved back into this neighborhood.
Oakland still does struggle with higher amounts of violence and gang activity but that is on the decline. There is not much blighted areas left of Oakland as there is only a small amount of shuttered homes and buildings left.
All images below are photos of vacant buildings at the time the photo was taken. All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.