|Origins||Settled c. 1869 and annexed in 1889|
51st Street on the north, 63rd Street on the south, Cottage Grove Avenue on the east, railroad tracks by Federal Street on the west
The Washington Park neighborhood was first settled right after the Union Stock Yards opened on Christmas day 1865. Irish and German immigrants settled in this area in the later 1860s and the 1870s that took up employment in the stock yard and the railroad. This area was a part of the Hyde Park Township area as of 1861 so these early German and Irish immigrants were actually a part of this township.
In the year 1874 the Grand Boulevard horse carriage path (Martin Luther King Boulevard) was dug that would extend into the city of Chicago which made a great traveling route for tradesman and Chicago’s wealthy elite. Soon the wealthy elite wanted to build homes for themselves and elegant mansions and luxury apartments soon popped up along Grand Boulevard in this neighborhood, the area was then given the name “Washington Park” named after President George Washington in the year 1880, in 1889 Washington Park was annexed into the city of Chicago along with the rest of Hyde Park Township.
In the 1890s German Jews migrated to the neighborhood as a system of mass transit was perfected. The neighborhood now had working class Irish and Germans on the western part of the neighborhood while upper class wealthy elites lived on the east as they built more mansions and luxury apartments along Indiana Avenue, Grand Boulevard, Michigan Avenue and Calumet Avenue.
In the 1900s decade several cheaper apartment buildings were built that were appealing to African Americans from nearby Bronzeville. The white residents immediately objected to the arrival of blacks and inflicted several acts of violence against black residents and tried to enforce restrictive covenants. The efforts of the white community to keep blacks out failed as more African Americans moved in during the 1910s decade especially during and after World War I.
The battle between blacks and whites continued into the 1920s but by 1930 over 90% of the white population had left the area making Washington Park an African American community and also an extension of the “Black Belt” was now from 51st Street to 63rd Street along State Street.
The 1930s decade was the beginning of severe financial hardship for the black community in this neighborhood as joblessness became a major issue and the area was not within the thriving Bronzeville area to the north. Policy racket gangsters helped the community as many of them lived in Washington Park which greatly helped the neighborhood with employment opportunities in the gambling dens and with the Policy wheels. The Policy racket kept the neighborhood from falling completely apart and from extreme poverty, nevertheless, the area remained in a harsh state of poverty and deterioration was settling in.
Disinvestment soon settled in as this neighborhood was added to the list of forgotten neighborhoods that would be cut off from financial support from the city. The once elegant mansions owned by the elites were divided into kitchenette apartments for impoverished lower income blacks.
When the black Policy racket was taken over by the Outfit’s Sam Giancana completely by 1952, the Policy no longer protected or helped the neighborhood as now Heroin was becoming a problem in this community. Sam Giancana introduced the drug to this community in the 1950s after they had just killed Teddy Roe, the last Policy King, in front of his Washington Park home at 5239 S. Michigan Ave (52nd and Michigan Avenue) on August 4, 1952 just three days after he was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer and no longer cared if he was killed or not.
The 1950s saw the neighborhood fall into a more extreme state disrepair and deterioration. Landlords of the kitchenette apartments ran slum dwellings and refused to make repairs while still charging standard or higher rent.
In the year 1960 hope would come to Washington Park as the Chicago Housing Authority planned to build the countries’ largest public housing project the Robert Taylor Homes along the black belt which meant removal of the many dilapidated houses along this strip. By 1962 the projects were complete as they extended from 51st Street to 54th Street and State Street to Federal Street in the Washington Park part of the projects. Many poverty stricken black families were lining up to get into these brand new and massive projects but not all could be housed.
The 1960s not only saw more deterioration and poverty in these streets, this decade also saw the invasion of street gangs from nearby neighborhoods like the Black P Stones of Woodlawn and the Devil’s Disciples/Black Disciples of Hype Park and Kenwood. These neighborhoods bordered Washington Park so it made for an easy invasion of these high powered violent gangs. By the mid to late 1960s these gangs had completely conquered the neighborhood and were selling drugs in the community and committing several violent crimes.
The 1970s were even worse in Washington Park as the Robert Taylor Homes became neglected by the CHA and the police, now the projects were saturated with drugs, guns and gangs as Gangster Disciples, Mickey Cobras, Black Disciples and Black P Stones took these projects over and all of Washington Park.
The Washington Park community fell further into deterioration, violence and drugs over the next several decades.
In recent years renovation was done to the actual park in the Washington Park neighborhood but the neighborhood is still in a rough state and very violent, it continues to be one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago scoring often in the top five or the top three most violent, the tearing down of the Robert Taylor Homes between 2002 and 2007 has done little to help deter the crime.
Starting in 1991 all the way up until 2004 the Black Disciples were running an extremely complex corporate like drug operation in the Randolph Towers, Chicago Housing Authority complex at 6217 S. Calumet Avenue near the intersection of 63rd Street and Calumet Avenue in a building the BDs nicknamed “The Castle.” In this 16 story complex the BDs pulled in $45,000 a day in crack cocaine and heroin sales as they posted snipers on the rooftop that wore night vision goggles so they could see their enemies approaching in the dark. This building was not only the biggest money maker for the BDs it was also their headquarters that was ran by Marvel Thompson the current leader. When entering the building everybody was searched for weapons, even the residents that lived there were subject to be searched by armed gang members. In one incident they searched a man that had a bullet proof vest on that turned out to be an undercover police officer, when the BDs discovered it they shot the man in the back as he tried to run and police did not come back, that just showed the power the BDs had in this building where they could shoot a cop and get away with it, of course the officer lived but it still was a show of power. In May of 2004 the police finally raided the building and made several arrests, but in order to fully shut down the operation the building was torn down.
The Robert Taylor projects from 51st to 54th were torn down in 1998. These Robert Taylor buildings were known as “The Hole” because Mickey Cobra gang members controlled these towers and compared these towers to a snake’s hole. Before the towers were torn down several gang shootings erupted between 51st to 53rd as Mickey Cobras were trying to advance north once they found out The Hole was to be torn down.
Washington Park is one of the most blighted communities in Chicago as several dilapidated buildings and houses can be found on just about every block in this neighborhood, some have been shuttered for decades, the neighborhood also has many vacant lots where deteriorated properties used to stand. The population of this neighborhood has dramatically plummeted in population size, the peak in population was in 1950 when the population was over 56,000, the population continued the rapidly decline beginning in the 1970s and by 2010 the population was less than 12,000, much of this declining is due to high crime and many foreclosed properties that were left vacant for many years then razed.
All images below are photos of vacant buildings at that time. All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.