Near South Side
Near South Side

Near South Side

Origins Settled c. 1836 and annexed c. 1853
Area Central Chicago
Boundaries

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

Gangs headquartered Gangster Disciples,

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 year 1840, 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.  These early black settlers came from the Near West Side neighborhood, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee and many were escaped slaves seeking refuge.

One movement that helped blacks settle in Chicago was the creation of the Quinn Chapel in 1844 that helped fugitive slaves assimilate into Chicago.  The Quinn Chapel prayer group was a religious/abolitionist group that set up the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1847.  Their first location was in the Loop neighborhood which was also an area that housed pockets of blacks until the Great Chicago Fire destroyed their homes in 1871.  After the fire many blacks moved to the present-day Motor Row area at the southern boundary of the community.

This combo of freed blacks and escaped slaves worked tirelessly on the canal until 1848 then they gained other employment and stayed in the community for generations until gentrification changed the area in the 2000s decade.

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.

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 even though the Levee was all shut down.  Al Capone and his crime family maintained business and establishment in this community as this community now housed the some of the oldest gang element in the city.  Near South Side was more geared toward organized crime activity instead of gang activity in these older decades.  Big Jim Colosimo and Al Capone both developed their careers on these streets during their early years.

Beginning in the 1890s, wealthy elites from the Prairie District of the Near South Side and the Prairie Shores area of Douglas began to move out of their mansions in favor of Near North side or downtown Loop locations that were an escape from the noise from the new railway lines and factories that annoyed these wealthy residents.  As they began to move, their mansions were not purchased by wealthy elite whites because of how word got around about the noise.  These mansions then quickly depreciated in value and were bought by white landlords that aimed to divide some of these properties into tenement housing that would end up having impoverished blacks as their primary renters.  Many of these landlords were slum lords that allowed these properties to deteriorate.  These early slum lords got away with it because during the two major black migration waves of the 20th century there was a severe housing shortage which gave these landlords an advantage in less maintenance as many black families were desperate for housing.  Other mansions were demolished to make way for more factories while others were purchased by wealthy black families.  As the 1890s would progress wealthy blacks would slowly move into more mansions south of Prairie Shores until they began moving into Douglas, Grand Boulevard and Oakland.  These mansions also housed many of the black lawyers, doctors, and business owners that all had practice in Bronzeville, hence, why most moved here not just for philanthropical reasons.

One of the notorious gambling/brothel 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 blighted and 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 time period after the Levee closed these streets were some of the most dilapidated and polluted streets in Chicago.

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.  Harold Ickes was a tight community and the projects were maintained nicely.  In the year 1966 the Black P Stones and Devil’s Disciples staked claim to these projects but the projects did not yet fall into crime and violence.

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.  When the projects first opened they were another safe and well-functioning community.  I do not know exactly when it happened but the Devil’s Disciples moved into these buildings but it did not effect these projects in a significantly negative way in these early years.

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. This section of the neighborhood was divided from the rest by the I-55 and Lake Shore Drive highways.

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 blighted area that had the projects.  The north bound LSD exit was where you accessed all the sites to see but to the south was a site of poverty and blight.  This area was also considered a dangerous and high crime area during these 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s years.  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.

The Harold Ickes projects alone was the biggest cause of gang activity and high crime in the neighborhood as drug trafficking moved through those buildings around the clock.  The projects were deteriorated and became dangerous.

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.  The neighborhood is completely unrecognizable in recent decades and without the Harold Ickes projects gangs can barely exist on these streets.

In the later 1960s these streets were dominated by Black Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones

In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones dominated these streets until the Ickes projects were razed.

In the 2010s decade and later the Gangster Disciples still have a presence in the Hillard projects which makes them the dominating and pretty much only gang to operated in on these streets.

Here is a list of significant gangs that once walked these streets over time:

Black P Stones Established 1966-2009

Harold Ickes projects Established 1966-2009

Gangster Disciples Established 1966-present years

20th to Cermak Federal to State (Hilliard projects, H Town) Established 1966-present years

Cermak to 24th, Federal to State (Harold Ickes projects) Established as Devil’s Disciples 1966-2009

New Breeds Established 1979-1981

Harold Ickes projects (As Goon Squad Gangsters or Royal Family) Established 1979-1981