North Lawndale
North Lawndale

North Lawndale

Origins Settled in 1827 and annexed in 1869
Area West Side

Arlington Street, Taylor Street and 5th Avenue on the north, 21st Street, Cermak and the railroad tracks on the south, the railroad tracks on the east, the railroad tracks on the west

Gangs founded Satan Disciples, Vice Lords, Insane Popes (North side),
Gangs headquartered Vice Lords, Four Corner Hustlers, Egyptian Cobras,

This area was settled in 1827 as part of the Lawndale-Crawford area and from there some farms were built in the area and eventually the area became a part of the suburb of Cicero and Cicero Township until the year 1869 when Chicago annexed this area and this Chicago neighborhood started with a population of about 1,500 people.

In the year 1870 Millard and Decker, a real estate firm, subdivided the land and named the area “Lawndale” to attract people to move into this community with the hopes of turning this area into a middle class enclave.  After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 many people came flocking to this neighborhood due to the solid materials the homes were built with.  The first groups to move in were Dutch, Irish and Germans especially after McCormick Reaper Works relocated here after the original location near downtown was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.

As the 19th century progressed into the 20th century, more people migrated to this neighborhood because jobs were plentiful in the area such as McCormick Reaper Works in South Lawndale, Western Electric in Cicero and Sears, Roebuck & Company which was right at 925 Homan Avenue in North Lawndale by 1906.

In the early 1910s Russian and Polish Jews migrated into this neighborhood as they became the vast majority as they experienced upward mobility.  The Irish and German population was heavily opposed to this migration and attempted to not allow renting to these families but putting together the constructs of official legal covenants failed due to the people’s lacking of legal expertise.  The neighborhood established itself as a thriving middle class Jewish community in the next few decades to follow, as more Jews left the Jewish Ghetto in favor of this safer and less rundown neighborhood.  Around this time Italians also moved to North Lawndale.

The Jews set to work right away and began building two flats and two story family apartment buildings and even some buildings 10-30 units for renting, this caused the overall population of North Lawndale to explode as now North Lawndale became 67% Jewish by 1930 (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009)

In the 1920s, several Jewish shops, synagogues, libraries and community centers opened making this neighborhood the largest Jewish enclave in Chicago with over 75,000 Jews.  This community was hardly paradise as there were no amenities like parks and recreational areas and it was very overcrowded.  The main appeal was a place for Jewish people to live without worrying about the discrimination they faced in the rest of the city and to escape the harsh “Jewish Ghetto” or Maxwell Street Market area near Maxwell Street.  This community lacked single family homes because of all the rented property which made a lack of opportunity for Jewish families to own their own property and in other parts of the city that did have purchasable property Jews were not allowed to purchase there due to covenants. (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).

In the year 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants as unconstitutional and were made illegal.  North Lawndale already had a black population of 1,400 by 1947 because Jewish families from the neighborhood encouraged black families to move here and the cooperation from landlords made it possible.  The Jewish population felt empathy for the plight of black families from more disadvantaged areas of the city and wanted to lend a helping hand.  During the 1940s when these first black families were moving in there were only two minor incidents of racial attacks against blacks from this Jewish community.  These black families were middle class and paid substantial down payments for their properties and never missed payments, they even upgraded and modified their properties this made them very appealing neighbors (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).

In the year 1948, many Jewish families experienced upward mobility now that the war and Great Depression were over.  Now that the restrictive racial covenants were lifted Jews were able to purchase property anywhere in the city and that’s when they headed further north in the city to neighborhoods like West Ridge, North Park and Forest Glen.  Jews also moved to suburbs like Skokie, Evanston and Lincolnwood.  This was a starter neighborhood for immigrant Jews to assimilate into American culture and now that they had adjusted completely they looked at this neighborhood as an embarrassment that hurt their pride, now it was time to leave.  This brought about more black middle classes from other parts of the city that could now officially move into North Lawndale without sponsors from friends and landlords would have no choice but to rent to them (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).  Blacks actually arrived a year before covenants were lifted in 1947 and more so by 1948 as they settled in the very northeast corner of the neighborhood around Roosevelt and California near Douglas Park.

Many black families followed in the same exact path as the Jews and moved from the Jewish ghetto into North Lawndale after finding upward mobility.

In the year 1950, the North Lawndale Citizens Council formed to revitalize local businesses, organize residents and organize citizens to create a successful racially integrated community (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).  This brought about more black middle class families to this community as more Jewish families left.  Some Jewish families left because of the open arms policies of these Jewish groups but many just wanted to move upward.  This also brought an increase in some racial incidents from angry whites but mainly from whites from South Lawndale (Little Village area) not so much from the Jews (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).

As black families moved in, some of their children still held onto ties with black street gangs from Maxwell Street Market area like Imperial Chaplains and 14th Street Clovers, these were the first black gangs to arrive but they did not gang bang or act as gangs only as social clubs.  The year of their arrival was 1951.

The early 50s was still a decent time for this neighborhood as these earliest black families mostly assimilated well and one could not even tell that gangs/clubs like Imperial Chaplains and Clovers existed on these streets as these were just really groups that were involved in recreational activities that would fight with enemies once and awhile.

In the year 1953, construction began on the Dan Ryan Expressway that tore through North Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park.  This cut off many usual routes for people of North Lawndale to get to local businesses they loved and made the area less appealing than ever.  Several buildings were torn down in this process.

In the spring of 1953 North Lawndale began to experience a crime wave as drug dealers and other criminals drifted into this neighborhood from the south side and Near West Side selling drugs or stealing so they could buy drugs to support their habits.  The Italian Mafia flooded the south side streets with Heroin in later 1952 and as a result the effects of a drug addicted African American community showed up in the Near West Side, North Lawndale and the East and West Garfield Park streets.

In the year 1955, the Jewish People’s Institute. the Hebrew Theological College and Labor Lycheum all closed down at once and relocated further north, thus, draining the rest of the appeal of the neighborhood which caused many more Jews to rapidly flock from the area in that same year.  This dropped property values immediately and made way for impoverished blacks from the southern states to afford to move to this area, many from Mississippi.  These families were former sharecroppers and rural people and had no idea how to maintain urban dwellings allowing their properties to decay (Source: Family Properties, New York Times, March 17, 2009).  This would cause the appeal of the neighborhood to drop and further property values to quickly sink as businesses began to suffer.

By the year 1955, the crime wave had not stopped and it was infecting the black community of North Lawndale, this factor combined with the beginning of this area’s depression caused gangs like Chaplains and Clovers to become more aggressive especially after the arrival of gangs like the Egyptian Cobras and the creation of several more gangs in that year.  Many groups of black youths broke away from Chaplains and Clovers and started their own more vicious gangs that went on the attack against their former gangs, this would, in turn, cause Clovers and Chaplains to became full-fledged gangs and become increasingly violent.  Many of these new gangs were black southern youths that had just arrived and the police were especially enraged by their presence.

As this community was quickly changing starting in 1955, Chicago’s most notorious slum lords began buying up acres of property.  Moe M. Forman, Al Berland, Joseph Berke, Lou Wolf, and Gilbert Balin became the most notorious of them all and were Jews that grew up here and lost their empathy for those less fortunate.  These men instead developed an attitude that it is best to work the system instead of being victimized by it and became criminals and predatory land lords.  They would charge higher rent than the value of the properties as they let them fall into disrepair.  Rent was not discounted in these slum buildings but poor black southerners had no other choice as these properties were still much cheaper than anywhere else.  

The African American population was growing quite well as white flight was happening. One thing that helped white flight happen faster was “block busting” which was a method when a real estate agent hires “agents provocateurs,” which were impoverished African Americans that wanted to make a few bucks.  After hiring the agents provocateurs, the real estate agent would go to the door step of a white family and persuade the family to sell their home at a rock bottom rate.  The agent would have the family look out the window and see anything from a black woman pushing a stroller to a group of black youths fighting in the streets and making the white family terrified.  The family had no idea they were being hustled by the real estate agent and they had no idea the rowdy blacks outside their window were hired agents provocateurs.  The white family would become terrified and ask the agent how they could get out the soonest possible; the agent then said they can get them out fast as long as they were willing to sell their home for a certain amount to the real estate company.  The family would be in such a state of panic they would agree to it real fast not giving themselves enough time to do any research.  The agent would then help the family get into a new home outside of the city in the suburbs, sticking the family with a mortgage and the agent would profit big while the family would lose thousands in home equity from their Chicago home.  The other part of the process was even more unethical and immoral as the agent would sell that same home to a black family that was desperate to escape from the poverty and crumbling conditions of Bronzeville, and the family was willing to pay a higher price to get the house.

White gangs formed starting in 1955, most notably the gang we know today as the Insane Popes to fight off the black southerns that they deemed undesirable.  As the whites were rapidly moving out others were still left behind and the youth formed these gangs to combat the black gangs.

Block busting and the closing of many businesses in the area dragged the neighborhood into a slum by the late 1950s with high crime and violence.  This neighborhood became worse than the Near West Side and the south side ghettos, this was the new ghetto and was much worse, redlining and disinvestment became harsh realities that costed many jobs and cut off many loans to black residents.

In the year 1957 police Captain Thomas O’ Donnell had his officers in this district do a massive sweep of the black street gangs as police officers brutally attacked, shook down and arrested black youths whether they were in a gang or not.  Some youths were innocent and others were hardly guilty; regardless, they were beaten robbed, burned with cigarettes and framed by Chicago police.  Many of the youths ended up being sentenced to do time in the Illinois Reformatory For Boys in St. Charles, Illinois.  In this facility a youth from North Lawndale named Edwin “Pepilo” Perry got together with six members of the Imperial Chaplains and started his own gang called the “Vice Lords” that were geared at angrily destroying the streets of North Lawndale in revenge for their mistreatment by police.  In 1958 the boys were out and the Vice Lords started congregating at 21st and Lawndale and went crazy smashing on every other street gang brutally forcing them to flip to Vice Lords or face onslaughts of violence.  The Vice Lords immediately expanded in North Lawndale and were immediately known by law enforcement as they absorbed one gang after another and they terrorized the North Lawndale community into the 1960s as the last of the white population moved out.

The Clovers became the most violent and dominating gang by 1957 but after the police busts that year the Egyptian Cobras took that number one spot for 1958 but once the Vice Lords arrived at the end of the year that would quickly change.

The last of the white population mainly lived on the east side of Douglas Park which was all blocks away from the only projects built in North Lawndale known as the Ogden Courts over by the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Washtenaw that were built in 1953 to 1954 in an attempt to contain the impoverished black community arriving in the neighborhood during the crime wave.  Vice Lords soon occupied these buildings and caused trouble all around the buildings, this sparked the creation of the Satan Disciples street gang that was a gang of white and Mexican greasers from 15th and Tallman, just two blocks away from the projects.

By the year 1960, the white gangs and the Clovers had been completely flushed out of the neighborhood as now the Vice Lords were destroying all other gangs.  Even the Egyptian Cobras could no longer dominate and began moving to the south side in 1959.

The 1960s was a decade where North Lawndale fell deeper into a slum, the Vice Lords and other gangs destroyed the neighborhood in the wake of their vicious gang wars.  In 1964 the older Vice Lords began attempting to organize themselves and stop destroying the community and this turned into them becoming “Conservative Vice Lords” and then creating “CVL Inc” by 1967.  CVL Inc used government funding to repair the neighborhood and offer job training programs, youth halls and black owned businesses.  The Martin Luther King riots of 1968 greatly destroyed much of the neighborhood; however, the Vice Lords tried to repair as much as possible.

By 1970 all funding was pulled from CVL Inc and the gang went back to being destructive and violent, they also heavily indulged in the drug trade, infecting the North Lawndale community with Heroin.

North Lawndale continued to deteriorate over the next few decades as bombed out abandoned buildings and homes became common sight and vacant lots lined the streets of this neighborhood.  Junkies and vagrants walk the streets at night while prostitutes and drug dealers run the street corners.  Gangs such as Vice Lords, New Breeds, Black Souls, Gangster Disciples and Four Corner Hustlers rule these streets and shoot each other dead over drug turf.  Starting in the early 1970s black residents were beginning to move out in large numbers as many could no longer stand the crime and deterioration.  As families continued to move out more and more shuttered properties and vacant lots became a common site.

I cannot say much positive about this neighborhood as it is one of Chicago’s worst and has been for a long time. Sure there has been some positivity and neighborhood repair; however, the decay and danger far outweighs the positive.  This is perhaps the second most blighted neighborhood in Chicago right behind Englewood, as several buildings have been left abandoned for decades and every block has at least a few shuttered buildings or homes.  This is still an active gang war zone and Vice Lords are still here and strong.

North Lawndale is the birthplace of the Insane Popes Vice Lords and Satan Disciples


All images below are photos of abandoned properties.  All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.