Scattered settlement came to this area in the mid-19th century after Henry DeKoven purchased 280 acres of land here in 1835 and developed the first transportation along Lake Street (formerly known as Pennsylvania Avenue). As soon as he opened up the land to farming in the later 1830s settlement began of Irish, Bohemian and German settlers along the Lake Street corridor. Among these settlers came the city’s first black community as a cluster of blacks settled at Lake Street and Kinzie Street. This is credited as the first black community in Chicago history; however, it only lasted about 5 years or so and when these black settlers lived here they were not technically part of the city of Chicago since this area was not annexed yet. The real true first black community is credited to the Near South Side neighborhood.
In the year 1865 Henry Austin purchased a large tract of 470 acres from Cicero Township to create a community that he would call “Austinville.” Immediately his creation bloomed as several houses were built and businesses were put in. Within 25 years his Austinville had a population over 4,000 people.
In the year 1899 Austinville was too big for Cicero Township; therefore, it was voted in to be annexed into the city of Chicago that year. The area was now renamed “Austin” and already experienced a housing boom thanks to their complex mass transit system. Businesses soon were opened along Lake Street, Madison Street and Chicago Avenue. The earliest residents in the 19th century and the early 20th century were middle class to upper class Germans and Scandinavians.
In the 1910s and 1920s Italian and Irish immigrants came to Austin and the Irish actually developed a pretty large influence on the neighborhood. Austin fared quite well during the turbulent 1930s decade in the Great Depression era as Greek immigrants moved into the neighborhood. Austin was known to have beautiful and elegant apartments and sturdy homes. There was also Columbus Park that was full of beauty and recreation. All was well in the neighborhood for decades to come.
White greaser street gangs formed in the neighborhood geared at protecting the neighborhood back in the 1950s and 1960s. Gangs such as the Gaylords came to Austin and gangs like the Playboys, Ventures, Pulaski Park and Rice Boys started in the area.
In the late 1960s residents of Austin began to move out of the neighborhood as they headed for a new life in the suburbs, their old homes were then occupied by African Americans as black families were looking to escape blighted areas of the west side and south side, and as the black families arrived a Vice Lord element formed on Cicero Avenue and clashed with the white gangs. South and central Austin did not fight real hard to keep the neighborhood white instead they responded by moving out and letting the neighborhood change.
The 1970s decade saw a massive move out of white residents while African Americans rapidly moved in. White greaser street gangs fought Vice Lords and other black gangs tooth and nail as their families still wanted to live in the area, but by the late 1970s it became a losing battle for the white gangs as they began closing their territory. By the year 1980 almost all white residents had evacuated and Austin was over 96% African American in central and south Austin. White residents living north of North Avenue fought to keep their neighborhood from decay and stop African American migration up there but some Latino migration did happen in North Austin and Galewood but the assimilation was successful with Latinos.
The Gaylords street gang set up territory in Sayre Park in the Galewood section of Austin in the late 1970s that successfully fought to preserve the neighborhood. Galewood and North Austin became populated with some Latino gangs like the Latin Brothers. Central and South Austin all below North Avenue fell into a major state of deterioration and poverty. The once thriving businesses on Chicago Ave, Madison Street and Lake Street became either abandoned crumbling buildings or were torn down and left as vacant lots where crime and drug activity has run rampant. Once elegant homes and massive towering apartments have become dilapidated and crumbling as they house some of the city’s poorest black residents. Gangs like the Vice Lords run these streets and push astronomical amounts of Heroin through the neighborhood and outside of the neighborhood that supplies as far as the rich suburbs around the city, this got Austin nicknamed the “Heroin Super Highway.”
Heroin users all over Chicagoland usually go to Austin first before anywhere else because it is so plentiful and Chicago police have mostly neglected the area. The gangs fight hard to control Austin because of its plentiful mass public transit system that makes it easier for customer to come in and buy drugs. Austin has fallen into being one of Chicago’s tougher neighborhoods with some slums, and there has been no renewal or improvement south of North Avenue. The west side of Austin and the south Side of Austin tend to have very few run down and abandoned buildings, most of the dilapidated areas and high crime in the central and eastern part of the neighborhood. Austin has also held the highest murder rates for several years of all Chicago neighborhoods. The neighborhood is still held hostage by drugs, gangs and violence and is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.
Austin is the birthplace of the P.V.R and P.V.P greaser clubs.
All images below are of vacant buildings at the time the photo was taken. All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.