Near North Side
Near North Side

Near North Side

Origins Settled by Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable in 1788 and annexed in 1837
Area Central Chicago

Evergreen Avenue on the north, Chicago River on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, North Branch Chicago River on the west; Cabrini Green neighborhood: Division Street on the north, Chicago Avenue on the south, Lasalle on the east, Larabee on the west; Goose Island neighborhood: North Avenue on the north, Chicago Avenue on the south, Larabee Street on the east, Chicago River on the west. Little Hell was all of Cabrini Green area and Goose Island

The Goose Island and Cabrini areas in the southwest quadrant of the Near North Side neighborhood would become the home of the first gang banging and organized crime elements in Chicago history.  Most of it was going on in the Cabrini Green area that was nicknamed “Little Hell” as early as the late 1850s.

In the year 1853 manufacturing industries were built on Goose Island that offered employment to the many impoverished Irish immigrants that lived in shabby dwellings in and near the island.  The neighborhood got the nickname “Little Hell”  from the gas flames that lit up the night sky from the  Peoples Gas, Light & Coke Co at the corner of Hobbie Street and Cleveland Street.  In the late 1850s underground gambling dens and brothels were literally operating underneath the ground and brought about shady criminal groups.

In the year 1860 an Irish young man named Michael Cassius Mcdonald made his way into Little Hell and organized the gambling dens into a sophisticated gambling racket.  Mcdonald soon rose to power and created the Irish Mafia here is Chicago after he got into the back pockets of Chicago politicians.

By the early 1870s Mcdonald was completely untouchable and worked hand in hand with corrupt politicians to look the other way of gambling and brothel operations in exchange for cash payouts.

The area known as Little Hell was so deteriorated and dilapidated that many families slept on soil that was covered only by cardboard in their apartment dwellings or shantytowns.  The area severely lacked running water which caused more unsanitary conditions and living a life of filth.  These streets were mean and dirty which created the first violent criminal elements the city had ever seen.  Scores of Irish street gangs popped up in this section of the neighborhood and many were hired by crooked politicians and Irish organized crime to do dirty work for mere pennies.

In the 1880s the area was settled by Sicilian immigrants, and by the 1890s the Sicilians were fully partaking in gang activity.  The area was so bad that Chicago police did not want to enter this area especially the intersection of Milton and Oak Street (today known as Cleveland and Oak Streets) that was nicknamed “Death Corner” due to the fact that many people were killed there especially in the early 20th century.

In the 1890s notorious Chicago mob boss Big Jim Colosimo got his start here in Little Hell in the criminal life when he began working for the crooked Irish Chicago politicians the “Grey Wolves.”

By 1902 Big Jim Colosimo had acquired enough money to open his very own brothel and got into the business of kidnapping unsuspecting female immigrant women that came to the U.S. seeking employment from an ad that turned out to be fake, the girls were then forced into a life of prostitution and Colosimo got in on that business.

By 1909-1910 Jim Colosimo began receiving threatening letters from Chicago’s “Black Hand” extortionists that often victimized the wealthy in and near down town Chicago as this criminal group formed around the turn of the century.

In 1910 Colosimo called upon Johnny “The Fox” Torrio from New York City to help with the problem and from there a war started between Colosimo’s gang and the Black Hand extortionists that resulted in several deaths especially at Death Corner where the “Shotgun Man” took many lives between 1910 and 1911.

By 1912 Colosimo’s gang won the war thanks to the assistance from Torrio and the two men put together the “Chicago Outfit” which was the Italian Mafia here in Chicago that was a part of “La Cosa Nostra” that stemmed from Sicily.

During the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s mob wars raged in Little Hell especially when the “North Side Gang,” the new Irish Mafia, tried to run this whole section but they conflicted with rival Sicilian gangs such as the Genna Crime Family for example.  The North Side Gang was born on these wicked streets of Little Hell along with their rivals.  The gang wars were extremely bloody in the 1910s and 1920s and many youth gangs worked for the older gangs trying to gain notoriety in hopes that one day they would gain passage into these organized gangs.

In the 1930s African Americans began migrating into this neighborhood because this was an affordable neighborhood for the black family that was drowned in extreme poverty.  The mostly Italian community did not appreciate the arrival of African Americans; therefore, gangs of Italian youths roamed the streets at night hunting down blacks and beating them senseless just to show who ran the neighborhood.

In the year 1942 the solution to the poverty of Little Hell or now known more as “Little Sicily” was to tear down most of the shanty towns and dilapidated buildings and houses and replace it all with the Francis Cabrini Green Low Rise project buildings.

Many Italians left the neighborhood and migrated to West Town along “The Patch” while many other families moved into the projects.  The low rises were mainly for white Italian families; however, African Americans were allowed to move into these projects.  The projects were 75% white and 25% African American upon opening.

During the World War II years the projects were mostly happy dwellings where people got along and the projects were well maintained by the Chicago Housing Authority that built them.  The arrival of African Americans did not start to become an issue for this mostly Italian neighborhood until after World War II.  The Projects were mainly built to house World War II workers but when the war ended so did the war industry leaving many workers destitute and unemployed.  The African Americans were the first to lose their jobs and would have the hardest time finding new jobs because this was the 1940s when the white man was put first.  Some desperate African Americans resorted to crime as a means to get by which threatened to bring the neighborhood back to the state of terror it was for 80-90 years.

By the later 1940s Italian street gangs formed in the Cabrini Green neighborhood that would patrol the streets to protect the neighborhood, on the other side of the coin, they often bullied groups of black youths and beat them up for almost no reason, so there was good and bad with these gangs.

The earliest wave of Puerto Rican people moved into the Cabrini Green projects and into the Old Town section into a settlement called “La Clark” which was an area bounded by: North Avenue on the north, Division Street on the south, Clark Street on the east and Lasalle Drive on the west.

As the 1950s progressed more and more white Italians packed their bags and left the neighborhood as more African Americans moved into the projects.  Many white families were experiencing upward mobility and no longer needed to live in public housing but African Americans were further behind socially and economically in a large part due to inequality in the work force.

In 1955 the city decided the Cabrini Green projects were a success; therefore, several more Italian homes were torn down to make way for high rise extensions of the projects.  Between 1955 and 1958 this extension project continued.  By the time the second phase was completed the neighborhood had lost most of its Italian charm and the Cabrini Green neighborhood was now majority African American.

The new extensions saw no Italian residents; in fact, about 100% of the new arrivals were African Americans.  White Italians were now vacating the original low rises built in the 1940s.

The city was also beginning to plan for the construction of the elegant Carl Sandburg condominiums to be built right over the Puerto Rican settlement, this would mean they would start evicting Puerto Rican families.  In 1959, the evictions were complete and the Puerto Rican families were forced out.  Some of these families would move into Cabrini Green while others headed out west and moved to Wicker Park and various other neighborhoods.  This was the extinction of the first Puerto Rican settlement.

In 1959, the William Green Homes high rises was started that caused more homes out of Little Sicily to be torn down.  By 1960 the projects were all for African Americans as all white Italians had moved out of the buildings.  The Italians that were left in the houses surrounding the projects even began to pack up and leave because they did not feel at home anymore, those that remained until 1965 battled the African American gangs that migrated into the projects.

The rest of the Italian neighborhood left the Cabrini Green neighborhood as of 1965 along with all Italian businesses and churches.

As the later 1960s would roll in the projects became more violent, then by the 1970s the projects were downright dangerous. African American gangs like the Black Gangster Disciples, Mickey Cobras and Vice Lords invaded these project buildings and built up drug empires. The CHA made their last renovations between 1970 and 1975 then the projects were left to deteriorate.  Cabrini Green would become infamous as one of the most dangerous projects in the country.

The 1980s and 1990s became the worst decades in the Cabrini Green buildings as several murders and a drug empire was built up by street gangs.  The Gangster Disciples were able to rake in over $1,000,000 a month in drug profits in these towers.

Cabrini Green was unique because it was far from the south side and west side streets where the vast majority of project buildings were located.  Cabrini Green was located right near downtown Chicago and right near swanky neighborhoods like Goose Island, River North, Streeterville, Old Town and the Gold Coast.  The upper classes of Chicago were within a mile or two away from the underclass of Chicago in the same neighborhood.

Many of times over the years travelers would venture downtown and get lost within Chicago’s vast expressway systems and find themselves among the deteriorated bombed out towers of Cabrini Green, the initial feelings were fear and hopelessness once the traveler was lost in this neighborhood; however, never has there been an incident where a traveler died getting lost here or come up missing.  Many would get lost at 2 A.M. or later after their drunken night in the expensive night clubs on the Near North swanky strips, and many of times the wealthier party goers would come to Cabrini for the purpose of buying a crack rock or a bag a Heroin because they knew these projects were plentiful with drugs needed.  Ah yes, the carload of suburban white girls and white boys from Naperville could pull up, get their crack and then head to the down town River North nightclubs without a care in the world while they would poke fun at the slums and poverty of the people imprisoned in these towers of death as they pulled away and returned to the finer life.

Cabrini was a death trap, no not for the lost naive traveler, it was a death trap for those that lived the nightmare and were trapped there because of a skin color shade.  The darker your skin color, the darker your world would become in the Near North Side streets.

In the year 1995 the city began to sweep this awful mistake they called public housing under the rug when demolition began along with building closures.

By the year 2011 all the buildings were either torn down or closed, leaving the original Francis Cabrini Green Low Rises to be the last to stand.  Presently the streets of Near North still have the low rises but all the high rises were torn down as of 2011; Death Corner is now the sight of swanky new condos and construction of higher price dwellings.  The irony of the Near North that it was founded by a African American but ended up being a death trap for African Americans in later years.  The death and poverty that once lined the streets of the Cabrini Green neighborhood is now forgotten.  The Near North Side is the birthplace of the Chicago Outfit and the Chicago Irish Mafia.