Near West Side
Near West Side

Near West Side

Origins Settled c. 1830 and annexed in 1837
Area West Side

Railroad track near Kinzie Avenue on the north, 16th Street on the south, Chicago River on the east, Tallman Avenue and the Pennsylvania railroad tracks on the west

Gangs founded Harrison Gents, Ambrose, New Breeds, Spartans, Taylor Dukes, Taylor Jousters, Latin Kings, Imperial Chaplins, 14th Street Clovers, Black Souls, Gaylords, Egyptian Cobras,
Gangs headquartered New Breeds, Vice Lords, Gangster Stones,

The Near West Side neighborhood is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Chicago as settlement started where the current West Loop section is near the Chicago River by Irish immigrants that built small cottages there.

This area was settled in 1830 or prior and annexed during the first annexations of the city in 1837.  Anywhere from Wood Street to the River was annexed into the city.

Beginning in the year 1836 Irish, Bohemian and black settlers came to the very northern part of this neighborhood settling between Lake Street on the south and Kinzie Street on the north.  This was the site of the very first black settlement in the city of Chicago as black workers came to partake in the grueling labor right at the canal along the very eastern boundary of the neighborhood just east of present day Canal Street.  This settlement would mostly vacate by 1840 as most blacks relocated to the first permanent black settlement in the Near South Side community.  Some black families remained for generations making for easier future passage of later black settlers in the early 20th century.

Beginning in the 1840s many of Chicago’s elite made their way into this neighborhood and built up a grand society lined with elegant mansions and also several shopping strips and easy access to the business district that led right across the river to the downtown Loop.  These wealthy elites were of German, Czech, Bohemian and French decent. The neighborhood was ideal for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the down town Loop and even some of the crime that could be found there.

In the early 1860s this neighborhood began to experience an influx of underclass German and Irish immigrants (mainly Irish) as they came to the more south east section in the present day University Village/Little Italy area, this was the beginning of the arrival of the impoverished in this neighborhood that would begin the legacy of socioeconomic problems this neighborhood would face throughout the years.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the neighborhood experienced another onslaught of underclasses as many packed into the lower half of the neighborhood seeking refuge from the damage of the fire.  200,000 underclass, poor and hungry migrants came to the area causing a housing crisis as many were stuffed into overcrowded buildings; once again these were Irish underclasses.

In the 1880s and 1890s many Irish and Germans began to leave the southern part of this neighborhood as Italians moved in between Polk Street and Taylor Streets forming “Little Italy” that was swarming with Italian culture.  Russian and Polish Jews also come in at the same time and settled around 16th Street around Maxwell Street and Halsted to create an area in the far southern part of the neighborhood known as Maxwell Street Market area or the “Jewish Ghetto” because of the good amount of poverty the Jewish residents faced, and this is where the famous Maxwell Street Market was at the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell.  Also at this same time in the late 19th century Greek immigrants made their way north of the Italians and Jews in an area that became known as “Greek Town.”

Although these neighborhoods were thriving with vive rant European businesses and churches, there was still an issue with poverty and that is what brought about the need for the Jane Addams Hull House that was constructed in 1889 located in Greek Town.  This house was to help impoverished immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture and to also understand the cultures of others around them in order for these immigrants to find employment easier and get around in the city.  The Hull House also provided recreation and networking and small levels of basic education, the Hull House did not allow African Americans as they were forced to look into programs for blacks which were of lower quality, another case of racial discrimination that impoverished blacks faced.

The Near West Side became an epicenter of several cultures as African Americans, Italians, Irish, Greeks and Jews clashed which would sometimes resort in violence, this also made each ethnic group very guarded of their individual neighborhoods and did not like their borders crossed, this led to some early street gang activity as far back as the 19th century.

The Near West Side was one of the first gang banging neighborhoods in Chicago, in fact, the Near West Side was one of the only gang infested neighborhoods from the 1860s through the 1940s.  Before the 1950s, gangs were only found in slum filled communities in the city and the Near West Side was one of them with very rich gang history from the 1860s to the 2000s decade.

In the 1900s decade black families began to migrate into the Maxwell Street Market area from the southern states.  This was the beginning of the first significant black migration to this community.  These southern blacks soon found work at the Maxwell Street Market as some opened up vendor stands while others played Blues and Jazz street side giving the market its legendary musical performances.

Jewish landlords felt empathy for impoverished southern blacks and provided them low cost tenancy when the rest of city shunned migrating blacks away.  These buildings were in horrid condition and were far below substandard living but for many struggling black families it was the best they could obtain and there were often more employment opportunities here on the west side than in the south side black belt.

In the same decade of the 1900s, middle class blacks were able to settle in the area bounded by Kinzie Street on the north, Washington Boulevard on the south, Jefferson Street on the east and Western Avenue on the west which encompassed almost the whole north side of the community.  Middle class blacks made inroads here as black families had amassed substantial wealth from generations of hard work in this area of the city.

Beginning in 1916, during the first major black migration wave, several more blacks arrived on the north side of this neighborhood and in the Maxwell Street Market area as many white families experienced upward mobility and left the neighborhood.  Jews especially experienced this upward mobility as the only claim they left in this neighborhood was property they owned for the purpose of renting.  Many Jews took on the role of landlords along Halsted Street as these buildings crumbled worse than ever.  On the north side of the community blacks lived among whites in this middle class area making this one of the most racially mixed communities until the 1960s.

In the year 1925 the notorious “Forty Two Gang” formed on Taylor Street in the Little Italy section that comprised of teenage Italian youths that protected the borders of Little Italy from other ethnic groups, many of these youths went on the assimilate into the Chicago Outfit when they grew into their twenties.

Another ethnic group came to this neighborhood beginning in the year 1917, the Mexican immigrants.  With the start of World War I many young white men went to serve their country in the war, this opened up several manufacturing jobs in Chicago.  Thousands of Mexican men immigrated to Chicago seeking these vacant jobs and the majority settled in the Near West Side in between west of Greek town and east of the African Americans.  Mexican men were only there to work and they even lived in the shabbiest and most deteriorated dwellings; therefore, there was not much envy toward this group especially since their standards for employment and living conditions were much lower than the rest of the neighborhood.  When the Great Depression Era began in late October of 1929 the neighborhood was suddenly jealous of the Mexican immigrants’ employment and now those low rate job were looking awfully attractive to the other racial and ethnic groups in the neighborhood and this brought about hate and animosity.

As the year 1930 ushered in the United States government enacted the Repatriation Act that gave the government unlimited jurisdiction to deport any Latino with no due process that migrated into Chicago .  Thousands of Mexican people were deported out of Chicago during these hard times all the way up until 1936.  Once repatriation was over, a small cluster of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in the neighborhood that still housed the remaining Mexicans right near Madison Avenue.  The Mexicans and Puerto Ricans that remained formed political groups and labor groups in order to prevent this type of treatment from happening in the future.

African American migration began to pick up in this neighborhood in the 1930s and many found a life of poverty once they arrived, the African Americans were in the largest state of poverty and suffered the worst living conditions and employment opportunities.  The Jane Addams Hull House did not cater to African Americans which did not help them achieve the education and networking they sorely needed, then to add insult to injury the very first Chicago Housing Authority project building built in this neighborhood, the Jane Addams Homes in 1938 was a project building only for poor Jews and Italians when it opened.  African Americans were in the most desperate need of public housing; however, the three project complexes that were built in Chicago in 1938 were only for whites; however, roughly 2.5% of the Jane Addams was populated with African American families, which probably meant there was still room after all the poor whites got what they needed.

As World War II first started and the United States became involved, more African American migration poured into the city as the Great Depression era was coming to a close and more manufacturing jobs opened up, especially once the U.S. entered into the war in 1942 right after the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941.  The Near West Side neighborhood was the only west side neighborhood that allowed blacks because restrictive covenants prevented them from going elsewhere on the west side.  Not only were African Americans coming in high volumes, but as of 1942 Mexican immigrants were once again flooding into Chicago and once again they arrived in the Near West Side community right where they originally settled just west of Greek Town, and once again they were in Chicago to work just like the blacks.

In the early 1940s, blacks migrated more into the Maxwell Street Market section right near the sight of the original Maxwell Street Market as the last Jewish residents packed up and left.  The old Maxwell Street Market area was now a black community by the end of the 1940s and many youth gangs in the areas just to the west were very unhappy with this sparking gang fights in the 1940s.

In the year 1942 another public housing project was built right near the Jane Addams homes called the Robert Brooks Homes that was named after a recently killed African American soldier that was killed in the Philippians by the Japanese.  This project was for African American residents unlike the Jane Addams Homes and many impoverished black families were lining up to get in, to help the demand an extension was built in 1943.

When the war was over there was much protest for Mexican immigrants to leave the country now that the war effort was no longer needed, but repatriation was not brought back into effect this time and the Mexican immigrants did not want to leave the Near West Side.  Even though the rest of the country was enjoying much better employment opportunities after the war, Chicago lagged behind for a while due to having been so heavily vested in the war industry now there were not enough jobs to go around catering to the growing city, and once again whites felt they should have employment priority.  This led to hate and animosity and as Mexican and Puerto Rican labor groups struggled to defend “Braceros” that wanted to stay in the U.S.

In the later 1940s more Puerto Rican immigrants began showing up in this neighborhood to join the few that arrived in the later 30s.  The Puerto Ricans settled among the Mexicans near Madison Avenue in a settlement known as “La Madison.”

Blacks had moved into the Jewish Ghetto in a mostly smooth transition because most of the Jewish community empathized with the plights blacks faced with social injustices.  The nearby Italians and the Irish were far less empathetic and as the black population grew by the later 1940s resentment grew.  One of the prized parks in the area was Stanford Park which had gardens, playgrounds, a swimming pool and even baseball diamonds.  This was a park fought over for generations as Jews, Italians and Irish fought each other for their rights to use the park.  The Italians and Irish though they were the most entitled to the parka and both ethnic groups targeted the Jews causing the Jews to fist fight just to use the pool.  By the late 1940s, African Americans were using the park the most as Maxwell Street Market area was transforming into more of a black community.  Stanford Park became the epicenter of African American activities and get togethers and this caused many whites to snarl about it.  Soon racial clashing was happening in higher than normal volumes in and around the park.  This caused social athletic clubs to convert into street gangs as they fought over the park and nearby Maxwell Street Market area Streets.  This was the beginning of the 14th Street Clovers and Imperial Chaplains black street gangs that soon swelled in number as they fought for their right to move about the neighborhood.

Another project building was constructed for African Americans known as the Loomis Courts that were built in 1951 within the same cluster as the Jane Addams and Robert Brooks Homes.

Then in 1952 the Grace Abbott Homes were also built in the same cluster that became known as the “ALBA Homes” that was in the vicinity of Cabrini Street on the north, 15th Street on the south, Blue Island Avenue on the east and Ashland Avenue on the west.  By this point in time the Jane Addams Homes were also becoming African American as the white families experienced upward mobility.

In the year 1954 the city began the process of “slum clearance” so they could begin construction of the new Dan Ryan Expressway, Kennedy Expressway and the Circle Interchange.  Some of the first buildings were knocked down and some of the first families experienced displacement.  There was also the beginning of more construction public housing projects.

“The Village” was now completely built by 1955 which was the ABLA public housing projects consisting of Grace Abbott Homes, Jane Addams Homes, Loomis Courts and Robert Brooks Homes.  The Village was conquered by Imperial Chaplains and 14th Street Clovers.

In the year 1954, the Imperials street gang formed in this neighborhood that was an organization for all Hispanics and was geared at protecting any Hispanics that were under attack.  This organization would eventually evolve into the notorious Latin Kings, and they got their start here on these streets at Laflin and Van Buren.  This was also the year that the Egyptian Cobras were born out of the Imperial Chaplains as a breakaway group.

It was sometime in about the early to mid-1950s that another Italian Mafia farm group started that replaced the Forty Two Gang called the “Taylor Street Dukes.”  The Dukes were known as the toughest of greaser gangs that guarded Taylor Street very closely and were the dominant Italian and Mexican gang. The Dukes were said to be the reason why “Ambrose” formed at Taylor and Halsted.

As the 1950s progressed the hatred and violence between the street gangs only escalated as more blacks and Hispanics moved in and more project buildings were going up like the Henry Horner Homes that were built in 1957-1961 in the nearby United Center neighborhood and the Rockwell Gardens that were built just west of the Henry Horners in 1958-1959.  The Henry Horners became taken over by Imperial Chaplains, Clovers and Egyptian Cobras right after they opened but by 1959 the Vice Lords began to conquer these projects.  At the same time the Vice Lords also conquered The Village and beat back Clovers and Chaplains.

Just as the gang wars were heating up by 1959, the city of Chicago began sending out notices for residents of Greek Town, La Madison, Little Italy and the black community to vacate their homes to make way for the Kennedy Expressway construction.  Many Puerto Ricans relocated to the Lincoln Park neighborhood while Mexicans moved to Pilsen and Little Village; gangs like Ambrose and Morgan Deuces were relocated to Pilsen.  The Italians relocated to southern West Town while the Greeks relocated to Lincoln Square.

African American survived the most of all these ethnic groups as the public housing projects kept them in the neighborhood.  The Maplewood Courts projects were built in 1961 to house even more impoverished blacks.

In the year 1964 the city kicked more people from their homes to build the University of Illinois At Chicago campus and the Circle Interchange which displaced the vast majority of Little Italy as it now became known as “University Village.”  Many people in the neighborhood tried to fight in 1963 to keep the university out but the battle was lost and evictions went out as early as 1963 and escalated in 1964.  Greek Town was completely eradicated with the exception of the Greek restaurants and more of the Hispanic community moved to Pilsen and Little Village, West Town, Lakeview, Uptown and West Humboldt Park.

Little Italy still had a flicker of life left in it for the next 10-15 years and greaser gangs remained on Taylor Street; however, most would die out in the mid-1960s, the biggest one the “Taylor Jousters” would be the last to survive as they were the predecessors of the retired Taylor Street Dukes.  The Jousters fought Vice Lords, Egyptian Cobras and Harrison Gents tooth and nail in the 1960s and early 1970s as they were a part of the white minority in the Near West Side community. In 1966 more UIC buildings were eradicated and more families were displaced to the Back of the Yards, Pilsen, Little Village, West Town, West Humboldt Park, Buck Town, Uptown, Lake View and Marshall Square.

The late 1970s saw the departure of the last of the Italian community as the neighborhood became majority African American.  In the early 1980s the last  Taylor Jousters moved away from this neighborhood as they settled mainly in West Town.

By the 1980s the Near West Side became a neighborhood of high crime, severe deterioration where gangs and drugs ran rampant.  The Vice Lords were the most dominating gang in this neighborhood as they sold millions of dollars worth of Heroin and crack cocaine in these public housing dwellings and the New Breeds dominated with them in the ABLA projects.

In the 1990s the neighborhood was in an even deeper state of crisis and was now well over 80% African American, the vast majority of which were in a state of extreme poverty.  The Near West Side was deemed to be too valuable of a property to be in such a crumbling state, driving through the area you could swear you were driving through an area similar to Berlin after the World War II bombings.

A massive urban renewal project started in the mid-1990s that first geared at tearing down some of the projects in the ABLA Homes and in the Henry Horner Homes.   In the 2000s decade several project buildings were razed to the point where the Horners were all gone, the Rockwells were all gone, Maplewood was closed down, and all the ABLAs were torn down except for the Jane Addams Homes that were left abandoned in 2002.

In the 20th century and very early 2000s decade a drive to the United Center to catch a Chicago Bulls or Chicago Blackhawks game meant driving through the hard up United Center neighborhood that was full of projects and slums, it made for a scary venture for suburbanites that had no street smarts, this meant the family had to lock the doors to their minivan for a feeling of security as they drove through this neighborhood while destined to watch the Chicago Bulls hopefully pull of a victory.  In the 21st century venturing to these professional sports venues no longer meant passing through the streets full of urban eyesores.

The Near West Side once again became a highly diverse cultural melting pot with the difference in the fact that it was a mixed race neighborhood of upper classes living in brand new condos and town homes.  Brand new businesses opened and a whole new nightlife and restaurant life sprouted up.  The neighborhood has dramatically changed in the 21st century and UIC students are now safe to walk the streets; however, there are still street gangs dwelling near what is left of the ABLA projects such as the New Breeds that sell drugs in the area.  This area may not be the gangster neighborhood it once was but it is the motherland of the Ambrose, Morgan Deuces, Taylor Jousters, New Breeds and the Harrison Gents.