A Brief Outline of Chicago's Gang History
G angs have been classically viewed as a by-product
of social disorganization, the weakness of traditional institutions, like
the schools, to replace the lost primary networks of the traditional world
(Thomas and Znaniecki 1916). For Fredric Thrasher, the "father"
of gang research, gangs were not about race, but about space, the disorganization
of "interstitial eras" of the city. The
Chicago School, of which Thrasher was a part, beleived the industrial
economy and the American Dream would assimilate all ethnic groups, sooner
or later, and dissolve their gangs.
But race would profoundly shape the history and contours of Chicago's gangs. While other ethnic groups were on the ladder of assimilation, African Americans were crowded into the south side "Black Belt." As WWI brought more and more African Americans into Chicago to find work, tensions rose. In 1919 a race riot broke out spear-headed by Irish gangs or "social athletic clubs." In the following years, African Americans would stay segregated, while European ethnic groups did not. Violence met attempts by Black families to move out of apartheid conditions into white areas.
In the 1920s, Prohibition meant Italians and Sicilians would sieze control of the bootlegging industry and replace the Irish on top of the rackets. The Irish ran the legal politics and the Italians the illegal one and they worked together just fine. Al Capone replaced Johnny Torrio as the head of a network of neighborhood gangs which later became what is called the "Outfit." Chicago had the nation's highest rates of violence as reformers attempted to destroy the bootleggers but failed.
Mexican immigration which also began in the labor needs of WWI, continued until the depression, when large scale deportations crippled the Mexican community. Mexican immigration would resume in the labor shortage years of WWII and after. In those post WWII years, Puerto Ricans would migrate to Chicago in large numbers for the first time.
By the 1950s, most white ethnic gangs had faded away, their members finding jobs through patronage in teh Democratic machine, often as police. The Outfit had found a niche in Chicago's political life. African American gangs, however, would organize at first as gangs always did, but were faced by barriers to mobility. The 1960s would see both an involvement of Black and Latin gangs in the underground economy and the civil rights movement.
In the recent period, gentrification, economic development, and the destruction of housing projects have displaced gangs and transformed the nature of urban space. The Puerto Rican community, which had been displaced from the near west side to Lincoln Park, was pushed out again by gentrification. As Puerto Ricans re-concentrated a third time in Humboldt Park, once again the gentrifyers were stalking.
Chicago is a gang city: from the immigrant gangs and their racist social athletic clubs, to the early African American and Mexican gangs; to Al Capone and the corruption of the Democratic machine; to the youth gangs of the forties and fifties; to the "super-gangs" who organized in the sixties on the streets and behind bars and are still here (and there). Chicago's gangs have institutionalized. They are a permanent part ot the city, its history, and its future.
There is an untold story which needs to be heard. That is what the Chicago Gang History Project is all about.