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.

In the 1950s, the spaces of the city began to be more sharply contested as the number African Americans had grown so large that a second ghetto, Lawndale on the west side, joined the southside Black Belt. Rather than promote integration as had occured with white ethnic groups, the Chicago Democratic Party, loed by former gang member Richard J. Daley, planned for continuing segregation. To block westward movement of African Americans into Daley's home ward, Bridgeport, an expressway and an 18 tower housing project served as a wall of segregation.

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.

As the gangs joined into the political and social turmoil of the times, many gangs formed legitimate social and economic organizations, including a variety of educational programs (Short 1976), The Vicelords ran alternative schools and started businesses in Lawndale (Dawley 1992). The Blackstone Rangers built a controversial job training program with educational components (Fry 1973). But by the late 1960s public policy turned 180 degrees as mayor Daley and State Attorney Hanrahan declared “war” on gangs (Chicago Police Department 1969). The ensuing repression sent gang members flooding into the prisons and the era of experimentation was dead

Even in the midst of the war boom, Chicago's industrial economy was in decline (Abu-Lughod 1999) and less educated minority males had more difficulties finding good jobs. Combined with the jailing of Chicago's gang leaders, these conditions led Chicago's gangs to re-organize. Leaders like David Barksdale, who founded the Black Disciples, and Larry Hoover who founded the Black Gangsters, united their gangs (The Black Gangster Disciple Nation) and rebuilt them as business enterprises.

David Barksdale


The prison experience reified gang membership on the streets as well as behind bars. Most major Chicago gangs have been run from prison since the 1970s. The prison with its visible walls and the ghetto with its invisible ones served the same purposes: control of a dangerous, but economically marginal, population.

As the industrial world drifted into memory, the crack epidemic created unprecedented business opportunities for the gangs. Larry Hoove initiated what he called the "new concept" which basically brought a business model to the BGDN. Other gangs followed suit and the business of drugs became the business of gangs.

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 undergoing massive spatial disruption, as gentrification and the tearing down of the CHA housing projects are displacing thousands and families and gangs as well. The displacement of gangs has contributed to violence as new turfs are fought over and gangs are de-stabilized. The impact of gentrification and community policing may be contributing to the re-segregation of Chicago and indirectly responsible for persisting high rates of violence.

Chicago is still a dual city: one mainly white city located in areas close to the new economy with residents who have high levels of formal education and with moderate to high levels of income.

The other city is moving to the south and west. It is mainly Black, Latino, and poor. The ghetto has not disappeared in Chicago, but has persisted.

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.

Gangs in Chicago