Chicago: How the Gangster Era Shaped the City

Learn how Chicago became so ethnically diverse -- more of a mosaic than a melting pot.
By: Sabrina Wu
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Exploring Chicago’s culturally diverse neighborhoods is a favorite pastime — not only for tourists, but for the people who live here. The 26 ethnicities that call the city home are like colors on a painter’s palette, mixed together in some areas, separate and distinct in others. Chicago is known not only as a city of neighborhoods, but also as one of the most segregated major cities in the country. This segregated nature is largely rooted in the proliferation of gangs in the 1900s and their power to influence local politics.

Gangs and Politics

During the Great Migration in the early 1900s, the city’s population grew exponentially, as European immigrants, Southern blacks and Latinos escaped harsh conditions to seek better lives in Chicago. The result of so many people from different backgrounds coming together in one place, however, was competition for jobs and friction between people of different races. Gangs formed according to color, and young people clashed to defend territory.

“The Irish and Italian gangs ended up having the majority of the political power,” says John Hagedorn, a senior research fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute. Hagedorn is an associate professor of criminology, law and justice at UIC and has studied gangs and violence for the past 20 years.

“Gangs and politics go together like guns and blood,” says Hagedorn, explaining that politicians extended favors to young gang members with the expectation that they be repaid after those members grew into adults who took legitimate jobs. “By 1900, 50 percent of all the police in Chicago were Irish.”

It was a political machine that worked well for those who were a part of it in the early 20th century, including former Mayor Richard J. Daley. But while members of white gangs followed this path toward assimilating into society, violence from white gangs blocked blacks from it.

“The biggest segregation we’ve seen in Chicago is between the white population and the black population,” says Lauren Fischer, a research associate at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

Challenges to Integration

“It’s much different with the black gang experience,” says Hagedorn. “Ethnic succession seemed to be a concept for European minorities only.” Without friends in politics, blacks had no voice in government. Black neighborhoods lacked essential public services, like adequate sanitation and trash removal. Residents were unable to improve conditions in their neighborhoods and were prevented from leaving them.

“If a minority group moved into a wealthier neighborhood, the bank would redline that area,” says Fischer. “Banks refused to give loans, insurance companies refused to insure properties and make investments in these areas.” Practices such as “blockbusting,” tactics used to encourage white homeowners to sell when blacks moved into a community, created large stretches of neighborhoods that were primarily black.

“It’s a different form of development with immigrants,” says Fischer, who has worked on a number of urban research teams. “Historically, we’ve seen immigrants drawn to places where there’s a social support system they can easily slide into, as opposed to jumping into American society.” Many groups settled in ethnic enclaves in neighborhoods they could afford.

“The North Side is always a draw for immigrants,” says Fischer. “In Uptown, Rogers Park and Albany Park, there are strong community organizations that work to keep housing affordable. These organizations have a lot of support from residents in the community.”

Ethnic Enclaves

Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods are on its North Side, north of the city’s business district. Immigrants from Latin and Asian countries are choosing to move into neighborhoods that were traditionally white, creating communities without an ethnic majority. In this way, some neighborhoods in the city are becoming more integrated, although there are still great areas of separation throughout the Chicago area.

While New York is called a melting pot, Chicago is thought of more as a mosaic. Ethnic groups have settled along lines in the city that form patterns that continue to move and change. The underlying history behind some of these lines, however, has left divides that are not quickly crossed. Although dozens of ethnic festivals show pride in the differences between the many cultures in Chicago, the city’s long history of segregation make it a challenge for ethnicities to celebrate those differences without living apart.    

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