Neighborhood history surrounding the Maxwell Street Police Station



I have witnessed the building of our new 12th  District police station from ground zero which started back in September 2010 to the open house in December 2012.  This started me thinking about the original neighborhood police station that is still standing at Morgan and Maxwell Streets.  With the help of the internet sites Wikipedia, and the University of Illinois I have found the history of our neighborhood fascinating and would like to share it with you.

The 7th District Police Station, located at 943 West Maxwell Street, also known as the Maxwell Street Station was built in 1888 in response to the need for increased police presence.  It was built during a period of tremendous growth after the Chicago Fire of 1871, as the city’s population exploded from 298,000 to almost 1.1 million.  As late as 1850, the entire police force of Chicago consisted of just nine men, but the growing population, along with the social and economic changes, created the need for more law enforcement.  The force expanded from 455 policemen assigned to 11 precincts in 1872, to more than 1,255 policemen in 20 district police stations by 1888. In 1906, the Chicago Tribune called the district “Bloody Maxwell”, and “the Wickedest Police District in the World”.

The neighborhood was termed “the terror district” by a newspaper reporter of the time. It was a changing melting pot of Irish, German, Italian and European Jewish immigrants and grew mightily in the years following the Chicago Fire of 1871.  This densely populated area echoed with the sound of 50 foreign tongues, the clatter of the push cart wagon and the ragged vendors peddling their produce and wares in the market a block due east. There were thousands of ram-shackle wooden hovels and airless worker cottages with the outhouse inconveniently located in the alleys of tenements pushing up against the police station.  Very often the Maxwell Street police office, bewildered by the old world customs and buzz of strange languages he heard on the street, was the foreigner in the foreign land.  In 1898, the city census taker counted 48,190 residents living in squalid tenement buildings along Taylor, DeKoven, Forquer, Loomis, Lytle, and other streets comprising Little Italy nearby.  It was a tough assignment in a dangerous area of the city for a young officer learning the ropes.  Poverty, then as now, bred crime. In “Bloody Maxwell” there were an escalating homicide rate and the scourge of the Black Hand terrorists who preyed on the immigrant Italians living near Taylor Street in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.  The term “Bloody” was loosely applied to many police districts and city wards in the old days, but it seemed to take on special significance along the Near West Side corridor, especially during the wild and woolly 1920’s when Taylor Street, located in the heart of the old 19th Ward, evolved into the production center for bootleg alcohol in the City of Chicago.  It was a vast criminal enterprise controlled by the “Terrible” Genna brothers-Angelo, Pete, Jim, Tony and Mike from Marsala, Italy, who were graduates of the Black Hand.  Their liquor warehouse stood at 1022 Taylor Street (most likely where now there is a parking lot for Tuscany Restaurant).  It was rumored that at least half of the uniformed patrol working out of “Bloody Maxwell” in the early 1920’s received $15 every Friday from the Genna brothers by simply stopping by the warehouse for their weekly envelope.  Lieutenants and captains from neighboring districts were said to receive upwards of $500 a week—quite a sum in those days.  Over the years, the legendary station played host to some of the nations most notorious criminals, including Sam Giancana and Al Capone.

The 7th District, anchoring the western end of the Maxwell Street market, quieted down considerably following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.  After World War II, the district witnessed the show exodus of its immigrant population—a process that greatly accelerated in the early 1960’s when hundreds of acres of residential property west of Halsted were bulldozed to make way for the University of Illinois campus.

The station itself is Romanesque in style and is architecturally significant as an example of pre1945 police stations in Chicago.  It was designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.  The Chicago Police Department vacated the station in 1998.  After extensive renovation, the red pressed brick and Joliet limestone building with walls three feet thick at the base became the home of the UIC Police Department.  The renovations were done in a manner designed to uphold the historic significance of the building’s architecture.  The building’s original windows were sent to a company in Kankakee for restoration, the masonry cleaned and repaired, the roof replaced and parapets at the top of the station rebuilt using custom-made bricks, the exact texture and color of the originals.

The building is known in popular culture because the outside was used as the picture of the precinct house in the opening credits of the iconic television series, Hill Street Blues.  It ran on NBC from 1981 into 1987.

So the next time you walk or drive by the old Maxwell Street Station, think about what the neighborhood was like back in its hey day.  We certainly have an interesting past history here on the Near West Side.

The link below has some great Chicago crime history. Check this one out in particular as it shows the corner of 14th Place and Sangamon, right in the middle of University Village.