A visually stunning new book details the history, rise and fall of “social athletic clubs” in Chicago, before the gang bangers made a mockery of the concept. More social club than criminal enterprise in the early days, the seeds of future mayhem were nonetheless already planted; it only took the arrival of drugs to ratchet up the violence. In Compliments of Chicagohoodz: Chicago Street Gang Art and Culture, an encyclopedic volume by James O’Conner and Damen Corrado, Feral House showcases the history and transition of SACs.
By Peter Pavia
In the photograph that serves as the frontispiece of Compliments of Chicagohoodz, the shadows are getting longer on a later summer day. The leaves on the trees have gone dry but haven’t yet turned color. The year might be 1985, or it might be any year at all. One young man has his back to the camera, proudly adorned in a brown and orange sweater that features the letters L and H, divided by the slash of what appear to be a cane. Another young man faces the camera, handsome, fit, wearing a gold jersey. He’s holding a cigarette, and his grin seems to tell us everything about the book we’re about to dive into.
Countercultural, counterintuitive, risky, Compliments of Chicagohoodz bum-rushes our peculiar cultural moment like a blast of cold air, a bracing reminder of what a book can do, despite a publishing world that has otherwise become stale, suffocating and safe.
A note about provenance: Chicagohoodz was brought out by the late Adam Parfrey’s Feral House. Parfrey was something of a modern-day Barney Rosset (the man responsible for publishing seminal modernist works by D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, among many others). Parfrey courted controversy throughout his career by giving breath to the writings of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and to Nazi war criminal Joseph Goebbels’ only novel. He didn’t share Rosset’s literary pedigree (few did) but Parfrey was a First Amendment absolutist in his own right, with the court battles and the pulped titles to prove it. He died in 2018 after a series of strokes, but the minute the book landed in my hands I thought, “of course. Who else would have the guts to publish something like this?”
Written by James “Jinx” O’Connor and Mr. C (Damen Corrado), Compliments of Chicagohoodz is the exploration of a subculture that has evolved dramatically over the decades but has never gone away. And their book is—despite being peppered with several messy, stupid deaths—a celebration of life.
Nearly encyclopedic in scope, Chicagohoodz was relentlessly researched over two decades, delineating the rise of gang culture in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
Representing a neighborhood or parish, a block, sometimes even a corner, the social athletic clubs (SACs) of the 1950s were exactly what they said they were. The groups organized softball games against one another, and sponsored dances in church basements.
A black and white group-shot worthy of an historical society that illustrates the introduction depicts the Aces, a Cicero, Illinois outfit of stylish Italian Americans, white-toothed and pretty, positively wholesome. The image belies the caption. The Aces were more of a gang than an SAC. They fought early and they fought often.
Although the exponential growth of the SACs occurred in the post-war era (more people, especially more teenagers, living more closely together), it has long been believed that as far back as the 1920s, Mafia factions, such as the one led by Al Capone, recruited future soldiers from the memberships of the clubs. Not yet full-blown hoodlums, the glimpse of a Cadillac grille or the whiff of a chorus girl’s perfume were more than enough to push the boys over the edge.
Membership in gangs was obliquely racial, as the groups often coalesced in neighborhoods whose racial components were in flux. This usually meant whites too poor to split as their home ground went black, but not always. There were Latin members of white gangs and white members of Latin gangs. Having a black or two in the mix was not unheard of, and with the most virulently racist groups being the exception, took all comers, united not by melanin, but by geography.
By the mid-1960s, gangs had proliferated to such a point that every guy on the street seemed to belong to one, although it was tacky to say so.
“We didn’t say gang,” a former Morgan Deuce remembered. “We said club. It was like a sign of respect. What club are you in?”
This robust growth led to competition for members and rivalry over turf and, above all, the desire for respect. Although fighting was an elemental fact of gang life, it was typically some bad blood over a girl or a softball game (motto of the Esquires: We might lose the game but we’ll win the fight). And although those battles were waged mostly with fists and boots, a ball bat or a chain wouldn’t been out of place at the festivities.
Guns were rare, except for that staple of juvenile delinquent paperbacks, the zip gun. A homemade firearm fashioned out of a car antennae or a length of rod, they generally shot .20 caliber rounds, but were dangerously fickle. A gang warrior had about as good a chance of shooting himself as he did hitting his intended target.
If this all sounds quaint, and it does, a sumptuous photograph likely dating from the early 1960s shows an “intervention.” Youth organizations like the YMCA would attempt to mediate antagonisms between rival gangs, this one involving the Playboys from West Town. There’s a breathtaking beauty to the faces, the clothes and the placements around the table. You half-expect to see a street priest somewhere in the background.
It has long been believed that as far back as the 1920s, Mafia factions, such as the one led by Al Capone, recruited future soldiers from the memberships of the clubs
Whether any dispute was ever settled, we don’t know. But we do know that by the early 1970s, the era of the greaser, with his car coat and his shades, his DA and his zip gun, was borne back ceaselessly into the past, and besides the doom of evolving fashion, his epitaph was penned by drugs.
At this point in the history of Chicago, as in other American cities, jobs moved out and drugs moved in. The greasers dismissed drugs as something only losers were involved with, but once it was established that dope could be depended upon for a steady flow of cash, gang culture changed forever.
There was another related shift. Until this time—let’s pick a not altogether random year and say 1972—most gang members would call it quits after high school and start families and careers. But by then, the authors say, “those in the more depressed areas started to see the gang as a career opportunity.”
Drugs and the drugged-out lifestyle also led to the rise of gangs whose sole reason for being was to get high. Banded loosely at first, once these guys started fighting other gangs encroaching on their territory, they became de facto gangs themselves.
Chicagohoodz is about association and identification (as opposed to identity) and many readers, never having been gang-affiliates, might most closely relate, perhaps to their regret, to these so-called “freaks” and their cousins, the “heads.” But “head”, the authors point out, had different meanings in different parts of the city. The term might indicate a racist thug, or it could simply refer to someone who had utterly degenerated into the drug lifestyle, easily spotted by his black concert T-shirt, his Levi’s and his chain wallet.
Compliments of Chicaghoodz is effervescently, exuberantly Chicago; the book knows every block, every schoolyard, every alley and every “L” stop, knows whose turf it was, why and for how long. Almost sociological in its documentation of the shifting demographics of Chi-town’s packed neighborhoods, the authors reserve special contempt, as well they should, for the new gentry of the North Side, where real estate prices are like a line that points straight up on a graph. Twee bistros alight with high earners have supplanted family restaurants, and craft cocktail lounges have chased out mom and pop grocery stores. It’s an old story by now, and not unique to Chicago.
“We didn’t say gang,” a former Morgan Deuce remembered. “We said club. It was like a sign of respect. What club are you in?”
And at its heart, as it claims, this is a book about art and culture. Illustrations illuminate virtually every page, and while some of the reproductions are better than others and there’s a few annoying errors in copy-editing, the authors detail an evolution in the expression of craft and style—style, for example, of the widespread “compliment cards” from which the book takes its title.
At first these business-type cards were used as invitations to dances held by the SACs, and they featured stock images of top hats and the like. They became more elaborate as a group chose its insignia, usually something suggestive of royalty, such as the emblem of Pall Mall cigarettes or the ever-popular lions featured in the branding of Lowenbrau beer. The cards were traded and passed around from group to group, and an individual piece could spell out its own history with the names and tags that had been added to it. Pages and pages of reproductions of the cards appear here, attesting to their ubiquity, and they survived well into the 1990s, before the Internet took over and slayed them the way it has killed everything that was once remotely cool.
Naturally, no gang is a gang without its turf, be it a block or a corner, and no turf can be claimed without a perimeter. The gang announces itself as ever, with art of some kind, painted on the wall of a building or an expressway overpass. In some cases the tags are crude, as anybody who has been in any city over the last fifty years can attest, in other cases cryptic (what does that symbol mean) but there are just as many examples of elaborate, spectacular art work that announces to the world, We Are Here. Woe betide the man who disrespects a gang’s mural by splashing it with paint, tagging over the painting, or otherwise defacing the work. The vilest insult is “flipping” the gang’s insignia, which is drawing it upside down. An offender could pay for this sin with his life. From the mundane to the sublime, dozens of these murals are reproduced here, often to spectacular effect. They are one of the triumphs of the book.
At this point in the history of Chicago, as in other American cities, jobs moved out and drugs moved in.
Special note should be taken of “wearables,” clothing fabricated exclusively for a gang, such as the orange and brown the kid reps in the picture introducing the book, mentioned above. The greasers favored satin jackets with subtle insignia, but by the time gangbanging graduated to a full-on lifestyle rather than an affiliation, members were wearing their set’s colors on cardigans that call to mind letterman sweaters, decked out with patches reproducing a section’s emblems. So becoming that they were often worn to formal events, the Chicago Police Department outlawed the wearing of gang sweaters in the 1980s, and by the ‘90s, something had definitely been lost: gangs instead rocked prefab jackets, shoelaces, and sports jerseys that matched their colors.
Burgeoning gang culture of the 1980s brought about a pair of paradoxical results. Overall numbers swelled, and the gangs exerted more influence, but at the same time, subsets broke off and spawned splinter organizations, adorned with various epithets like “Insane” or “Almighty” before the actual name of their crew, splinter sets that might’ve consisted of as few as four members. They might have been obligated to “ride under” as the phrase goes, the flag of the dominant group, but in many cases they were as likely to attract their own members, and eventually became rivals of the gang that spawned them.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a movement to bring the gangs under a pair of overarching alliances, first the Folk Nation, and then their counterparts, the People. Intending no disrespect to anyone, far too many gangs fell under these umbrellas to mention them individually here.
The confederations attempted to do two things: First, to put an end to the random racial animosity among the gangs, and poignantly, to provide protection within Illinois’ sprawling state prison system. With murders and the predictable paybacks coming at a steeper rate, jails and prisons filled up with gangbangers doing lengthy bids.
Compliments of Chicaghoodz is effervescently, exuberantly Chicago; the book knows every block, every schoolyard, every alley and every “L” stop, knows whose turf it was, why and for how long.
“People and Folks helped gang culture shift from being racially oriented and gave former rivals a common cause. Simply having to rub elbows made them realize they had at least one thing in common,” the authors write. “Having to be locked up in the same place.”
Many of the sets documented here burned hotly and brightly for a time, and are no more, in fact, have been inactive or defunct for years. A few limp on as degraded iterations of their former selves, and some have grown into powerful criminal enterprises that reach far beyond Chicago to provide a constant challenge to law enforcement, today more than ever. But from the greasers of the 1950s to today’s gangbangers, the culture, the heritage, and especially the art, Compliments of Chicagohoodz buzzes with the word on the street.