Maxwell Street Police Station-A bygone era of Chicago policing recalled
A By-gone Era of Chicago Policing Recalled
IPSN Sept. 22, 1997
Neighborhood gentrification and urban renewal has claimed another important chunk of Chicago Police history. The storied Maxwell Street Police Station at Maxwell and Morgan will close its doors on December 12.
The battered red brick relic, has stood on this corner since 1889, but it is best known to a generation of television watchers as the “Hill Street Blues” precinct because this is where the opening credits of the famous show were filmed. Old Maxwell will soon be only a memory after it is turned over to the University of Illinois campus police at the end of the year.
In January, the department of licensing, the gang crimes, gambling, organized crime, prostitution, and narcotics unit, and other divisions will be consolidated inside the former Sears Roebuck building at Homan and Arthington on the West Side. It marks the first time these separate units scattered across the city for many years have been merged together under one roof.
Special events are planned for the afternoon and evening of October 10. The department will host a street fair that is open to the public from 4:00 p.m. until midnight in the parking lot adjacent to 743 Maxwell St.
For the price of a $15 dollar admission ticket, visitors will be treated to an all you can eat buffet, a prize raffle, open house, live bands, and merchandise sales. For further information about the event, contact Officer John Staszak at (312) 746-6276.
The history of the Maxwell Street station mirrors the steady growth of Chicago, the evolution of its tough ethnic West Side neighborhoods from urban ghettos to college campus, and it recalls a colorful and often outlandish era of policing that has faded into history.
George Hubbard was the superintendent of police when the old Second Precinct station – headquartered at 12th St. (Roosevelt Road) and Johnson St (now Peoria St.) in an impoverished area of the West Side known as the “Terror District” – was abandoned in 1889, in favor of a spacious red brick dwelling at 743 Maxwell Street that cost the city an estimated $50,000 to build. Captain William Ward, a well-known figure in late 19th Century Chicago history, commanded Maxwell Street during its first year.
Ward was in charge of the column of officers assigned to the 3rd District Police station at 19 South (now 120 North) Des Plaines Street who were sent in to Haymarket Square to disperse a meeting of trade unionists the evening of May 4, 1886.
The detail of men who stood in the front line that night were killed when the infamous Haymarket bomb, hurled from a nearby vestibule, exploded within their midst. The repercussions of the Haymarket Riot (though the incident can hardly be described as a “riot” in the usual sense of the word, but more correctly as a police action), galvanized the labor movement worldwide resulting in the gradual acceptance of the eight-hour work day.
The famous Haymarket statue designed by a St. Paul Minnesota sculptor as a permanent shrine to the memory of the seven slain police officers who fell victim to the trade unionist bomb, was modeled after Captain Ward.
Until youthful student protestors blew it up during the 1969 “Days of Rage,” forcing an angry Mayor Richard J. Daley to relocate the statue inside the Training Academy, it stood near the present site of the Kennedy Expressway and Randolph Street.
As a result of the Haymarket Riot which intensified a growing sense of public uneasiness over the perceived “anarchist” threat, and fears of an impending “Red” revolution erupting in Chicago, the police department increased its manpower resources from 1,145 uniformed officers to 1,624 – a 40% increase. Two new stations, including Maxwell Street, were built to counter worker unrest, and buffer these densely populated neighborhoods with large immigrant populations from the downtown business community.
Following the 1890 departmental re-alignment which divided police jurisdictions into five proximate geographic divisions with an “Inspector” responsible for crime conditions in his respective territory, Maxwell street was designated as the 16th Precinct of the Second District, Third Division.
The building was strategically located in the midst of the impoverished West Side “ghettos” that took shape in the decades following the great Chicago Fire.
Thousands of dirt-poor Russian Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Slovaks, and other refugees from eastern Europe poured into the crowded, chaotic neighborhood hugging Roosevelt Road, Halsted, and Taylor Streets during the peak years of the great migration, 1880-1920.
Today the Maxwell St. station stands rather forlornly amid acres of parking lots, empty weed lots, and the university buildings intruding upon the community from the north. Imagine a time in the distant past when this once-densely populated neighborhood 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.
Imagine thousands of ram-shackle wooden hovels and airless worker cottages with the out-house inconveniently located in the alleys of the tenements pushing up against this police station.
Very often the Maxwell Street police officer, bewildered by the old world customs and buzz of strange languages he heard on the street, was the foreigner in a foreign land.
In 1898, the city census taker counted 48,190 residents living in the 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 police officer learning the ropes. Poverty, then as now, bred crime. And in time the district became known as “Bloody Maxwell” because of the escalating homicide rate and the scourge of the Black Hand terrorists who preyed upon the immigrant Italians living near Taylor Street in the 1890s and early 1900s.
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 1920s when Taylor Street, located in the heart of the old 19th Ward, evolved into the production and distribution 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, near the present site of Al’s Beef Stand.
It was rumored that at least half of the uniformed patrol working out of “Bloody Maxwell” in the early 1920s 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.
Captain William Russell, who was promoted to Superintendent in 1928 during the height of the Prohibition bootleg wars, commanded Bloody Maxwell when the scandal first broke and several hundred men were transferred out of the district in response.
The Gennas employed the neighborhood residents to manufacture their booze from backyard stills – much of it, the “rot gut” variety. The operation was closed down by 1926, not because of police intervention at the local or federal level, but because bullets from the rival bootleg gangs sent the Gennas (one by one) to their eternal reward, or to safe refuge in Italy.
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 slow exodus of its immigrant population – a process that greatly accelerated in the early 1960s when hundreds of acres of residential property west of Halsted Street were bulldozed to make way for the University of Illinois campus.
In 1961, as a part of a massive re-deployment of personnel and better utilization of facilities, Superintendent Orlando W. Wilson announced the reduction of police districts from 38 to 21.
Maxwell Street survived the cuts, and remained one of only a handful of 19th Century station houses still in active use during the modern era.
The building housed the Vice Control Section and the organized crime division up to the very end.
But now it is to be given over to the university for other purposes, and with it, an important chapter in Chicago Police history vanishes forever.