In the 19th century, Cicero was initially an enormous 36-square-mile tract that dwarfed the city of Chicago in size. This massive township was bounded by what are today Western, North, and Harlem Avenues, and Pershing Road. (Western Avenue was so named because then it was actually the western border of Chicago.) But in the late 1800s a series of land annexations by Chicago resulted in a greatly reduced Cicero Township. The Austin neighborhood, for instance, was absorbed by the city in 1899. Then in 1901-02, Berwyn and Oak Park each split away to become separate, independent municipalities. Cicero retained only 5.6 miles of its original 36 miles of territory.

The extension of streetcar and elevated lines in the early 1900s, coupled with its excellent freight and passenger connections, quickly transformed Cicero into a thriving industrial suburb. Many of the newcomers were recent immigrants. Many were from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bohemians and Slovaks), Poland, Lithuania, and Italy. Neighborhoods were somewhat circumscribed (by ethnicity, not race), yet remained socially segregated. The northeast Grant Works district, for instance, had a mostly Lithuanian Church (St. Anthony’s), an Irish parish (St. Attracta’s), and a Polish parish (St. Valentine’s.)

The solid industrial base, a major source of tax revenue, allowed property taxes on Cicero homes to remain relatively low, thus making it easier for working class people to pursue the American Dream and purchase their own single-family residence.

22nd Street, later renamed Cermak Road, boasted the largest concentration of financial institutions anywhere in the state except on LaSalle Street. Because so many Czechs were settling in the central section of Cicero, Cermak Road was often dubbed the “Bohemian Wall Street.”

The Prohibition period-the notorious “Roaring ’20s”-was definitely a colorful era for the community. “If you smell gunpowder,” folks used to say, “you’re in Cicero!” Al Capone, the 25-year-old King of the Gangsters, set up shop safely outside the reach of Chicago’s police and virtually owned Cicero officials. “Scarface Al” quickly built up a criminal network of cabarets, honkytonks, brothels, and gambling houses, reaping an annual income in the millions.

“When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging,” Capone complained. “But when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”

Though he was a cocky, hot-tempered punk who ruled with an iron fist, Capone is now often portrayed as a Robin Hood character who helped the community. There seems to be an almost rosy, nostalgic view of his years in the community. Old-timers proudly told me how their parents produced “home brew” for Capone in stills hidden in backyard sheds or in their cellars. Capone’s men made weekly pick-ups of the product, exchanging the full 10-galloon can for an empty “for next week.” When the Depression hit, families who’d “cooked hooch” for his organization were taken care of, never went without a ham or turkey at holiday time, and could charge shoes and school supplies at several stores on Laramie Avenue.

For those who want to go looking for them, most of the old hideouts and Capone sites are long gone. But his “good times house,” a fortress-like, tan brick three-flat that was always well stocked with booze, beds, and “party girls,” still stands on the corner of 1600 Austin Blvd.

Despite the presence of gangsters in the community and a virtual non-stop “beer war” for turf raging for several years, Cicero was solid and thriving. Though the town began a pattern of providing a “border town” of striptease joints, all-night bars, hookers, and horse races, the criminal activity did not have much impact on the average hard-working family. Most folks went about their business and looked the other way. Many viewed Capone as a fellow underdog who’d overcome the obstacles of immigration and police harassment to become “top dog.”

Down through the decades, gambling and vice flourished. Periodic crackdowns in the ’50s and ’60s were unsuccessful. The average, hard-laboring, law-abiding Ciceronian, of course, never saw the strippers or patronized B-girls at mob-run dives like “The Frolics,” “The Turf Club,” The Magic Lounge,” or the “4811 Club” on Cermak Road or did business at the “book joints” at 25th and Laramie Avenue. But crime reporters rode Cicero hard, routinely labeling the community as the “Walled City of the Syndicate,” and “A Sin Town of Babes, Booze, and Bookies.” Because Cicero had become so synonymous with racketeering and corruption, town officials seriously considered changing the name of the municipality to “Hawthorne” to preserve its image.

Cicero vs. civil rights

Yet Cicero’s reputation would sink even lower during the Civil Rights period.

Ever wary of outsiders, Cicero was protective of what it had. Residents realized their neighborhoods were ripe for the type of block-by-block “white flight” (often orchestrated by unscrupulous Realtors) that was occurring in the nearby West Side neighborhoods of Chicago to the north. The concept of a diverse or “mixed” community was alien at the time. Racial tensions continued to mount as residents resisted African Americans moving in. Cicero was considered a “sundown town,” which meant blacks could shop or work there during the day but were unwelcome after nightfall.

In July 1951, during the same year Dr. Percy Julian’s home was firebombed when he moved into Oak Park, a “race riot” occurred in Cicero. When black CTA bus driver and World War II veteran Harvey Clark, Jr. and his family attempted to move into an apartment at 6139 19th Street, just seven blocks south of Oak Park, they were met by an angry mob that destroyed their belongings, trashed the building, and rioted for the next three days and nights. At its peak, the out-of-control disturbance involved as many as 5,000 white protesters who fought police and deputies. Gov. Adlai Stevenson had to activate five companies of National Guardsmen to restore order. This “race riot” drew worldwide condemnation. At a subsequent court hearing, many people wore large medallions bearing the inscription, “Keep Cicero White.” No one was ever punished.

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. threatened to march through Cicero because of the town’s history of intolerance, he was advised such a protest would be a “suicide mission.” Over 250 demonstrators did “march on Cicero” on Sunday, Sept. 4, 1966-without Dr. King, however. Over 3,000 police and National Guardsmen were on hand to “protect” the town. Though 38 hecklers (no marchers) were arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, the predicted “explosion of violence” never occurred. Thus, during the turbulent ’60s, Cicero’s reputation as a gangland hideout was surpassed by its resistance to integration. The town was now perceived as anti-black as well as anti-law.

Many people still remember that period very well. Some folks loaned photos they’d taken with their own cameras, showing the marching National Guard troops and the jeering crowds packed along the sidewalks. No one I spoke to was proud of that era or glad about how their community responded. They simply described that day as a dark piece of local history, an unavoidable as a tornado.

Latino renaissance

The closing decades of the 20th century, however, were often more grim for Cicero. The declining industrial base, especially the closing of the massive Western Electric plant that had once employed 40,000 workers, coupled with the “graying” of the population that resulted in smaller families, made the future of the community seem bleak and insecure.

But during the 1980s Cicero experienced a significant influx of young Hispanics who have revitalized the town in many ways. These newcomers often mirrored the hard-working Eastern Europeans who had arrived earlier in the century. Moving out of their crowded city neighborhoods, they were seeking a “better environment” for their families and a change to improve the quality of their lives by becoming Cicero homeowners. Many members of this new Latino population had roots in the Lower West Side or Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, just like the Czechs who’d migrated into the community in the early 1900s.

Within several decades, Cicero had changed from a white European ethnic enclave to one that is predominantly Hispanic. Yet during this transition, it’s been clear the newcomers exhibit the same civic pride, independence, and strong family values that had been the hallmark of Ciceronians for generations.

The Latino community also has a high rate of entrepreneurship. New family-run businesses revitalized the previously sagging Cermak Road commercial strip, as well as other Cicero shopping districts. The Hispanic middle class continues to grow.

There are quite a few ethnic restaurants that are easy to get to in Cicero, if you’re looking for something a little different not far from Oak Park. Freddy’s Pizzeria, 1600 S. 61st Avenue, has a corner store feel and a wonderful menu of comfortably priced Italian food, ranging from gorgonzola-stuffed tortellini to homemade gelato and ices. Last year Freddy’s was featured on WTTW’s program, “Check, Please!”

And if you’re into “Czech Please!” (excuse the pun)-Bohemian fare, that is-“Klas” on the north side of the street at 5734 W. Cermak Road, is one of the few old-time Czech restaurants left. With its turrets and stained glass windows, Klas looks like a castle in Old Prague. You can get a huge lunch-say, Chicken Paprika or Beef Goulash or Roast Loin of Pork-with sauerkraut, dumplings, homemade Kolacky and hot coffee for about eight bucks.

The news from Cicero continues to be positive lately. There’s a renewed sense of optimism. For starters, the community has experienced a substantial drop in violent gang activity. New schools and programs continue to expand horizons. The huge new Unity Junior High, 2115 S. 54th Ave., is equipped to hold 4,000 students. It’s definitely one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It’s perhaps a dubious distinction, but there is no larger junior high in the United States.

As the “new Cicero” keeps moving forward, it’s exciting to witness. Try to put aside your previous views on our cousin to the south and start following their progress. Good stuff is happening over there. A theater complex is coming in. A loft building on Central Avenue is being created out of an old factory. A new town hall will soon replace the old, outdated government headquarters with its checkered history going back to Prohibition days.

Town President Larry Dominick, a big man who was a former police officer, is dedicated to turning things around. “I am very optimistic about Cicero’s future,” says Dominick. “There are a lot of good things on the horizon for our community if we stick together, work together, sacrifice together, and celebrate our success together.”

Cicero seems headed in the right direction, focused on the future, yet aware of their past history.

After I finished the book, I dragged my feet returning all the borrowed photos, albums, and scrapbooks. The project had turned out to be far more exciting and fun than I’d imagined. I hated to “put it to bed” and say so long to Cicero. But I still go over for the morning Town Hall meeting one Tuesday a month, just to keep connected and see some of the folks I’d gotten to know. (Cicero has a night board meeting and a morning one, so anyone can attend if they wish.)

With its roots deeply planted in the 19th century, Cicero continues not simply to survive but grow and prosper with pride and renewed self-confidence. I am happy to say that at this late date, I finally got to know our “big, bad” cousin Cicero.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...