It is entirely appropriate that the question regarding the history of youth gangs in the United States should focus on the 20th Century because, while youth gangs in the United States have their antecedents as far back as the late 18th Century, and while the formation of gangs became a large problem in major American cities in the years following the end of the Civil War, the vast preponderance of that history occurred during the 20th Century. One of the country’s most notorious periods of gang activity occurred during the late 19th to early 20th Century and was focused on the Five Points neighborhood of New York City. While such gangs as the Five Points Gang, the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, and a handful of others were compromised mainly of young adults in their twenties, they did include teenagers. The rise of what we consider today as youth gangs, however, was more of a 20th Century phenomenon.
The impetus for much of the formation of youth gangs during the early part of the 20th Century lied in the experience of mass immigration that occurred during that period, as enormous waves of migrants from Europe entered the United States, coalesced in neighborhoods that came to be identified with specific ethnicities, and were overwhelmingly occupied the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder – a situation that fostered the development of adult and youth gang activities. As these ethnic-oriented neighborhoods took root, gangs emerged to both prey on their own communities, many of which brought with them from European ghettoes an ingrained distrust of authority, including police, and to defend their neighborhoods against encroachments from other ethnic groups.
The real explosion in youth gangs in the United States occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. Continued economic deprivation, poorly-financed schools, and a multitude of sociological problems including drugs, weak family units, and pressure from peers to join in gangs all contributed to the growth of youth gangs, especially in larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Such gangs as the Bloods and the Crips, African-American gangs that originated in Los Angeles and gradually spread to other cities and states, the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, which reached a peak of an estimated 30,000 members at one point, and Hispanic gangs like the Latin Kings and the more contemporary MS (Mara Salvatrucha)-13 are all evolutionary follow-ons to earlier ethnic-oriented gangs with origins in earlier times. The exception could be MS-13, which was founded by and is composed of Central American immigrants who formed gangs to protect themselves against Mexican-American and African-American gangs but which grew to enormous proportions, spread across the United States and took root in Guatemala and El Salvador following the deportation from the United States of many of its early members. MS-13, today, represents one of the largest, most ruthless youth gangs in the country.
The 20th Century history of the United States is the history of youth gangs. Each ethnic group spawned its own gangs. Gangs emerged from Vietnamese, Chinese, Jewish, Irish, Hmong, Armenian, and many other ethnic groups as a corollary of the immigrant experience. The sense of belonging, and security from other ethnic groups or gangs, is a strong motivator for many boys in depressed communities and who come from broken or dysfunctional families. Often, boys who don’t want to join a gang are pressured into doing so by threat of violence against them and their families. The basic dynamics rarely change, only the ethnicities.