On its eastern end, Division Street is home to some of Chicago's most famous, and now very touristy, bars and nightclubs. If you follow the road west, you will pass through the area that formerly held the Cabrini Green Housing Project and now contains trendy condominiums.
Further west, over the Chicago River, Division Street runs through a stream of Chicago neighborhoods. A large chunk of Division runs through an area called West Town which is made up of many smaller neighborhoods. For much of the past 150 years or so, West Town has been home of wave after wave of immigrants.
My great grandparents on my father's side, came over from Eastern Europe and settled in West Town in the late 1800s. My great grandfather was from Minsk in Belarus. In Europe, he fell in love with a girl from Krinki, a small village in Poland. They eloped and came to America, specifically, Division Street in Chicago.
My great grandfather Jake opened up an electrical supply shop at 1925 W. Division St., more than 100 years ago. The building is still there. He was very successful and spent a great deal of money bringing my great grandmother Minnie's family from Krinki, Poland, to Division Street. Jake bought up many buildings on the street to house family. At one time, much of the village of Krinki was living on Division Street and I was related to most of them.
In the 1920s and 1930s, my family's story on Division Street took a notorious turn. It all began in the teens when Jake brought Minnie's sister and her family from Krinki, including 7 year-old Clarence. Adjusting to life on Division Street was difficult for Clarence as he learned English and American culture. Luckily, Clarence became fast friends with a neighborhood tough named Lester Gillis.
Lester was a small kid but mean and crazy. Anybody who messed with Clarence had to deal with Lester. The neighborhood kids were afraid of Lester.
Clarence soon came to be known as Clarey. As Clarey and Lester grew older, they shared an interest in automobiles. So much so that they would construct their own cars. They would take the cars out to race tracks in Michigan, an hour or so drive away. Lester drove the cars, Clarey was the mechanic.
Lester, however, was always a young man in trouble. He spent time in juvenile detention centers. When out, he'd find Clarey. Eventually, Lester was sent to jail where me met seasoned hoods and bank robbers. Once out of jail, Lester started to go by the name George Nelson, also known as "Babyface" Nelson. Lester began robbing banks with buddies from jail. Clarey supplied the cars for Nelson's gang. Some accounts report that Clarey supplied the guns. Nelson then hooked up with Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. Clarey supplied Nelson and Dillinger with their cars and guns.
While Nelson and Dillinger were out robbing banks and shooting up small towns all over the Midwest, Clarey opened up an automotive repair shop on Division Street, near Oakley -- all the while meeting up with Nelson and Dillinger to supply them with whatever they needed.
To avoid the law that was always searching for them, Nelson and Dillinger hid in safe houses all over Chicago. One of those safe houses was Clarey's auto shop on Division Street, just down the road from grandpa Jake's shop. Dillinger and fellow gang member Homer Van Meter spent extended periods hiding out in Clarey's shop.
According to my older family members, Dillinger was handy with a wrench and knew his way around an engine. Clarey put the famous bank robber to work fixing cars. Dillinger did not like hiding out and grew tired of Clarey's shop. He left the shop for a date with the famous "Lady in Red" who tipped off the feds. Dillinger was gunned him down a few miles from Division Street in an alley next to the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue. Oddly enough, I used to hang out in that same alley drinking beer, as a teen.
Anyway, the feds wouldn't get ole Lester the same way they got Dillinger. Lester went out in a blaze of fury in an epic gun battle with the feds outside of Chicago. Some accounts that I read state that Clarey drove out and picked up his wounded friend after the gun battle. Lester died. His body was found in a ditch in Chicago. I'm assuming it was Clarey who left him there.
Shortly afterwards, the feds picked up Clarey and shipped him to San Francisco where all the remaining members of the Nelson and Dillinger gangs were prosecuted. To defend Clarey, Grandpa Jake hired a young Chicago lawyer named Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, who later became a famous federal judge. There was not much Marovitz could do for Clarey. The evidence against him was strong. Clarey was sent to prison for harboring Dillinger and Van Meter.
I find it odd that in all the books and websites devoted to Babyface Nelson and John Dillinger, they say that Clarey returned to Chicago after serving time in a federal penitentiary then disappeared. Well, Clarey did not disappear. While his auto repair shop was defunct, he still owned the building at Division and Oakley which he converted into a public storage facility. As far as I know, he ran a legitimate storage business for the remainder of his life. He died in 1969 when I was a toddler. I met him at family gatherings but I was too young to remember him. My father said Clarey was the leader of my family up until his death. All important family and business decisions were run through Clarey.
My dad said that when Clarey spoke of Dillinger, he would say Dillinger was a country boy from Indiana who was a good auto mechanic. Apparently, Clarey did not speak much of Babyface Nelson.
On a number of occasions I tried to ask my grandmother about Clarey and his escapades. She always refused to talk about him. My grandmother was very proper, vain, and said Clarey was a black mark on the family and we don't talk about him. I've always been fascinated with my cousin Clarey. There seems to be a steady flow of books about Nelson and Dillinger. I read them all, they always mention Clarey. I also scan the internet for tidbits and regularly find new things. I benefit from the public's never-ending fascination with those bank robbers from the 1930s, which I share as well. There seems to be regular information about Clarey popping up out there.
The rest of my family led fairly boring lives. No other criminals, gun runners, bank robbers. Great grandpa Gordon owned a tavern. On my mother's side, my great-grandfather worked as a barber in Chicago and later as a farmer out in Michigan. My grandparents' generation worked in factories and the trades in Chicago. My parents generation all went to college and became professionals. My generation followed in their footsteps. The youngest generation is finding its way. Most of my family is still in the Chicago area. Jake's electrical supply shop lasted for 100 years or so until my cousin David shut it down in 1990. I lived above the shop for a couple of years in the 1980s.
Pictured above is a photo I found online, I think it is Clarey's mugshot from when he was arrested for harboring Dillinger. Kind of odd that an auto mechanic wore such a fancy suit, don't ya think?