That Toddlin' Town
Second city, maybe, but it's the only Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another lengthy excerpt from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. In order to explain Chicago to people (mainly Downstate Illinoisans) what Chicago is like, I had to first find out. The tone is a little dismissive, I suppose. Chicagoans ar forever going on about how their city is the only place like it in the world, when it is not. What is special about Chicago (as Italian sociologist Marco D'Eramo has pointed out) is Chicagoans' need for their home town to be thought special.
“The sheer diversity of the city,” wrote James Gilbert in Perfect Cities, “has always threatened cultural coherence.” True enough. But one can risk a few generalizations about the place. For example, if Chicago has been unique, it is not in having been so Chicagoan, but in being so American. We know that Chicago is the most American of cities because so many clever people have said so over the years. Actress Sarah Bernhardt called it the pulse of America. British historian and diplomat James Bryce, in his masterwork The American Commonwealth, called Chicago “Perhaps the most typically American place in America.” “I give you Chicago,” wrote H. L. Mencken during his early infatuation with it. “It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.” Norman Mailer came to the same conclusion a couple of generations later. “Chicago is a great American city,” he wrote in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. “Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.”
Certainly, Chicago was quintessentially American in many ways. It was built by immigrant labor in service to big-money capitalists. Its people expect to have better lives in both this world and the next. It shares with the rest of the nation the crudity of its culture, the crassness of its politicians, the heedlessness of its greed, the violence of its prejudices.
Its Americanness sets it apart not only from Europe but from the eastern cities of the U.S. Journalist Albert Harper in 1967 wrote, “Chicago is not only Chicago. It is America. Unlike New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, it has possessed and nourished during its past one hundred and thirty years (it was incorporated in 1837), the true ethos of our national landscape. It never was cosmopolitan, never pseudo-European, like some of its eastern coastal sisters.”
There are nonetheless traits that are uniquely Chicagoan, at least in degree. It is—or rather, its historical version is—masculine, vain in particular ways, insecure, materialistic, violent, corrupt and prudish as a nun. None of these traits is true of all Chicagoans, of course, or even of all eras of Chicago’s past. But enough are true that one can learn something about the city by examining them.
“Chicago is not a woman”
Chicago is sometimes said to be the home of the tough guy, sometimes of the regular guy, but in any event the pluperfect Chicagoan would seem to be a guy. “Chicago is not a woman, not a “she” as so many cities are” insisted Bill Gleason in 1970 in Daley of Chicago. “Chicago is the “he” among cities.” M. W. Newman agrees. “The town is no Miss America, although maybe it’s Mister America, still pumping iron even after losing the title,” he has observed. “A town as tough as they come and as tough as they go, too.” It’s a place, as Garry Wills summarized, that is ”all shove and muscle and brawling.”
Like so many aspects of Chicago’s public persona, its putative masculinity dates from its golden age toward the end of the 19th century. Timothy Spears, author of Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871–1929, notes that in 1890, an estimated 44 percent of the male population over the age of fifteen was unmarried; these youngish men (most were native-born whites of native parents) outnumbered the population of same-aged, single women living in Chicago by more than two to one. It was these men whose bachelor subculture lived in boardinghouses, barbershops, saloons, pawnshops, and YMCA branches, writes Spears, “added considerably to American city life between 1880 and 1920.”
Thanks mainly to its writers, this is how the world knows Chicago what Maxine Chernoff once described as “brawling barroom kind of writers” like James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren. Culture was something for women and sissies. “What we might call the male Chicago novel, in a modern move away from domesticity and toward the business world, dramatized work over home, predatory competition over the nurture of established neighborhoods.” Culture and art, he adds, were lesser gods, whose worshippers were mainly women. (Wills notes that women are forever reading Ruskin in the classic Chicago novels and going to operas at the Auditorium.)
Wills, who fixes a steady gaze on Chicago from the lofty heights of Evanston, sees all. “The town is anatomically top heavy,” he wrote in 1993.
Sandburg's City of The Big Shoulders, Algren's "heavy-shouldered laugher." In The Pit, we look up at "hump-shouldered grain elevators" (Chapter 2). In the Cliff Dwellers we "climb to the shoulder" of the Clifton (Chapter 1). In William Payne's novel Jerry the Dreamer, buildings "shoulder up above the common pack." At first Sinclair's hero in The Jungle feels at home in Chicago because "my back is broad" (Chapter 2). The restaurant at the Chicago Historical Society is called the Big Shoulders Cafe. This place has shoulders on the brain.”
Like so many stereotypes about the city, Chicago’s putative guy-ness sometimes is confounded by facts. Yes, Chicago’s popular heroes are hoods and jocks like Mike Ditka and Dick Butkus. But the Chicago sports heroes of recent vintage—Payton and Banks and Jordan—were not bruisers but intelligent, soft-spoken, articulate men who were celebrated because of their deftness on the field rather than brute force. One of its trio of Famous Architects, Louis Sullivan, decorated buildings in what amounts to stone and metal lace, a style so effeminate as to suggest to critics and biographers an unacknowledged effeminacy. (Although only a mayor whose macho credentials are as unquestionable as Richard M. Daley could get away with openly courting gays to join his governing coalition—like Nixon going to China.)
Nor has the city has ever lacked women of ambition, even if that ambition often had to be channeled into social climbing or good works or acting as the uncredited brains (and balls) behind many a business baron. Just as many of the famous women associated with the city—from Jane Addams and Gwendolyn Brooks to people of more dubious achievement such as the Landers twins to Oprah and pols such as Jane Byrne and Carol Moseley Braun—are female.
Perhaps Chicago is just growing up. Chicago remains a young city, and only in the late 20th century did it show signs of emerging from its bumptious adolescence. The brash youth has gone respectable and put on a coat and tie. This has displeased many of its old pals, who started wearing coats and ties years ago. One is F. Richard Ciccone, author of yet another book on Richard J. Daley.
Chicago has finally grown up. And it's not as much fun. Chicago isn't angry anymore. It has fences and flowers and sidewalk dining. Visitors take architecture boat tours and shop on Michigan Avenue and pay homage to the ivy at Wrigley Field. They ask about Michael Jordan, not ghost voters . . . .
Commentator after commentator hints, in not quite frank terms, that today’s Chicago is a little twee, a little girly, a little suburban club lady. Rude Chicago is looked on nostalgically by men who are nice middle class men, academics maybe, who romanticize what they never had a chance to take part in, men who never got dirt, much less blood, on their hands.
Seeing the Coliseum in the Packingtown
If one believes some Chicago boosters, Chicago is the only U.S. big city that has ethnic neighborhoods or corrupt politicians, or that at the very least that Chicago’s neighborhoods are more ethnic and its pols more corrupt than anyplace else. This betrays not so much defensive brio as ignorance of the wider world. Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo recalled how the Chicago Tribune in 1875 insisted that tourists would no more leave Chicago without having seen the Union Stock Yards than they would visit Rome and not see the Coliseum. D’Eramo—overlooking for the moment the fact that the remark was made a century and a quarter ago, in which time even the Trib‘s views have evolved—found this the really wonderful thing about Chicago. “It would never enter the mind of somebody from Europe,” he sniffed, “to compare a slaughterhouse to the Coliseum.” Of course, the Coliseum was a slaughterhouse, although the Tribune no doubt was thinking of it as a tourist attraction.
The Tribune still does this, although some doubts have begun to creep in. A then-senior correspondent for the paper, R. C. Longworth, took up the issue in 2003.
We're big; the biggest city between the coasts. We've got the nonpareil skyline and terrific architecture. We've got the Symphony and the Art Institute and great universities and blues bars and unbeatable pizza and the lake. We have several more-or-less- professional sports teams and convention facilities and Michigan Avenue . . .
So far, so Tribune. Every big city has those kinds of things; the provincials believe that having what other great cities have makes one a great city, when in fact it is having what the others don’t have. Which Longworth to his credit concedes. “OK, but so what?,” he concludes. “We've had all these assets for decades, and still we had to define ourselves by a gangster or a basketball player. “
About the first human inhabitants of Chicagoland, historian Jacqueline Peterson observed, “Tribes with a relatively static population, a value system ranking leisure above energy expenditure, and a subsistence economy had little need to wander further out beyond the boundaries marking economic survival, except in years of famine or natural catastrophe. The tribal world, a primarily “spiritual” entity, overlay—in fact, was identical with—the geographic area necessary for subsistence. The tribal world-view was centripetal and cyclical—inward-turning and bent to the symbiotic balance of nature’s resources.”
Few of Chicago’s citizens came from cities. Most of its American immigrants are farmers or the recent descendants of farmers. Of its foreign-born, only a few—the German Jews of the mid-1800s—had been city people; the rest—Russian Jews, southern Italians, Poles, Mexicans—were peasants. The City of Neighborhoods persists because the neighborhood—the urban version of the village of old—insulates its residents from the rest of the city, which is just the way most residents like it.
Few of Chicago’s immigrants were cosmopolitans. They may have traveled a third of the way around the globe to a big city but their hearts—and minds—were shaped by the experience of the village and the small town back home. His fierce defense of his native language in schools, of her own national church, of the borders of the neighborhood, is fabled. Peoples who came from places that were dominated by foreigners —Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, to name the three biggest—were free, in Chicago, to fully be Liths or Poles or whatever for the first time. Indeed, they had to be, as the familiar anchors of identity had been pulled away by emigration. Typical was the experience of the Poles. Otto von Bismarck enforced a policy of Germanization in what were then the Polish provinces of Germany during the mid-1800s; all Polish schoolchildren were required to learn German—an experience that explains in part the Poles’ fierce insistence on Polish in their own Parish schools when they got to Chicago.
This inward-ness was matched by the region’s small-towners, whose xenophobia was equal to the denizens of the neighborhood, and by its suburbanites, where the small-town tribes of the Midwest settle when they migrate to Chicagoland. (Suburban Chicago is, of course, a region of small towns that would be known as such were it not for their proximity to the city.) It is a cliché among the nearly educated to observe that the parish, the ethnic enclave, and the suburb are all villages; the revolt from the village announced by the city’s artists at the turn of the 20th century was not, it turned out, against villages, just against their villages.
Less acknowledged by even its critics is the fact that this insularity was also matched by the city’s bourgeoisie. Bray makes a useful point (he was writing about Margaret Fuller, but it applied to all Chicago authors) that the settings of most Chicago novels are as insular and provincial as any Downstate small town. Genuine cosmopolites exist, of course. But they are as exotic in Chicago they would be anywhere else in Illinois, even if they are admired a little more.
Most Chicagoans of means also do not embrace urban life as a good but tolerate it as a necessity. For them, the “homestead will always be the place of grace; one can’t fully explain the enduring popularity of the suburbs otherwise. This surprised D’Eramo, who wrote:
Speak to a feminist from a well-heeled neighborhood, to a Trotskyist from the Chicago historical society, to a journalist champion of the issues of the Third World — the kind of people you might think to be far from the conformist script of the American Dream — and . . . even from this supposedly anti-conformist minority oozes that quintessentially American, quintessentially capitalist ideal, that the ultimate human aspiration is to own a single-family dwelling, separated from neighboring dwellings by a lawn, but still to be able to enjoy the various urban amenities: concerts, theaters, restaurants, cinemas. Chicago represents the ideal of a city that is both ‘burbs (pleasant to live in) and bustling metropolis (good for going out).
Chicagoans share this trait with their Downstate cousins, who like the Chicago of the neighborhoods tend to be isolationist in impulse, a bit xenophobic, and most at home at home. Hutton noted, “Chicago is not mainly an apartment city, like most of New York; nor does it live and eat in public places. It is a city of separate homes to which the visitor or client is immediately made welcome. It is a city of home-proud, city-proud citizens whose fathers and grandfathers came there to “make a home”—which describes nicely life as it is lived in Springfield or Peoria or Rockford.
“A place where matter ruled”
Chicago’s supposed Americanness owes much to its being so Midwestern. Provincialism has blinkered the city’s view of itself, which is why the most pungent, and the most perceptive descriptions of the city have almost always been written by outsiders. (Outsiders of all kinds; Saul Bellow has written persuasively about the city, but while he lived here for years he was never for a minute a Chicagoan.) Perry Duis cites several such works—The Jungle, If Christ Came to Chicago, and A. J. Liebling’s Second City article series, to which one might add D’Eramo’s 2002 book, The Pig and The Skyscraper.
When Rudyard Kipling visited Chicago in 1889, his guide took him to the barber shop at the Palmer house, whose floor had been famously inlaid with real silver dollars. “A Hottentot would not have been guilty of this sort of barbarism,” Kipling sneered in American Notes. “The coins made an effect pretty enough, but the man who put them there had no thought of beauty, and, therefore, he was a savage.”
Cities in other places grew up as ceremonial centers or as centers of learning or the arts; Chicago grew up as a place to make money. (Wan-Bun, the 1856 novel that is widely regarded as the first “Chicago novel,” has been described as a tale of how real estate speculators purchased the city from Native Americans.) “This was a place where matter ruled,” wrote Saul Bellow in 1975, “a place where stone was value and value stone.” Businessmen were and remain its dukes, its archbishops, its generals. True, businessmen made Venice and Florence and Amsterdam and London too, but they were men already formed by those places; there was no city to form the men who made Chicago, with the result that they remained as raw, as uncouth, as the place itself.
Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century, explained to an interviewer, “When you talk about what I call buccaneering capitalism, you're talking about Chicago.” John Kenzie, for a long time celebrated as the founder of modern Chicago—celebrated at least by his daughter-in-law, who wrote a popular novel intended to establish Kenzie thus in the public mind—relied on business practices such as selling liquor to the Indians and murdering a business rival that, while merely questionable in Chicago, might have been indictable in other places.
The city in its boom years, say, from 1850 to 1930, attracted people eager to make it, and the city as yet had little to offer immigrants capable of broader understanding. Chicago was not unlike the Wall Street of the 1990s in its exuberance, its vulgarity, its heedlessness. It was the go-getters who made the rules as well as the fortunes.
Rather than “I will!” the city slogan should have been, “I want!”’ From the Eastern capitalists who prospered thanks to their near-monopoly in the continental fur trade to the meat packers who shocked America by what they put into their sausages to accounting firm Arthur Anderson, who in the 1990 shocked America by what they left out of the financial reports on Enron, Chicago firms earned reputations as cheats, liars, and thugs. As is noted elsewhere in this volume, the famous Chicago gangster differed only slightly in methods from the famed robber barons of Chicago industry and finance, however much the two classes differed in their personal morals.
After visiting Chicago to see the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Henry Adams posed a what has since become a very familiar question: Can artistic culture, as usually understood, survive crass commercial pandering to popular taste? Adams was a tourist, and thus to be forgiven for asking a question that the more thoughtful natives had been asking for years. In the bookstores while Adams was wandering about the world’s fair was Henry Blake Fuller’s new book, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) in which (with With the Procession, which came out two years later) Fuller traced the effect of money on the city as one might trace the effect of a poison on a corpse. Indeed, Robert Bray notes, in these books Fuller analyzed the ethics of a city whose people were not only making but made of money.
It is easy to not notice that Chicagoans of no era were of a unanimous mind about money and money-making. The French traders, Canadian metis, and the Indians who made up the society of early Chicago shared what is judged today to have been a “premodern” culture that left them ill-suited to take part in—even to take seriously—capitalism’s endless striving; they were driven into exile (in the case of the Indians, literally) by the go-getting Yankees in the 1830s.
That episode was not the last time that the city’s worship of Mammon put it at odds with its own people. Surprisingly many of Chicago’s immigrants came from cultures that were ambivalent about, if not explicitly opposed to, capitalism and its values. The entrepreneurial energy that lead to African American neighborhoods being catered to by Jewish and more recently Korean merchants rather than by fellow blacks cannot be explained wholly by the latter’s lack of access to bank capital. White Southerners, too, faced the same problems adapting to the commercial city that the metis experienced, and the Irish never developed an entrepreneurial class.
If some were left behind, those who got ahead had qualms too. Developers and their architect-servants sought through their buildings to transcend commerce, to elevate business—and themselves—symbolically to higher plane. Turn-of-the-century developers for example sought to ennoble the new white-collar trades as a calling. Doric columns and ailanthus leaves carved from stone proved the perfect tools to scratch the sense of cultural inferiority that itched at these parvenus. As Paul Fussell once noted, such doodads pointed to “a world larger than the local and a purpose nobler than the utilitarian.”
Chicago as Second City and Windy City, or, what’s in a nickname?
American cities tend to have nicknames, consistent with the nation’s how’s-it-goin’ informality. Chicago is unusual not only in having two universally recognized nicknames, but in having two nicknames that were intended as insulting. If, as journalist John Bartlow Martin once observed, “Chicago’s defenders had always been numerous and sensitive,” it is because Chicago’s detractors have always been numerous and vocal. Few cities have been so routinely derided as Chicago, although since the 1950s it has lost that mantle, along with the No. 2 population spot, to Los Angeles. One selection, taken at random from a vast catalog of abuse, comes from muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. “First in violence, deepest in dirt, lawless, unlovely, ill-smelling, irreverent, new,” he called the Chicago of 1904 in The Shame of the Cities, “an overgrown gawk of a village, the ‘tough’ among cities, a spectacle for the nation.” As billingsgate, this is splendid; as sociology it is nearly as good.
Constant criticism from outsiders over the ensuing century has left the locals uneasy: What if they’re right? Chicago’s insecurities regarding its place in the nation and the world are famous. "Far from glorying in their status on the frontier or celebrating a rough-hewn Americanism," writes Daniel Bluestone about the late 1800s, "elite Chicagoans continually worried about the impression their city made on visitors from more cosmopolitan places [and] projected that cultural problem markedly into the work of city building."
This insecurity plagued Chicago from the start. In its pioneer days it took the form of a braggadocio that was so uninformed that it confirmed the very stereotype that it aimed to refute. Writer Grace Greenwood is said to have observed when what she called the “true-spirited citizen from Chicago” drinks New York whisky, he complains it isn’t half as good as he gets at home, for it only burns “half-way down!” This same cosmopolitan, she reported, sneered at the feet of the beauties on that city’s Fifth Avenue because “our girls have them twice the size!”
Admit it or not, Chicago has always been as solicitous of the good opinion of visitors as a parson’s wife. Perry Duis has noted that the city’s obsession with its image is so grand as to spawn its own histories. During Prohibition, when “Chicago” meant “gangster” to most of the world, it needed two such volumes: Chicago: The History of Its Reputation by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, and the anthology, As Others See Chicago, edited by Bessie Louise Pierce. Decades-old wounds from the jibes of New York have not healed since they were inflicted by editorialists and other patriots dismissed Chicago’s pretensions to big-city status, even its pretensions to city-ness. Thus it was with particular pain that Chicagoans saw their fair city dismissed by The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling as “the second city” in 1949. Worse, the nickname stuck.
Today, being referred to as the nation’s Second City rather flatters Chicago, since it is now the nation’s third city ins terms of population and somewhere lower on the list in terms of cultural and political influence. Boosters may deny it and patriots insist that the fix was in, but Chicago’s lesser status is rooted in realities. Yes, Chicagoans have always been crafty and clever, but not really smart, save for the U of C set. Its arts have been energetic but crude; Chicago had the blues, so to speak, but New York had Broadway, which was a fount of popular entertainment, the birth cloud of new stars and song hits. Chicago has always harbored people of discernment, people who travel and read, people who are all too aware that the city has been, usually, a backwater, but they are generally too few to sustain much of a fine arts culture. (When the Joffrey Ballet relocated to Chicago in 1995, it was mainly because the cost of living was lower than in Manhattan.) And looking back, it seems always to have been behind the curve, boasting of its perennial prowess as a maker of things long after the culture began devoting itself to ideas.
Local elites in every province assume that the products of their region must be inferior to those produced by the world’s acknowledged culture capitals. Art critic Robert Hughes has written amusingly about the “cultural cringe” that he and fellow Australians feel toward Britain and the rest of Europe in the 1950s. Many adopt what might be called the Chicago cringe. "Chicago tends to not take anything seriously that comes out of Chicago," said art dealer Richard Feigen. "There is a perennial second-city complex."
As a consequence, Chicago is a fine place to make art—rents on studio space are lower than in Manhattan—but not always the best place to sell it. Feigen closed the Chicago branch of his New York galleries in 1997 because even Chicagoans were flying to New York to buy work by Chicago artists. Mark Pascale, the Art Institute curator, who in 1997 co-organized a survey of postwar printmaking in Chicago, told the press in 2002. "Dan Peterman, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Gaylen Gerber, and others—their reputations were greater in Europe than in their own city and their collecting base went further.”
Eager for the world’s good opinion, yet secretly uncertain whether or how to deserve it, Chicagoans react one of two ways. One group feels, often secretly, that Chicago really is a crap town. The well-known comedy troupe chose the self-mocking name "Second City" from Liebling’s disdainful article series; a more recent example of the self-deprecatory raised to a cultural stance comes from the Chicago Webzine “Stop Smiling,” which calls itself the Magazine for High-Minded Low Lifes. Unable to be best at being the best, many a Chicagoan is happy to settle for what many consider the next best which is to be the best at being the worst. If the Cubs ever win a World Series, Chicago’s civic self-esteem will plummet.
Another way to deal with the assume contempt of others is defiance. The Chicago newspapers were the public voice of this “sez who?” bluster. About the Tribune’s fulminations against the city’s detractors in the 1950s, the venerable BBC commentator Alistair Cooke once observed that it was impossible not to notice the Midwestern chip on the shoulder, “which Colonel McCormick elevated to the dignity of an epaulette.”
Of course, another way to square acknowledged inferiority with local pride is to try to turn Chicago into someplace else. In his book, Donald Miller makes a plausible case for Chicago in its golden era as the America Florence, and once likened the Chicago of the 1890s to the Berlin of the early 2000s. But for more than a century, when Chicago movers and shakers are nestled all snug in their beds, it is visions of Hausmann’s Paris that dance in their heads.
Chicago civic improvements have long had a markedly French accent, at least French as it was spoken in the era of Napoleon III. It was that Paris that was recalled so gloriously in the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the first great monument to what became known as the City Beautiful movement and itself the inspiration for the Chicago Plan of 1909. The fair itself was inspired by the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris that gave the world the Eiffel Tower, and the fair’s principal buildings were inspired by the kind of academic classicism that reigned there.
It was not, however, the palaces of the putative European nobility but the haunts of the haute bourgeoisie—the parks, the shops, the boulevards, the fountains—that Chicago’s dukes of commerce yearned to recreate for themselves. They wanted in short to turn Chicago into a setting worthy of their magnificence.
The idea of the free citizens of democratic Chicago taking for their model the civic formulae of emperors and kings had obvious ironies. But the city’s elites—the first generation that had time for such indulgences—knew Paris well from their travels. And it was they who ultimately made decisions about style, public as well as private. A number of influential Chicago architects had been trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, including such influentials in the field as Louis Sullivan architect and John Holabird of Holabird & Roche. The school of the Art Institute was modeled on the French academies of the sort, and so automatic was the assumption that its students would go to Paris for seasoning that the school offered them French lessons.
The young Saul Bellow read (often in Chicago magazines) about the new world of art and ideas that was rising in the post-World War I where worked Mondrian, Picasso, and Diaghilev. “This international culture was peculiarly appreciated in Chicago,” Bellow would write,
a city of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, blacks just up from the South, Irish stockyard workers and politicians, German mechanics, Swedish cabinetmakers, Jewish garment workers, Greek cooks, Iowa dirt farmers, and Hoosier small-town storekeepers, a city of foreigners, roughnecks, and working stiffs. Anyone might become a prospector and strike it rich, find the gold of art under the el tracks. Such was the hope emanating from Paris in those great years . . . .
As planning historian Peter Hall notes, the City Beautiful movement found its most stalwart champions in the boosters of cities like Chicago. This was in part because the city’s elites believed the City Beautiful also would be the City Profitable, by ridding it of much that was driving away the bourgeois to the suburbs. Also it was in such upstart cities that local elites suffered from (in Hall’s words) “collective inferiority complexes.”
Much of it was built, too, at least that part of it that affected public land, where building was uncomplicated by the need for profit. Grant Park and Garfield parks are among the several that mimicked the layouts of French-style formal gardens, and the model for the Michigan Avenue bridge across the river was Paris’s Alexander III Bridge. Many beloved civic and cultural landmarks were done in the eclectic neoclassicism known as the Beaux Arts style. A partial list includes the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, the central library, and Buckingham Fountain, the last modeled a fountain at the Palace of Versailles.
The private sector tried to speak French to its customers too. The marquee of the Chicago Theatre is decorated with a miniature Arc de Triomphe and its lobby staircase recalls that of the Paris Opera. Field’s State Street store aped Paris’s Bon Marché in its layout and fixtures, and when Michigan Avenue was upgraded into a shopping avenue, it fancied itself Boul Mich, a term that was long ago put back into the box it came out of.
For all their training, the Burnhamites little grasped what made Paris work, as distinct from how it looked. One way in which Chicago of 1909 already mimicked Paris was the presence of the Water Street Market along the river, Chicago’s equivalent of Paris’ Les Halles. It was here, wrote Lloyd Lewis, that “the jolly produce-men, with red, weather-worn faces and a great flapping of stained aprons, had felt and smelled of the vegetables or fruit brought in creaking wagons at sunrise.” This Burnham decreed should be destroyed to make room for the new Wacker Drive.
Paris's grand boulevards thronged with people because people lived along them in massive apartment blocks that in Burnham’s Chicago were to be offices and civic structures. That kind of downtown did not begin to emerge until nearly a century after the Plan was published with the return to the greater Loop of thousands of students, empty-nesters, and young professionals to new condos and apartments.
Paris continued to inspire Chicago planners and designers for years. As architecture historian John Zukovsky has noted, the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology and the School of the Art Institute for decades maintained an essentially Beaux-Arts curricula. Some of the best esteemed skyscrapers, such as the Field Building (now 135 S. LaSalle) reflect the “masonry modernism” that was popularized by the Paris Exhibition of 1925 (officially the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, and is popularly known as the Art Deco exhibition.)
Modernism bid for a time to outshine the Beaux Arts style and its variants in Chicago. (Literally outshine—all that sunlight bouncing off all those glass boxes.) But the dream of a Paris by the lake did not die. Its resurrection owes mainly to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who visited Paris in the 1990s (the first of several trips), fell in love with it, and adopted it as an urban ideal. The mayor is an enthusiastic if uncritical City Beautiful advocate, and clearly has set out to finish the job started one hundred years ago and never finished.
Alex Kotlowitz recalled that the mayor’s father, the late Richard J., once asked, “What is Paris next to Chicago? Has Paris got Lake Michigan?” His son clearly was committed to building a Paris that has a lake too. Under his ministrations Chicago is, physically at least, more like Paris than ever, from sidewalk cafes and a French-style outdoor market in Lakeview to planter boxes on highways.
If the rest of the world sniggers when Chicago vainly talks of turning itself into another Paris, the mayor does not—and in Chicago, if the mayor does not snigger at something, it ain’t funny. His ambitions can be seen most clearly in Millennium Park, a project on which he lavished enormous amounts of other people’s money, and a great deal of mayoral prestige and clout. The popular elements of the park—the sculptures, the Frank Gehry proscenium at the Pritzker Pavilion—are unabashedly modern, and some see in Daley’s embrace of them a shift away from neoclassicism. But the basic elements of the park—the gardens, the plazas, the peristyle and fountain—are quintessential Beaux Arts accouterments.
Biggest in the world
Ingrained inferiority, in proud people, also tends to produce a defensive cultural strut. Bill Gleason wrote in 1970, “Chicago has a need to awe a visitor.” Of course, a great city doesn’t need to try to awe a visitor, and a confident city doesn’t worry about visitor’s opinions in the first place.
That need to impress has inspired an obsession among some Chicagoans with firsts, mosts, and onlys as a measure of status. As Rich Cohen remarked in Lake Effect, “Anyone from Chicago can give you a tour organized around the phrase “Biggest in the world.” Like all braggarts, Chicagoans are not above fudging the facts. One tourist video about Chicago River architecture video boasted that, at its peak as commercial port, more vessels entered Chicago's rivermouth harbor 120 years ago than landed at the ports of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia combined. True enough—as far as it goes, which is that the large number of vessels owed to the fact that they were lake steamers, vastly smaller in tonnage than the ocean vessels that frequented the latter ports.
Chicago has never been shy to trumpet even its more dubious achievements. “What avid curiosity, what indefatigable delving and—why not say it? —what arrogance, what self-conviction!” wrote Marco D’Eramo in 2002. Thus the other of Chicago’s unflattering nicknames— “The Windy City.” Determining exactly who first uttered the phrase, and why, keeps pedants and patriots busy and off the streets. Locally, it is generally assumed to refer to the breezes that blow off the lake. References to the local weather go back to the 1870s. but Chicago is not particularly windy, meteorologically speaking, although the winds as measured by the scientists and the winds as they are perceived by people on the street, concentrated after being funneled by buildings, are two very different phenomena.
Another faction insists that the phrase originated as an insult directed at the city by a New York newspaper editor who had grown tired of listening Chicago’s endless self-promotion. There is no disputing the ferocity of the city’s boasting. Chicago in those days was not just a young city but a brand new one, and like bumptious youngsters everywhere eager to both impress and surpass its more accomplished and self-assured elders such as Boston and (especially) New York.
These days the wind may still blow off the lake, but it doesn’t blow so hard out of Chicagoans. Since World War II, Chicago’s vainglory had gone along with the stockyards and the steel mills. Liebling stated bluntly what many Chicago boosters have troubled admitting even now, a half-century later. “The hopes for all-round preeminence, to come as an automatic bonus for being biggest, have faded,” he wrote in 1952. “Still, the habit of purely quantitative thinking persists. The city consequently has the personality of a man brought up in the expectation of a legacy who has learned in middle age that it will never be his.”
The only big city in the world
Much of Chicago’s boasting owes not to boosterish pride but lack of knowledge of the wider world. This contradicts Chicago’s rather vain notions of itself as a world-class city, but visitors forgive them these because Chicagoans, being Chicagoans, don’t know what a world-class city really is, few of them ever having been in one.
A people who know only Chicago of all the cities in the world will be easy prey to the notion that Chicago is the only city in the world. Bill Gleason, the Shakespeare of Chicago boosters, wrote in 1970: “Natives of other places may see themselves with similar confidence, but Chicago’s men and Chicago’s women, children of the man-city, reject the premise that any other city and the residents of any other city are comparable to Chicago and Chicagoans.”
And that was true—for a while. If Chicago was not exceptional in its filth or its violence or the ugliness or the flagrance of its class injustices—London and Paris need not blush in those regards—none grew so large so fast. In no great city did antecedents matter less; it was as close to a miraculous virgin birth as a city is likely to have. But that mythic Chicago ceased to exist around 1930.
Certainly, life in Chicago in its heyday was violent in every way. Its business practices verged on the predatory, conditions on factory floors were brutal—even its climate is physically punishing. It was a place where factory owners deliberately set race against race, church against church, nation against nation, where the conditions of daily life for decades would have incited a saint to strike out in rage. But virtually every sizable city in the Midwest went through most of Gleason’s phases, without quite so much bloodshed.
“All cities have their pretensions, their eager recourse to events, people, and achievements that set them apart,” noted Marco D’Eramo. “What makes Chicago different is the idea that it is not only different but better.” D’Eramo is not the only social critic to note this. Mark Twain, in 1897, had an impatient Satan complaining to a newcomer in Hell, “The trouble with you Chicago people is, that you think you are the best people down here; whereas you are merely the most numerous.”
Chicago these days is just another big American city, which means that in most n most respects a better city than it was. A better city, but a less distinctive one. In terms of population trends, economic changes, finances, its internal social dynamic—by every measure that matters Chicago is one with the aging metropolises of the Midwest and Northeast. It is sensibly living off its past, such as its buildings and its lakefront, that it has been unable to match. As for the iconic images of the Chicago past—stockyards, Capone—only its politicians continue to live up to, or rather down to their past reputation.
Few big cities of the modern West have proven themselves more adept in the art of violence in all its forms than Chicago. The city was put on the map of national consciousness in 1812 through an act of violence in the form of the Ft. Dearborn Massacre. A remarkable number of its famous incidents in the years since—the Leopold-Loeb-Bobby Franks case, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Haymarket bombing, the shooting of John Dillinger at the Biographe Theater, the bloody race war of 1919, the Pullman and Republic Steel strikes, riots on the west side and at Dem convention sites in 1968—are stained with blood. German beer-lovers, leftist labor agitators, disaffected blacks, racist whites, disgruntled Puerto Ricans, angry union members, cops, drunken concert-goers, self-styled revolutionaries—all have taken to the streets—indeed, now and then have taken the streets—at one time or another.
And of course, the city is still best known abroad for the carnival of mayhem that played during the Prohibition years. When video game-makers needed a theme for yet another violent game, they chose Chicago during the prohibition wars, titling it “Chicago 1930.” R. C. Longworth, for years a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is one of the many traveled Chicagoans who has learned to smile when foreigners, hearing the name of his home town, “cocked a finger and rasped, "Chicago! Hah! Al Capone! Bang bang bang!” “It's one of the most progressive cities in the world,” said Will Rogers of Chicago in 1930. “Shooting is only a sideline.”
All proud Chicagoans complain, but A. J. Liebling demurred. “I have known Chicagoans who claim that they are embarrassed, when they are traveling [sic] abroad, at being quizzed about les gangsters. I have never believed them, because they invariably tell it like a funny story. They remind me of a movie star telling what a bore it is to be recognized.”
Just as there is something about Paris in the spring that turns ordinary people into lovers, there was something about Chicago that turned them into thugs. The younger Carter Harrison described this scene from the stockyards Teamsters strike of 1904 in his autobiography. A caravan of delivery wagons was snaking through the Loop under police escort.
I saw ordinarily modest young women become perfect viragoes of rage, standing along the curbing shrieking, ‘Scab! Scab!” and hurling dirt, stones, filth of all descriptions at the police, the only members of the caravan sufficiently close to be reached by the missiles.
Most perversely wicked of all were the not infrequent attacks of women stenographers and office employees who, leaning gaily from window sills as high as the tenth and twelfth stories, tossed paper-weights and heavy ink-wells to the street below, with one wish, to crush the head of strike-breaker or of policeman, it mattered little which.
Communal violence darkened Chicago reputation during two tumultuous eras in which an aging and tottering social order was being tested—the first when organized workers attempted to reform, if not to replace, the old rules that governed relations between workers and bosses, labor and capitalist; and again when African Americans challenged the accustomed second-class citizenship to which they have been consigned.
Labor historian Richard Shneirov notes that strikes by unskilled laborers in the the 1800s tended to be unorganized affairs that often were transformed when police intervened. Then, “a strike could easily turn into a community riot as family members, neighborhood residents, and other outdoor laborers were drawn into the street.”
Race touched off the most numerous and ugliest of this kind of civil disturbance. The worst was in 1919. Tensions between whites and African Americans had been high in the weeks leading to July. Resentment simmered among white workers at black workers who had signed on as strikebreakers or took whites’ jobs by accepting lower pay when peace in World War I brought production slowdowns in the factories. Economic rivalry added to chronic social tensions over housing; there had seen skirmishes along the frontier between white and black neighborhoods (such as for example, the whites south of Bridgeport and the blacks spilling out of the Douglas neighborhood in search of housing). There was anger among blacks too, especially returning veterans who, having risked lives for the U.S., chafed at being relegated again to the ghetto.
Such forces were to feed riots in 20 U.S. cities that year. Chicago made good its boast to be the biggest in all things by hosting the worst of them all. When a black teenager inadvertently drifted into unofficial whites-only swimming area off 29th street, he was attacked and drowned; outraged blacks mobbed a cop when the whites responsible was not arrested; whites replied by attacking black neighborhoods. In the ensuing violence, 38 persons were killed and 537 injured and the homes of 1,000 people were wrecked.
The violence was a unique expression of Chicago street culture. Spontaneous in its early stages, the beatings and arson quickly became an organized assault on the city’s African Americans by established gangs of young whites who enjoyed official protection. These gangs—Ragen’s Colts, the Lorraine Club Our Flags Club, the Sparklers, the Aylward Club, among others—were supported by ward bosses, who used them as intimidators and enforcers; in return, the punks got protection from the police. So bold were they that Ragen’s Colts broke into a police station and stole confiscated firearms.
In addition to beatings, the gangs were thought to have been behind arsons in the white Stock Yards neighborhood that had been blamed on blacks in an attempt to incite further retaliation; the fires left nearly a thousand people homeless. The whites gangs also pioneered in what is today known as drive-by shootings, and were described by the Commission as “automobile raids” on African American neighborhoods. no arrests of their members have been made as far as this jury is aware."
The 1919 race riots were the worst but far from the only incident of racial communal violence. In 1946 the Chicaho Housing Authority tried to move two African American families into the public housing project called Airport Homes in the white neighborhood around 60th Street & Karlov Avenue. The CHA cannily scheduled the move-in for midday when the neighborhoods males would be at work, but were met instead with some two hundred dirt- and rock-throwing demonstrators, primarily middle-aged women, who attacked the moving van and forced the new tenants to run to for cover. It took four hundred policemen to restore the peace. In 1951 whites took to the streets again for three days over attempts by blacks to move into white enclaves in the working-class parts of the city; 400 National Guardsmen and more than 120 arrests were needed to quell the rising.
Street violence aimed at black tenants in white areas continued sporadically for another twenty years; in 1966, Martin Luther King, the American Gandhi, was attacked by brick-throwing whites during an open housing march in Marquette Park that he described as more hostile than anything he’d faced in the South.
Whites tended to focus their attacks on blacks; violence by angry blacks was directed against property and police. The Rent Strike Riot in August of 1931 saw 2,000 black Chicagoans on the South Side take to the streets after an aged widow was evicted from her home. After the murder in 1968 of Dr. King, saw eleven people (all young black males) die and more than 500 wounded or injured. Almost 3,000 arrests were made in those eight days of violence that caused more than $10 million in property losses that ended only when 7,000 Illinois National Guard troops and 5,000 federal troops were called in. Whole blocks of Lawndale, Austin, and Woodlawn burned; in all, arsonists damage or destroyed 162 buildings. Stores were looted and burned, apartment buildings reduced to rubble, and the West Side never recovered, languishing for 30 years, half-deserted and derelict. the riots having scared off investors, businesspeople, and hope.
The West Side riots were officially blamed on white racism and the despair it engendered. Frustrated rage at ghetto conditions was the official cause of the violence, a form of banging on the doors of the prison cell; frustrated youths strike out at store owners, money men, landlords through their property, and at police and fire who tried to stop them. However, not all agree that the violence—involving mostly young males—was a proto-political protest against repressive white government, a social spasm born of despair over living conditions. Some saw it as a larky spree of looting; former University of Chicago sociologist Edward Banfield titled a chapter in his controversial 1970 book Unheavenly City “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.”
Group violence—in effect mass risings against authority—naturally tended to be more likely in places where authority is held illegitimately, or exercised brutally, all of which said about Chicago in several eras. The shooting of a 20-year-old Puerto Rican by a police officer in 1968 set off riots in the Humboldt Park area that, over two days, saw 50 buildings destroyed, 16 people injured, 49 arrested and millions of dollars in damages inflicted. Another outbreak in 1977 saw Puerto Rican crowds fight police in the same neighborhood; three men were killed and more than 100 people were wounded.
The best-known (if far from the worst) outbreak of group violence in the city’s recent history was the rioting that attended the 1968 Democratic Party national convention. After two days of provocation, the “Battle of Chicago” broke out in Grant Park outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue; 101 demonstrators were hospitalized, some with souvenirs of their stay in Chicago that they would carry forever.
The events of August 1968 were hardly the first set-to between long-hair leftists and Chicago’s men in blue—history majors among the students may have shouted “Remember the Haymarket!” —and it would not be the last. Chicago had become the stronghold of the pigs in eyes of the more radical of the youths, so it was to Chicago that the radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society who called themselves the Weathermen repaired in October of 1969. For several days, thousands of young people indulged in rock-throwing sprees through the streets of the Loop and Gold Coast; one of the leaders, it transpired, was the son of the chief executive of Chicago’s giant electricity utility, Commonwealth Edison.
Considered objectively, the most violent forces in Chicago—measured by injuries and deaths and insults to civil order—have not been perpetrated by the city’s outcasts of each era but its guardians. The nation watched on TV as the Chicago police in Grant and Lincoln parks waded through crowds of anti-war protesters with clubs as if wielding machetes at a cane harvest; a national commission on violence headed by future Illinois governor Daniel Walker rightly called it a “police riot.” The rest of the world was shocked but students of Chicago history it was a depressingly familiar scene. Going back to the Haymarket incident, the history of police action against presumed enemies of the state in Chicago—immigrants, labor organizers, anarchists, the distinctions not always observed—is long and ignoble.
Alan Pinkerton, America first famous cop, the Eliot Ness of the Gilded Age, worked in Chicago specializing in breaking up strikes. Historians, observing the proprieties of their trade, use politer terms; Clayton D. Laurie, writing in A Wild Kind of Boldness: The Chicago History Reader about the 1894 Pullman Strike, called the Pinkertons “antilabor mercenaries.” That is much nicer that what they were usually called at the time. Pinkerton was in effect a goon under contract to corporations during worker unrest. Old union men still visit Pinkerton’s grave in Graceland Cemetery, to piss on it.
The fear of insurrection in the streets among the bourgeoisie during repeated episodes of labor upset was credible but official violence—sometimes in reaction, sometimes in retribution, sometimes in anticipation of worker violence—was just as vivid. The five regiments of militiamen mobilized Governor Altgeld to quiet the violence during the Pullman Strike in 1894 U.S. Army troops shot and killed seven strikers on July 7; their forces were augmented (usually when the force was under the direction of the occasional pro-labor mayor) by men whom Eugene Debs described, with as much accuracy as venom, “the minions of a despotic judge, the thieves and thugs, taken from Chicago slums, transformed into deputy marshals and armed with clubs and pistols.” Forty police were injured during the fracas during the Republic Steel in 1937 but ten marchers lay dead and at least sixty marchers were hurt or wounded; police said they were fired upon by the strikers first, but hospital reports showed no gun wounds among the policemen.
Of late, disaffected young males have had less to fight about, but that has not kept them from fighting, only from claiming that their fighting has a political point. What in the 1960s looked to some like political demonstrations, or at least a form of street theater, has come to look more like ordinary hooliganism. The historical ingredients—young males, summer nights, and mind-altering substances—still occasional produce combustious public displays. Delays in the start of a concert in Grant Park by the rock group Sly and the Family Stone in the summer of 1970 saw some of the more than a few of the 50,000 fans erupt in an impromptu anti-police riot that saw 128 policemen and 33 civilians injured. In 1979, a Comiskey Park a promotion turned ugly when thousands of drunken fans invaded the playing field between games of a doubleheader, wrecking the batting cage and setting minor fires. “Fan” riots after bulls championship games in 1992 and 1993 led to widespread vandalism and looting that in the former years caused property damage estimated at $10 million. (The 1996 championship celebrations, policed by 6,000 officers and result in roughly 600 arrests, were described by city officials as “relatively peaceful.”)
“A pistol in each hand:” Violent crime in Chicagoland
Chicago’s always had a reputation as a tough town. “I'm a little hoarse tonight. I've been living in Chicago for the past two months, and you know how it is, yelling for help on the way home every night,” Fred Allen once cracked. Many tourists to this day, upon hearing that developers of the 1926 Jewelers Building at Wacker Drive and Wabash (now 35 East Wacker) installed elevators in which tenants could be ferried in their cars to and from its interior garage, safe from stickup men, must think to themselves, “I thought every skyscraper in Chicago had one of those.”
Many innovations that Chicago either claim or expanded on—the department store, the train depot, the hotel—owed to the fact that Chicago streets were such nasty places. Each allowed an alternative, a city within the city to which the moneyed or at least the middle class might escape the dirt, the clamor, the danger. Chicago not the only U.S. city in which carriages became popular with the gentry as a means to getting around town—not because they were faster than walking or taking the trolley but because they protected the riders from the insults of the street. (For much the same reason, tens of thousands of middle class Chicago commuters stick to their cars rather than use the cheaper and faster els.)
Saul Bellow, in 1994 interview, cited crime as one reason why he left the city he helped make famous. “When we were younger there . . . we could go anywhere in the city without fear. But now, if I wanted to go down to the Loop for an evening or see a play or an opera, I always had to think of what would happen on the way back if my car broke down on Lake Shore Drive." But fear of crime has been a factor in city life since very near the beginning. Fear of muggers—known as footpads, in those days—was among the factors that spurred the first flight to the suburbs. Lloyd Lewis noted that visitors to the White City in 1893 anticipated hordes of hoodlums, criminals, and others with vicious intent. “I’m goin’ to Chicago to the Fair,” said a Marion, Indiana, man is suppose to have said, “but I’m gom’ to wear nothin’ but tights and carry a knife between my teeth.” Tourists were made of sterner stuff in those days.
To this day, reports to his neighbors back home that a Downstater ventured out in Chicago at night can draw gasps of amazement, even though violent crime (as in most us cities) is confined to the houses of the angry or the addled, or on the streets of the neighborhood where “crime” is merely the methods of local business.
Fear of violent street crime drained the city of some of its best people and paralyzed many of the rest. Few stories are more heartbreaking than those recalling how (mostly) old people, locked up in their apartments for fear of opening their doors and windows, died from the heat in a 1995 heat wave; more than 700 people died—more Chicagoans than died in the Great Fire.
Homicides are routine enough that it takes a gaudy killing to make the papers, and of those Chicago has seldom been disappointed. Any fair list of the nation’s notorious murders will include at least a few from Chicago. In 1893, Mayor Carter Harrison I was shot and killed by a disgruntled office-seeker, making him by some counts the first mayor in the U.S. to be the victim of a political killing.
The nation’s “first serial killer” is reckoned by some patriots to have been Dr. H. H. Holmes the "Monster of 63rd Street." This swindler, bigamist, horse thief, and pharmacist outfitted his boarding house in Englewood as a murder factory to which Holmes lured guests and young, female stenographers who answered Holmes' want ads. He is thought to have killed at least two dozen people, possibly many more. Holmes’s industry, if not his ingenuity, was matched by such successors as John Wayne Gacy, who during a three-year-period in the 1970s tortured, raped, and murdered at least 33 young men, burying 28 of his victims in the crawl space of his house (since razed) in Des Plaines.
Chicagoans still love to kill each other. In recent years the city led the nation in murders, both per capita and total, in spite of its being smaller than New York and LA. Many of these (an estimated 40 percent in 2002) are the result of gang vendettas and power struggles—an old story in Chicago, where gangs have always been regarded as a form of fraternal organization.
The old gang
When Groucho Marx pressed his hands into the wet cement upon being given a star at Hollywood’s Grauman's Chinese Theater’s Forecourt of the Stars, he quipped, “There was no need to inform us of the protocol involved. We were from Chicago and knew all about cement.”
The city’s motto, “I will!” seems to have been embraced with special vigor by authors of mayhem, public and private. So pervasive was organized crime in Prohibition that today, three-fourths of a century after his heyday, much of the rest of the world still thinks of Chicago as the home of Al Capone and gun-toting goons. When Herbert Asbury compiled his 1940 informal history of the Chicago underworld, he apologized to his readers in his foreword, explaining that its 377 pages were not enough space to give them a really detailed account of the subject during the Prohibition era. When Saul Bellow left Chicago to live in Massachusetts, he told an interviewer in 1994, having satellite TV meant he didn’t have to give up all his favorite Chicago pastimes. “I can get the crime news on [cable channel] WGN."
Chicago has always been a city of gangs. The visitor may be forgiven her assumption that the gang is the basic social unit of Chicago. Gangs of one kind or another are as much a part of immigrant life in Chicago as the building societies and churches of which they are rather more proud. Chicago’s status as port-of-entry city for immigrants is one of the constants in city history, and much of ghetto life was lived outside the law. Newcomers often arrive from places where police and courts are not trusted. The inability to speak English (or, in case of black Chicagoans, racism) means that the immigrant was not hired by legitimate businesses, leaving the criminal gang as an employer of last resort.
The gang is the basis for its ward machines, its business cabals, its society elites, its sports fans. However, when one says “gangs,” one thinks first of organized crime, the Mob, or the Outfit, as it is popularly known in Chicagoland. Gangs might be said to be creatures of human nature; organized crime is a creature of government. In old Chicago it was possible to drink or gamble or buy sex with ease; it has been suggested, not implausibly, that when reformers finally succeeded in closing or curtailing the taverns and gambling parlors and brothels, they created a market that gangs were admirably organized to exploit.
Chicago’s Italian gangs became world-famous, but almost all the city’s ethnic groups had their gangs at a certain stage of their community’s development. The first Chicago “mob” —not known by that name—was led by Irishmen who held sway into the vice districts, such as legendary First Ward aldermen Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. The Chinese version was the Tongs, secret societies of which officials counted 12 in the early 1900s. Typical was the On Leong, which served various roles, including providing local Chinese immigrants the protections that the police often did not.
Every ethnic group still has its gangs; only the ethnics have changed. Today’s Chicago gangs are black, Asian—the Hmong and Vietnamese have organized street gangs—and Hispanic rather than Irish or Jewish. So permanent a fixture on the Chicago scene are youth gangs that they have long been the subject of sociological and historical treatises. Typical is the University of Illinois Chicago's Chicago Gang History Project which in 2001 sought to understand this very old phenomenon in new context of post-industrial Chicago. The Jewish youths who frequented Davy Miller’s pool hall-boxing gym on Roosevelt Road, near Kedzie acted as did Daley’s Hamburgers, as a neighborhood militia who in this case defended Yeshiva students and old men from being bullied on the streets by Gentile punks.
The mob is the subject of the most interesting chapter of almost any history of Chicago, and indeed is the subject of many whole books. The gangster era of the 1920s in particular was crucial in Chicago history. It coarsened civic life, and prompted the middle class, newly prosperous and disgusted, to flee by the hundreds of thousands to the suburbs, emptying the city of civic ballast.
Its chieftains lived every peasant’s dream of grandeur, and their influence was legendary. Big Jim Colisimo deserves mention—and seldom gets it—as one of Chicago’s corporate giants, the underworld’s Armour or Field. Colisimo cop-proofed his businesses, much the way that Samuel Insull alderman-proofed his. Ben Hecht, who knew Colisimo, wrote that every public official on the take owed him homage as “the founding father of their corruption.“ When Colisimo died—gunned down in a phone booth—thirty open cars crammed with flowers followed his hearse, and “nearly every whisky-nosed magistrate who owned a silk hat, and more dignitaries of every stripe than had been assembled since the Chicago fire, rode in the grieving procession.”
Romantic figures today, although journalist John Bartlow Martin has recalled that the reality at the time was otherwise. He had come to Chicago from Indiana in 1938 to be a reporter, and occasionally visited the Syndicate gambling joints on the Near North Side.
Each person in a saloon eyed everybody else warily, each wondering if all the others were gangsters, and it seemed to be part of the code not to touch or talk to strangers, though you might drink beside one for hours, lest a false move, as in a grade-B movie, trigger violence.
The king of the mobsters of course was Scarface—Alfonse “Al” Capone. By the end of the 1920s, Capone was thought to have an armed gang of 700 men working for him, an establishment the included not only hoods but cops, judges, and aldermen. In 1927 it was estimated that Capone’s syndicate grossed $95,000,000 from gambling, prostitution, drugs, and illegal booze. The numbers may be suspect but no one who has studied the era does not believe the take was huge.
Fights to control booze or other illicit trade led to much bloodshed. Capone ordered Machine Gun Jack McGurn to lure Bugs Moran and his gang into an ambush on February 14, 1929; Moran slipped out of the net but seven of his henchmen were gunned down in a North Side garage. The mayhem was nothing compared to the real slaughterhouses on the South Side, but the connection impressed itself on people nonetheless, if only subconsciously, and the murders became somehow emblematic. The killing made Capone a star and a target of federal prosecutors; its spawned a mini-industry of books, movies, and articles.
To the out-of-towner it seemed that Chicagoans on their ways to work must have to dodge bullets the way aldermen dodged subpoena servers. For all the mayhem, the average Chicago feared them little. The violence was intramural, and in the interest of good public relations the goons took care not to kill bystanders. Rather than retard tourism, it has probably helped it; people traveled to Chicago to see a real gangster, the way they might travel to Yellowstone to see a real live grizzly in the wild.
What is today overpriced condos and tony art galleries and tourist-friendly restaurants in River North was not that long ago was to mobsters what today’s West Loop is to businesses. North Clark was the site of the Palace Gardens Night Club, a favorite hangout of Babe Ruth in the 1930s. John Dillinger liked to dine on frogs’ legs in Ireland's Oyster House Restaurant at 632-38 N. Clark. McGovern's Saloon (later McGovern's Liberty Inn) was a gangster hangout in the 1920s and ‘30s, and in the 1950s reputedly was the largest strip club in the city. Sbabardo's Funeral Parlor at 738 N. Wells was a favorite among gangsters; when Dion O'Banion died—gunned down nearby by the way at the Schofield flower shop at 738 N. State—40,000 people dropped by Sbabardo's to see his casket.
Gangsters led gaudy lives that were antic versions of the swells that they imitated. In his success, in his up-from-the-ghetto rise, Capone differed only slightly in morals and methods from the famed robber barons of Chicago industry and finance. (One of the better early biographies of Capone, Fred D. Pasley’s 1930 Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man, makes that point explicitly.) Capone was an Insull for the little guy. He scattered tips to jazz musicians in the form of five and ten dollars bills in his favorite clubs like a Roman tossing coins to the rabble in the streets. Such largesse was very like the donations that the swells made to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, except that Capone’s support for the arts boosted Chicago culture while that of the swells boosted culture in Chicago.
Certainly, Capone himself came to see his civic role in terms of corporate welfare. The Italian neighborhood on Chicago Heights’ East Side, for instance, was a local center of bootlegging during prohibition days, and owed much of its prosperity to the many locals hired by the mob as runners, sugar buyers, and plumbers. Capone’s organization funded soup kitchens out of the profits, and was by far the biggest employer in many a poor neighborhood in and around the city. And like all do-gooding company heads, Capone was misunderstood. Leaving town until things cooled down, he reportedly said, “Let the worthy citizens of Chicago get their liquor the best they can. I'm sick of the job—it's a thankless one and full of grief. I've been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor.”
Chicago’s mob in its heyday functioned in a city whose legitimate political leadership was idiotic, corrupt, and irresponsible, as personified by Bill Thompson. Much like the military in some Third World countries, the mob was the only institution with the discipline to get things done. The president of the Chicago Crime Commission in 1928 needed to restore order during an election whose primary had been marred by murders, bombs and threats against voters; he had no official agency capable of restoring order, and famously asked for Capone’s help. The mob boss instructed the cops on his payroll—a force larger than City Hall’s loyal police—to round up and disarm known thugs the night before the election and guard polling areas the next day. The result was Chicago’s cleanest election in 40 years.
To this day City Hall has mobsters the way that other buildings have mice. Some of them even get elected to the City Council. From 1968 to 1991, Fred Roti was alderman of the downtown First Ward, once the fief of the legendary to Hinky Dink Hannah and Bathhouse John Coughlin, Fred's father was Bruno Roti, one Capone’s Chinatown crew. Acknowledged as the Outfit’s voice on the City Council, Roti was indicted in 1990 for racketeering and extortion (mainly for fixing cases in the Cook County courts) convicted, and served time. A reporter once suggested that Roti’s campaign slogan ought to be, "Vote for Roti, and Nobody Gets Hurt;'' nobody laughed louder than Roti.
The mob’s presence in local politics was not always a laughing matter. Some observers at the time—including President Franklin Roosevelt—asserted that Mayor Anton Cermak, shot to death in Miami in 1933, was merely an unlucky bystander during a botched assassination attempt aimed at his riding companion. Some evidence suggests that Cermark was in fact the target of the bullet; his death presumably had been ordered by the Chicago mob in retaliation for Cermak’s arrest a few months earlier of Capone ally Frank Nitti.
The mob has long been a civic embarrassment to the City of Chicago, but it had a presence in much of Chicagoland. It was the thirst of the affluent in their suburban retreats, for example, that helped keep Capone rich. And while crime is one of the things that people moved to the suburbs to get away from, crooks moved to the suburbs for the same reason everyone else did—costs of doing business were lower, and they could enjoy more responsive local governments. In the 1920s, the mob turned several nearby towns into mob outposts. The home base of Johnny Torrio was the far south side village of Burnham, from which he expanded to Cicero and Stickney. Roger Touhy’s gang was headquartered in Des Plaines. Capone himself maintained his organization’s largest brothel in Forest View (which became known as “Caponeville” as a result) and even moved to Cicero for a while, to escape the attentions of a reformist mayor in Chicago. The association of man and town lasted longer than Ca[pone did; in 1952 the town considered changing its name, in a kind of civic witness protection program, because, one official said, a kid from Cicero couldn't get into a college fraternity.
River Forest in the near-west suburbs was and is a popular refuge for successful businessmen, including Sam Accardo who ran the mob; popular crime chronicler Richard Lindberg recalled that in the early 1950s “Big Tuna” purchased a house at 915 Franklin Street there against the advice of associates in the mob, who warned that he and his family would stick out like a sore thumb “and the Feds will always know exactly where you are." It has been alleged that River Forest for years got by with only one policeman, since no one in his right mind would dare cause trouble in the backyard of a mob chief.
Sociologists have pored over the mob like spies over a captured enemy aircraft, trying to learn what makes it tick. Daniel Elazar explained a generation ago that the city’s southern and eastern European immigrants were well placed to fill the vacuum left when the Volstead Act made pariahs of legitimate businessmen who catered to the public appetite for vice. Drinking and gambling and the occasional visit to the brothel were hardly regarded as vice in many old country cultures and the immigrants’ extended families provided a rudimentary organization. When booze became legal, the Outfit used its resources to move into drugs, and continued their hold on gambling.
Athletic clubs, gang bangers, and radicals
The mob is only one kind of Chicago gang. The German followers of the Turnverein movement were not devotees of some wild-eyed political theorist but of Friedrich Jahn, a physical education teacher who taught that moral and physical health were linked. Jahn’s cadres had a distinct paramilitaristic aura, and its members were eager street fighters who were eager members of the street mobs that battled with police during the labor troubles of the 1870s and ‘80s.
The Irish Turnerverein were the neighborhood “athletic” clubs. The young Richard J. Daley for example, was a member and later long-time president of the Hamburg Social and Athletic Club. It was one of many gangs of Irish toughs that tended to the odd jobs keeping the neighborhood tidy, from roughing up the political opponents of their ward boss protectors to defending the boundaries of the neighborhood from incursions from incursions by “foreigners,” a term that was rather expansively defined in the Irish parts of town. In 1919, when Daley was an impressionable seventeen, the Hamburgers were enthusiastic participants in the running street battles between whites and blacks in his Back of the Yards neighborhood. Daley’s role in the riots was neither acknowledged by his admirers nor quite denied, because it is a political credential to be known as a defender of the Auld Sod.
The people in the neighborhoods might have feared them as a menace, but sociologists have always been drawn to youth gangs as a subject. The University of Chicago sociologists cataloged the phenomenon in the 1920s, and counted more than a thousand of what they called "kid gangs" in Chicago. They fascinated novelists too; Alfred Kazin notes that James T. Farrell’s real subject in Farrell's signature trilogy is not the title character, Studs Lonigan, but the gang, with their adolescent follies and brutalities and total spiritual poverty.
There are thought to be many fewer youth gangs these days, but they are larger, and much more lethal.The line between them gangs and organized crime have always been blurry. The youth gangs are a training ground of sorts of adult villains. Many criminal organizations evolved from youth gangs, and they launder dirty money by spending in legit business. The drug business largely been ceded to black and Asians and Latins by Italian-dominated Outfit whose heart was never in it.
The main difference between the street gang and the mob is their scales of operations. The Mob had divided the city into ethnic fiefs, but the logic of capitalism is no less ruthless as it operates on rum-running or drugs than when it operates on sausage-making, and consolidation is the result. What had been a neighborhood problem became a citywide one in the 1960s, for example, when black street gangs formed their version of the Mob. Some 50 area street gangs were melded into a single new organization called the Black P-Stone Nation. Dealing mainly in drugs, the gangs tried to pass themselves off as neighborhood self-help organizations, a ruse that for a while won them subsidies in the form of federal anti-poverty social program funds from politicians eager to appropriate their influence on the street.
Like the old Mob, gang factions battled in the streets for control; the power of the Black P-Stone Nation was countered by the merger of rivals Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples into the Black Gangster Disciple Nation. The gang wars in the 1970s led to concerted efforts to bust the leaders, who ran operations from prison. In anything, these intramural disputes are more lethal than ever; as the new millennium opened, when between 600 and 700 Chicagoans were murdered every year, half of the killings occurred in only two of its police districts on the West Side, where gangs most active.
The Chicago Police Department is arguably, a sanctioned version of the Irish street gang, the toughest of them all. The CPD has been renowned for innovations, but also for being soft on crooks, hard on political radicals, and very hard indeed on racial and ethnic minorities, indeed outsiders in general. The department traces its birth to a violent public event, the “lager Beer Riot” in 1855, which saw German and Irish mobs take to the streets. The violence stirred the nativist or “Know-Nothing” Party then in power at City Hall to form a full-time constabulary of 80 native-born officers.
The CDP has also always been used as a paramilitary force during strikes and other organized threats to public order, most infamously in 1886 (the Haymarket “bombing”), in 1937 (the “Memorial Day Massacre” at the Republic steel works) and 1968, at the Democratic National Convention; the police riot in 1968 was little more than Hamburgers running off the blacks all over again. Nonviolent methods of control against presumed enemies of the state were used too; surveillance of dissidents of all kinds by the CPD’s “Red Squad” was not ended until 1985, and then only under compulsion of a court order.
If minorities and political radicals excited the cops’ special wrath, African American radicals were destined to bring out the worst in them, as happened in 1969, when police working for the local state’s attorney killed Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a West Side apartment in an encounter that resembled a mob hit more than a police action—save perhaps for its sloppiness.
A force founded to control obstreperous foreigners carried on that tradition. The contest for control of the city’s working-class neighborhoods left relations with immigrants of all colors more like gang rivalry than civil servant to citizen. Officers occasionally overdo the rough stuff and spark investigations and reforms, such as the Presidential Commission that decried the routine resort to excessive force by detectives 1931; the Walker Commission empaneled to investigate the causes of the 1968 Democratic convention violence led to no reforms at all. This was in marked contrast tothe Daley administration's reaction to the Summerdale burglary scandal, which led to hiring police reformer Orlando Wilson, who made substantive changes in the department in the 1960s; cops breaking into bungalows is a crime—everybody agrees on that—but banging a few longhairs or reporters on the head—what’s the harm in that?
The whole world has not been watching the Chicago police for a long time now, and police mayhem on the street away from the cameras has been on-going in the form of harassment on the streets and beatings in the precinct houses. In 2000 allegations surfaced that the man in charge of a maximum-security wing in Chicago's Cook County Jail routinely tortured confessions out of suspects. The public attitude noted in the 1940s by Graham Hutton in The Midwest —“a little bloodletting is a small price to pay,” he wrote, “for such general tranquility and order”—hasn’t changed much.
Chicago has not produced nearly as many famous cops as its has famous crooks—that wouldn’t be natural—but it has produced more than its share. The first famous Chicago was Allan Pinkerton. He was a Scotsman who helped form what became the U.S. Secret Service, did counterespionage for the North during the Civil War, and founded the detective agency that bears his name. Pinkerton’s exploits as a slave-freer and private investigator and memoirist were legendary, beginning with his capture of a gang of counterfeiters on the Fox River. In 1846 he was made deputy sheriff of Kane County, later held the same post in Cook County, and in 1850 was made the Chicago’s police force’s first detective, and finally, head of his own private detective agency.
Fabled G-man Eliot Ness was the federal treasury agent who became famous for his campaign against bootleggers in Chicago in the 20s. Ness was Chicago born (in 1903) but he was hardly a typical Chicago cop. The son of Norwegian immigrants who made good in the bakery business, Ness earned a degree in business and law at the University of Chicago; his after-hours he devoted not to bowling and softball and other conventional undergraduate fun but to mastering tennis and judo. It was at the U of C that Ness was exposed to crime, in the form of master’s degree courses in criminology, UC then hosting experts in that new sociological specialty.
Ness was one of the three hundred federal agents responsible for prosecuting the flourishing Chicago bootlegging industry. He never got his man—his arch foe, Capone, was nailed by accountants on income tax charges, not bootlegging or rackets—but Ness so disrupted Capone’s operations with raids that the gang boss paid him the compliment of trying to having him killed.
Ness was a career cop whose post-Chicago years were busily spent busting up stills and gambling joints and, when necessary, the thugs who ran them; he found time to take on labor racketeers, crooked cops, even a serial killer. His 1957 memoir, The Untouchables, was a best seller that inspired a hit TV series in the 1959–63 seasons that proved again that even the most riveting true stories can be made more entertaining by purging them of facts that get in the way of the story-telling. (Hollywood drew on the myth again for the 1987 feature film of the same title.)
There are those who argue that glory days of bloody Chicagoland are long gone. Of late, violent crime in Chicago is no worse—if no better—than most U.S. big cities. The murder rate remains high—a reflection, police insists of gang activity in the neighborhoods. Alas, almost all is ordinary thuggery. The brio, the dash, the sheer gall of the Chicago wrongdoer seems to have vanished.
Oh, there is still plenty of murder—Chicago finished 2003 with 599 homicides—down from 648 a year earlier and 665 in 2001, but still enough that the city still led the nation’s city’s in homicides for the second time in three years. This was due mainly to gang wars; for most Chicagoans, crime is still something that happens safely on the printed page or the museum display. Chicago is again the setting for popular crime novels, notably Sara Peretsky’s V. I. Warshawsky series.
The city is still fascinated by its bloody past. (It couldn’t forget about it if it wanted to, if only because so many tourists keep asking about it.) The Chicago Historical Society in 2004 marked the 80th anniversary of the “Perfect' Crime” with an exhibit on the murder and the trial of Leopold and Loeb, along with the works of popular art inspired by it. However much Chicago’s reputation for depravity embarrasses the gentility, the average Chicago guy looks rather wistfully on the days when “Chicago” meant “tough guy” to an admiring world. “As for the kids in the drearinesses of the wards, they have always loved Chicago’s reputation,” wrote A. J. Liebling. “Citizens of a city celebrated in the movies, they are little Scarfaces as they sit with their molls in the darkened cinemas and identify themselves with the glorious past.”
Not all of Chicago’s crime was violent. As early as the 1860s Chicago was being called the wickedest city in the United States. Chicago politicians are famously corruptible. Vice—a pastime in some cities and an aberration in others—was long a major industry in Chicago. The unofficial motto of the Chicago of the payoff and the kickback was penned by Mike Royko: “Where’s mine?” Everybody was on the take, from building inspectors to baseball players. (See the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.)
Ben Hecht covered a trial in which the famed Clarence Darrow defended a Chicago cop against bribery charges. “He was Chief of Police of Chicago for five years, and he was never able to afford a servant maid, an automobile or a pair of silk pajamas,” said Darrow to the jury. “How much more honest can you expect a public official to be?” Ordinary citizens paid bribes to street cops as if they were tipping waiters; locals give new residents tips on how to fold a $5 bill behind the drivers license when they handed it to a cop who’d stopped them for speeding, as citizens of other towns might explain how to put your nickel into the fare box on the bus.
A much-repeated jest has it that when it comes to the CPD, one good apple is enough to ruin the whole basket. It is the custom in many big city departments take bribes to look the other way when stolen goods rings operate, but in Chicago the cops themselves ran the ring. Over the years Chicago cops also were caught running drug rings and extortion rackets.
Corruption is the least of the crimes of which its police force has been found guilty over the years, which range from running burglary rings to torturing prisoners. The Summerdale Scandal of 1960 erupted when eight officers were found to have conspired with a notorious burglar to enter retail establishments on the North Side of the city.
Police officers are usually taken from the same social stratum as the people they must corral. In 1959 a Chicago police lieutenant toured Europe as bodyguard to Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, then head of the Chicago mob. Many officers in the 1990s were found to have links to street gangs; among the “Austin 7,” seven West Side CPD officers arrested in 1996 for robbery and extortion, was a high-level member of the Conservative Vice Lords. A former gang crimes officer were found guilty of overseeing a Miami-to-Chicago drug ring and sheltering murder suspect from a Latino gang.
The real thieves didn’t carry guns and knives. Only pro-business class bias explains why works on Chicago corporate and business history, from Yerkes to Anderson, is not included in the crime section of bookstores. The corporate giants who cheated workers’ safety and public health, developers who slighted fire safety to make a few extra bucks, the manufacturers who so poisoned the air and water that they fled the city they ruined for sylvan retreats in the suburbs. E. M. Forster summed things up to a correspondent in 1947: “Chicago—is—oh well a façade of skyscrapers facing a lake, and behind the façade every type of dubiousness.” More informed locals could have pointed out that the dubiousness often begins in the skyscrapers, not behind them.
The differences between a street gang, a ward organization, and a corporate cabal are not as great as the law or public opinion would suggest. Save for their resort to violence, the methods of the street gang differ little from those used by the titans of commerce to get and secure their advantage, and in the case of strike-busting, they didn’t differ much even in their violence. When Sociologist Edward Banfield suggested that the rioters on the West Side in 1968 were kin to the early entrepreneurs who saw a market opportunity and seized it, the outrage voiced on behalf of the rioters, one suspects, owed to the fact that the latters were insulted by the comparison.
Herbert Asbury’s best-selling 1940 compendium of villainy, Gem of the Prairie (later reissued as The Gangs of Chicago), could have been three times as long if he had included the exploits of Chicago’s two other great criminal classes—businesspeople and politicians. As Perry Duis notes:
Like the booster histories it undermined, Asbury’s study enshrined innovators. He clearly believed that the inventive criminal mind deserved historical recognition, much in the same way that commercial and industrial leaders were lionized. Thus, while Field, Pullman, and Armour inhabited one pantheon, such characters as Roger Plant, Mickey Finn, Big Jim O’Leary, and Mike McDonald deserved recognition because they introduced new ideas and became the best at what they did. Thus, Asbury credits Johnny Torrio with being the organizational genius who turned bootlegging into a massively profitable business, while dismissing Al Capone as a ruffian who substituted brutal force for intelligence.
Ovid Demaris took a more catholic approach. In Captive City, he castigated what he called, with righteous sarcasm, the “illustrious triumvirate” of “venal politicians, mercenary businessmen and sadistic gangsters.” The heroes of Chicago capitalism— Potter Palmer, Philip Armour, George Pullman, Charles T. Yerkes, and Samuel Insull—he dismisses as “pirates.” “Today it is nearly impossible to differentiate among the partners—the businessman is a politician, the politician is a gangster, and the gangster is a businessman.”
The Chicago pol—usually imagined with one hand extended for a handshake, the other to receive a bribe—is to Illinois political lore what the leprechaun is to Irish mythology. The city for decades offered visitors an on-going seminar in the techniques of the payoff. Its public payrolls were packed with ghost payrollers, kickback artists, plain thieves, and goof-offs. (Local joke: Q: What's orange and sleeps six? A: A streets and sanitation truck.) In Chicago, the individualistic political perspective that elsewhere produced patronage-based machines was expressed in the equivalent of a municipal protection racket; a building owner unwilling to bribe the plumbing inspector, for example, found his building shut down. Everyone at City Hall—from aldermen to inspectors to judges—were in on it. A 2011 report found that there had been more than 340 convictions of public officials and business people in Chicago and Cook County since 1970, including three governors, 31 aldermen, 21 people in building inspection payoffs, and dozens of park district employees.
The world’s unflattering opinion of the Chicago public servant, it is largely self-drawn. A system so perfectly insulated from penalty tempts people are exploit it; a crony of the first Richard Daley was convicted of soliciting a then-astonishing $187,000 bribe from a voting machine manufacturer. To date, dozens of aldermen, judges, and county officials have been convicted over the years for similar crimes against the public weal.
In Chicago, the code names of government undercover operations aimed at corrupt public officials are as familiar as the hurricanes in Florida—Operation Silver Shovel, Operation Haunted Hall, Operation Incubator. Operation Greylord was a federal probe in the 1980s into corruption in the Cook County courts that sent 15 judges to jail. in a typical case, a sitting judge was bribed $10,000 in a LaSalle Street restaurant near City Hall in return for a “not guilty” verdict in a mob murder trial. In all, the final quarter of the 20th century saw state and federal prosecutors win convictions against almost 50 aldermen and key city officials.
Money was—one should say “is” —not the only medium of exchange in Chicago. Votes counted too, as the means by which one buy power. The elder Richard Daley died with unstuffed pockets, and thus enjoys a posthumous reputation as an upright citizen among observers who fail to draw careful distinctions between an honest man and a prudent one. In fact, he differed from his colleagues only in preferring to get paid off in votes rather than in cash. Chicago even today is the butt of jokes—some grudgingly admiring—as the place where the dead miraculously rise to vote. The most famous episode—when the elder Daley “stole” the 1960 election for John Kennedy—has been pretty convincingly refuted by historians. (Daley probably did steal the election but not for JFK; Daley ran up the party’s vote totals to ensure a hated rival was kept out of the country prosecutor’s office.)
The line between bribery and politics is a thin one. For example, Daley bought votes of the Chicago Federation of Teachers with pay raises so out of scale to performance as to amount to a bribe. Bribery on this scale is dignified in the U.S. government system as “interest group politics.” Under that name it is permissible for governors to bribe legislators with promises of bridges in their districts, patronage jobs for the county chairman, or photo ops for the re-election campaign. Legislative logrolling is a form of bribe too, in which your vote for my bad bill is traded for my vote for your even worse one.
The Great Immoralities
Chicago has long been rather vain about its lack of probity. In an 1897 story, Mark Twain had Satan complain to a newcomer to Hell, “The trouble with you Chicago people is, that you think you are the best people down here; whereas you are merely the most numerous.”
At the turn of 20th century, guidebooks to the vice districts were published for the tourist trade, and they must have been very helpful indeed in a city that had so much to see. The Levee in the south Loop was merely the largest of the city’s several vice districts. Travelers who wished to visit such places more discreetly could purchase a guidebook catering specifically to parts of the city that was said to have nine hundred or more brothels. The Everleigh Club on Cermak just off State Street in the heart of the old Levee district was Chicago’s—and, said those well-traveled enough to know, the nation’s—plushest whorehouse.
The economic historians recognizes that the vice districts—the Sands, Conley Parch, Gamblers’ Row the Badlands, the Levee—were merely one type of specialized urban district, akin to warehousing, theater, or retailing. The differences between State Street and the Levee were matters of respectability, not function; as a crime commission was to reveal, the big department stores outdid the brothels in their exploitation of young women in their employ, often to the extent that their female employees were reduced to prostitution to make ends meet.
Politicians, especially aspirants for the mayor’s office, had to take a stand one way or another on vice, the way that congressional candidates from Illinois have to take a stand on soybeans. Which stand a candidate took was a function of personal morality, but just as often of electoral calculus. Many an upright mayor tolerated vice for the votes that a grateful vice overlords could guarantee. The Carter Harrisons—Kentuckians and European by background, and thus not reared like New Englanders to be intemperate about things like temperance—kept loose hands on the reigns. The younger Harrison adopted a sensible middle line; he let the whorehouses and gambling dens in the Levee alone, but discouraged it elsewhere, thus making it easier to police.
At the other extreme was Long John Wentworth. Raised in New Hampshire, Wentworth spent much of his four years as mayor in the years just before the Civil War between 1857 and 1861 waging a sort of civility war on Chicago’s low-lifes. Taking office a second time in 1860, he recalled his first term in attacking the hypocrisy of the so-called better element. “I at once set myself at work to enforce all the laws and ordinances of the city. This gave great offense to a class of voters who professed to entertain peculiar notions respecting what they call necessary evils in large cities, of which evils they themselves were not only conspicuous patrons, but often large beneficiaries.” Wentworth even hired spies to determine who was frequenting Chicago's brothels.
At the turn of the 20th century, commercialized vice in Chicago was the object of government commissions, newspaper crusades, and muckraking exposes such as the 1907 McClure’s article, “The City of Chicago: A Study of the Great Immoralities.” Chicago did not become more upright, but it did learn to be a more discrete. The traffic in women, booze, and drugs and bets became more circumspect, and much less entertaining to pop historians.
While many a Downstater and suburbanite loved to cluck about the sinful Chicagoans, the fact is that much of trade came from just those provinces. (And still does; suburban money waters the lush trade in drugs in city neighborhoods.) As William Cronon noted in Nature’s Metropolis, “The urban market concentrated hinterland trade, even the supply and demand for sin.”
And like all commercial enterprises, vice followed its buyers and eventually began dispersing into the suburbs. Gambling using suburban pinball machines got so bad in 1965 that Cook County Sheriff Richard B. Ogilvie threatened to seize 167 machines (mostly in small restaurants and taverns) in twenty-one towns locate for the most part in the west and south suburbs. Experts note that the distinction between city and suburb regarding crime is disappearing—slowly in the case of the remoter collar counties, faster in the case of Cook County suburbs that have lots of poor people.
Of course, the answer may be that Chicago was never more violent or more crooked than other places, it was only more famous—and prouder of it. The city’s pride in its crookedness (like its suburbs’ outrage at it) has become ritualized. Amateur sociologists tend to believe that if crime is spreading into the suburbs, it’s because Chicagoans are spreading into the suburbs.
Downstaters too are quick to say that Chicago has a lot of crime because it has a lot of Chicagoans. Perry Duis seeks explanations in the conditions unique to the city. He notes that Chicago was frontier town whose population was predominantly young and male and single, and which was happy to indulge young men’s pleasures such as gambling, prostitution, and fighting. Vice remained rampant when Chicago became a commercial and meeting center, filled with men away from home. In a city teeming with visitors who were easy marks, and it was inevitable that Chicago would have pickpockets and con men for the same reason that the Serengetti Plain had lots of lions.
Vice was centered downtown because that’s where the travelers were, but that also was where were found its large population of transient workers. Single males who could not afford more splendid accommodations had recourse to cheap boarding houses on the periphery of the Loop. Typically, the first floors of such buildings were occupied by cut-rate stores, cheap restaurants, penny arcades, and later, cheap movie houses. All were marginal businesses, and to make ends meet many merchants supplemented incomes with gambling, prostitution, and similar illicit entertainments. One such district extended from Van Buren to 12th Street, especially in the 1880s and 1890s; by 1900, State and Wabash between Adams and 12th Street was considered the heart of the city’s vice district.
Sociologists have their own explanations. Some point to the immigrant streams that watered the city, peoples whose cultures understood government and parties in clan terms, and government jobs in terms of spoils. Endemic bribery among public employees explained to some extent by the fact that, as is the case in the Third World today, low pay had to be augmented by the taking of bribes, which were the equivalent of overtime in a factory job; the system allowed the pols to provide services at low cost, with the real costs, which were paid in brides rather than taxes, being off the public books.
Surely corruption would not have endured through so many whirlwinds of change unless it served some societal functions and values. James Merriner, in his book about Chicago corruption, speculates that in a city in which access to legitimate means of getting ahead were closed to so many citizens by language or prejudice, illegitimate means was the only avenue for the ambitious to advance. Indeed, some studies of corruption have argued that it supports the values of stability and of mediation among competing class and economic interests, hardly unimportant values in an America of constant social mobility and cultural transformation.
Chicago also had lots of newcomers who failed to pack their morals when they moved. Richard Wright described the effects of displacement on newly arrived southern black people, noted that the sharecroppers who came north left behind poverty but also the family, religious, and social strictures of the Southern small-town life, and, thus unbound, gave way to antisocial impulses that had been squelched back home. (Journalist Nicholas Lemann amplified that notion in Promised Land, his history of the Great Migration north from the Deep South.) This is an old story among Chicago immigrants—it had been offered in explanation of southern Italians’ involvement in organized crime, too, and Theodore Dreiser in his novels had noted the corrupting effects of the city on newly-arrived small-town whites.
Corruption still plagues Chicago. It has changed—the trade these days is in contracts and campaign cash rather than jobs—and the public sees it as sordid rather than natural. John Gunther, who used to live in the city and report about it, complained in 1947, “Chicago is as full of crooks as a saw with teeth, but the era when they ruled the city is gone forever.” A succession of state’s and federal attorneys might amend that opinion by pointing out that the only difference is that the crooks no longer rule the city, they work for the people who do. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.