[N]ot only the home park of the big soap-chip and sausage-stuffing tycoons, the home cave of the jukebox giants and the mail-order dragons, the knot that binds the TV waves to the airlines and the railroad ties to the sea, but also the psychological nerve center where the pang goes deepest when the whole country is grinding its teeth in a nightmare sleep.
—Nelson Algren, “Chicago: City On The Make” (1951)
WHEN I WALK INTO the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in broad daylight on a Wednesday afternoon, I’m their only customer.
Three workers are complaining that the place is falling apart.
“Are you guys even open right now?” I ask.
“Well, yeah, that’s why you’re in here,” one woman says. I can’t really tell who the bartender is, so I walk around, and wait to order a drink.
The place is lowly lit in red with old wall murals and intricate woodwork. There’s an open stage in the back for live bands. And a little shrine to Al Capone behind the bar, complete with an American flag. It looks like Vegas.
This was Capone’s favorite bar. A place he spent much of his time — making deals, eating meals, bossing people around. And having a good time. It is rumored that if Capone walked in at any given time, night or day, the band would immediately stop whatever they were playing and switch over to his favorite tune, “Rhapsody In Blue.”
There’s a small television on, above the door — and the late afternoon news reports another murder. I ask about the recent rash of homicides plaguing the city, and they blame the weather. The second news report on TV is about the extreme heat. One-hundred degree temperatures pound the city and crops are withering in other parts of the state.
“We offended God somehow,” says the man.
“This is what happens before the Ice Age — it gets very hot, and then it all freezes over,” says the woman.
Chicago is America’s middle child — the one with broad shoulders. They have a beloved baseball team that never wins, a subway that goes in a loop, and a mob history that runs so far back, you almost can’t see it.
As I made my way through town, I wanted a guide. And I thought another journalist’s account of mob action would help me. I’ve researched and written about the mob in Las Vegas — my hometown. But Vegas is another world — a made-up place in the middle of nowhere; Chicago, I thought, would have deeper roots — ones that I could see. I wanted to retrace mob history.
X Marks The Spot: Chicago Gang Wars in Pictures was first published anonymously in 1930. The author, a reporter named Hal Andrews, feared a backlash from Chicago area mobsters. This was rational fear.
By some reports, when the book first appeared, Al Capone himself ordered that every copy be confiscated.
The graphic, tell-all isn’t for the squeamish. Gruesome crime scene photos stand alongside sensational stories of how the mob worked in Chicago during the 1920s. It’s a reporter’s notebook depicting a bloody bygone era.
In order to piece together a mob past, we have to rely on books like these and stories passed down through generations, since many mob haunts have been erased. Chicago has mob roots to be sure, but to find any outward signs of those roots you need to look pretty hard. There are hints — gimmicky tours and a few landmarks, but nothing outright and obvious.
I went to visit the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — an event that remains one of the more notorious mafia crimes of the Prohibition Era, when seven rival gang members were murdered in a large garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Al Capone ordered the hit, and the event made him more infamous than he already was.
And yet, for all the infamy, at the site — there’s nothing there. Just an empty lot. Nice homes stand adjacent. There’s an antique shop next door with scalloped tea cups in the window. Brick oven pizza across the street, a Starbucks a block away. Not much that would make you think something really horrible had happened there. Except for that big empty lot, closed off by iron bars. Green with new grass.
Whether Chicago takes a page out of Vegas‘s book, or Vegas got its affinity for erasing history from the Windy City, both places abide by this rule: If the past is too sinful, completely eradicate it and start anew. (It’s not as if imploding hotels is an easy task, though Las Vegas makes it look simple.)
I saw the The Dark Knight Rises at a corner theater, near Rush Street. A girl named Heaven sold me the ticket. I sat for the two and half hours, wondering if I could see Chicago in some of the scenes. Over 65 days, 34 different Chicago locations were used to film parts of the movie.
Before the film, I had flipped through the pages of a thick coffee table book, “The Dark Knight Manual.” The tome serves as an instructional on how to make your own Gotham; it offers images of weaponry, defense vehicles, and equipment. You can see the heaviness of saving Gotham (or of being Batman).
With products from the “Wayne Enterprises Applied Sciences Division” — magnetic grappling guns, sticky-bomb guns, infrared periscopes, metal exoskeletons, and mini-mines — clear blueprints are laid out on how to become an armed bruiser.
After the movie, as I sit on the 35th floor of a 56-story high rise, there are sirens below. It’s 11:56 p.m. and I wonder if there’s been another string of killings. I watch TVs flicker on and off and the glow of dimly lit little squares in the other high rises surrounding me. Drawn curtains and yellow lamps. Voyeurs watching, exhibitionists acting. There are some lights that never go out.
It’s the gothic architecture, too, that reminds you that there is danger here. The gargoyles, mouths always open.
What makes Chicago more like Gotham is the real crime wave happening in the city now. Homicides were up by nearly 40%, in the first half of 2012. Every time I open the Tribune’s website, there’s another headline:
“3 dead, 19 wounded in attacks across the city"
“Merchants in Chicago’s deadliest neighborhood are in the line of fire”
“4 killed, 10 wounded in 10 hours across city”
“Ten wounded in shootings across city”
“Eight shot in attacks across city”
They seem endless. In the comments section, readers plea for Obama to come home and fix this.
The city is tearing itself apart; More than 250 have been killed, and more than 1,300 have been shot thus far in 2012.
There were 13 homicides in the first six days of August alone.
Most of the violence occurs to the South and the West of the city’s center, though every police district has suffered at least one or two homicides. Some say it’s the extreme heat. The police say they are outnumbered — and they are. But maybe there’s something more to the violence than weather and a lack of badges. Many of the murders are gang-related, though in Chicago it is hard to tell gang activity from every-day violence. At times, there are innocent bystanders who get hit — children sitting on porches.
I hear there’s no gang hierarchy, which means even if the police wanted to appeal to gang leadership, they wouldn’t know who to talk to. There are also an almost countless number of gangs and lines and territories. So it becomes hard to tell what lines are being crossed where. In that way, it suffers the same chaos as Gotham. Only it’s real.
They don’t need fancy weaponry from a film. They have common guns.
In all the crisis and confusion, one thing is for sure: reporters are spending time in morgues. Police officers are responding to more and more homicides and are unable to stop them. Perhaps the most curious fact is that no one says anything. In that way, it echoes mob days long gone.
No one sees the shooters and no one talks.
In Chicago: City On The Make, Nelson Algren describes a town of two faces: The Hustler and The Prude. Each is as important and prominent as the other — two polar opposite rulers.
Algren explains the deep religious overtones of the Midwest, but concedes that for all the kneelers in all the city’s high-arched churches, a pure goodness is not guaranteed:
For always our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted...A city wherein warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one.
Thinner than a slice of deep dish, his essay is a very honest love letter to Chicago. He describes a rigged place and a swindling nature that goes back to the city’s origins.
“Watch out for yourself” is still the word. “What can I do for you?” still means “What can you do for me?” around these parts — and that’s supposed to make this the most American of cities too... So whether you’re in the local writing racket or in the burglary line, if you’re not a bull then you’d better be a fox. Wise up, Jim: It’s a joint where the bulls and the foxes live well and the lambs wind up head-down from the hook.
One can certainly see the prudent. This isn’t New York. I brushed shoulders with someone in a crosswalk, and they stopped to say, “Excuse me, I’m sorry.”
Everyone on the L is quiet — reading books or looking straight ahead. No trash, no flair, no funk. No one selling CDs for $10. Certainly, as you walk around Magnificent Mile, you can see the well to do, tucking plaid into khaki.
But the latest spate of deadly shootings is a reminder that Chicago is more hustler than prude.
Even though I could hardly see the mob in Chicago, the daily violence all around was almost hyper-real.
I returned to the Green Mill Lounge on a Thursday night. This time I brought company, and when we walked in, the place felt like another time.
Big band tunes floating from the back stage. A full ensemble playing shiny gold trombones and trumpets. The dance floor is full — some foxtrot and swing moves, flowing alongside simple slow dances.
They play Glenn Miller and Cab Calloway and everyone is happy, or drunk. Or both.
Young people enamored with a bygone era stand elbow-to-elbow with old folks who lived through that era. Tiny tables topped with tinier candles are packed tight with glasses and smiles. Some people look like they’re in love — with the place and with each other.
Between songs, the band-leader reads campy radio ads from the 1940s — adding to the feeling that you aren’t in the 21st century. That you’ve been transported. That you can have the good time that Capone once had here.
It’s a place that makes you forget.
It was hot again that night, and, walking to the car, it was hard to imagine that someone might be killed in this town tonight. Hard to imagine that was likely.
Coming back from the bar, we’re speeding down Lake Shore Drive, listening to Frank Ocean. The dark night and air from open windows seem sleek and smooth like Frank’s voice. We pass by the Drake Hotel — an old blue-blood palace where they used to let baby alligators swim in the courtyard fountains.