Saturday, January 27, 2007

Chicago Officials Cringe That Al Capone Refuses to be Rubbed Out

Friends of ours: Al Capone

Chicago officials shun any association with Al "Scarface" Capone, whose Prohibition-era exploits made his name synonymous with the city.

"Anything that glorifies violence we are not interested in," said Dorothy Coyle, director of the city's office on tourism. But 60 years after his death, they still can't run his memory out of town and visitors from all over the world are very much interested.

They drive by Capone's house. They leave flowers, coins and cigars at his grave. They take pictures of places associated with him never mind that everything from hotels where he ran his criminal empire to the garage where his henchmen carried out the St. Valentine's Day massacre is long gone.

"That era, the mobsters, gunfights … I'm just fascinated by it all," Nancy Spranger, of Fenton, Mich., said before boarding an Untouchable Tours bus decorated with fake bullet holes to see sites tied to Chicago's gangland past.

Much of the mobster's history is left to the imagination because Chicago officials have made little effort to preserve or promote sites tied to his legacy. In the 1980s, they gunned down an effort to designate Capone's house on the South Side a national historic landmark.

Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, understands why the city wouldn't want reminders of Capone, but says the city loses a piece of itself with each demolition of one those sites destroys. "Destroying history is the most shameful legacy of all," Fine said. "You can't erase it, so you might as well embrace it."

Laurence Bergreen found Chicago officials far from receptive when he was researching his 1994 book "Capone: The Man and the Era."

"They rebuffed me (and said) 'Why don't you write about the symphony, architecture, Mayor Daley?'" he recalled.

John Binder, author of "The Chicago Outfit," has a conspiracy theory: that the lingering influence of organized crime even today in Chicago has the city dead set against anything that smacks of mobsters. "It's not that they want you to forget about the past, they want you to forget about the present," he said a few days before a deputy U.S. marshal was arrested on charges that he fed information about an informant to the mob.

It's clear that many people still are drawn to the city's mobster past.

Capone is the subject of 50,000 hits a month on the Chicago History Museum's Web site, five times the number of inquiries about the Great Chicago Fire and "by far the number one hit on our Web site," said museum curator John Russick.

Untouchable Tours owner Don Fielding said he's been able to stay in business for 18 years longer than Capone was around, he'll remind you because "people like the idea of somebody getting away with something."

Capone surely did for a while raking in tens of millions of dollars as head of a vast bootlegging, prostitution and gambling operation. He was widely suspected in a number of murders but never charged.

Finally, with the help of federal Prohibition Bureau agent Eliot Ness, head of a special unit dubbed "The Untouchables," Capone was brought down by income tax evasion charges.

Convicted after a trial in which his men tried to bribe jurors, Capone spent seven years in federal prison. He died in 1947, his mind ravaged by syphilis.

"He's kind of been elevated to this status as the quintessential example of (the) American gangster," Russick said.

Countless films, TV shows and books have cemented that image.

"You hear somebody say 'This guy's a regular Al Capone,' you don't need to say another word about the guy," said Robert Schoenberg, author of the book "Mr. Capone."

"He's infected the national consciousness," Schoenberg said.

Make that the international consciousness.

Tourists from Europe and Asia especially love to see and hear about the places where his torpedoes pumped his enemies full of lead, tour guides say.

"European tourists who watch a lot of American gangster show reruns, they are fascinated," said guide Michael LaRusso Reis. "The French and the Italians love to go to Union Station in Chicago where they filmed the baby carriage scene" for the 1987 movie "The Untouchables." And sometimes, those tourists get a little under-the-table assistance.

"Some (city) employees have gangster tours brochures, and when supervisors aren't looking they will slip them to European tourists," LaRusso Reis said.

Thanks to Don Babwin

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