The Chicago Syndicate: Chicago & Tourists Embrace Its Mob History and Historic Sites

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Chicago & Tourists Embrace Its Mob History and Historic Sites

When Louise Leach planned her vacation, she had three priorities for her visit here: "architecture, pizza and gangsters."

Leach, 63, a retiree from Manchester, England, took an architecture boat tour and by Day Three of her stay had eaten at two pizzerias. She came to the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was fatally shot in 1934, for a taste of the gangster life.

"Next we're going to the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, even though I know it's not there anymore," Leach says. "Someone told me the house where Al Capone once lived is still standing, so we'll go there as well. Do you know where I can find some former speakeasies?"

For Leach and her three traveling companions, Chicago's gangster past is part of its allure. "It was quite a dangerous place then, wasn't it?" muses Sally Wetherford, 61. "You see it in the movies all the time, so we simply have to sample it in person."

Las Vegas, St. Paul and Kansas City, Mo., have tours celebrating the often-violent history written by gangsters in the 1920s and '30s. New York has the Museum of the American Gangster. Chicago, though, may relish its links to gangsters more than any other American city.

Bus tours visit the secret bars where they sold alcohol during Prohibition and the places they died. At Holy Name Cathedral, bullet holes from a 1926 gangster shootout are still visible. The Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel, which boasts that Capone patronized its barbershop, offers a "good to be a gangster" package.

"Hollywood got it right. These were exciting, charismatic guys who really captured the imagination of the public," says Jonathan Eig, a Chicago resident and author of the 2010 book Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted GangsterOrganized Crime Books).

Chicago had a reputation for illicit activity by the 1840s, but the arrival of Capone from New York in 1919 and Prohibition's start in 1920 launched the headline-grabbing reign of criminal groups that ran gambling, alcohol and prostitution rackets. Gangsters here were and are still called the Outfit. The moniker probably originated with Western ranch hands and military buddies, says John Binder, a University of Illinois-Chicago finance professor who wrote the 2003 book The Chicago Outfit (IL) (Images of America).

Binder, who leads tours of gangsters' lavish suburban homes four times a year, says Capone's notoriety during and after his lifetime cemented Chicago's reputation as a rough-and-tumble haven for criminals. "He crossed over from being an historical figure to a legend, like Billy the Kid," he says. "As time goes by, the nasty side of it is forgotten and the fascinating side rises to the forefront. The interest doesn't go away."

One of Binder's favorite spots is the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in a garage where Capone's gang allegedly gunned down seven rivals. At Capone's grave in Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in suburban Hillside, he says, admirers often leave whiskey bottles, coins and Valentine cards. Binder doubts Chicago's bloody history taints its current reputation. "It's history," he says. "It's not going to go away, and it's part of what Chicago is."

Jim Peters, president of the preservation group Landmarks Illinois, says the city "has been very hesitant to glorify or recognize" its gangster sites.

Capone's onetime headquarters, the Lexington Hotel, was designated a Chicago landmark by the group for its architecture but was torn down in 1995, he says. An effort to have Capone's home added to the National Register of Historic Places failed.

The Biograph has landmark status "more because of the significance of the building," Peters says.
Craig Alton, owner of the Untouchable Tours, a two-hour bus journey to Chicago gangster locales that's marking its 24th summer, says he had trouble getting city licenses for his business when it began. He believes the city's gangster era is worth commemorating.

"It's history," he says. "We get people who have found this stuff interesting for their whole life. Everybody has a relationship with Al Capone."

Interest in gangsters was one reason Tamotsu Hata and his wife, Yuki, both 29, included Chicago in their first visit to the USA from their home in Tokyo. They took a taxi to the massacre site and planned to stop next at the Biograph.

"We love this part of American history and we have seen many movies about it," says Tamotsu Hata. His wife's favorite was the 2009 movie Public Enemies and the star who portrayed Dillinger. What intrigues Yuki Hata most about Chicago's gangsters? "Johnny Depp."

Thanks to Judy Keen

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