The Chicago Syndicate: Al Capone
Showing posts with label Al Capone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Al Capone. Show all posts

Friday, December 01, 2017

Mob Fest '29: The True Story Behind the Birth of Organized Crime

Bill Tonelli arrives on the scene with his brilliantly subversive Byliner Mob Fest ’29: The True Story Behind the Birth of Organized Crime. Tonelli investigates the long-standing myth of the mob’s founding—a legendary week in May 1929 in which a who’s who of American crime (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Costello, among many others) were said to have assembled in Atlantic City, the hedonistic Playground of America, to make peace and divvy up the country’s illegal enterprises. But what really happened that criminally star-studded week on the Jersey Shore?

At this informal summit, mobster bosses allegedly gathered to invent the concept of “organized crime” in America. Prohibition had transformed all of them from two-bit thugs into underworld bigwigs, and they had a vested interest in keeping illicit booze flowing easily across state lines. In Atlantic City, these hoods played as hard as they worked—if indeed they worked at all. “As legend has it,” writes Tonelli, “as many as thirty top gangsters [enjoyed] wild parties and heroic feasts, with fancy ladies provided for any who hadn’t brought his own. In short, this was nothing like the office meetings you and I have been made to attend.”

How many of these accounts are actually true, and why do they vary wildly in their retelling? Did the mobsters really wheel around the Boardwalk in rolling chairs, smoking cigars and cutting deals? Did they threaten one another in swank conference rooms in the Ritz-Carlton? Did they force Al Capone, fresh from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, to turn himself in to the cops in order to take the heat off everyone else? And what about the infamous photo of Nucky Johnson—“the benevolent but undisputed king” of Atlantic City, better known as Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire—strolling the boards arm in arm with Capone? Was this a staged shoot caught by early paparazzi or a Prohibition-era Photoshop job designed to ignite conspiracy theories that would thrive for years to come?

At a time when the early mob days are all the rage, Tonelli sifts the facts from the malarkey and in so doing shows that when it comes to the birth of organized crime, a good lie is hard to beat.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Did Al Capone use the Hammond Distillery to Super Charge His Empire During Prohibition?

When the nation went dry, the Hammond Distillery went belly up. But is there truth to the rumors that gangster Al Capone moved the distillery’s product across the state line to help fuel his organized crime empire?

Rich Barnes, former president of the Hammond Historical Society, said he heard Capone purchased the distillery’s existing inventory when Prohibition began and sneaked it across the state line.

Before Prohibition killed the Hammond Distillery, it was arguably the second largest in Indiana, cranking out 25,000 to perhaps 50,000 gallons of alcoholic beverages daily.

The distillery was such a big operation in Hammond that its owner, John E. Fitzgerald, had a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade, allowing the distillery to make large grain purchases to fuel production, Barnes said.

The early days

The Hammond Distillery was on the southeast corner of Calumet Avenue and 150th street, just north of the Grand Calumet River. It began operations in December 1901, according to Barnes.

In The Lake County Times’ first issue, on June 18, 1906, the Hammond Distillery said it had a capacity of 25,000 gallons daily, offering Hammond Bourbon, Hammond Sourmash, Hammond Rye Malt Gin, Hammond Dry Gin, Cologne Spirits and Refined Alcohol.

In 1909, Fitzgerald built a $50,000 plant that would eliminate the need to keep cattle at the distillery to consume the byproduct. Instead, the new building would have enormous evaporates that, it was said, would use 700 to 800 tons of copper. That would dry the slop so it could be shipped to farms for cattle feed.

On Dec. 16 1911, the distillery paid $40,742 in excise taxes to the federal government for a record-breaking shipment of whiskey, taxed at $1.10 per gallon. “Three revenue days like today would pay the cost of building the splendid Hammond federal building,” The Times reported that day.

Drying up

The push for Prohibition began before the Civil War, but accelerated in the progressive era, fueled by the push for women’s suffrage.

Jason Lantzer, assistant director of the University Honors Program at Butler University in Indianapolis, is considered one of the state’s top experts on the alcoholic beverage industry. “The temperance pledge card, there were several of those large national campaigns starting before the Civil War that (would) sweep the country,” Lantzer said. But a card in the wallet won't protect you from lure of saloons, the thinking at the time went, so Prohibition was needed to enforce abstinence.

“Until we remove the temptation, good people are going to (be) hurt by Demon Rum, and King Alcohol and John Barleycorn and all the other wonderful names they had for alcohol,” Lantzer said.

Finally, in 1917, the reformers succeeded in Indiana. “Indiana goes dry ahead of the nation, so we actually enact Prohibition in April 1917, giving brewers, distillers, saloons, everybody a year before they have to close down,” Lantzer said.

“We are not the only country to do that. Just about every nation has some sort of restriction on alcohol, and the rational is twofold — one is on the battleground that soldiers are not drunk, and the other is that grain can be better used for foodstuffs. So there is a definite slowing down on the national level,” Lantzer said.

Business shifts

The Hammond Distillery was hit hard by Prohibition, although World War I kept it in business. It got a government contract to produce alcohol for use in making smokeless gunpowder.

On Dec. 27, 1917, Peter W. Meyn, president of the Lake County Savings & Trust Co., bought the distillery for $65,500 “as an investment to locate a new industry,” The Lake County Times reported. Before Prohibition, the plant was worth five times that price.

Former saloons, a majority owned by breweries by the time Prohibition is passed, become ice cream parlors, selling ice cream and soft drinks, Lantzer said.

A lot of the breweries switched over to other products, whether near beer, which has such a low alcohol content that it didn’t violate Prohibition laws, or medicinal alcohol, or milk and other nonalcoholic beverages. “A lot of the breweries own their own canning and bottling infrastructure, so they switch over to canning and bottling, or at least try to,” Lantzer said.

Organized crime

Barnes said he heard that “Scarface” Al Capone moved alcohol across the state line to fuel his criminal empire. That has Lantzer intrigued.

“There’s this mythology that organized crime in the greater Chicago area, in Northwest Indiana, had to all been linked to Capone,” Lantzer said. “And there’s enough truth to that in that you do have definite Capone-owned or -operated outfits and purchases of different things, and it became very easy to mythologize that that was also by Capone. Whether or not we ever will be able figure out it was or not. But if had to do with organized crime it must have been linked to Al Capone.”

Here’s how it works: “This building was around in the 1920s, so it must have been used by Capone, or there are these stories that they were used by organized crime. Whether that actually happened, I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve been told, or that my uncle’s cousin told him that Capone came here on vacation or something,” Lantzer said of the mythology

Lantzer has heard the rumors, too.

“There’s a story that Capone owned or ran bootleg liquor out of the Paramount Theater in Hammond. Whether or not that’s true, I have no idea.”

May 8, 1929, brought the Capone empire into Hammond if it wasn't there already. That’s when the bodies of three gangsters were found in what is now Douglas Park. Two of them, Giovanni Scalise and Alberto Anselmi, had been implicated in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Right across the state line, in Calumet City, known then as West Hammond, the Capone gang or his organization owned several establishments.

Bootleggers

Could the Hammond Distillery have been in clandestine use during Prohibition? It’s feasible, Lantzer said.

Unless the distilling apparatus was scrapped, it would be easy to continue production, Lantzer said. “So if you’re Capone, you don’t have to bring all that malt in from, say, Canada, and you definitely don’t have to rely on people who were sort of figuring it out on their own, a sort of bathtub gin and moonshine and whatnot.”

What the Hammond Distillery had that other would-be producers didn’t was the know-how to make good alcoholic beverages. “The problem wasn’t the availability of things. If you’ve got corn, yeast and some sugar and can fashion a still, you can make yourself some alcohol. The problem was whether it would be good. Or whether you would kill your customers, because that doesn’t really breed a lot of confidence and repeat confidence when it gets around that Joe down the street bought from you and he’s dead now because he drank what you made,” Lantzer said.

Former alcoholic beverage sites were a target of frequent federal, state and local enforcement agencies. “They knew where those were. So it’s not uncommon for those places to get visited.”

“Maybe it’s fun to attach it to Capone, but maybe it’s a way to say that wasn’t really us, that was an outside element. I think that is something for the 1920s that we need more study on," Lantzer said.

Attacks at the distillery

The distillery saw repeated attacks.

In 1919, The Lake County Times reported, 10 barrels were stolen. In 1921, “whiskey bandits” stole 2,000 gallons after attacking the guards. In 1922, a barrel of whiskey was found in the gasoline tank of a new Auburn Six automobile at the distillery. Thirty bandits cleaned out the distillery in September 1923, and there had been other thefts earlier that year.

Prohibition agent Robert Anderson was shot to death at the Hammond Distillery on April 16, 1923. He had been stationed there less than a year. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a page dedicated to him on its website.

On Jan. 28, 1924, The Lake County Times published a banner headline, “Rob Hammond Distillery As Guard Gets Drunk.” Twenty armed bandits stole thousands of dollars worth of whiskey before the Prohibition agents could move it to another location.

After Prohibition

In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. The distillery was incorporated in December 1933 with 100,000 shares of stock to be listed at $10 apiece on the Chicago Board of Trade. The plan was to resume distiling operations at the building then occupied by Nowak Milling Corp., with Nowak moving its feed mill to another site.

In March 1934, the distillery was delisted from the Chicago Board of Trade, and plans were made to seek private financing.

On Aug. 15, 1934, the plug was finally pulled on the plan to restart the distillery.

When the plan to restart the distillery was announced, whisky was selling at $1.25 to $1.75 a gallon. A year later, the price had dropped to 40 cents as additional capacity came on line.

Nowak operated at the site until February 1938, when owner Maxwell M. Nowak told The Times he couldn’t afford to pay high taxes and still expect to make a profit.

Thanks to Doug Ross.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

DUAL LIVES: from the Streets to the Studio - "Teacher of the Year" becomes Mob Artist

In DUAL LIVES: from the Streets to the Studio, renowned American artist and 3-time national award-winning “Teacher of the Year” Michael Bell has written an inspiring and brutally candid memoir that chronicles his meteoric rise to becoming one of the most highly decorated public school teachers in America, all the while, living out a storied and often controversial professional painting career as “Mob Artist” to America’s most infamous.

Go behind the scenes with his intriguing clientele on how these friendships also fueled his career—from John Gotti to Al Capone’s great-nephew, Dominic Capone to numerous actors from “the Sopranos”, “Goodfellas”, “A Bronx Tale”, and more. Then, take a roller coaster crusade through the ever-changing, volatile landscapes of the art world and a US public education system that has begun placing more of an emphasis on "data mining" than on "building relationships."

This is the ultimate story of overcoming extreme adversity and being a true champion for today’s youth from someone still in the trenches, still at the top of his game. And, in the education arena, Bell has done the unprecedented. His students have earned tens of millions in scholarships; 7 back-to-back NAEA Rising Star Awards in art—an award presented to just one student artist in the entire nation annually; and 8 Scholastic Art National Medalists 3 years straight.

Bell also discusses the impact of his family life on his art—on the tragic stillbirth of his sister; on his lifelong relationship with his Grandmother, Violet, a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, New Jersey; on his inspiring son, Carmen, (“Lil' C”), and his battles with Autism while on his quest to become a Golden Gloves boxing champion. Then there's Bell's notorious cousin Vinnie, who was part of the longest double-murder trial in the history of the State of New Jersey. Learn how Bell, himself, went from being a troubled youth once facing twenty-years-to-life to saving one of his own students from a similar fate nearly two decades later.

DUAL LIVES: from the Streets to the Studio, is passionately written, and just as courageously vulnerable as the compelling narratives found within Bell’s paintings. So, ride shotgun alongside Michael Bell throughout his meteoric rise across two very different worlds—from the streets to the studio.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Examining the Crimes of the Calabrese Family #FamilySecrets

Why are we so fascinated by the mob? Well, there's violence: garroting, shooting, stabbing; the thrill of men hunting men. Money: While most of us sweat for our daily bread, gangsters take what they want. The unknown: Gangster stories give us special knowledge of dark, hidden places in the city and in the human heart.

That last point is important, because half the fun is pulling back the veil. The author strips away the pretenses and pleasantries of daily life and reveals how the world really is. Which is to say that force reigns supreme, not intelligence or character or merit. But part of the popularity of gangster lit is the assumption that the veil is only ever half-raised. Mob stories feed our most paranoid fears by implying that so much more remains to be told. Because we really can't see the subject whole, never know the limits of the mob's influence, we can imagine it as all-powerful, with cops, politicians and businessmen bought and paid for. Authors let us in on the secrets, but the thrilling question always remains, just how big is this menace?

That is one of the reasons that Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen's "Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob" is so refreshing. He never reaches beyond his story, sticks close to his evidence, lets the carefully gathered wiretaps and eyewitness testimony and reporter's notes do the talking. Like Nicholas Pileggi's classic "Wiseguy," on which the film "GoodFellas" was based, Coen keeps it at street level, focusing on his distinct cast of characters, the gangsters and their victims, the federal agents, local cops and attorneys who played out the drama.

During the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Frank Calabrese Sr. operated a lucrative loan-sharking business on Chicago's South Side. He had ties to higher-ups in the "Outfit," as the Chicago mob is known, men like Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, and James "Jimmy Light" Marcello. Calabrese was not a nice man. In the late '90s, his son, Frank Jr., musing on his father's abusiveness, decided to turn state's evidence against the old man. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, young Frank's uncle Nick (Frank Sr.'s brother) also decided to cooperate with the feds.

With that the Outfit's cover unraveled, and the case finally came to trial in 2007. Coen gives us fine-grained pictures of the loan-sharking and extortion, and, above all, at least 18 killings.

Nick Calabrese, a reluctant hit man, committed multiple murders at brother Frank's behest. Nick told the feds that his sibling would willingly kill him had he failed to carry out a hit. Frank Calabrese himself specialized in garroting his victims, then cutting their throats to make sure they were dead. Coen gives us gruesome accounts of the murders and burials in corn fields and at construction sites.

"Family Secrets" isn't for everyone. It is a complex narrative of a long case that resulted in several convictions. The devil is in the details, there are a lot of them, and they thoroughly de-romanticize the mob.

This is a well-written and researched book, but its subject might disappoint some readers. Unlike the East Coast mob, Coen tells us, "Chicago had been unified for much of the century, since the days of the infamous boss Al Capone. ..." That statement is true but a bit deceptive. This late 20th Century crew seems a little pathetic. They're not exactly the gang that couldn't shoot straight, but they're certainly not Capone's Outfit either. When we pull back the veil, we get a strange blend of Don Corleone and the Three Stooges.

Thanks to Elliott Gorn, who teaches history at Brown University. He is author of "Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One," published this year by Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Making of the Mob: Chicago

The Making of the Mob: Chicago, is an eight-episode docu-drama chronicling the rise and fall of iconic gangster Al Capone, as well as the story of his successors, collectively known as “The Chicago Outfit.” Spanning the better part of a century, the series begins with Capone’s early days in New York and continues through his move to Chicago - to work with his childhood mentor in the underworld. When Prohibition hits, battles break out as the city’s gangs rush to set up bootlegging operations and Capone decides to go up against his rivals. As he consolidates power, he achieves legendary status for his ruthless tactics and over-the-top lifestyle that attracts the wrath of President Herbert Hoover.

Episode 1
Capone’s First Kill
Capone gets a taste of the underworld in Brooklyn with Johnny Torrio. Reuniting in Chicago, they start bootlegging and anger local Irish gangsters.

Episode 2
A Death in the Family
A new mayor forces Torrio and Capone outside Chicago to nearby Cicero. There, Capone's brother Frank fixes an election, placing himself in jeopardy.

Episode 3
Blood Filled Streets
A betrayal destroys peace in Chicago, and Torrio and Capone seek revenge against the Irish gangs. The "Beer Wars" make Capone Chicago's top gangster.

Episode 4
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Capone uses the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to assert his power over his enemies. President Hoover takes notice, and Eliot Ness takes on Capone.

Episode 5
Judgment Day
Al Capone outwits Eliot Ness, but Capone's criminal empire remains in jeopardy when the IRS plants an undercover agent in his gang.

Episode 6
New Blood
With Capone in jail, Frank Nitti, Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo take over. A Hollywood scandal presents Sam Giancana with a chance to prove himself.

Episode 7
Sin City
Tony Accardo sets his sights on Las Vegas, but when Sam Giancana incurs the wrath of young attorney Robert F. Kennedy, The Outfit is threatened.

Episode 8
Last Man Standing
Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana have a falling out, and the fate of the Outfit rests on the outcome. Tony Accardo cleans up loose ends before retiring.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Touhy vs. Capone: The Chicago Outfit’s Biggest Frame Job

Touhy vs. Capone: The Chicago Outfit's Biggest Frame Job.

When beat cop Don Herion and his partner responded to shots fired on December 16, 1959, they didn’t know that they had heard the final, fatal salvo in one of the most contorted conflicts in the history of organized crime. A canny bootlegger, Roger Touhy had survived a gang war with Al Capone, false imprisonment for a faked kidnapping, a prison break and recapture. His story dragged in all the notorious men of his day: Frank Nitti, John “Jake the Barber” Factor, Mayor Cermak, Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover, Baby Face Nelson, Dan “Tubbo” Gilbert, FDR and JFK. As Touhy’s life was ending on his sister’s front porch, Herion’s quest to unravel the tangle of events that led to his assassination had just begun.

A native of the Windy City, Don Herion joined the Chicago Police Department in 1955. On a cold winter night in 1959, he was called to the scene of Roger Touhy’s murder. Herion retired after forty-eight years on the job, including two years of undercover work for the Chicago Crime Commission. He is the author of Pay, Quit, or Die: Chicago Mob Ultimatum, and The Chicago Way.

Touhy vs. Capone: The Chicago Outfit's Biggest Frame Job.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Using Witness Protection Programs to Break the Mob

It must be one of the worst choices to have to makeWitsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program ; to choose between decades behind bars or a life in hiding. But that is what confronts accused drug mule Cassie Sainsbury, now languishing in a Colombian prison. She has been asked to either inform on the people who supplied the cocaine found in her luggage at an airport back in April this year and go into witness protection, or spend 30 years in a Colombian jail.

Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program.

If she takes the deal to turn informant she will be joining a long list of people who testified against organised criminals only to lose their identity and liberty under witness protection. Programs to protect people who testify against organised criminals only came into existence in the 1960s and ’70s, even though the need for such a program goes back centuries.

Intimidation of witnesses is at least as old as courts, but it was only in the 19th and early 20th centuries that laws were passed against tampering with witnesses or that witnesses were detained so that they couldn’t be intimidated or killed.

In the US in the late 19th and early 20th century the Black Hand gangs, formed among Italian migrants, often scared away people from reporting crimes or testifying against gang members. In Chicago between 1910 and 1920, police were able to secure prosecutions in 21 per cent of homicides, but in cases relating to Black Hand killings they could only secure convictions in 4 per cent of cases.

The Black Hand: Terror by Letter in Chicago.

In the 1920s and ’30s people such as Chicago mob boss Al Capone were able to literally get away with murder by threatening or killing witnesses. But when authorities found bookkeeping ledgers meticulously detailing Capone’s ill-gotten profits, Leslie (some sources say Louis) Shumway, one of the men responsible for keeping the ledgers, was hidden away and brought to court under police guard. He became a material witness in a case for tax evasion. Capone was convicted in 1931 and sent to prison, after which police broke his control of his crime organisation, freeing Shumway of any fear of retribution. Shumway lived the rest of his life in seclusion but by the ’40s Capone was losing his mind due to late stage syphilis. Capone died in 1947 in Florida and Shumway died in 1964, also in Florida.

In 1963, mobster Joe Valachi testified at a US senate hearing about the dealings and structure of the mob. Valachi, who was already in prison, had organised his own protection. (In 1962 he beat to death an inmate he thought had been sent to collect a $100,000 bounty put out by mob boss Vito Genovese.) Valachi died in prison of a heart attack in 1971. Valachi Papers by Peter Maas.

The US Justice Department’s Gerald Shur, frustrated by not being able to get people to testify in big organised crime cases pushed for a more formal system of looking after witnesses.

In 1970 the Organised Crime Control Act provided for the relocation and protection of witnesses, a role that was taken on by the US Marshals Service under the orders of the US Attorney-General.

Since then thousands of people have entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, or Witness Security Program (WITSEC for short).

Some of the more notorious people given protection include New York City mobster Henry Hill, who was arrested in 1980 on a narcotics charge but turned informant and his testimony helped secure 50 convictions. His story was told in the book Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family, by Nicholas Pileggi and later turned into the award-winning Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas (4K Ultra HD) [Blu-ray].



Hill was thrown out of witness protection after he repeatedly revealed his true identity to neighbours. He died in 2012 from heart problems.

Sicilian-born mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta also made headlines in 1992 when he became the first major crime boss to turn informant. He testified into links between organised crime and politicians in Italy. He died while in WITSEC in the US in 2000.

A national witness protection program was also established Australia in 1990 under the Australian Federal Police. It gained notoriety when Reginald “Mick” O’Brien, a small-time criminal with links to crime boss Robert Trimbole, became a protected witness.

O’Brien had been arrested in relation to the importation of cannabis resin, but had made a deal with the National Crime Authority to give evidence against Trimbole. When the NCA became dissatisfied with the quality of his evidence he was dropped from witness protection. O’Brien was shot dead in Granville in January 1992. No one has ever been convicted of his murder.

Thanks to Troy Lennon.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Al Capone's Diamond Pocket Watch Sold for Over $84K at Gangsters, Outlaws & Lawmen Auction

Al Capone's diamond-studded, platinum pocket watch went for $84,375 during an auction Saturday featuring other artifacts that belonged to some of America's most notorious gangsters.

Al Capone Diamond Pocket Watch


Capone's watch as well as a musical composition he handwrote behind bars in Alcatraz were among the items up for bid in the "Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen" auction by RR Auction, an auction house headquartered in Boston. The auction was held Saturday afternoon at the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Capone, who was born to Italian immigrants in New York City, headed a Chicago-based crime empire during the Prohibition era that raked in millions of dollars through bootlegging, gambling, racketeering and other illicit activities. He was dubbed Scarface by the press after his face was slashed during a fight, a nickname he apparently disliked.

"Unlike his more maligned moniker of ‘Scarface,’ Capone preferred that those closest to him call him by ‘Snorky,’ a slang term which meant ‘sharp’ or ‘well-dressed,'" according to a description accompanying Capone's watch on RR Auction's website.

According to the auction house, the rounded triangular pocket watch was personally owned and used by Capone. The timepiece is on its original chain made of 14-karat white gold. The exterior of the case features 23 diamonds shaped to form Capone's initials, "AC," which are encircled by 26 additional diamonds. Another 72 diamonds circle the watch's platinum face and gold-tone impressed numerals.

Online bids for Capone's watch had surpassed $17,000 prior to the live auction Saturday afternoon. Experts estimated the item would sell for more than $25,000, according to RR Auction.

A musical piece entitled "Humoresque," written in pencil by Capone when he was incarcerated in Alcatraz in the 1930s, was also up for grabs. The musical manuscript shows Capone's softer side, containing the lines: "You thrill and fill this heart of mine, with gladness like a soothing symphony, over the air, you gently float, and in my soul, you strike a note."

Experts estimated the sheet will sell for over $20,000, according to RR auction. it went for $18,750.

Also up for auction was a letter written by gangster boss John Gotti, two life-size death masks of gangster John Dillinger, a brick from the scene of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and jewelry that belonged to infamous crime duo Bonnie and Clyde.

Thanks to Morgan Winsor.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Untouchables Tours to Celebrate Milestone of their Live Action @GangsterTour

Beverly-based Untouchable Tours is preparing to celebrate a significant milestone as one of the top-rated downtown bus tours. With its distinct black bus and cast of theater-trained guides, the company credits its nearly 30-year success to a unique entertainment philosophy.

“The production level of our tour is second-to-none,” said co-owner Craig Alton of his gangster theater-on-wheels. “Our guides are talented actors who have studied Chicago crime chronicles and Prohibition society and conventions. They have truly perfected their personas and offer plenty of laughs while providing a knowledgeable voice on the rise of the Chicago mob.”

This formula has proven a hit since Alton, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Cindy and Don Fielding, first launched the concept.

“The three of us worked individually for not-for-profits,” said Cindy Fielding. “But with a shared interest in theater and design, we quickly slipped into a life of crime.”

The one hour, 45 minute live action tour continues to sell out regularly and reflects an unwavering interest in Chicago mob history. From Dion O’Banion’s flower shop to Holy Name Cathedral, the 18-mile journey takes passengers on a comprehensive and compelling trip back in time to Al Capone’s Chicago. With guides including “Johnny Three Knives” and “Matches Malone,” the tour company enjoys multi-generational appeal and repeat customers.

In addition to their regular public tours, the company also offers private tours to groups.

“The tone of the tour is light and fun. We book many private tours including school-aged children as well as seniors,” said Don Fielding. “We felt it was important to reiterate how the ultimate result of crime is prison or worse. This is the reason we embraced the word ‘Untouchable.’ Eliot Ness and his colleagues did incredible work in ridding Chicago of organized crime. We wanted to tip our hats to them.”

To commemorate its 30th year anniversary, Untouchable Tours is offering a special discount code to Beverly residents who book any tour online before Thursday, June 15. Simply enter the code: beverly and receive $2 off a seat.

Bookings can be made online at gangstertour.com or by calling (773) 881-1195.

Thanks to The Beverly Review.

Friday, June 02, 2017

The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee

My tendency to either skim books or proofread them (from early magazine days) has encountered a new one from former Cook County police chief Art Bilek that I can’t put down: The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee.

This is a masterpiece of writing and excruciatingly accurate research that describes how Big Jim Colosimo rose from a lowly street-sweeper to the most prominent operator of whorehousesThe First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee, gambling joints, and low-life restaurants in the days leading up to Prohibition, with the collusion of the police and politicians and the managerial skills of John Torrio and Al Capone. When his increasingly notorious Colosimo’s Café combined with his growing desire for respectability, love for a young songbird, and failure to exploit the opportunities afforded by Prohibition, Torrio (we must presume) had him murdered in the vestibule of his elegant restaurant in 1920—and the band marched on.

Nowhere has Chicago’s graft and corruption been so carefully and entertainingly documented, with special attention to the backgrounds of Torrio and Capone, who worked hard to weld the new and competing bootlegging gangs into the greatest illicit booze empire the country has ever known--one that did not factionalize into Chicago’s bloody Beer Wars that began with the killing of North Side mob-leader Dean O’Banion four years later. My own work has concentrated on the years following Prohibition, so I’m especially happy to report that Bilek’s book explains what made the Roaring Twenties possible.

Reviewed by William J. Helmer, courtesy of On the Spot Journal.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Chicago Outfit Boss Rudy Fratto Stiffs Feds

Chicago Outfit boss Rudy Fratto has stopped paying restitution from a federal court tax evasion conviction and the government is going after him for more than $130,000, the ABC7 I-Team has learned.

The last time Rudy "The Chin" Fratto made news, he'd just been sentenced to prison for rigging $2 million in forklift contracts for a pair of trade shows at McCormick Place. That followed a tax evasion conviction-and court ordered restitution of $141,000. But the I-Team has learned Mr. Fratto still owes most of that. In newly filed court records, U.S. prosecutors say Fratto stopped paying his hefty bill more than a year ago.

Because of it, they say the government is "entitled to 25% of Fratto's disposable earnings for each pay period...until the debt is paid in full." Fratto claims he should only be paying 10 percent and there will be a federal court hearing on May 24.

Mr. Fratto is currently employed at a small electrical firm in Bartlett, "running pipe and wire," according to the company owner.

Such legit work may seem out of sync for someone considered prone to violence and over the years suspected by law enforcement in numerous crimes, including murder. Fratto has managed to avoid prosecution for acts of Outfit violence.

The hoodlum's jovial and engaging demeanor in public and outside court is in sharp contrast to the cut-throat position authorities say he holds in the mob. The west suburban Darien resident is an understudy of Outfit elder John "No Nose" DiFronzo, the mob's statesman of Elmwood Park, who is said to be in failing health.

Fratto has the mob in his DNA. He is the nephew of Louis "Cock-Eyed Louie" Fratto, so-named because his eyes were out of kilter. Cock-Eyed Louie, an associate of Al Capone and the Chicago Mob's emissary in Des Moines, Iowa Mob from 1930 until 1967.

Even if Fratto ponies up and starts paying his federal bill at garnishment rate he wants per week, it will take a while to whittle down what he owes. At 10 percent from his paycheck, he wouldn't pay off the debt for 25 years, at age 98.

Mr. Fratto's attorney has not responded to messages left by the I-Team. A spokesman for the United States Attorney in Chicago declined to comment on the case.

Thanks to Chuck Goudie.

Monday, May 01, 2017

30 Illegal Years to the Strip: The Untold Stories Of The Gangsters Who Built The Early Las Vegas Strip

30 Illegal Years To The Strip: The Untold Stories Of The Gangsters Who Built The Early Las Vegas Strip.

These are the untold inside stories of Prohibition’s most powerful leaders, and how they later ran elegant, illegal casinos across America, before moving on to build the glamorous Las Vegas Strip gambling resorts.

The seven leaders of the three dominating Prohibition gangs imported the world’s finest liquors on a massive scale. Although they conducted their business in an illegal and dangerous world, these seven espoused traditional business values and rejected the key tools of organized crime - monopoly, violence, and vendetta. This made them the most unlikely gangsters to rise to underworld leadership. But they earned every criminal’s respect, and fate made them the most powerful gangland leaders in American history.

Unbelievably, the most murderous and most psychopathic gang leaders not only admired them but supported them in gangland conflicts. In the mid 1900s, these seven leaders stood up to, and restrained, America’s worst villains. The seven prevented many gangland wars and killings.

The three dominating liquor-importers were the first gangs to work closely together in mutual interest. Joining them was the violent Chicago Capone gang, as they partnered in both illegal and legal businesses during and after Prohibition. They were also close allies in the complexities, treachery, and violence of underworld politics.

Some of these seven leaders became powerful overworld political kingmakers. Allied with them in New York City politics was Arnold Rothstein, the ultimate gambler. His murder is one of several major gangland killings finally solved here.

Great entertainment was a key part of these seven gang leaders’ illegal-casino and Strip-resort showrooms. Their biggest-drawing star was comedian Joe E. Lewis. He set the standards for excellence during the half-century popularity of nightclub and casino showroom entertainment.

The action-packed careers and relationships of the gang leaders, who together would go on to build the Las Vegas Strip, are presented for the first time in this thoroughly documented, in-depth, authentic history of how organized crime developed. It contains 546 source notes, and many addendums that expose the serious fallacies and outright fictions of previous books about early organized crime.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Top 10: Gangsters

If you browse around your local video store, you'll notice dozens of films about the Mafia. Witness the popularity of Goodfellas, The Godfather, Casino, and Bugsy. Why have so many films been made about these tough-guy hooligans? Because men have a fascination with gangster culture and organized crime. But who are some of the most notorious gangsters of all time?

To make the list, gangsters must have had a significant impact on the Mob thanks to the way they did business. They must have done most of their business in America, their legacy must have stood the test of time, and they must have had a significant impact on pop culture.

Honorable Mention
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (1906 - 1947)

Benjamin Siegel was born in Brooklyn in 1906 and soon associated himself with fellow Jew Meyer Lansky. After running contract killings for Murder, Inc., Siegel -- who was nicknamed "Bugsy" because of his unpredictable nature -- went in cahoots with Lucky Luciano and his newly organized Syndicate. But killing for Luciano earned him enemies, and in the late '30s, he was forced to escape to Los Angeles, where he had lived glamorously with movie stars.

He then discovered the gambling laws of Nevada. "Borrowing" millions from the Syndicate, he established one of the first casino hotels in Las Vegas, the Flamingo. But the resort was losing money, and when it was discovered in 1947 that he had stolen money from his friends, he was killed.

Featured in: The best portrayals of Siegel are in Warren Beatty's Bugsy  (1991) and The Marrying Man (1991) with Armand Assante.

Number 10
Vincent "The Chin" Gigante (1928 - 2005)
Born in New York in 1928, Vincent Gigante was quite a character. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and started boxing, winning 21 of 25 light-heavyweight bouts. By the time he was 17, he had turned to crime to support himself, which resulted in seven arrests before he was 25.

Gigante's first significant act as a gangster and member of the Genovese family was an attempt to kill the powerful Frank Costello, but Gigante's bullet missed the target. Nevertheless, he continued to climb the ranks within New York's Genovese organization, eventually becoming a capo and consigliere in the early '80s.

Then, when Mob boss Tony Salerno was convicted, Gigante became the main man. What makes Gigante so memorable is his 30-year ploy of acting insane. After he successfully averted prison in the late '60s by employing psychiatrists to testify to his insanity, he took it upon himself to continue the act; throughout his career, he was often seen walking around the streets of New York wearing a bathrobe. For this reason, he was nicknamed the "Oddfather" and the "Pajama King." Imprisoned for racketeering, he finally admitted in 2003 that he was not crazy.

Gigante died in prison on December 19, 2005 due to heart complications. The Gigante family and his lawyer, Flora Edwards, filed a federal lawsuit regarding the lack of health care that Vincent received while in prison. Vincent was scheduled for release in 2010.

Featured in: Gigante was a character in the made-for-TV film Bonanno: A Godfather's Story (1999) and served as inspiration for an episode of Law & Order.

Number 9
Albert Anastasia (1903 - 1957)
Born in Tropea, Italy in 1903, Albert Anastasia was still a teenager when he came to America. Involved in the docks operations in Brooklyn, Anastasia was sent to Sing Sing Prison for 18 months for the murder of a longshoreman; the mysterious deaths of witnesses led to his early release. Albert Anastasia (aka "Lord High Executioner" and "Mad Hatter") was known as a killer, a reputation that led Joe Masseria's gang to recruit him. Anastasia was also extremely loyal to Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who had plans to rule America's crime world. Anastasia had no problem betraying Masseria -- by being one of four people sent to kill him in 1931 -- when approached by Lucky Luciano.

At this time, Anastasia started taking on hits for the Murder, Incorporated outfit in New York, and in 1944, he became the leader of the murder squad. Although Anastasia was never prosecuted for any killings, Murder, Inc. was responsible for between 400 and 700 murders. In the '50s, he became the leader of the Luciano family, but Carlo Gambino wanted the job. Though the murder is officially unsolved, many believe that Gambino had Anastasia killed in a barbershop in 1957.

Featured in: Albert Anastasia was a prominent character in Murder, Inc. (1960), a gangster film starring Peter Falk and Howard Smith (as Anastasia), as well as in The Valachi Papers (1972) and Lepke (1975).

Number 8
Joseph Bonanno (1905 - 2002)
Born in 1905, Joe Bonanno grew up in his native Sicily and became an orphan at the age of 15. He left Italy due to the fascist power of the Mussolini regime and made a brief stopover in Cuba before moving to the United States when he was 19. Joe joined the Mafia as a way to prevent Mussolini from taking over Sicily. Nicknamed "Joey Bananas," he joined forces with Salvatore Maranzano. Before Luciano killed him, Maranzano created The Commission, the ruling body over Mafia families in the entire country.

Bonanno stepped up and took over one of these families. He became powerful in New York with cheese factories, clothing businesses and funeral homes, which were a terrific way to dispose of bodies. But plans to eliminate all the rival families turned against him and Bonanno was kidnapped for 19 days until he agreed to retire. In 1965, he initiated the Banana War to settle scores, but he retired for good soon thereafter due to bad health. Never in his life was he convicted of a serious offense.

Featured in: Two cable movies have been made about the crime legend: Love, Honor & Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage (1993) with Ben Gazzara and Bonanno: A Godfather's Story (1999) with Martin Landau.

Number 7
Dutch Schultz (1902 - 1935)
Arthur Flegenheimer, later known as Dutch Schultz, was born in the Bronx in 1902. As a teenager, he held up crap games to impress his boss and mentor, Marcel Poffo. At the age of 17, he did some time at Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) for theft. With prohibition in full swing in the 1920s, he realized that money was in bootlegging. A ruthless man, he would kill whenever his temper flared, which helped keep his competition in line.

He had a part in the founding of the Syndicate, but soon Luciano and Capone became his enemies. In 1933, the law wanted to shut down Schultz, so he went into hiding in New Jersey, which left his New York territory free for a takeover; Luciano seized the opportunity. Schultz made a comeback in 1935, but members of Albert Anastasia's crew killed him in a restaurant men's room before he could do any damage.

Featured in: Dustin Hoffman was memorable as Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate (1991), but Tim Roth was even better in Hoodlum (1997). Other movies featuring Schultz include Gangster Wars (1981), The Cotton Club (1984) and The Natural (1984).

Number 6
John Gotti (1940 - 2002)
In the wake of the great gangsters who ruled New York, John Gotti had his work cut out for him. Born in Brooklyn in 1940, he was always quick with his fists and it was his life's dream to become a wiseguy. By the age of 16, he had joined a local street gang known as the Fulton-Rockaway Boys. He quickly became their leader, stealing cars and fencing stolen goods. In the '60s, he began associating with Mafia hoods and hijacking trucks. In the early '70s, he became a capo for the Bergin crew, a part of the Gambino family. Extremely ambitious, Gotti started to deal drugs, which was forbidden by family rules.

As a result, Paul Castellano, the Boss, wished to expel Gotti from the organization. In 1985, Gotti and his guys killed Castellano outside a steakhouse and Gotti took over the Gambino family. No matter how many times the authorities tried to indict him for being the most powerful criminal in New York, the charges were always dropped. Because of this -- and the fact that he dressed well and loved media attention -- he was nicknamed "The Dapper Don" and "The Teflon Don." He was finally convicted for murder in 1992 and died of cancer in prison in 2002.

Featured in: He was played by Anthony John Denison in the made-for-TV movie Getting Gotti (1994) and by Armand Assante in the HBO event Gotti (1996). Other TV movies featuring him include Witness to the Mob (1998) with Tom Sizemore and The Big Heist (2001).

Number 5
Meyer Lansky (1902 - 1983)

Born Maier Suchowljansky in Russia to Jewish parents in 1902, Lansky moved to New York when he was 9. He met Charles Luciano when they were just schoolboys. Luciano demanded protection money from Lansky, and when he refused to pay, the two boys fought. Impressed by Lansky's toughness, Luciano befriended the younger boy and the two remained lifelong friends. Lansky also met Bugsy Siegel when he was a teenager, and the three formed a powerful partnership. Lansky and Siegel formed the Bug and Meyer Mob, which became Murder, Inc.

Lansky's primary order of business was money and gambling, and he had operations in Florida, Cuba and New Orleans. He was an investor in Siegel's Las Vegas casino, and he even bought an offshore bank in Switzerland that was used for money laundering. A financial genius, he codeveloped the National Crime Syndicate and the Commission. But business is never personal, and he approved the murder of his best friend Bugsy Siegel when Siegel was unable to produce profits for the Syndicate. Even with a gambling racket in operation across the planet, Lansky never spent a day in jail.

Featured in: Not only did Richard Dreyfuss give a powerful performance in HBO's Lansky (1999), but the character of Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II (1974) was loosely based on him as well. The role was also played by Mark Rydell in Havana (1990), Patrick Dempsey in Mobsters (1991) and Ben Kingsley in Bugsy (1991).

Number 4
Frank Costello (1891 - 1973)
Francesco Castiglia was born in 1891 in Italy and moved to the United States with his family when he was 4. He changed his name to Frank Costello when he joined a street gang at age 13. After numerous petty crimes landed him in prison, he became best friends with Charlie Luciano; together, they dealt in bootlegging and gambling. Costello's strength was his position as a link between the Mob and politicians, especially the Democratic Party's Tammany Hall in New York, which enabled him and his associates to pay off certain officials.

Following Luciano's arrest, Costello became the man in charge, and he solidified and expanded the operation during this time. A power struggle between him and Vito Genovese (who served as Underboss) erupted in the '50s, and Vincent Gigante tried to kill Costello. Eventually, Costello grew tired of the gangster life and retired, but not before framing Genovese and Gigante for a drug bust. He died peacefully in 1973.

Featured in: The man was best portrayed by James Andronica in the 1981 miniseries The Gangster Chronicles, by Costas Mandylor in Mobsters (1991), by Carmine Caridi in Bugsy (1991), and by Jack Nicholson in The Departed (2006). (The author is actually incorrect about Jack Nicholson playing the real Frank Costello in The Departed. Only the character name was in common with the real Frank Costello. Nicholson's character was mostly based upon another gangster, Whitey Bulger.)

Number 3
Carlo Gambino (1902 - 1976)
Carlo Gambino came from a family that had been part of the Mafia for centuries in Italy. He started carrying out murders when he was a teenager and became a made guy in 1921 at the age of 19. With Mussolini gaining power, he immigrated to America, where his cousin Paul Castellano lived. He became a thug for different New York families until he joined Lucky Luciano's crew.

After Luciano was extradited in the '40s, Albert Anastasia took over. But Gambino thought it was his time to shine and had Anastasia killed in 1957. He appointed himself Boss of the family and reigned with an iron fist over New York until his natural death in 1976.

Featured in: Al Ruscio played him beautifully in the TNT movie Boss of Bosses(2001). Other "Gambino" appearances include the made-for-TV movies Between Love & Honor (1995), Gotti (1996) and Bonanno: A Godfather's Story (1999).

Number 2
Charlie "Lucky" Luciano (1897 - 1962)

Salvatore Lucania was born in Sicily in 1897, but his family moved to New York nine years later. At a young age, he became a member of the Five Points gang, in which Al Capone also received his education. Five years after establishing an empire based mostly on prostitution, Luciano controlled the racket all over Manhattan. After a failed but brutal attack on his life in 1929, Luciano started planning the National Crime Syndicate, an extension of Salvatore Maranzano's Commission, with Meyer Lansky.

They eliminated the competition, and by 1935, Lucky Luciano was known as the Boss of Bosses -- not just of New York City, but of the whole country. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in 1936, but was let out on parole in 1946 on the condition that he be deported to Italy. He had so much power that U.S. Navy intelligence sought his help when the Allies were set to invade Italy during World War II. He died of a heart attack in 1962.

Featured in: Christian Slater played him in Mobsters (1991), as did Bill Graham in Bugsy (1991) and Anthony LaPaglia in the TV film Lansky (1999).

Number 1
Al Capone (1899 - 1947)
If there ever was a gangster who earned the No. 1 spot, it is Al Capone. Alphonse Capone was born in 1899 to Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, where he got his start in street gangs. He then joined the Five Points gang and became a bouncer. It was during these days that a series of facial wounds earned him the "Scarface" nickname. Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 and quickly moved up the Mafia hierarchy while working for Johnny Torrio (Capone became Torrio's protege).

It was the time of the Prohibition, and Capone ran prostitution, gambling and bootlegging rings. In 1925, at the age of 26, Capone took over after Torrio was wounded in a gang war. Known for his intelligence, flamboyance and love of public attention, Capone was also known to be very violent; his role in the orchestration of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, in which key rival gangsters were murdered, proves this. In 1931, Federal Treasury agent Eliot Ness arrested him for tax evasion.

Featured in: Many movies have been made about Capone, but the most famous are probably The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) with Jason Robards, Capone (1975) with Ben Gazzara and The Untouchables (1987) with Robert De Niro.

Thanks to Matthew Simpson

Thursday, April 06, 2017

How Did Chicago became a Cultural Capital of Crime?

The thing outsiders know about Chicago is crime. The mobsters, the street drug gangs, the corrupt operators—these are the most sensationalized aspects of the city. But they are also key factors in its ongoing narrative, the one true Great American Novel that is Chicago. The city with a fiery creation myth grew into a blue-collar metropolis with the help of oily, feudal political machines and assorted local species of crook, leaving a deep, ugly legacy. It is written in our street grid, our transit lines, and our segregated accents, in which one can still hear both the old white ethnic strongholds and the Great Migration. It can be a very beautiful city, especially at night. In those icy parts of winter that have become more rare since I first moved here, the unique nighttime color of Chicago reflects in every direction. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the streets bring its divisions into deep focus. I’m proud to show it off. It is a city on the prairie, and therefore a city of the plain, like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis.

For a time in the 1850s, there were so many problems with drainage that it became a swamp and had to raise itself up on jackscrews. So really, a Chicagoan has their pick of origin stories. The curse of the so-called Second City is that it lends itself effortlessly to symbolism and especially to metaphor, to the point that you start to believe that it just might be one. I’ve lived here longer now than I have anywhere else, and I have come to love this aspect of the city. When Chicagoans speak—whether they are true locals or transplants like myself, who have come to its ways through prolonged exposure—they speak its complicated history. This is the diverse Southern-inflected sound of black Chicago, the “Chi-cah-go” and “Chi-caw-go” pronunciations that classify white accents, and that perfect formulation of terse Midwesternese, the stranded “with,” as in the classic “You wanna come with?” They say “jagoff” is a Pittsburgh word, but Chicago owns it.

Really, there are many Chicagos, bound almost psychically. It is better maybe to try to grasp it in terms of its architecture—which is really one of the most beautiful things about it—and planning. For instance, Chicago is the alley capital of the world. There are about 1,900 miles of alleyways running through almost every block of the city, regulated to a minimum width of 16 feet, some much wider. The alley is part of day-to-day life in Chicago: It’s where we take our shortcuts and bring our trash. It’s why Chicago doesn’t smell as bad as other big cities. It lacks that note of garbage that gives New York streets their character. The kind of buildings we call two- or three-flats, whether brick, frame, or Indiana limestone (called “greystone” locally), will often have a gangway, a passage that lets you cut from the sidewalk to the alley. My favorites are the ones that dip under a protruding oriel. And most of the apartments in those two- and three-flats will have two doors, one in the front and one in the rear. It’s a city of backstreets and backdoors.

Chicago crime is a unique phenomenon. In broad statistics, it is not that dangerous a place; the rates of burglary and theft are low for an American city, and many of its neighborhoods experience negligible violent crime. This is a common defense tactic for Chicagoans, especially white Chicagoans—the “well, not my Chicago” plea. But this is as much a fantasy as the Trumpian burning of the quote-unquote “inner city.” Chicago crime inspires fascination because it is entrenched and so specific, so troublingly connected to a diverse city that otherwise eludes broad social generalizations. One fact about Chicago is that it has more nicknames in common circulation than any other place in this country, all of them kind of tacky: the Windy City, the Second City, Chi-Town and its pun variations, the City Of Big Shoulders. There are many others, too. Defining the spirit of Chicago is a bad parlor game. The nice parts of it are very nice, but for more than 90 years, it has been world-famous as a place where people get gunned down in the street. Throughout its history runs a succession of criminal boom industries: gambling, policy, liquor, crack, heroin.

The criminal conglomerates of Prohibition and the small sets of the West Side’s Heroin Highway are part of one uninterrupted story, though unwittingly. The story is the city. It goes back to the 1870s and the reign of “Big Mike” McDonald as the king of Chicago’s gambling underworld. It goes through generations of increasingly more effective political machines and increasingly larger criminal syndicates, colluding in political and commercial networks that made the street gangs seem like the inevitable result of a complicated equation. Let us assume a few things here as starting points: that the city and its underworlds have existed for a long time in a relationship that is more complex than host and parasite; that political and criminal groups in the city, however big or small, play variations on a similar game involving the flow and direction of movement; and that the city is itself a crossroads, its entire story defined by lines of interstate transit, be it the Illinois Central Railroad that transported half a million black job-seekers from the South during the Great Migration, or the Sinaloa Cartel network from which most of the cocaine and heroin of its current drug economy is believed to originate.

For Chicago, there is no artistic or cultural history without its social history, no social history without its political history, and no political history without crime. The mob is a staple of our tourist kitsch industry: the Al Capone T-shirt and the Untouchables bus tour, right up there with Mike Ditka’s hairspray, the goddamn Blues Brothers, and that casserole we call a deep-dish pizza. But the mob was always corny, even at its scariest. For decades, it was almost everywhere. I’ll give you an example: The Russian bathhouse immortalized by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift was actually a mob hangout. It was still owned by an Outfit family in the years that I lived across from it on Division Street, one of the more darkly perfect street names in Chicago.

Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature, Thief (Special Director's Edition), is to my mind the best Chicago crime film set after Prohibition and one of the great artistic interpretations of the city’s nocturnal character. It was made in the last years that Chicago nights glowed bluish-green, before the city had completed the changeover from mercury vapor lighting to the sodium vapor lamps that produce its present honey-bronze haze. Much as alleyways have both a practical and a mystical relationship to the city’s networks of crime, so it is possible to chart eras of criminality through the history of its public lighting. Crime is a largely nocturnal activity, after all, as are most of the vices on which the city’s criminal syndicates were built. In the Prohibition and Great Depression golden age of Chicago crime, most of the streets were still gas-lit and very dim. This was the fabled era of the Tommy Gun mobsters, but also of the bank-robbing outlaw, embodied by the Chicago-based Dillinger Gang, the subject of Mann’s underappreciated crime epic Public Enemies. Mercury vapor arrived in the mid-1950s, along with Richard J. Daley’s Democratic political machine and the solidification of the Chicago Outfit, the white mob, which in those years finally murdered and intimidated its way into the territory of the city’s forgotten black crime syndicates. The most recognizable type of streetlight in Chicago was introduced in this era. It’s a bucket-shaped design unique to the city, called the General Electric Crimefighter.

Thief is not a film about the Outfit, but it features an Outfit operative as a character, played by the avuncular stage veteran Robert Prosky. You have probably seen a picture of Al Capone. Chances are it’s the glamour shot with his head turned and the cigar stuffed in his cheek and the size 6 7/8 cream-white Borsalino on his little head. This is the most flattering picture of Capone. As a young man, he had the pudgy face and baggy eyes of a fortysomething bank manager. He was 26 when he inherited Johnny Torrio’s criminal empire and was out of power by the age of 33. But in movies and TV, he is always played by older actors, trimmer or more barrel-chested, always tougher-looking than the real man: Rod Steiger in Al Capone; Neville Brand, Robert De Niro, and William Forsythe in successive versions of The Untouchables; Jason Robards in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; Stephen Graham on Boardwalk Empire. But there were never any handsome gangsters. They were all funny-looking, and with the exception of the flashy Capone years, they dressed like shit.

The Outfit was the successor to Capone’s organization, and in that era of mercury vapor lighting, when the tint of the night suggested an extended twilight, their look was Sansabelt, grandpa glasses, and starched short sleeves. Mann grew up in the long-gone Jewish quarter of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, as did Saul Bellow a generation earlier, and he is one of the few to try to capture this banal, used-car-salesman aspect of the Chicago mob. To me, he is one of the geniuses of the genre; in all of his crime films, there is a complex dialogue between authenticity and archetype. His favorite type of verisimilitude is the kind that directly contradicts expectations. In Thief, for instance, the safe-cracker played by James Caan—the first of the single-minded professionals that would become Mann’s contribution to the mythology of the crime genre—doesn’t press the resonator of a stethoscope against a door and listen to the tumblers; he uses an industrial oxygen lance, lent to Mann by an actual Chicago-area burglar. And while Prosky’s role might seem like a case of casting against type, if you look at pictures of Outfit bosses from the time, that’s what they all looked like.But here’s the thing: The imagery Mann subverts with this more realistic portrayal—and uses to formulate his own mythology—is also Chicagoan in origin. It was Chicago that birthed both the gangster picture and the notion of street criminal chic, and it really took until The Godfather for there to be a major American film that took its cues from the clannish organized crime culture of the East Coast. Even the great New York gangster movies that came before The Godfather, like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond, are based on an archetype born of the Second City. Most film historians will tell you that there are two definitive early gangster films: Underworld, directed in 1927 by Josef Von Sternberg, and Howard Hawks’ insurmountable 1932 Scarface. Both are set in Chicago, as were almost all early American gangster movies—Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, the whole lot. The gritty city stuck in the imagination of ’30s Hollywood much in the same way as Paris and Vienna did, less a real-world setting than a genre in and of itself. Films about criminal gangs go back to the early 1900s, but they depict their bad guys mostly as ragged, unshaven goons in flat caps. The seductive criminals of the silent era are swindlers and masterminds. The idea that coarse, murderous thugs could be flamboyant, magnetic, and sexy—that comes from the Chicago of Al Capone and John Dillinger.

Both Underworld and Scarface were based on stories by Ben Hecht, though the latter was nominally adapted from a forgotten pulp novel of the time. Before he became one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of Hollywood, Hecht was a Chicago Daily News crime reporter, an experience he would draw on many times—most famously in The Front Page, one of several collaborations with his crime-desk colleague Charles MacArthur, subsequently reworked as His Girl Friday. Hecht was one of a number of literary men who worked in the Chicago dailies of the 1920s (the poet Carl Sandburg was also at the Chicago Daily News at the time), and the best of a tradition of newspapermen who treated the job of columnist as though it made them prose-poet laureate of Chicago. A reader of modernist and symbolist literature, he was also involved in the Little Review, the Chicago literary magazine famous as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was originally serialized over several years in its pages. In Underworld, released at a time when Joyce’s landmark novel was still banned as obscene in the United States, there is a villainous Irish gangster named Buck Mulligan, after the central character of the first chapter of Ulysses—a fact that I’ve always found amusing.

The classic, Hecht-ian gangster drew on the public’s morbid fascination with Chicago crime to create something almost modernist—this wanton criminal as an epic figure in an expressively metaphorical cityscape. This is true of Scarface, a masterpiece that was the work of a number of remarkable talents, not just Hawks and Hecht. One of the many memorable things about Scarface is the use of signage as commentary and ironic counterpoint: the famous “The World Is Yours” travel ad (carried over in Brian De Palma’s loose 1983 remake); the body lying under the crossed shadow of a signboard that reads “Undertakers”; the lit-up marquee of the club called “Paradise No. 2.” The Godfather would refashion the gangster as a creature of family and loyalty, but in his original conception, he was a creature of the city. Scarface’s Capone-inspired title character doesn’t rise to power in the middle of nowhere, but in a darkly comic metropolis that seems to empower and mock him in equal measure. In other words, he rises to power in Chicago.

It should be pointed out that almost all Chicago-set Hollywood films produced from the late 1920s to the 1970s are about mobsters, crime, or corruption. We’re talking Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, assorted half-remembered noirs, various versions of the Roxie Hart story (including one written by Ben Hecht), the premise of Some Like It Hot. Of these, only Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the film that first attempted to apply a French New Wave sensibility to home-grown pulp, did any substantial filming here, capturing both its decrepit alleys and its modernist architecture in stark black-and-white. It was only in the 1980s that the city became a popular filming location. Perhaps Thief seems definitive because it represents a point of merger—between the mythology of the city and its reality, which already seems fairly stylized.


The great musical legacy of Chicago is the modernization and urbanization of the blues, a rural sound that was electrified by the city and laid the groundwork for most popular music that has come since. One important but underappreciated figure in its development was Kokomo Arnold, who played a rapid bottleneck-slide-guitar blues in a style that still sounds rock ’n’ roll. It is said that he came to Chicago as a bootlegger in the 1920s, but was forced to rely on his musical talents for a living after the end of Prohibition, trading one business of handling bottles for another. However, when it comes to stories about bluesmen, one can never be sure. Arnold’s recording of “Old Original Kokomo Blues” was reworked by the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson into “Sweet Home Chicago,” now the de facto anthem of the city. “Sweet Home Chicago” isn’t actually about Chicago. It uses the name of the city figuratively. It has to be the most singable place name in American English: Chi-ca-go, those three syllables, each ending in a different vowel sound. It lends itself to varied interpretation.

More so than any place in America and perhaps even the world, Chicago was founded on the idea of a city; before it had developed a cultural life of its own, it was a word, a notion, and a destination, ballooning over the second half of the 19th century from a smallish midland settlement into what was then the fifth largest city in the world. It is a place that inspires ideals—from the Wobblies to the aesthetic of Afrofuturism, the Hull House to the tradition of philosophizing architects embodied by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. But how much of Chicago’s idealistic streak is a reaction to its cynical pragmatism? For as long as it has deserved to be called a city, Chicago has had problems with disenfranchisement, corruption, and crime—problems that seem like they were almost designed into the city. I’ll point out here that in his Whitman-esque poem “Chicago,” which is the source of the nickname “the City Of Big Shoulders,” Carl Sandburg also writes: “Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” And this is the definitive celebration of the city.

It was Nelson Algren who mastered the art of making Chicago’s seediness sound like an exotic quality. He is best known for his novel The Man With The Golden Arm, which is set on that same mythologized stretch of Division Street that was home to Saul Bellow’s Russian bathhouse. Here, I’ll point out that Otto Preminger’s well-known 1955 film adaptation, starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin-addicted jazz drummer, was co-written by an uncredited Hecht, because everything somehow intersects in the novel of Chicago. It opens with a prowling long take down an evocative soundstage street that bears only a faint resemblance to the real city. It’s a Chicago of the imagination, but so are most. In his essay “Chicago: City On The Make,” published two years after The Man With The Golden Arm, Algren gave the city one of its most famous panegyrics: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Like so many Chicago transplants who came here in the mid-2000s to lead a quasi-bohemian existence, I have this passage memorized. But it did not occur to me until many years later to ask who broke the woman’s nose.
Iceberg Slim on the cover of his 1976 spoken-word album, Reflections.

The fact is that, while the crime and corruption provide links between Chicago’s countless neighborhoods, their effects have always been graded by skin color. I know of no black writer of the same periods who wrote of Chicago crime as a sign of its resilient spirit, as Sandburg did, or as an Algren-esque existential quality, the proof of its hustle—not even Iceberg Slim, who was second only to Ben Hecht in developing and popularizing the mythology of the street criminal. Slim—who was born Robert Maupin, but took Robert Beck as his legal name in middle age—had been a dapper pimp in the black underworld of Chicago and the upper Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, until a breakdown in the Cook County Jail led him to retire. He had been known as Cavanaugh Slim. It was while working as an exterminator in Los Angeles that he wrote his autobiographical novel Pimp: The Story Of My Life, a bestseller that would come to define the voice of gritty urban pulp. Along with his subsequent crime novels and the follow-up memoir The Naked Soul Of Iceberg Slim: Robert Beck’s Real Story, it would exert a profound aesthetic and thematic influence on gangsta rap, blaxploitation films and black variations on noir (Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, for example), and the prose of a vast array of fiction writers, most notably Donald Goines and Irvine Welsh.

Slim was a complicated figure. Like Chester Himes, the godfather of black noir, and Ed Jones, the most powerful black kingpin of Slim’s early years in Chicago, he had a go at a respectable college education before lapsing into crime—though, admittedly, he already had a lengthy rap sheet by the time he arrived at Tuskegee, where he was a student around the same time as Ralph Ellison. As a prose writer, he was ecstatic and contradictory, the king of mixed metaphors, capable of lucidly deconstructing the misogyny and self-loathing of his criminal past one moment and juicing readers with lurid sexual exploits the next. Like Hecht, he sculpted the seductive aspect of Chicago crime—but in place of the classic gangster film’s anti-social pizzazz, what he presented was a cool, toughened nihilism. Perhaps Slim came to believe his own legend. After he found recognition as a writer, he adopted the public image of a wocka-wocka mid-1970s pimp, though his own heyday had been in the days of boogie-woogie and parted hair.

Indulge me now and take a moment to listen to “County Jail Blues,” a 1941 B-side by the Chicago blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather. It’s an ageless song, and, in my opinion, one of the great overlooked blues recordings of the 1940s. The guitarist is Tampa Red, who played a gold-plated steel-body guitar that sounds remarkably like an electric. In its ideal form, blues is not glamorous music.

The cultural legacy of Chicago crime is really two stories, but they are intertwined. The first is a story of myths, plucked from the streets and alleys of the city and fermented in the popular imagination. The second is a complex narrative of devil’s bargains between art, business, political machinery, and crime. It stretches from the brothels of the early 20th century to the super-sized media conglomerates of the present day. Let me relate one small part of it.

The first black millionaires in America were probably policy kings, most likely in that densely populated area of the South Side that was then known as the Black Belt. Policy was an illegal lottery in which winning numbers were drawn from policy wheels (often rigged), which in Chicago bore such names as the Airplane, the Kentucky Derby, and the Prince Albert. It was a huge enterprise, with each wheel having its own drops, runners, and policy writers—not to mention a whole sub-industry of numerologists and hucksters who called themselves “policy professors” and hawked dream-based winning formulae in the ad pages of the Chicago Defender. If you want to try to get a sense of the spirit of the time, take a listen to “Four Eleven Forty-Four,” by Papa Charlie Jackson, the sardonic, banjo-playing chronicler of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods in the 1920s and the first commercially successful self-accompanied blues musician; the title is the prototypical number combination, or gig, and a byword for policy itself.

The great policy kings are mostly forgotten now: Policy Sam, Mushmouth Johnson, Teenan Jones, Ed Jones (no relation) and his brothers, Dan Jackson, Teddy Roe. But their influence on the economic and political life of the city can’t be overstated. For the first half of the 20th century, the white powers that be considered them essential to the black vote in Chicago. When it comes to this city’s history, one should probably always think cynically and feudally: a community where the largest local employer, voter registration effort, charity, and source of capital is a single criminal racket is a corrupt administrator’s dream. Political machines gave policy kings leeway to keep them in power. During their reign, the center of black nightlife in Chicago was a section of the Bronzeville neighborhood known as “The Stroll.” How perfect is that, in a city where control is synonymous with directing movement?

The 1920s and ’30s were Chicago’s heyday as a center of jazz talent and innovation. One of the most important clubs of this era was the Grand Terrace, known in its early years as the Sunset Cafe. The building—originally a garage, and until recently a hardware store—still stands on 35th Street. This was where Louis Armstrong became a star with a teenage Cab Calloway as his master of ceremonies, where Nat King Cole got his first break, and where the trailblazing pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines had his 12-year residency, playing a piano bought for him by Al Capone. In the ’30s, the Grand Terrace had its own national radio show, broadcast live every night. Policy kings owned many popular clubs on The Stroll, including Palm Tavern (owned by Genial Jim Knight) and the Elite No. 2 (owned by Teenan Jones), which I’m almost certain inspired the similarly comical name of Scarface’s Paradise No. 2. But the most lucrative and glamorous spots were integrated black-and-tan clubs like the Grand Terrace and the Plantation, which was located across the street. Both were controlled by the Capone organization through Jewish associates.


Unlike the Outfit that succeeded him, Capone made a point of leaving the black syndicates alone. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that the mob and the policy kings were both colluding with the Republican political machine headed by Mayor William H. Thompson, a flagrantly corrupt figure who believed that the one true enemy of America was the British crown. But the one that matters here is the mob’s intended audience. The Grand Terrace attracted many wealthy black customers, from bona fide celebrities to local crime lords (Icerberg Slim’s mentor, “Baby” Bell, spent there lavishly), but it was designed to draw in white money. Anyone who wanted to make a career in Chicago had to play the mob’s segregated circuit. The white jazzmen (including such talents-in-training as Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman) mostly played whites-only venues, while the black jazzmen played black-and-tan clubs, where white musicians could sit and play if they wanted. The privilege did not go the other way around.

Thus, the mob invisibly controlled the direction of musical influence, as it did so many other things that may seem intangible. Its monopoly on early Chicago jazz had many consequences, one of which was an eventual exodus of talent, beginning with the great cornetist King Oliver, who led the band at the Plantation Café. Oliver was a true tragic figure; he gradually lost his teeth and the ability to play to severe gum disease, ended up working as a janitor in a pool hall, and died broke in a rooming house. In the mythology of jazz, his downfall into obscurity and fatal poverty is all the result of his refusal to take a lowball offer for a regular gig at the Cotton Club, which instead catapulted Duke Ellington to stardom. This is the thing to remember: Much of the formative 1930s period of jazz, a music with deep black roots, happened on terms set by white criminals. After the black-and-tan clubs went out of fashion toward the end of the 1930s, the Chicago mob got into coin-operated jukeboxes. Thankfully, they never developed an interest in blues.

Regardless of age or gender, Chicago will turn you into an old man giving directions. Every story reminds of another story, and a story of something that used to be there—because it’s really all one story. After the Outfit took control of policy and bolita, a similar numbers game popular in the city’s Latino neighborhoods, they became absorbed into the gambling and vice empire of the Rush Street crew, whose day-to-day manager went daily to Saul Bellow’s beloved Russian bathhouse on Division Street. The Grand Terrace, having finally gone out of business, became the headquarters of the Democratic congressman William L. Dawson. He was the black sub-boss of Chicago’s political machine, and, in theory, the most powerful black politician of the 1950s. He didn’t redecorate the Grand Terrace. It still had its big neon sign (with a smaller sign with his name added) and its Jazz Age murals and private upstairs clubrooms. The last regular bandleader at the Grand Terrace had been the jazz iconoclast Sun Ra, who was then just developing his sci-fi aesthetic in Chicago.

Dawson’s position within the political machine was a feudal lordship; it was dependent on his ability to bring out black voters en masse. The political machine, in turn, depended on segregation and on interchanges with the underworld. The link between the Outfit’s earlier inroads on The Stroll and the Democratic political machine’s command of the post-war black voting block was made literal and blatant by the continued use of the Grand Terrace. There, Dawson’s landlord was Joe Glaser, the manager of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and a longtime Outfit man. Glaser, who had an early history of walking away from sexual-assault charges, had been a boxing promoter who specialized in fixing fights for the mob and then a manager of black-and-tan clubs. After the repeal of Prohibition destroyed the Outfit’s stranglehold over Chicago liquor, he would rob delivery trucks to stock the bar of the Grand Terrace.

The management company Glaser created—and willed to the Outfit lawyer and power broker Sidney Korshak, unbeknownst to Armstrong—was funded by a loan from Jules Stein, an ophthalmologist, former bar mitzvah musician, and jazz booker for the Chicago mob circuit. Stein’s booking company was MCA, which started with speakeasies and black-and-tan clubs and became the largest talent agency in the world by the end of 1930s, all while being effectively controlled by the Capone organization. It acquired Universal Pictures, and expanded beyond talent management into film, television, music, and publishing. It kept its ties to the Outfit and carried over the city’s culture of patronage to Hollywood, where it encouraged the political ambitions of its client Ronald Reagan. At the start of this century, it merged with Vivendi to create NBCUniversal and Universal Music Group. This is the story of the Outfit controlling who worked in one building in Chicago. It’s a big city. There are many buildings.


If you are ever in Chicago, consider taking a drive through the city at night. Let the car rattle on the badly pockmarked streets. Your eyes will adjust to the amber sear of the General Electric Crimefighters and to that other feature of Chicago nighttimes, the blue flash of a police camera box. There are thousands mounted around the city. Turn down an alley and think of the fact that even in the earliest plat of Chicago, dating to the 1830s, there were plans for alleyways. Park the car, get out, and study how the dimensions and alignment of the streets and sidewalks affect your movements. Don’t think of crime as troglofauna, pale and eyeless, evolving in the dank corners of the city. In Chicago, crime moves, often along currents defined by earlier forms of crime. It’s structural.

Given that they have brought Chicago its most sensationalized coverage since the days of Al Capone, it seems interesting that there have been no real fiction films about the street gangs. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq doesn’t count. Its portrayal of Chicago’s gangland is pure fantasy, influenced by the mythology of gangsta rap—which is to say, indirectly indebted to Iceberg Slim. Even in fiction, the city can’t escape the myths it inspires. You could say that about drill, our distinctive midtempo flavor of nihilistic trap rap. Drill tends to be oversimplified as the authentic sound of modern Chicago crime, which is how it sells itself, existing as it does in a complicated relationship with the histories and ongoing conflicts of Chicago’s drug gangs, grouped in the increasingly meaningless six-pointed-star Folk and five-pointed-star People alliances.

Really, drill is internet music. It owes its local significance, popularity, and very existence to limitless digital space and social media. Drill is the dizzying, exhaustive braggadocio of Montana Of 300’s “Holy Ghost”; the squishy nausea of Lil Durk’s “Glock Up”; and the hammering of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”; but it is also a thousand guys who can’t rap boasting about the same shit over $50 beats while hustling for Instagram followers and YouTube views. Quality drill albums are nonexistent, and consistent drill mixtapes are rare as hen’s teeth; the ratio of filler to killer is notoriously poor. The mise-en-scène is remarkably consistent from video to video: guns; unimpressive cars; alleys, gangways, and iron gates; ugly weather; those hideous kitchen cabinets that seem to have been installed in every Chicago apartment, regardless of neighborhood. But cheapness and a lack of inspiration are part of the authenticity factor, because drill is immediate. It’s also on the outs, having never crossed over the way that the Savemoney scene made famous by Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa has.

Nowadays, Chicago crime is defined by the street sets, mostly black or Latino, related by business and varying adherence to the mythology of the gang, prone to violent infighting and splintering. What makes this underworld special is that most of its artistic record is self-produced. These are the patch-sewn cardigans and calling cards of the old-school 1970s street gangs; the outsider literature of the Gangster Disciples’ manuals, more cultish than criminal; the hieroglyphic symbolism of the gang tags that cover Chicago’s alley-facing garage doors; meandering amateur movies in which people pretend to shoot each other with real guns; drill. Despite the early ambitions of the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings organizations, the street gangs have only ever been politically useful as bogeymen. By most estimates, there are around 100,000 street gang members in Chicago, divided into about 60 organizations that are in turn split into about 700 groups. Not every Chicago gang is a violent criminal enterprise, but the majority of murders in Chicago are gang-related, and most of them go unsolved.

There is nothing transgressive about our gangs. Chicago is a place where one can always map the relationship between the criminal and the city. It taught the world that the street criminal could be a charismatic figure and inspired a mythic bestiary of genre archetypes: the terse Mann-ian professional facing obsolescence; the mobster gunning for the throne of the city; the nihilist pimp who knows it’s all part of the game; the folk-hero bank-robber shot by lawmen in the back; the corrupt and colorful wheeler-dealer. But the street gangs can’t be understood on those terms. To an outsider, their public beefs can sound like the sectarian conflicts of a post-apocalyptic religion; witness the bloody feud between the Bang Bang Gang Terror Dome subset of the Black P. Stones and the New Money Killaward subset of the Gangster Disciples, which in 2015 caught the attention of a city otherwise desensitized to the idea of gangland murders.
Screenshot: Candyman

The ongoing social tragedy of murder in Chicago isn’t that there are so many (there are a lot, but it’s never ranked among the top American cities in that respect), but that they are so similar, the same m.o. repeated over and over again. It can reach the point where you almost trick yourself into thinking of the urban gangland as an organism or serial-killer hive mind. But it isn’t. The foibles of the street gangs are very human. And, though we don’t like do admit it, they are relatable.

The French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to call crime fiction “the great moral literature of our time,” a statement I sometimes find myself agreeing with. There is no more efficient way of putting a character in a moral and existential crisis than a crime, and it is a dark truth of every developed society that, regardless of circumstances, we are all capable of committing a heinous crime. The question of why some do while most don’t directly addresses an important piece of the human puzzle. But in this chapter of the ongoing story of sin in Chicago—the story as told in film, in music, in the media—crime has become a setting, a fact of the neighborhoods, not a question of personalities. No documentary about the day-to-day lives of street gangs (and there are a lot of them, made mostly for TV) has had the wider appeal of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters—though, of course, none of them are as well made. This is a net positive.But let me posit something that may seem counterintuitive. It isn’t a plea for a return to romanticized crime, though I do think that the forbidden lure of the illegal and immoral can be subverted in powerful ways; it’s something many of the great crime narratives do. But I do think that the art that most cogently addresses crime—whether as a real-world social issue or as an existential state—is art about criminals, because it puts its audience in a compromised spot. There is something of a moral duty to resist the othering of crime. When we begin to think of gangs exclusively as a social phenomenon, instead of as people in groups, we dehumanize not just the gangs, but the people they exploit and victimize, a category that includes the gangs themselves.

One of the more often cited example of this is the 1992 horror film Candyman, which places a supernatural threat within the crime-infested projects. (If you have the time, I recommend watching our short video documentary on the film.) It’s set in Cabrini-Green, which was then the most notorious housing project in Chicago; it was also the home of one of the subjects of Hoop Dreams, the setting of the ’70s sitcom Good Times, and the subject of several documentaries of its own. Candyman is a film that raises some interesting ideas early on, but waffles on them. In the end, it falls back on that all-too-popular image of the urban gangland as a monster, a variant of what one might call the second curse of Chicago—the idea of the city itself as an abstract threat. But it’s always people. Cabrini-Green is gone now, long demolished. In Chicago, it was symbolic of controlled disenfranchisement: a 15,000-person enclave of poverty in an affluent area. The street that ran directly down the middle of the complex—well, you can probably already guess this one. It was Division.

Thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.


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