The Chicago Crime Scenes Project
08/03/2009 4:32 PM
Do you know where Hell's Half-Acre was? How about the Hairtrigger Block? The Black Hole? Or Dead Man's Corner.
I didn't either.
I didn't, that is, until I started reading Todd Kendall's Chicago Crime Scenes Project blog.
For the last two years, Kendall, an economist by trade, has been writing a blog that details the legendary individuals, spectacular incidents and infamous places that gave Chicago its reputation as a tough, tough town.
The site is an incredible resource. There's a nice mixture of shorter and longer posts, photographs and scans from old newspapers. For Chicago Journal readers living on the Near South Side or the Near West Side, Kendall's site is a veritable neighborhood historical guide.
Kendall kindly agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail as part of my occasional series of interviews with local bloggers (or, as is the case with the Crimes Scenes Project site, bloggers who write about the neighborhoods covered in Chicago Journal).
Check out our interview below.
And by the way, Hell's Half Acre started at State and Plymouth, by Dearborn Station in Printers Row. The Hairtrigger Block stretched between State and Clark on Randolph while the Black Hole was found in a long-gone West Loop slum. You could find Dead Man's Corner at 14th Place and Sangamon.
Why did you start this project?
I lived in Chicago during my late teens and early 20s, but then moved away for several years. When I moved back last May, I had a new appreciation for the city and I wanted to learn more about its history. The blog disciplines my learning, forcing me to focus my attention on one subject at a time and to periodically organize what I've learned by writing essays.
Your posts, generally speaking, deal with Chicago's old, sordid underbelly. Mafias. Corrupt politicians. Crime and vice. Working-class and labor struggles. What made these sorts of topics compelling, the right lens for your blog?
Between 2003 and 2008, I was on the economics faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina, and my research focus was the nexus between crime, economics, and public policy. Chicago is the perfect place to study those connections. The Haymarket riot of 1886, activities in the Levee vice district during the 1910s, the Capone syndicate's activities during Prohibition, and modern drug-selling gangs — all of these are fundamentally about economics. I'm not very interested in serial killers and other lunatics because there's not much economics there.
Tell me about the research process you go through to compile each post. Many are incredibly detailed.
Some topics have been written about extensively by others. There are scores of well-researched books about Al Capone and bootlegging in the 1920s. But it's more fun to look at the original sources, and I have tried to write about subjects that haven't received quite as much attention. I spend a lot of time searching through the archives of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, and other papers, to which any Chicago resident can get free online access through the Chicago Public Library Web site. I especially like old newspaper photographs, and I collect these to post on the blog. Up until the 1970s, newspapers used to always publish the addresses where events took place and the home address of anyone they interviewed, so I also visit the original locations and take my own photographs of what's there now.
How do you choose the topic for your next post - does it emerge during the research process? Tips from readers?
Usually each post focuses on a single individual or a single location. In doing the research for one post, I typically learn about a lot of other potential topics. I keep a list of subjects I want to explore further. When I started the project, I thought I would run through my initial list pretty quickly and then there wouldn't be as many interesting new subjects after that. Now I realize I have enough material to keep me busy for at least another ten years.
Do you find yourself writing about characters who lived and events that occurred in the same neighborhoods over and over? It seems like you're often covering the Near South and Near West sides.
Chicago has a history of larger-than-life criminal characters. James Colosimo, the founder of the Chicago Mob; John "Mushmouth" Johnson, the famed gambler; Michael Kenna and John Coughlin, the inveterately corrupt aldermen who controlled the Loop and Near South Side; Jeff Fort, who started the Blackstone Rangers — all of these ran major criminal operations for decades in Chicago. So they pop up again and again. They were also, despite their crimes, extraordinarily talented businessmen and the innovations and methods they used make them fascinating multidimensional character studies.
Any insight as to why these near Loop areas hosted so many people and events you write about?
Criminal businesses, just like legal businesses, have to locate near potential customers to be successful. Historically, the North Side was populated much less densely than the South and Near West sides. Also, prior to the formation of city-wide vice squads in the 1910s, practically all activity within a ward was subject only to the alderman and the local police station — and these could often be bribed to look the other way. It was after the reorganization of the Chicago police in the 1910s that a lot of organized criminal activity moved out of the city and into suburbs like Cicero, Stickney, and Burnham. Increased automobile ownership helped, too, allowing city residents to visit suburban casinos and vice resorts.
What is the most interesting history on the site, in your opinion? Does any one or two stick out?
I find parallels between criminals and politicians fascinating. My favorite period in the history of Chicago crime is the era of the street-gang-as-social-organization, as exemplified by the Conservative Vice Lords and Blackstone Rangers gangs during the late 1960s and early 1970s. No criminal organization cannot operate for long without at least some tacit support from neighborhood residents, and these gangs, which were fundamentally criminal in nature, developed that support by positioning themselves as social welfare agencies. A cynic would draw a very blurry line between these street gangs and political parties, which are primarily about enriching and empowering politicians, but who must help their constituents from time to time in order to win elections. Yet, most of the Conservative Vice Lords are either in jail or dead, while politicians are continually lionized as "public servants" and statesmen.
How do you see the site evolving?
This summer has been very busy for me, and I am embarrassed by the infrequency of postings lately, but there are so many topics where I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I especially want to learn much more about organized crime in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s. That's a big lacuna in my knowledge right now.