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Apr. 27 2010 — 12:28 pm | 392 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Why Chicago is still Al Capone’s town

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Chicago and Al Capone are linked more tightly than any other city and historical figure in America.  Some memorable pairs do exist –  Detroit and Henry Ford, New York and Boss Tweed, Philadelphia and Benjamin Franklin –but none are as vivid in the popular imagination.

For a while, Michael Jordan became the international symbol for the Windy City, but that’s faded since his retirement.  If you mention to someone in Oslo or Tokyo or Cairo that you come from Chicago, you’re going to be greeted once again with a mimed tommy gun and “Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack!”

It’s a lead-pipe cinch that this will become more ingrained with Jonathan Eig’s new biography, Get Capone:  The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster. The book, released today, has gotten rave early reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others, for its gripping story and thorough research.  Eig, who has written award-winning biographies of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, brings a journalist’s panache and a scholar’s eye to a larger-than-life criminal that everyone thinks they already know.

In an email exchange, I asked Eig about the role of Chicago in Capone’s epic rise and unprecedented fall.

Capone was not from Chicago, but actually New York.  Was there really no place for him in NY, or was the Chicago market that appealing?

Capone was nothing but a two-bit thug when he left New York, so it’s not as if he expected to make it big here. In all likelihood, he left New York to get away from the cops, or from another two-bit thug who wanted him dead, or some gal he knocked up. He made the move in 1920, so no one yet imagined that Prohibition was going to make two-bit thugs rich and powerful. Like a lot of American icons, he was more lucky than smart.

Like Capone, you’re from New York.  Is this any kind of coincidence, or is there something about Chicago that calls to you?

Like Capone, I’m from Brooklyn. Like Capone, I started losing my hair when I was a teenager. Like Capone, I try to make peace with my competition, but when all else fails I destroy them. OK, strike that last one. I think it’s the beer that calls me to Chicago. But the same probably could have been said of Portland or Dubuque.

Capone was obviously ruthless and intelligent.  Were there any other factors that contributed to his huge success?  Could another mobster have become the face of corruption during Prohibition?

There were plenty of ruthless mobsters and quite a few intelligent ones. The key to Capone’s huge success–and to his failure–was his appetite for fame. He was the first and only celebrity gangster. He loved the spotlight. That’s why he became the model for Edward G. Robinson and all the other actors playing gangsters. That’s why he made the cover of TIME magazine. And that’s why, at least in part, the feds came down on him with such force. Capone was making them look foolish. Turns out there was a good reason the other big gangsters didn’t seek publicity.

Other cities (e.g., New York, Detroit, Kansas City) had violent criminal underworlds.  Why did the “romance” of Capone last in Chicago for so many decades?   Was it really the most corrupt American city back then?

Chicago was probably a little bit more corrupt than most cities, but that doesn’t really explain the city’s lasting reputation for gangland violence. Much of it has to do with Capone’s celebrity. Some of it has to do with the city’s great newspaper reporters, who loved Capone and loved making him out to be a kingpin. Even some New York reporters, like Damon Runyon, got in on the act. Finally, I think Chicago was just a great drinking town. It was so easy to drink here. The cops didn’t care. And there was speakeasies on practically every corner. That’s why they called it “that toddlin’ town.”

Yours will probably become the definitive Capone bio for some time.  Did it surprise you that he hadn’t been covered extensively before?

It’s not that Capone wasn’t covered. Fred Pasley wrote the first Capone bio in 1930. It was pretty good. John Kobler wrote another good one back in 1971. Robert Scheonberg did nice work with a Capone book in 1992. But I wanted to put the man in historical context. I wanted to make him seem more human. I tried to strip away some of the varnish that came to cover his story. Also, I had a ton of secret government documents those guys didn’t get. But the bottom line, I guess, is this: I live in Chicago and I could see that Capone still towered over the city. Yet most people didn’t really know anything about him. I hope this book changes that.

What was in the government documents you obtained?  Did they shed light on his character or clear up inconsistencies?

The government documents showed the feds had an incredibly weak case against the Big Man and they knew it. It showed that Capone had a legitimate claim when he said he was being persecuted. I also found Capone letters and interviews from Alcatraz that revealed much about his character. For example, when it came to his family, he was a big sap.

Around the Midwest, locations too numerous to count take a perverse pride in saying “Al Capone slept here.”   Are most of these apocryphal?

Well, he slept a lot of places. But who knows? I’d still wager that 90 percent of all “Capone slept here” stories are in fact apocryphal. Every building in Chicago that has a coal chute claims it was a Capone escape tunnel. Every apartment with a turret window was a machine gun nest.

On the other hand, Capone and his men really did live and do business here. So it’s pretty cool to think he probably walked the street where I lived. And I pass the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre almost every day. That’s why I created the Chicago Gangland Tour. It’s an iPhone app. You can use it to see where Capone really did sleep. And where his enemies slept with the fishes!

Did organized crime “learn” anything after Capone was convicted of tax evasion?

Yes. A lot of underworld figures learned to pay their taxes.

Feb. 12 2010 — 10:41 am | 78 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Mayor Daley yearns for war protestors

In a speech at the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards Wednesday, Da Mare went off on a rhetorical tangent and  rambled in his remarks to lament “What happened to America?”

Mayor Daley on war protests: ‘What Happened to America?’ | WBEZ Blog | blogs.vocalo.org.

It’s worth a listen.  As much as he vexes us all now, life will certainly be more boring when he’s gone.  No one else, short of the old timer nursing an Early Times down at the Liquor & Tap, could deliver such a disjointed jeremiad about the country’s woes.  The most jaw-dropping comment was his lament over the absence of war protesters on the streets of Chicago.  Why aren’t they out there screaming about the country’s involvement in open-ended, ill-planned and expensive wars?

Maybe because the city almost never issues the permits it requires for any kind of meaningful public assembly, then lines the streets with police in riot gear so that no one will be able to get the 1968 Days of Rage out of their minds.

The cynic in me says that part of his newfound concern arises from the fact that his son Patrick is being deployed for his second tour of duty in the US Army.  Then again, in defense, my cynic is usually reliable.

Feb. 8 2010 — 4:15 pm | 22 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

‘Carp Summit’ plans for stopping invasive fish revealed

After a White House meeting christened the “carp summit,” federal and state officials today announced a multi-pronged attack with a $78.5 million price tag to prevent Asian carp, an invasive species, from establishing populations in Lake Michigan.


The new strategy calls for a multi-tiered defense of the Great Lakes to keep carp out which scientists try to develop biological controls to prevent the prolific, non-native fish from developing self-sustaining populations.

Officials said a priority is limiting the number of carp that enter Lake Michigan. Key containment measures include:

  • Constructing and operating a third electric barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at the cost of $10.5 million. Two existing barriers are near Romeoville, Ill.
  • Awarding a $13.2 million contract next month to construct concrete and chain-link fencing between the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River. The aim is to prevent fish passing around electric barriers when flooding occurs.
  • Opening Chicago’s navigational locks less frequently to block carp movement and studying the feasibility and impact of permanent lock closure.
  • Deploying larger field crews to conduct physical and sonar observation, electro-shocking and netting.
  • Testing 120 water samples a week, twice the current number, for eDNA, which refers to environmental DNA showing trace amounts of carp.

via Officials detail plan to handle Asian carp threat – Chicago Breaking News.

Feb. 8 2010 — 3:58 pm | 11 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

IL Dem lt. governor candidate Cohen quits race

Scott Lee Cohen’s rapid rise and fall almost deny him any legacy in the annals of Illinois politics.  He should’ve held out longer, just to see how much he could upset the politics-as-usual applecart.

Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Scott Lee Cohen, a Chicago pawnbroker whose surprise primary win last week was followed by scandalous revelations about his troubled past with a prostitute ex-girlfriend, said Sunday night he would quit as nominee.

“For the good of the people … I will resign,” a tearful Cohen told reporters at a news conference he chose to hold at a Far North Side bar during halftime of the Super Bowl.

via Scott Lee Cohen, Democratic lieutenant governor nominee, quits race – chicagotribune.com.

Now the next candidate will be chosen by Democratic State Central Committee, headed by powerful Speaker of the House Mike Madigan.   Gee, can’t wait to see what fine upstanding Springfield insider will be added to the ticket!

Feb. 5 2010 — 6:02 pm | 139 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Why nominate a knife-wielding, hooker-chasing, roid-raging hothead for Lt. Governor? Why not?

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The latest scandal in Illinois politics might be a doozy — and really, it is — but it fails to jolt the needle on my Outrage-o-Meter.  It’s juicy, sure, with hookers and brawls and steroids, and I enjoy watching the current Democratic officeholders get their undies in a bunch about it.

To be outraged about damage done to an office, the office first has to be seen in high regard.  But the office of lieutenant governor is a sham, open to anyone who can buy enough advertising, and the office of Illinois governor has become so tainted in the past 10 years that only the lame or deranged would seek it.

For those needing a brief recap:  Scott Lee Cohen, after spending $2 million of his own money, emerged from a pack of five candidates to earn the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.  It was only after the fact that it became known that he threatened his hooker-massage therapist-girlfriend with a knife, threw her against a wall, and was arrested.  There are plenty of other weirdness popping up, which both Cohen and his ex-wife insist do not disqualify him for office.

Why did all his bad behavior go unnoticed?  Reporters around the state are kicking themselves they didn’t unearth all this dirt.  But there were a lot more things for voters to be paying attention to, and screaming about, in Tuesday’s election besides an unknown candidate for a do-nothing post.

1.  The choices for governor on the Democratic side were so bad that the Chicago Tribune refused to endorse either candidate.  Governor Pat Quinn or Comptroller Dan Hynes spent most of their time arguing about how was to blame for the scandal at Burr Oak Cemetary.

2.  The Democratic choices for US Senator were a clout-heavy banker with questionable ties to underworld activity, a former spokeswoman for Blagojevich, and a former Chicago inspector general who didn’t raise enough money to be a serious challenger (though he came close to an upset win).   We now have the chance to watch a slow-motion train wreck as Alexi Giannioulias tries to wash the stink off himself while running for President Obama’s old Senate seat.

3.  Illinois has a $13 billion budget shortfall, the third worst in the nation per capita.  And it has shown absolutely no inclination to get its financial house in order.  As far as I can remember, not a single candidate has any firm idea of how to do it, or the political clout to make changes.

4.  The voter turnout was a miserable 21%, but what do you expect in a closed primary, in the middle of winter, a full nine months before the general election?

So enjoy the entertainment while it lasts, but realize that Scott Lee Cohen is only a headache for Pat Quinn and the Democratic party.  (To find out why this electoral arrangement is their own doing, check out the Tribune’s Eric Zorn.)  And after the election in November, whoever wins, the state of Illinois will still be spending way more than it’s bringing in, losing jobs, stiffing its universities, and cutting social programs that have been proven to work.

Hey, maybe instead of public properties being leased outright (the Skyway, the parking meters, possibly the state toll roads), maybe they could just be put in hock with a pawnbroker?  Is that what Cohen is positioning himself for?  If so, it’s about as sound a plan as any I’ve heard.

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    I'm a writer and performer in Chicago. My most famous book is Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, which was an international best seller. I'm also the author of its two sequels, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time and Politically Correct Holiday Stories, as well as Apocalypse WOW! and Recut Madness: Classic Movies Retold for Your Partisan Pleasure. I'm also in charge of the baseball poetry website, Bardball.com.

    As a native of Detroit and a current resident of Chicago, I have never lived more than 45 minutes from one of the Great Lakes. I embody most of the traits that the provincial coastal elites attribute to the Midwest: slow-talking, resistant to change, methodical, in love with a good Italian beef sandwich, keep socks on during intimate moments. Rather than hindrances, I’ve found these to be valuable tools for getting through life, especially when dealing with provincial coastal elites.

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