The pairing “Chicago crime” is one so common it rolls off the tongue without hesitation. Not that it’s a cliché entirely without merit: Although today one might think of rampant shootings on the South and West sides, Chicago has been associated with epidemic levels of crime for a century if not longer, thanks in large part to Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.
Of course, crime stretches well beyond the city’s borders, clawing forth in all directions, its twisted fingers reaching into the suburbs and beyond. One of the suburbs perhaps most associated with crime, particularly the type of organized crime usually associated with Capone and Torrio, is Chicago Heights.
North Central College professor Louis Corsino, a product of Chicago Heights himself, looks into the history of organized crime in his hometown in The Neighborhood Outfit, an examination of a small but integral part of the larger Chicago Outfit, the notorious branch of the American Mafia that ran bootlegged booze, drugs, guns, and women.
But beyond a mere history of the Chicago Heights connection to the Outfit, Corsino focuses in on the “boys” who ran the neighborhood, particularly the Italian immigrants who made Chicago Heights their home. Corsino, whose own family history is linked to the Outfit, looks at the connection between Italians and organized crime, using Chicago Heights as the sample for his study and examining the cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social forces that drove the Italian residents of Chicago Heights toward illicit activity. In doing so, he relies on a variety of sources, including first-person interviews, government documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, and family history to explore the connection between community, culture, and crime.
The Neighborhood Outfit is less a history of gang violence in Chicago Heights than it is a study of Italian Americans in that suburb and the perception that they somehow have an inherent predilection to organized crime. As such, the focus in the pages of this study is less on the notion of Chicago Heights as a breeding ground for criminal behavior than it is on the question of whether Italian immigrants in particular have been predisposed to living lives of vice.
In studying these questions, Corsino looks at the evolution of the Italian community in Chicago Heights, focusing primarily on the twentieth century. He provides a historical overview of organized crime in the suburb; an examination of cultural, social, and structural constraints that particularly affected Italian immigrants; and a broader discussion of the interrelationship between ethnicity and organized crime.
Corsino’s treatment of the topic hovers somewhere between an academic thesis and a popular study. At times the text reads like an objective dissertation; at others it feels like a more personal narrative. Various data-filled tables and charts are interspersed with black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s. As such, it’s difficult to tell who the author’s intended audience is: scholars and academics? amateur enthusiasts of organized crime or local history?
In the end, the book leans toward the more serious end of the spectrum: Readers looking for a rollicking history of Chicago Heights’s colorful past will not find it in these pages. Rather, The Neighborhood Outfit is a sociological study peppered with some interesting personal anecdotes. It’s more textbook than theater, which might dissuade fans of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But for those looking for a well-researched social history of a microcosm of organized crime, The Neighborhood Outfit is an informative, nuanced study that raises some interesting questions.
December 2014, University of Illinois Press
$25, paperback, 157 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen