Tag Archives: local interest

Suburban Goodfellas and Godfathers

CBR_Logo2The Neighborhood Outfit:
Organized Crime in Chicago Heights
by Louis Corsino

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.

corsino outfit 9780252080296North 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.

Two-Star Review

December 2014, University of Illinois Press
$25, paperback, 157 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08029-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Chicago by Camera

by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer

Award-winning photographic artist Larry Kanfer’s colorful photographs glow in nearly three-dimensional relief in his new book, Chicagoscapes, a collection of images of our fair city.

Kanfer, who earned a degree in architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has teamed up with Alaina Kanfer to assemble a fine collection here, images that capture slices of the city from north to south. Readers will find images of iconic Chicago attractions, from Navy Pier to North Avenue Beach, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Field Museum, from The Berghoff to The Wiener’s Circle. (Unfortunately, many readers won’t know what they’re looking at because there is a dearth of caption information. A list of illustrations at the back of the book provides some details, but many of the descriptions are merely catchy phrases rather than helpful information.)

chicagoscapes 9780252034992More than a hundred photographs are in these pages, a slim volume fit for giftgiving or the coffee table. Some of the images show the expanse of the city in impactful two-page spreads, some encourage the reader to look more closely, diving in to an array of smaller images assembled on a single page.

Kanfer has captured the city in a unique way, focusing his lens on familiar sites but revealing them in a new light. Although the images are lovely, it’s the colors and post-production techniques in them that captivate. Kanfer often uses soft focus to draw the reader’s eye to particular details: a column of balconies on one of the city’s residential high-rises, a bunch of skaters on the ice at Millennium Park. Many of the images focus tightly on details, rendering a common site abstract. Bridges, “L” staircases, and the Marina City parking levels become a collection of color and light and shadow and lines and angles. As such, Chicagoscapes is atmospheric and moody—quiet somehow despite the fact that Kanfer has photographed one of the busiest cities in the world.

Indeed there’s something almost anathema about this collection when one contrasts this subtle quietness with the verve that is Chicago. In his short introduction to the book, “Our Chicago,” Kanfer writes about the “big city, with all its noise, hustle, and bustle,” and, yet, many of the images were clearly taken at odd hours, rendering Chicago something of a ghost town devoid of people and traffic. For instance, an image of Devon Avenue appears to have been taken very early in the morning: Only one car prowls the street—a street usually so packed with cars and pedestrians that it can take forever to drive just a few blocks in either direction. An “L” stop reveals no one waiting for a train. A lone little boy playing at the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park belies the fact that the area is usually jam-packed with children and adults all summer long. Plenty of images do, though, capture areas of the city full of people—beaches, parks, the lakefront trail. Even so, the Chicago in these pages feels quiet. Sleepy. Dreamy.

While some readers will find these images moody and magical, photography purists might well rankle at the post-production techniques used here. Some of the images are rendered in such a way as to appear as illustrations or paintings. One image in these pages has been pointillated à la Georges Seurat; it’s a beautiful, interesting look at the city, but it’s also a bit jarring as it is the only such doctored image in the collection.

Kanfer’s approach isn’t so much photojournalism as it is art photography. Most of the images here capture the beauty of the city, the pretty parts. Even a photograph of a graffiti-covered wall is colorful and artsy rather than gritty and edgy. A handful of black-and-white photographs grace these pages, but those that do are innocuous and safe. Readers will find no images here of the gritty South or West sides, no images of street upon street of foreclosed houses, no photographic insight into run-down CHA projects.

But that’s not what this book is about. Chicagoscapes is a love letter to what is magical and romantic about the Windy City. Kanfer has in these pages captured this beautiful city through atmospheric lighting, interesting angles, intriguing composition, and great timing. Although some readers might find some of the images a little snapshot-y or postcard-y, Chicagoscapes is full of great moments in a great city.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, University of Illinois Press
Photography/Local Interest
$34.95, hardcover, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03499-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Ain’t No Road Just Like It

A History of Chicago in Ten Stories
by Richard B. Fizdale

Demonstrating great storytelling flair, and unafraid to poke fun at the past century and a half’s wackiest Lake Shore Drive residents, debut author Richard B. Fizdale, in 999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories, takes the history of one distinctive apartment building and broadens it into the tale of an epic fight over filling in a stretch of original downtown lakeshore that forever changed the face of Chicago.

Fizdale’s initial intent was to write a perfunctory 100th anniversary history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, a ten-story building that since 1913 has picturesquely hugged a bend in the Drive near Oak Street Beach.

999 coverThe author’s enthusiasm—personally fueled by that fact that he lives at 999—ultimately resulted in a thick, 260-page coffee table book packed with historical images, painstakingly researched detail, and rollicking writing.

Fizdale starts off assuming that most city residents are familiar with his building, which sits a few blocks east of the Drake Hotel and is highly visible to motorists on North Lake Shore Drive. The view from its dormers is as exclusive as it gets. It has north and east views overlooking Lake Michigan; residents lucky enough to snag a corner apartment panoramically enjoy both. It’s one of eight buildings in the East Lake Shore Drive historic district where exteriors can’t be altered without city approval.

“If a poll had been taken 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even yesterday asking Chicagoans to pick their favorite apartment building based solely on looks, this one would have been a frequent winner,” Fizdale writes.

But what’s the back story of 999’s development? Who was behind its construction? How did it get its address? Who has lived there? Armed with a handful of details, many of which later proved erroneous, Fizdale set out to write his building’s history.

And colorful it often is, the history of 999. Forty-four pages into Fizdale’s telling enters George Wellington Streeter. The madcap squatter’s strident opposition to the plan by local millionaires to construct Lake Shore Drive and to develop into a high-end neighborhood a filled-in section of the lake that extended 1,000 feet out from the natural shoreline at present-day Michigan Avenue would become, Fizdale writes, “the stuff of cinema.”

Streeter’s story alone is entertainment enough to merit picking up Fizdale’s book.

Without Streeter, the redevelopment of the near north side after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871  still would have been historically significant. But its progress would have been a far more staid story of how men like William B. Ogden and Cyrus McCormick deftly steered the construction of Lake Shore Drive and the filling in of the abutting water.

For decades, Streeter did his best to derail them. His zany tactics included, famously in 1899, seceding from the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois; he claimed that a piece of land that stretched roughly from Oak Street to the Chicago River and from St. Clair Street to the relocated lake shore was his under U.S. law. He erected a U.S. flag and called the area “The District of Michigan.” Over the years, his gun battles with police grew legendary and he gained a rapt, if somewhat sordid, newspaper following.

“Streeter’s antics in civil court were delightfully silly and so patently devious that they endeared him to a public hungry for a folk hero,” Fizdale writes. “He made good copy. Publishers knew they sold more papers with Streeter in the headlines, so they tooted his man-of-the-people horn at every opportunity.”

The fight caught the attention of Illinois Attorney General Maurice Moloney, who made an unsuccessful court bid to stop the project and was ultimately bested by political corruption and wealthy interests.

The nail in Streeter’s coffin came in 1911, the year a building permit was issued for 999 Lake Shore Drive, the first structure on the filled-in lakeshore north of Pearson Street.

999 the book goes on to tell about the construction of the apartment building and about the vision of architect Benjamin Marshall. Fizdale also speculates about how the site got its strange address, which is out of sequence with the buildings flanking it and, given its side of the street, should have been an even number. And, the author writes about the many colorful people who have lived in and visited the building since it officially opened in 1913 (a few residents moved in in late 1912).


Author Richard Fizdale

Fizdale’s extensive endnotes, which represent only a fraction of his source material, demonstrate the extent of his efforts to document this noteworthy building. He has diligently researched residents and their guests up to the present day; the result is a who’s who of wealth and power, including business executives, heirs and heiresses, philanthropists, and politicians. There were legendary parties, mysterious deaths, and deliciously scandalous tabloid fodder.

Among the best fodder is the story of Muriel McCormick, granddaughter (paternally) of Cyrus McCormick and (maternally) of John D. Rockefeller. In what may have been an attempt to deter high-society suitors but also likely stemmed from deep mental instability, she announced in the 1920s that she had married Alex McKinlock, the long-dead son of 999 residents George and Marion McKinlock. Muriel and Alex apparently met at a séance. Similarly notable residents include the wife of gangster Terrance Druggan (a close friend of Al Capone), who also lived in the building for a time while her husband was incarcerated at the Cook County Jail.

999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories is a beautifully designed, highly informative, and wittingly penned book. As such, it is good copy, a commendable new addition to published Chicago history.

Four-Star Review

April 2014, Ampersand, Inc.
Local Interest/History
$79.95, hardcover, 260 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4675-4528-0

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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