Chicago was home to the country’s first skyscraper (a ten-story building built in 1884), and marks the start of the famed Route 66. It is also the birthplace of the remote control (Zenith) and the car radio (Motorola), and the first major American city to elect a woman (Jane Byrne) and then an African American man (Harold Washington) as mayor.
Its literary and journalistic history is just as dazzling, and includes Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and Sara Paretsky. From Al Capone to the street riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Chicago, in the words of Studs Terkel, “has—as they used to whisper of the town’s fast woman—a reputation.”
Chicago was also home to Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning oral historian, who moved to Chicago in 1922 as an eight-year-old and who would make it his home until his death in 2008 at the age of ninety-six. This book is a splendid evocation of Studs Terkel’s hometown in all its glory—and all its imperfection.
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About the Author
Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was the bestselling author of twelve books of oral history, including Working; Hard Times; the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Good War”; and, most recently, his memoir Touch and Go (all available from The New Press). He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Presidential National Humanities Medal and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Date of Birth:May 16, 1912
Date of Death:October 31, 2008
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Place of Death:Chicago, IL
Education:J.D., University of Chicago, 1934
Read an Excerpt
Away up in the northward, Right on the borderline, A great commercial city, Chicago, you will find.Her men are all like Abelard, Her women like Héloise (as in "noise") — All honest, virtuous people, For they live in Elanoy.
So move your family westward, Bring all your girls and boys, And rise to wealth and honor In the state of Elanoy.
— A nineteenth-century folk song
When Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness and loped off with the Republican nomination on that memorable May day, 1860, the Wigwam had been resonant with whispers. Behind cupped hands, lips imperceptibly moved: We just give Si Cameron Treasury, they give us Pennsylvania, Abe's got it wrapped up. OK wit'chu? A wink. A nod. Done. It was a classic deal, Chicago style.
As ten thousand spectators roared on cue, Seward didn't know what hit him. His delegates had badges but no seats. Who you? Dis seat's mine. Possession's nine-tent's a da law, ain't it?
Proud Seward, the overwhelming favorite, was a New Yorker who had assumed that civilization ended west of the Hudson. He knew nothing of the young city's spirit of I Will.
When, in 1920, Warren Gamaliel Harding was similarly touched by Destiny, there had been no such whisperings in the Coliseum. Just desultory summer mumblings (it was an unseasonably hot June: 100 degrees outside, 110 inside; bamboo fans of little use): Lowden, Wood, Johnson. Wood, Johnson, Lowden. Johnson, Lowden, Wood. Three front-runners and not a one catching fire. How long can this go on? Four ballots are enough. C'mon, it's too hot for a deadlock. Shall we pick straws?
But this wasn't just any convention city. This was Chicago. Never mind the oratory. Yeah, yeah, we know about the Coliseum where, in 1896, the cry was Bryan, Bryan, Bryan as the Boy Orator thundered eloquently of crowns of thorns and crosses of gold. Nah, nah, let's settle this Chicago style.
A hotel room not far away.
The Blackstone, so often graced by Caruso and Galli-Curci during our city's lush opera season, was on this occasion beyond grace. Nah, nah, it's too hot. Maybe the Ohio Gang ran things that day, but with H. Upmanns blowing curlicues heavenward in the smokefilled room, the deal — Harding, OK? — was strictly My Kind of Town, Chicago Is.
Yet, along came Jane Addams. Was it in 1889 that she founded Hull-House? The lady was out of her depth, they said. Imagine. Trying to change a neighborhood of immigrants, scared and lost, where every other joint was a saloon and every street a cesspool. And there was John Powers, alderman of the Nineteenth Ward, running the turf in the fashion of his First Ward colleagues, Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink. Johnny Da Pow, the Italian immigrants called him. He was the Pooh-Bah, the high monkey-monk, the ultimate clout. Everything had to be cleared through Da Pow. Still, this lady with the curved spine, but a spine nonetheless, stuck it out. And something happened.
She told young Jessie Binford: Everything grows from the bottom up. This place belongs to everybody, not just Johnny Da Pow. And downtown. No, she told Jessie, I have no blueprint. We learn life from life itself.
So many years later, years of small triumphs and large losses, Jessie Binford, ninety, is seated in a small Blackstone Hotel room. The Blackstone again, for God's sake? It isn't a smoke-filled room this time. My cigar, still wrapped in cellophane, is deep in my pocket. It's an H. Upmann — would you believe it? The old woman, looking not unlike Whistler's Mother, is weary and in despair. The wrecking ball had just yesterday done away with Hull-House and most of the neighborhood, as well as the beloved elm beneath her window.
The boys downtown tried to buy off Jessie Binford. You can live at the Blackstone as our guest for the rest of your life, they told her. Anything to keep her quiet. She and a young neighborhood housewife, Florence Scala, were making a big deal out of this. Sshhh. But they wouldn't shush, these two.
Florence Scala, first-generation Italian-American. Her father, a tailor, was a romantic from Tuscany. He was a lover of opera, of course, especially Caruso records, even the scratchy ones. He had astronomy fever, too, though his longing to visit the Grand Canyon transcended his yen to visit the moon. He was to make neither voyage. The neighborhood was his world and that was enough.
For Florence, her father's daughter, the neighborhood reflected the universe, with its multicolors, its varied immigrant life, its circumambient passions.
Jessie Binford, of early Quaker-American stock. Her father, a merchant, trudging from Ohio to Iowa in the mid-nineteenth century, found what he was looking for. The house he built in 1874 "still stands as fundamentally strong as the day it was built," his daughter observed. At the turn of the century, she found what she was looking for: a mission, Hull-House, and a place, Harrison-Halsted. She found the neighborhood.
For Florence Scala and Jessie Binford, Harrison-Halsted was Blake's little grain of sand.
They passed one another on early-morning strolls along these streets, not yet mean. They came to know one another and value one another, as they clasped hands to save these streets. They lost, of course. Betrayed right down the line. By our city's Most Respectable.
"I'm talking about the boards of trustees, the people who control the money. Downtown bankers, factory owners, architects, people in the stock market." Florence speaks softly and that, if anything, accentuates the bitterness.
"The jet set, too. The young people, grandchildren of the oldtimers on the board, who were not like their elders, if you know what I mean. They were not with us. There were also some very good people, those from the old days. But they didn't count any more.
"This new crowd, these new tough kind of board members, who didn't mind being on the board for the prestige it gave them, dominated. These were the people closely aligned to the city government, in real estate and planning. And some very fine old Chicago families." As Florence describes the antecedents of today's yuppies, she laughs ever so gently. "The nicest people in Chicago."
Miss Binford is leaving Chicago forever. She had come to Hull-House in 1906. She is going home to die. Marshalltown, Iowa. The town her father helped found.
The blue of her eyes is dimmed through her spectacles. Her passion, undimmed. "Miss Addams understood why each person had become what he was. She didn't condemn because she understood what life does to people, to those of us who have everything and those of us who have nothing." It's been a rough day and her words, clearly offered, become somewhat slurry now. "Today we're getting further and further away from this eternal foundation on which community life must rest. I feel most sorry for our young people that are growing up at this time —" It's dusk and time to let her go. I press the stop button of my Uher.
Janus, the two-faced god, has both blessed and cursed the city-state Chicago. Though his graven image is not visible to the naked eye, his ambiguous spirit soars atop Sears, Big Stan, and Big John. (Our city is streetwise and alley-hip of the casually familiar. Thus the Standard Oil Building and the John Hancock are, with tavern gaminess, referred to as Big Stan and Big John. Sears is simply that; never mind Roebuck. Ours is a one-syllable town. Its character has been molded by the muscle rather than the word.)
Our double-vision, double-standard, double-value, and doublecross have been patent ever since — at least, ever since the earliest of our city fathers took the Pottawattomies for all they had. Poetically, these dispossessed natives dubbed this piece of turf Chikagou. Some say it is Indian lingo for "City of the Wild Onion"; some say it really means "City of the Big Smell." "Big" is certainly the operative word around these parts.
Nelson Algren's classic Chicago: City on the Make is the late poet's single-hearted vision of his town's doubleness. "Chicago ... forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares. ... One face for Go-Getters and one for Go-Get-It-Yourselfers. One for poets and one for promoters. ... One for early risers, one for evening hiders."
It is the city of Jane Addams, settlement worker, and Al Capone, entrepreneur; of Clarence Darrow, lawyer, and Julius Hoffman, judge; of Louis Sullivan, architect, and Sam Insull, magnate; of John Altgeld, governor, and Paddy Bauler, alderman. (Paddy's the one who some years ago observed, "Chicago ain't ready for reform." It is echoed in our day by another, less paunchy alderman, Fast Eddie.)
Now, with a new kind of mayor, whose blackness is but one variant of the Chicago norm, and a machine — which like the old gray mare ain't what it used to be — creaking its expected way, all bets are off. Race, though the dominant theme, is but one factor.
It is still the arena of those who dream of the City of Man and those who envision a City of Things. The battle appears to be forever joined. The armies, ignorant and enlightened, clash by day as well as night. Chicago is America's dream, writ large. And flamboyantly.
It has — as they used to whisper of the town's fast woman — a reputation.
Elsewhere in the world, anywhere, name the city, name the country, Chicago evokes one image above all others. Sure, architects and those interested in such matters mention Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. Hardly anyone in his right mind questions this city as the architectural Athens. Others, literary critics among them, mention Dreiser, Norris, Lardner, Algren, Farrell, Bellow, and the other Wright, Richard. Sure, Mencken did say something to the effect that there is no American literature worth mentioning that didn't come out of the palatinate that is Chicago. Of course, a special kind of jazz and a blues, acoustic rural and electrified urban, have been called Chicago style. All this is indubitably true.
Still others, for whom history has stood still since the Democratic convention of 1968, murmur: Mayor Daley. (As our most perceptive chronicler, Mike Royko, has pointed out, the name has become the eponym for city chieftain; thus, it is often one word, "Maredaley.") The tone, in distant quarters as well as here, is usually one of awe; you may interpret it any way you please.
An English Midlander, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Nigel Bruce, encounters me under London's Marble Arch: "Your mayor is my kind of chap. He should have bashed the heads of those young ruffians, though he did rather well, I thought." I tell him that Richard J. Daley died several years ago and that our incumbent mayor is black. He finds this news somewhat startling.
"Really?" He recovers quickly: "Nonetheless, I do like your city. I was there some thirty-odd years ago. Black, is he?"
Yeah, I tell him, much of the city is.
He is somewhat Spenglerian as he reflects on the decline of Western values. "Thank heavens, I'll not be around when they take over, eh?"
I nod. I'm easy to get along with. "You sound like Saul Bellow," I say.
"Our Nobel laureate. Do you realize that our University of Chicago has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other in the world?"
He returns to what appears to be his favorite subject: gumption. "Your mayor had it. I'm delighted to say that our lady prime minister has it, too."
I am suddenly weary. Too much Bells Reserve, I'm afraid. "So long, sir. I'll see you in Chicago."
"Not likely; not bloody likely."
In Munich, a student of the sixties, now somewhat portly and balding, ventures an opinion. Not that I asked him. Chicago does that to strangers as well as natives.
"Your Mayor Daley vas bwutal to those young pwotesters, vasn't he?"
Again I nod. Vat could I say?
But it isn't Daley whose name is the Chicago hallmark. Nor Darrow. Nor Wright. Nor is it either of the Janes, Addams or Byrne. It's Al Capone, of course.
In a Brescian trattoria, to Italy's north, a wisp of an old woman, black shawl and all, hears where I'm from. Though she has some difficulty with English (far less than I have with Italian), she thrusts both hands forward, index fingers pointed at me: Boom, boom, she goes. I hold up my hands. We both laugh. It appears that Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Warner Brothers have done a real job in image making.
Not that Al and his colleagues didn't have palmy days during what, to others, were parlous times. Roaring Twenties or Terrible Thirties, the goose always hung high for the Boys. I once asked a casual acquaintance, the late Doc Graham, for a résumé. Doc was, as he modestly put it, a dedicated heist man. His speech was a composite of Micawber and Runyon:
"The unsophisticated either belonged to the Bugs Moran mob or the Capone mob. The fellas with talent didn't belong to either one. We robbed both."
Wasn't that a bit on the risky side?
"Indeed. There ain't hardly a one of us survived the Biblical threescore and ten. You see this fellow liquidated, that fellow — shall we say, disposed of? Red McLaughlin was the toughest guy in Chicago. But when you seen Red run out of the drainage canal, you realized Red's modus operandi was unavailing. His associates was Clifford and Adams. They were set in Al's doorway in his hotel in Cicero. That was unavailing."
Was it a baseball bat Al used?
"You are doubtless referring to Anselmi and Scalisi. They offended Al. This was rare. Al Capone usually sublet the matter. Since I'm Irish, I had a working affiliate with Bugs Moran. Did you know that Red and his partners once stole the Checker Cab Company? They took machine guns, went up, and had an election. I assisted in that operation."
What role did the forces of law and order play?
"With a bill, you wasn't bothered. If you had a speaking acquaintance with Mayor Thompson, you could do no wrong. Al spoke loud to him."
In 1923, Big Bill Thompson chose not to run for a third term. He may have had other interests at the moment. I doubt that he was scared off by the howled indignations of reformers. Whenever Big Bill blew his horn loudly and flatulently, all other sounds were muted.
Who remembers today anything his righteous detractors said? Who can forget what Mayor Thompson said so offhandedly and so Anglophobically? "I'll punch King George in the nose!" It was George V he was threatening, the Vandyked little monarch who wasn't there even when he was there. Had our local Pooh-Bah challenged George's formidable queen, Mary Of The Hats, it might have been more of a challenge: his words against her hatpins.
I forget the occasion of Big Bill's outburst. And the cause. Not that it really matters. A Chicago mayor said it and it made headlines, worldwide. Only Richard J. Daley topped him as an international celebrity. It took six decades to do it.
The heavy one (Thompson weighed a cozy three-hundred-plus and could have given William Howard Taft a caloric run for it) decided to come back in 1927. He won, of course, much to the consternation of the city's decent folk, including a prudish, self-righteous, and horrified fifteen-year-old. I believed all the newspaper editorials inveighing against him (Chicago had about half a dozen of them in those days); not that they were wrong. It was a matter of regarding William E. Dever, the incumbent, as something of a Solon. That Mayor Dever was a most forgettable party hacko was wholly beside the point.
The point was: my brother and I had a memorable time at a Dever campaign rally in 1923. Ashland Auditorium was the site, two blocks from our rooming house. The old hall was usually reserved for gatherings of political outcasts: Socialists, Wobblies, Anarchists, the newly formed Communist Party, and the like. This night was something else. The Democrat makers and shakers took it over on behalf of De Pee-pul's Choice, Judge Dever; the handsome jurist to rule our city in place of the crude Republican fat boy.
What a night. Long-winded perorations of William Z. Foster, nostalgic ramblings and brags of Ben Reitman, Emma Goldman's lover, and theoretical musings of long-forgotten Socialists to a hall four-fifths empty were replaced by something of a carnival. And the place was packed. I mean SRO. Busy precinct captains saw to that.
Barnum & Bailey had nothing on them. There were pachyderms, euphemistically called wrestlers: The Terrible Turk, Wild Man Zawicki, Madman Isadore, and Farmer Blunt. Grappling, swinging, grunting, howling, falling. There were two-round boxing matches ending in double knockouts. There were black tap-dancers who didn't know the meaning of the word quit. There was a family of Lebanese acrobats, who never quite made the Keith-Orpheum circuit, let alone the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. There were jugglers, dropping no more than three or four dumbbells at a time. There were a couple of hootchiecootchie dancers, described by the frog-voiced MC as "longlost nieces of Little Egypt." (My brother swore they were the Hungarian twins he and his buddy Angie had picked up one night at the Dreamland Ballroom.) There was everything but dancing bears.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Studs Terkel's Chicago"
Copyright © 1986 Studs Terkel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Studs Terkel's Chicago,