[Marxism] City of Scoundrels

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 12 17:07:32 MDT 2012

NY Times Sunday Book Review August 10, 2012
A Very Bad Year

The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago
By Gary Krist
Illustrated. 347 pp. Crown Publishers. $26.

Out of a clear blue sky, amid a wave of terrorist bombings, a commercial 
airship crashes among the skyscrapers of the financial district, burning 
victims alive at their desks. But this catastrophe was not the work of 
Al Qaeda. It happened on July 21, 1919, when a stray spark ignited the 
10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen in the Goodyear blimp Wingfoot Express as 
it floated above Chicago’s crowded Loop. With Twitteresque speed, 
sportswriters at Comiskey Park watching the Yankees play the 
soon-to-be-Black Sox began to telegraph the news across the country, 
even before the Wingfoot exploded through the skylight of the Illinois 
Trust and Savings Bank, killing more than a dozen people.

Yet America’s first major aviation disaster was just the beginning of 
what Gary Krist, in “City of Scoundrels,” suggests were the worst two 
weeks in Chicago history. On July 22, a 6-year-old girl disappeared. She 
was last seen with a man who had shown “conspicuous interest” in young 
girls. The suspect was arrested, interrogated, deprived of a lawyer and 
sleep. Detectives employed an alienist (a psychiatrist) and one of them 
dressed as a priest to trick the man into confessing. They even let the 
girl’s father assault him. But the tactics failed to produce a solid 
lead, escalating pressure on them to arrest all suspected “morons,” as 
pedophiles were called in those days.

While this horrific whodunit was unfolding, wider municipal crises were 
also terrifying Chicagoans, including a rash of bombings thought to be 
the work of either Bolshevik revolutionaries or those hoping to 
intimidate the city’s black population, which had doubled in less than 
three years. “Half a Million Darkies From Dixie” is how Col. Robert R. 
McCormick’s Tribune described the migration, inflaming the resentment of 
working-class whites forced to compete for scarce jobs and housing.

Still devoted to the party of Lincoln, black voters were crucial to 
Republican Mayor William Hale Thompson’s re-­election in April. He 
appointed blacks to prominent civic posts and boosted their paltry 
numbers in his police department — the same department that was steering 
gambling and prostitution into their neighborhoods while failing to 
deter bombings and lesser abuses.

These unstable elements achieved critical mass on July 27, when five 
young black men swimming in Lake Michigan drifted across the invisible 
line dividing segregated beaches near 29th Street. A man on the 
whites-only beach hurled rocks at them, killing Eugene Williams, who 
drowned after being struck in the head. When a white cop began arresting 
a black man instead of the stone-thrower, sporadic violence mushroomed 
into a shooting war. Many on the mostly Irish police force sided with 
the white “athletic clubs,” de facto gangs (including a 17-year-old 
Richard J. Daley) that had instigated most of the mayhem.

What might have become a one-sided massacre shifted closer to an even 
contest when black former doughboys aggressively defended their 
community. “Well, Negroes, you must get guns, guns I said!” one black 
weekly encouraged them. “We might just as well die fighting in America 
as to die fighting in France.” To the civil rights leader W. E. B. Du 
Bois, the veterans “are not the same men anymore.” Meanwhile the 
journalist Ida Wells-­Barnett chided the mayor for failing to protect 
all his constituents. To her, it looked “like Chicago is trying to rival 
the South in its race hatred against the Negro.”

Yet the battles did not keep transit workers from voting to strike, 
leaving the city, Krist writes, “paralyzed at its most vulnerable 
moment.” Worse, Mayor Thompson and Gov. Frank O. Lowden chose to play 
chicken with the racial crisis, daring each other to call out the 
militia. By the time the National Guard was finally deployed, 136 whites 
and 263 blacks had been slaughtered, though The Tribune’s coverage 
insinuated that blacks were responsible for 80 percent of the killing.

Into this blood-soaked narrative Krist weaves no shortage of textured if 
disparate stories — not only the crashing blimp and missing girl, but 
also tangential accounts by diarists, as well as both cameos and lengthy 
profiles of Chicagoans famous and infamous. Though some readers may find 
it precariously overpopulated, “City of Scoundrels” is a lavishly 
intricate, well-paced account of a great city lashed to the breaking 
point by a political perfect storm.

Krist, the author of “The White Cascade” and five works of fiction, 
renders a nuanced portrait of a mayor most often remembered as a 
bombastic demagogue (and wannabe cowboy) at the head of a crooked 
machine. As “Big Bill the Builder,” he expanded lakefront parks and 
implemented other key portions of Daniel Burnham’s ambitious Plan of 
Chicago, paving the way for what Krist calls “perhaps the most 
architecturally distinguished and physically impressive city in the 
Americas.” Yet the city of the big shoulders and steel-framed 
neo-Classical skyscrapers also devolved into a gangsters’ paradise 
during Thompson’s 12 years in office.

Above all, “City of Scoundrels” freshly illuminates how the riots of 
1919 were a turning point for African-Americans. “We made the supreme 
sacrifice,” one black veteran told the poet-reporter Carl Sandburg, “now 
we want to see our country live up to the Constitution and the 
Declaration of Independence.” Another man put it this way: “Conditions 
in the states had not changed, but we blacks had. We were determined not 
to take it anymore.”

James McManus, the author of “Positively Fifth Street” and “Cowboys 
Full,” teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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