It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
State and Lake Streets, 1953 Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty
The big news out of Chicago, city of my birth and upbringing, is murder. According to a reliable website called HeyJackass!, during 2017, someone in Chicago was shot every 2 hours and 27 minutes and murdered every 12 hours and 59 minutes. There were 679 murders and 2,936 people shot in the city. This, for those who like their deviancy defined down, is an improvement over 2016, when 722 people were murdered and 3,658 shot. The overwhelming preponderance of these people, victims and murderers both, are black, and the crimes committed chiefly in black neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. Many of the murders were among the sorts of gangs long familiar in Chicago, which over the years has seen the Egyptian Cobras, the Blackstone Rangers, the Disciples, and the Conservative Vice Lords, among many others. According to a 2008 Department of Justice report, something like 100,000 members of up to 75 gangs were operating in the city. Gang involvement in drug trafficking has upped the stakes and intensified the violence in many of the city’s black neighborhoods.
Who to blame for this wretched, hideous, and genuinely barbarous situation? The city’s police, its politicians, its schools, its black leadership, contemporary black culture—all have come in for their share of accusations. But then Chicago has a rich tradition of murder. As early as 1910, the city led the nation in homicides and was known as the murder capital of the country. Much of the violence then and through the years of Prohibition was committed by organized crime. As late as the 1950s, when you told people you were from Chicago, they not uncommonly pretended to hoist a tommy gun and rat-a-tat-tatted away in reference to the bloody days of Al Capone and Co.
Chicagoans long took a certain pride in this criminal tradition. Never called the Mafia, organized crime in Chicago was generally referred to as the Syndicate or the Mob or the Outfit, and sometimes just the Boys. So big was the Syndicate presence in Chicago that at least one of the local television news channels kept a special correspondent, a man named John Drummond, to cover Mob news. Organized crime often led off a news broadcast or garnered a front-page headline, as when Allen Dorfman, an adviser to the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa and an all-around fixer, was gunned down in the parking lot of the Lincolnwood Hyatt. Mob figures—Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Sam Giancana, Joseph Lombardo—were celebrities, known throughout the city. A juicy bit of gossip was when Mob guys showed up to play golf at the Tam O’Shanter Country Club. Best, sound advice had it, to let them play through.
I myself, in the early 1970s, ran into a few of the Mob figures at the Riviera Club, where I sometimes played racquetball. Gus Alex, said to have been head of Mob gambling and prostitution in Chicago, was among them, and I remember locker-room discussions in which they expressed amazement at America’s dithering in Vietnam. The strong should never take any crap from the weak; “blow the bastards to hell” was their view. The Mob influence reached all the way down to high schools, where football parlay cards—beat the spread on three college games and win $6 on a $1 bet—were always available. An Italian customer of my father’s told him that if he ever had a cash-flow problem, the Boys were ready to help out.
Jews in the chiefly Italian Mob tended to play administrative roles. Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, a Galician Jew, was the Syndicate’s legal and financial adviser from the Capone days through the middle 1950s. Jewish bookies were not uncommon in Chicago. My mother’s older brother, “Lefty Sam” Abrams, was one. He eventually owned a few points in the Riviera in Vegas. I may best establish my uncle’s social standing by mentioning that Sinatra was at his granddaughter’s wedding. After her brother’s funeral, my mother, peering into his closet, counted 27 ultrasuede jackets.
In our neighborhood lived a man named Maury “Potsy” Pearl, a Jewish bookie whose bodyguard drove his son, a friend of my younger brother’s, to school every day. A friend of mine’s father, a borax man who had scored heavily in the aluminum-awning business, made the mistake of dabbling in boxers, which meant connecting to the Syndicate, which controlled the sport, with the result that one day he found himself pursued simultaneously by the FBI and a brute named “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio. People in the Chicago of those days took a certain pride in their often tenuous connections to the Mob.
The Mob today seems to have retreated to the point of oblivion in Chicago. Prostitution and gambling, its two chief sources of income, have dried up. Gambling is now available on the Internet, and, with the advent of the pill and the sexual revolution, nice girls have all but put prostitutes out of business. The illicit big money these days is in drugs, and the trade is monopolized by drug lords working out of Latin America and the Chicago gangs who serve as their distributors. One is hard-pressed to name any prominent Mob members in current-day Chicago because, one gathers, there are none.
By the time of my birth in Chicago in 1937, “the city of the big shoulders,” in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, had developed a considerable slouch. Not that there was ever much truth in Sandburg’s sentimental poem of 1914, but in my boyhood there was at least still a Chicago stockyards, and on warm summer nights, with a wind blowing in from the south, even in my far north side neighborhood of Rogers Park one could smell the abattoir roughly a hundred blocks away. One of the standard grammar-school trips, one which I am not at all sorry somehow to have missed, was to the stockyards, where tons of dead animal flesh and entrails were on view and where large men stunned cows with sledgehammers before slaughtering them.