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Gangland style

Gangland style

A map of Al Capone’s Chicago offers a grisly but engaging tour of its time. Hal Weitzman investigates

A map of Al Capone’s Chicago offers a grisly but engaging tour of its time. Hal Weitzman investigates

Hal Weitzman | February 5th 2014

In 1931, Chicago lost its king. Al Capone, who at the age of 32 had established himself as the undisputed ruler of the Chicago underworld, was convicted for tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in jail.

The Map of Chicago's Gangland is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Capone's era, with the crowned crime lord scowling over the city from a cartouche like a malevolent cherub. His heyday had begun in earnest just two years earlier, as America was plunged into the Great Depression. In the late 1920s, Chicago became notorious for the Prohibition-era beer wars, in which Irish, Polish and Jewish gangsters fought Italian mobsters for the right to control speakeasies, gambling dens and brothels. After more than 200 slayings, the violence culminated in the 1929 St Valentine's Day massacre, in which Capone's men machine-gunned to death seven members of the O'Banion gang in a garage on the north side of Chicago. In the map's tour of gangland slayings, this is item 11.

Designed as a macabre tourist memento, the map pinpoints significant events in the gang wars, and gives the location of territories, warehouses and headquarters. Although the scale and streets are deliberately distorted, the sites of slayings are reasonably accurate, according to James Akerman, curator of maps at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where the original is housed.

It is instructive to see how territories have changed. In some cases, the gangs have moved on: Lincoln Park, where John Dillinger was shot dead by police in 1934, is now gentrified and gang-free. But on the poorer south side, the ganglands have merely been inherited by different racial groups. What was O'Donnell territory is now controlled by the mainly black Gangster Disciples; what was once Saltis territory is ruled by the Latin Kings.

This evolution is driven partly by the changing nature of the business. In the pre-Capone years, prostitution was the economic backbone of organised crime. During Prohibition, it expanded to include alcohol. In recent decades, gangs have flourished on drugs, as well as gun sales, import-export and even human trafficking.

There was a glamour about Prohibition-era gangsters, with their fancy clothes and tommy guns, that is missing from today's gangs. Figures such as Capone were celebrities in their day. They were also part of the local elite. When "Big Jim" Colosimo, then Chicago's leading pimp, was murdered in May 1920 (item 1), three judges, a congressman, an assistant state attorney and nine Chicago aldermen were among his pallbearers.

The popular mystique may have come from the gangsters' status as folk heroes at a time when wages were low and a legitimate job was hard to come by. At the height of the Depression, Capone even opened a soup kitchen for the unemployed.

Most of those killed in the Prohibition-era wars were gangsters themselves. Today, that is different: 2,670 people were shot in Chicago in 2012, many of them innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of gang feuds. The Map of Chicago's Gangland is a grim reminder of the distinction between the victims of yesteryear and today. Identifying the stock yards, it observes: "Innocent Animals Slaughtered Here". ~ HAL WEITZMAN

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