It's Time To Embrace Al Capone

When I’m traveling, I usually avoid towns that bill themselves as “historic.” That usually means the biggest attraction is a rusty 19th Century wheat thresher.
On the other hand, few cities suppress their history as energetically as Chicago. You know why. A few years ago, I met a Latvian sailor in port to deliver a load of steel. We went shopping in South Chicago. He pointed at a police car and asked, “Flag for Illinois?”
“No,” I said. “Chicago.”
He looked joyful.
“Oh, Chicago!” he exclaimed. “Gangsters!”
Then he formed a tommy gun with his fingers and began making machine gun noises.
That’s why. Harold Washington used to imagine that he’d licked the city’s image problem.
"There was a time not long ago if you said you were from Chicago, someone would make the crack, ‘Al Capone, rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat’; but now anywhere in the world you go, you go to any of those places and you say you're from Chicago, you know what they’ll say to you. ‘How’s Harold?’”
Actually, they still said that. It wasn’t until the Chicago Bulls' six NBA championships that Chicago had a resident as famous as Al Capone. In those years, I met a French exchange student whose father had told him Chicago was famous for “bootlegging during Prohibition.” But the student was more interested in meeting Michael Jordan.
Now, of course, Chicago has Barack Obama, who has been called the most famous individual in history, meaning he’s known in his lifetime by more people than anyone else.
I’m convinced that one reason Mayor Daley pursued the Olympics so avidly was to stamp out Chicago’s association with Al Capone. But the Olympics weren’t necessary. Obama’s election did the job.
What I’m saying is, it’s time for Chicago to stop being embarrassed about Al Capone, and embrace him as a colorful character from Chicago’s past. The Chicago Tourism website has only a fleeting mention of Capone, noting that the Green Mill was owned by his “right-hand man,” Machine Gun Jack McGurn.

There’s no mention of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and there’s no plaque at 2122 N. Clark St., upon which a garage where it happened stood until Richard J. Daley ordered it demolished in 1967. Nor is there a plaque at 7244 S. Prairie Ave., the two-flat where Capone lived after arriving from New York. You can’t find a link to the Untouchable Tour, either.
The tourists want to see these things. When local author Jonathan Eig published his book, Get Capone, he created an iPhone app to guide readers to the sites in the book, because the Tourism Bureau won’t give you a gangster map. The Daleys were determined to suppress Chicago’s gangland history. But it’s been 85 years now, and Chicago is famous for better things than bootlegging and Tommy guns. It’s time to welcome Al Capone into the city’s official history.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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