Friday, October 30, 2009

Playing Catch-up, Notes on Carl Sandburg

Sorry for the delay, I am finally getting around to transferring my hand written thoughts about Sandburg down. Here they are:

In class we discussed the face that Sandburg's poems may seem a bit aged or dated, and although this is almost impossible to avoid, I think he manages to write poetry that stands up to the test of time. Last Spring I attended a panel at the AWP conference that discussed the differences between works that are only relevant to their time period vs works that do stand up to the test of time. Many novels, poems or shorts stories fail to speak to future generations, because their audiences is alienated by references to pop culture, and the reader is unable to grab onto or fully understand the significance of the author's references. However, I think that an author's work can still speak to future generations, even if their style seems dated. For example, Theodor Dreiser, in "Sister Carrie," is writing a novel that very much reflects Chicago at the turn of the century. However, he avoids alienating the reader by referring to "a popular singer of the day," rather than referencing the actual singer. So although "Sister Carrie" is absolutely dated to a very specific time period, the reader does not feel the need to look up specific names in order to understand that Dreiser is referring to a popular singer of the day. What really stands out in the novel then, is the character of Carrie, who I at least, find to be a relatable character, a young woman in a new place, trying to find her place in the world. Scared, lonely, confused and seeking guidance are all feelings I know I can relate to as a young woman, and I imagine that most people, male or female have felt or feel this way at some point, so it is more important for the author to connect the reader to those sorts of themes, rather than trying to reach the reader through references to a specific time period that will not speak to a future generation in the same way.

I find that Carl Sandburg also manages to speak to all generations in this same sort of way. Walt Whitman, in his "Preface to Leaves of Grass," stated, "A great poem is for ages and ages in common, and for all degrees and complexions, and all departments and sects, and for a woman as much as a man and a man as much as a woman. A great poem is no finish to a man or woman but rather a beginning." I find this quote to speak to Sandburg's ability to draw in all readers of all generations. Although sometimes his word choice can be questionable, as far as approiate language, as we discussed in class, for the most part his language is clean, and speaks to such topics as, love, what it is to be happy or find happiness, friendship, and loneliness. These are themes that do not lose power or validity over the generations, and so poems such as, "At a Window," where speaks of what he is willing to give up in order to be left with love,
"Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,"

The poem goes on, and is on page 53 from out text. Everything in this poem speaks to past or future generations, because at the end of the day, no matter how old, or what year you are/were from, one needs to be loved.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Bloody Maxwell Street Police Station

About a 5 minute walk from my current address on Maxwell Street on the UIC campus there is the UIC police station located adjacent to the school's soccer and baseball fields. Looking at it from the outside you would think it was just like any other normal building in Chicago. Judging from the architecture, it is easy to tell the building is fairly old but the university has clearly spent some money on keeping the building maintained. The building, with its red painted bricks, was actually one of the most feared police stations during the late 1800's and early 1900's for the immigrants living in the area. The red bricks of today are more of a remembrance of its former self, then known as "Bloody Maxwell".
After the Haymarket Bombing, Chicago upped its police force and established two new stations, one of which was on Maxwell Street. The Maxwell force was primarily to counter unrest of workers in the area and to keep the ever-growing immigrant population under control. Once the Black Hand became a dominant force within the city, murder rates escalated dramatically and immigrants in the area feared both threats of being killed or being throw in the "dungeon" of the local police station. By this time, it had become well known that the new station's basement cells were rat-infested and submerged in inch-deep troughs that was the prisoner urinal. Prisoners who were brought to the jail often lacked the money to buy their way out and, instead, were beaten nearly to death. Their blood flowed along with the urine that covered the floor. In 1921, the city Health Commissioner Herman Bundesen even declared the conditions of the jail the worst in the entire city
The police district was also one of the most corrupt in the city as Taylor Street became the heart of the bootlegging industry. On-duty officers were bribed on a frequent basis to turn a blind-eye on the events taking place. Once Captain William Russell was assigned to the district, bribery scandals began to be broken and over 200 officers were transferred to different districts.


Back in the day...

Finally in 1997, the police station, now the oldest in the city at 110-years old, closed down until UIC reopened its doors as the university's new police headquarters. Many people would know it from its signature image in the show Hill Street Blues. It was also named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 so its presence will last for many years to come.

To think that only 60-70 years ago, or even more recently, this area was the immigrant center of the city seems almost an impossible thing to imagine. The very street I live on was once home to the famous Maxwell Street Market but all that remains today is the brick street (made to replicate the older street) and a few statues meant to depict scenes of that time now forgotten. From my window I can see the "Bloody" Maxwell Station and I wonder what horrors that basement now holds, if any. I may have to venture over there some time soon and see if they'll let me explore the basement. Perhaps I'll even run into an angry ghost or two.


our UIC police station today....

Lost Buildings

Lost Buildings is a collaboration between This American Life's Ira Glass and cartoonist Chris Ware. Together they share the story of Tim Samuelson's childhood obsession in the 1960's and 70's with Louis Sullivan buildings in Chicago, as well as Samuelson's friendship with Richard Nickel, who made a regular practice of visiting demolition sites of Louis Sullivan buildings and salvaging parts.

As a young boy, Samuelson became fascinated by old buildings and figured out how to take public transportation on his own so that he could sneak away and explore. When Samuelson was 13-years old, he landed a meeting with architect Mies van der Rohe, who at the time was designing a building which was chosen to replace a Sullivan building slated for demolition.

Glass and Ware present this narrative as a 96-page book (a bit larger in size than the DVD which it houses) of drawings, notebook pages, close-ups of intricate details and patterns in Sullivan's work, black and white photographs with corresponding text, and personal documents, as well as a 22-minute documentary film made from hundreds of drawings by Ware. Samuelson's story and the tone of his voice as he relates it, and the story of Nickel's earnest pursuit of Sullivan's rapidly vanishing buildings, accompanied by Ware's cartoons is heart-breaking.

Public outcry in response to the announcement that the city intended to demolish Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange did not ultimately preserve the building. While the story of Lost Buildings is melancholic and nostalgic through and through, it culminates in tragedy -- Nickel was killed while salvaging parts when one of the floors of the Stock Exchange collapsed. Samuelson was waiting to meet up with Nickel at the Exchange when the accident occured, and he admits that he avoids walking near the building which replaced it.

Lost Buildings reprints letters written by Nickel, as well as pages from Nickel's notebook. An opening page of one notebook states in red letters inside a black rectangle: Ornament Salvage Workbook. In this workbook, Nickel painstakingly catalogued all of the fragments that he collected from the Garrick Theater, before the pieces were transferred to museums or into storage.

You may watch a short clip from the DVD here:


The Devil In The White City

I originally purchased this book two summers ago right before I went on a three-week vacation in the Philippines. I'd heard from a friend of two that it was a really good book, so I decided I'd pick up a copy to read on during the 17-hour flight. Judging from the cover, it appears that the distributors are trying really hard to grab your attention. The magnificent White City surrounded by a sky full of darkness is almost too much to resist and the "DEVIL" in the title gives buyers the impression that the novel centers almost entirely around the story of the sadistic Holmes.To be completely honest, I bought this book to read about Holmes. I could care less about Burnham and all of his architectural wonders. Serial killers fascinate me; architects, not so much. During my first reading of the novel, I trudged through the Burnham chapters bored out of mind, but, due to the fact that I couldn't fall asleep in the cramped seats of the plane, I stayed awake through it all and didn't skip a single word. The story of Holmes, on the other hand, really intrigued me and I looked forward to each detail concerning his killings. Looking back, I didn't approach the novel as a literary critic. I didn't care how Larson ended each chapter or how he added his own details that would have been impossible for him to know. I was just interested in the story itself. Parts of the fair amazed me, and looking at the photos, I wish Chicago had preserved the grounds. After finishing the novel, I was quite satisfied with the novel and I immediately started looking for another historical novel to quench my thirst. Instead, I went and laid on the beach, ate an overabundance of delicious Filipino food, and met the entire side of my dad's family.

Once I saw we were reading DITWC in this class, I became excited all over again. I breezed through the book again (although I did not read the final chapters this time), but I found that instead of focusing on Holmes as I had previously done, I was instead focusing on Burnham and his mission towards creating the greatest architectural wonder in the world at that time. I became bored with Holmes, sometimes skimming his sections instead of reading them, and focused on every little detail about the construction of the fair. Again, I did not focus on Larson's style of writing. At times I would note that Larson should have omitted certain lines, but, overall, I thought he did a tremendous job creating a story with the immense pile of research he had to do.

All in all, I thought Devil in the White City was a good read. One which I could read a couple more times just to capture details I had missed the first two times.

Hef Leaves Chicago

For awhile now, and especially after hearing Lee talk last week, I've wondered why Hugh Hefner decided to move the infamous Playboy company out of the city in which he had been born and raised. What with Chicago's history of being a bit more risque than other cities around the country, it would seem that Chicago would be the perfect setting for an enterprise steered towards social revolution and the creation of a swinging, carefree lifestyle. Unfortunately, some local some local politicians and U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson felt otherwise and aimed at bringing down the drug-and-sex wonderland held by the company and its founder.
One young woman (one of VERY many I should add) who was immediately drawn into the lifestyle offered by Playboy was Bobbie Arnstein who applied to be Hef's secretary in the early '60's. Upon meeting Hef, Arnstein was offered a job to be Hef's private assistant which she immediately accepted. Arnstein's time with Playboy was a time of self-discovery which ultimately ended in disaster. In 1963, Arnstein's fiance was killed in an automobile crash and she became submersed in the drug culture of the time. After suffering from a drug-induced coma and living her life in a fragile state, Arnstein was also sought by the federal government to gather evidence in a drug-ring probe supposedly run by Hefner. She was arrested outside of the Playboy mansion on March 21, 1974 for the possession of and intent to distribute cocaine. Prosecutors pressed Arnstein to confess that that Hefner and Playboy were involved in a drug-ring, but Arnstein remained loyal to Hefner despite facing the possibility of prison.


In October of '74, Arnstein was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was also informed by James Thompson that a contract was put on her life (some say by Hefner to protect his name) although the truth of this statement is unknown. After posting bond, Arnstein checked into the Maryland Hotel, a hotel known for "mob-connected pimps and prostitutes", and committed suicide with a lethal combination of tranquilizers, barbiturates, and sleeping pills.
Later in 1975, Hefner was exonerated by U.S. Attorney Sam Skinner and exiled himself to Los Angeles where he remains to this day. He donated the original Playboy mansion to the Art Institute of Chicago.

It kind of sucks that Hef had to leave town on a bad note, especially after seeing how much of an impact he's had on society and culture over the course of the past 50 years. I wouldn't have minded being around to experience some of the crazy life that was taking place back then.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Sausage Vat Murder

While searching for a good ghost story to talk about in today's blog, I came across a story about the killing of a Mrs. Louisa Becknese Luetgert, by her husband Adolph Luetgert, the owner of a sausage and packing company. In May of 1897 Louisa disappeared for several days (Adolph stated that she was visiting family in Kenosha, WI) and her younger brother became worried and notified the police. It turned out that the police had already been investigating Adolph for other situations that had arose form Adolph's hot temper and sexual involvement with several women.
The Chicago Police Department placed Captain Herman Schuettler as the lead detective of the case. After questioning Adolph's employees, Schuettler learned that Louisa was last seen entering the sausage factory around 10:30 PM on May 1st but was never seen exiting the building. Investigators began searching around the factory for clues, focusing primarily on a 12 foot long, 5 foot high vat in the building's basement where meat was smoked. Poking around the vat, two gold rings were found, one which bore the initials L.L.. Soon after, bloodstains were found on the couple's bedroom door and fragments of skull were found in the factory smoke shaft.
Detective Schuettler suggested that Adolph strangled his wife, boiled her in the factory acid, and disposed of the remains in the smoke shaft. Further evidence that supported this theory was Adolph's suspicious purchase of some several hundred pounds of potash and arsenic, both chemicals which would aide in the decomposition process.
After two trials, Adolph was sentenced to life in prison where he continued to proclaim his innocence. Adolph often stated that his wife would return and he spent his later years babbling uncontrollably to himself up until his death. His defense attorney, Lawrence Harmon, was so moved by his client that he spent thousands of dollars of his own money searching for Louisa. Eventually his search drove him mad and he was committed to an asylum.

This story somewhat reminded me of both The Jungle and H.H. Holmes. Adolph Luetgert was considered the sausage king of the north side of the city and his factory resembled many of the factories in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of the meatpacking industry. Although Sinclair may have been exaggerating when he spoke of men falling into the vats, Louisa's death in the meat smoker vat was no made-up story. Luckily for the people of Chicago, Luetgert had closed his factory temporarily at the time and no meat was distributed. The meat factory also resembled Holmes' death palace mostly because of the dark, ominous presence it held within the neighborhood. I wonder, mostly because of Adolph's history of violence and womanizing, if maybe Louisa was not the first person he had murdered in his factory. Unfortunately, we will never know.

As for the presence of a ghost, the sausage factory was torn down eventually and the neighborhood itself is primarily covered in empty lots and dirty factory buildings. Some people say though that there have been sightings of Louisa roaming the sidewalks of the area...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tragic Chicago

The city of Chicago itself is the tragic hero of Chicago: City on the Make that Nelson Algren personifies as the living definition of tragedy: on the one hand there are inherent flaws to the city, but on the other, Algren is completely in love with Chicago. Why else would he devote such a profound portrait?

The language of Algren's prose is married to Chicago (and to that specific era in Chicago as we have learned). Unlike that of Sandburg or Sinclair or, certainly, Larson, Algren's language is inseparable from Chicago and is therefore Chicago painting Chicago. It's the city in a mirror put down on paper. It sees its flaws but looks past them and is still able to love what it sees. Algren certainly makes no effort to skirt the city's flaws--rather, he thrives on them.
"For always our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes somebody like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot rum and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one."
Even Sandburg wasn't this woefully honest (and maybe this is why Algren wasn't well-like by the Chicagoans of his time) but it's easy to pick up on Algren's love for this unique quality of Chicago--its tainted Hustlers and heroes. "Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

Indeed, like Shakespeare's Macbeth, Chicago is a lovable character with tremendous aspirations (1893 Columbian Exposition, 2016 Olympic bid, etc.) but insurmountable flaws come along with that tragic narrative. In true tragic form these flaws lead to the downfall of the character--or in this case the city. In Algren's eyes such a transformation is already taking place. "Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now." Algren isn't hopeful for Chicago's future as he sends it down the path of the tragic hero. It--like Macbeth and Othello--has to fail due to its unwieldy flaws.

Algren was the perfect author for this portrait because of his attachment to the city. He was able to look on it realistically and love it for what it really was and his prose captured the tragic personality of the second city.

Sleeping in a Pullman

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I journeyed South to check out a neighborhood we'd never seen--Historic Pullman. I remember reading in high school about the experimental company town founded by Georege Pullman for the employees of his Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman developed the sleeping car. In the 1880's, as heavy industry, in Chicago and around the world, was exploding and laissez faire capitalism was leading to increasingly horrific working conditions, Pullman came up with an idea that he thought would mollify the concerns of labor organizers and simultaneously encourage more productive workers—the creation of “the world’s most perfect town.” Although our modern cynicism might immediately bristle at such a claim, the fundamentals of Pullman initially seemed sound—provide worker’s with clean, safe living arrangements, an entire community complete with stores, schools and recreational facilities, and the workers will come to work healthier and happier. Everybody wins. Except everyone can’t win, when one man wants to make a big profit.

(Notice the green trim on this Pullman House's front stoop)

Pullman chose a formerly swampy area near the Calumet River to build his factory and his town. He built a hotel to host dignitaries, the Hotel Florence (named after his daughter) and a railroad was constructed to link Pullman with downtown Chicago. There were boarding houses for single workers, worker’s cottages for families, and nicer homes for managers and executives. The houses were equipped with state of the art facilities such as indoor plumbing. All of the homes and stores were owned by Pullman., and Pullman, himself, insisted on making at least a 6% profit on the town’s operations including rent each year. This is where the trouble begins. Just as we saw in Devil in the White City, 1893 was not a good year for the American economy. The demand for sleeping cars decreased, and concurrently so did the number of jobs and the size of the wages of Pullman’s workers. What didn’t decrease, was rent in Pullman. This caused one of the most significant workers’ strikes of the 19th century—Eugene Debs, head of the American Railway Union, became involved and as many as 250,000 workers struck nationwide. Eventually President Grover Cleveland sent in the National Guard to end the strike. A few years later after Pullman’s death, “the world’s most perfect town” was declared a monopoly by the Illinois Supreme Court, and the homes and businesses were sold off to private owners.

Today the area is a National Historic District, which means the owners of the former worker’s cottages, executive homes and boarding houses must comply with certain guidelines for the upkeep and renovation of their homes. For example, the officially company paint colors were a light green, a slightly darker green and a red, and these colors are a staple feature of many Pullman exteriors today. We went to Pullman on one of the special days each year where several of the residents open their homes to urban snoops, err…explorers, who are interested in seeing the interiors of these historic houses. It was really interesting to see the way modern Chicago families had repurposed the interiors of these homes, while maintaining the integrity of them from the outside. Some of the owners had completely gutted the original houses to suit their needs and tastes, while in others you could wind around the tiny hallways and small doorways of the Pullman era. I liked these homes the best—the ghosts of old Chicago seemed really palpable in these small oddly shaped rooms, rooms in many ways resistant to our contemporary sense of needs. The residents of Pullman are extremely proud of their community’s history and they have really made a tremendous effort to preserve and reconstruct the details of its unique history. For example, the Pullman Factory Clock tower which lorded over Pullman for a century was burned to the ground by arson in the late 1990’s and the Pullman preservation group raised millions for its reconstruction. The clock now looms over the community again, even though the factory remains completely unoccupied. Its brick walls surround hallow spaces with dirt floors. An eerie silence now inhabits a place that once clamored—with the din of industry and the call for better working conditions. I was struck as I wandered the streets of modern Pullman by what it must be like to live in a place that was conceived in such an unusual way. I imagined the pride of people walking into their shiny new homes on their first day of work at the factories; I imagined the agony of a family trying to find the money for next month’s rent. I imagined walking by the home of the executives and seeing the dignitaries smoking cigars on the porch of the Hotel Florence (this place is supposedly haunted—But it’s a sore point tour guides about it!) the year of the Great Exhibition. I imagined listening to Eugene Debs in the park and grappling the unique conflicts of striking against both your employer and your home.

Sinclair and The Stockyards

Ok I’m not going to lie, I stopped reading this book. NOTHING was going right and with the weather getting cold and rainy in real life, it was just begging to bring me even further into a pit of depression. While I do think that Sinclair was painting a vivid portrait of life in the lower class and he did so eloquently, I just thought it was just too much at times. Perhaps one day I'll be brave enough to pick it up again, but it'll have to be sunny and warm out before I delve into it once more.

I can only guess as to the looks I was getting on the train when I was reading about the initial tour of the slaughter houses. Multiple times I had to put the book down and think about something else for a brief amount of time because I just could not stand to read the scene. Sinclair has an uncanny ability to send you on an imaginary journey and thrown you head first into a scene that would rumble the stomachs of even the most burly of men. But as disgusted as I was while reading, it was interested in this facet of life. These people needed the stockyards and needed these horrible positions. That got me wondering, what were the stockyards all about?

That’s when I stumbled across this website,

It’s perhaps one of the most interesting sites I’ve been to in a long time. I highly recommend at least going through the different pages to look at the pictures taken of the area to get a better more concrete feel for what Sinclair was talking about. It helped me to view the scenes of Jurgis in his work environment much more vividly. Previously, I had wondered while reading this book, what the exact site of the yards were. In this site, they list the place as “The stockyards' ultimate boundaries were Pershing Avenue, Halsted Street, 47th Street, and Ashland Avenue.”

One of the things I found most interesting is that after they decided to end the meatpacking industry in Chicago, following the departure of Wilson and Company in 1955, the place was destroyed. Today “virtually no structures remain of this once predominant Chicago industry except for the giant limestone arch, erected in 1879, which marked the entrance to the stockyards.” I haven’t had a chance to get down there to check it out and see if it’s true, but I’m going to attempt to and bring back pictures to put up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Algren: Slam Poetry and the Ws (Whitman and Williams)

One of the things that struck me as I read Algren was the force and the verbal violence of his work—his prose-poems punch the reader in the teeth. I can’t help but think of it as “explosive” language: spit flying from his mouth as he speaks, cheeks and jowls flapping about. I think of him as a proto-slam poet, up at a podium shouting his love for Chicago. There is so much Life in his language, so much Love.

While reading, I realized that Algren would be a perfect specimen for a rhetoric class: he uses every literary device known to humanity. In particular, he uses alliteration, anaphora, and parataxis with great frequency (suggesting, as was mentioned today in class, Walt Whitman). Unlike Whitman’s long, unwinding lists that plod along slowly at times, Algren’s lists are tighter, more condensed. An example of his work with listing: “Are You a Christian” (pg 23 in my book), starting with “Knowing that Chicago...forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squatters...”. The listing of the city’s faces (with “one for...”) continues on for a page. Then the anaphoric phrase starter becomes “For...”, omitting the “one” from before, and carries on for another page. Algren, like Whitman, creates his portrait of the city through snapshots of the people and places that make it up. Just as we feel like we’re strolling along with Whitman on a walking tour of America, so too we feel that we're exploring Chicago with Algren. Only Algren will show us the uglier sights, the two faces (which are thousands of faces, depending on who you are) of the city.

In class today, Luis mentioned William Carlos Williams’ vision for a distinctly American poetic tradition. Algren does seem to comply with Williams’ ideas of an American voice. In his essay, “The Poem as a Field of Action”, Williams outlines his vision for American poetics, which will require some “sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure” (51). He later proclaims that iambic pentameter and the sonnet form are dead, and thus we must rethink the structure of poetry itself and the language we use to construct it. Williams, in essence, wants to overhaul the entire poetic tradition (which he sees as too British), and create an American form of poetry that “will be commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living as contrasted with the past” (53). Williams wants poetry to encompass the voice of the people and the story of society. Poetry shouldn’t focus on Greek gods and Roman rulers; rather, it should tell the story of the nation as it stands. Williams’ vision is very Whitmanesque, but more so than Whitman (who simply summarized the people), Williams tries to incorporate their voices and their lives into his work. Algren, then, seems a loyal disciple. “Chicago: City on the Make” is the story of the city through the voices of the city. He has found the new poetic form that best enables the telling of the city, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is a fusion of Whitman’s and Williams’ most notable traits: Algren is a lister and a fan of fragmentary phrases. He isn’t interested in “sophisticated” language—he writes in the language of the people he is writing about. He has thrown away traditional syntax and imagery. He tells us and he shows us the city.

To those who see Algren as a sort of ethnographer of Chicago’s underdogs, I would agree that there is something mildly troubling in knowing that Algren doesn’t belong to the hustling class that he writes of. That said, I think he does a better job of capturing them than Whitman did of capturing the lower classes. Whitman didn’t really attempt to take on the language of the poor, whereas Algren is certainly trying to sound “authentic."

[My quotes from Williams come from the book Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, and D.C. Stone, published 2004]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chicago: City on the Make

I've spent my entire life in Chicago, and after reading Algren's Chicago: City on the Make I feel as if though I've been living on another planet. Before I picked up the book, I felt like an expert on this city; however, after being bombarded with so many lists of names, phrases and events I've never heard of, I feel like I have to reexamine my station in Chicago, and, more importantly, Chicago's station in society.

Although Algren's prose is lyrical and beautifully written, I interpreted it as a riddle whose answer floated just outside my grasp. The notes at the back of the book helped me understand things a little better, but I got hung up on having to flip back-and-forth every couple of sentences. It's easy for me to see why it received so much criticism. Algren's tone is faced-paced and ambiguous; he rants for pages and pages about how awful Chicago is and then and goes off in another direction and says something like, you can never leave "without forever feeling something priceless is being left behind." One theme throughout Chicago: City on the Make that was not lost on me, however, was Algren's anguish over the city's failure to meet its full potential. For example, Algren writes, "Out of the Twisted Twenties flowered the promise of Chicago as the homeland and heartland of an American renaissance... Thirty years later we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara with not a camel in sight... It has had its big chance, and fluffed it." I read those words and it was like rubbing salt in an open wound. Today, the city is still reeling from having its hopes dashed by lesser rivals, such as Rio and a team from Cinncinati lead by a man whose last name is a number for crying out loud. Although Chicago may never fulfill the lofty dreams and aspirations of insatiable inhabitants, Algren reminds us that loving Chicago is "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Holmes on the Gallows

One of the more underwhelming features of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City was his rather abrupt conclusion wherein he wrapped up several storylines in the space of one short chapter--and not much more room was devoted to Holmes' trial and death. This was disappointing for me.

I was very interested in the trial and hanging that Holmes was sentenced to during 1895-96 so I hit up the 19th Century U.S. Newspapers search in the online research database at the Daley Library. I narrowed my search to May 7, 1896--the day after Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (which was destroyed in 1968 I found) and was pleased with what I found including some very Capote-esque descriptions of Holmes' last hours. One article that ran in the Milwaukee Journal, for instance, provides the minute details that Mr. Larson didn't have space for.
Holmes spent the greater part of last night writing letters. At midnight he went to bed and slept soundly until 6 o'clock this morning. It took two calls to awaken him. Promptly arising, he received a visit, Fathers Daly and Macpeak of the Church of the Annunciation. They administered the last sacrament and did not leave him until nearly 9 o'clock. During their absence he ate a hearty breakfast. At 10:02 o'clock the sheriff called together the official jury and the march to the gallows was begun.
What's more important that I found is that Holmes, even at the very end, held fast to his innocence in the death of the Pitezel family and addressed those that came to witness his hanging. Erik Larson mentions none of this. Here is Holmes' speech just before he was hanged as recorded by the Milwaukee Journal:

Gentlemen--I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time, except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as a result of criminal operations. I wish to state here, so there can be no chance of misunderstanding, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pietzel family--the three children and Benjamin, the father, of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am today to be hanged. This is all I have to say.
True H.H. Holmes fashion. Also interesting to note is the discrepancies in the spelling of Larson's "Pitezel" and all the newspapers of the day which printed it as "Pietzel." Click on the uploaded image for the full article from the May 7, 1896 Milwaukee Journal.

Devil in the White City Comes Up Short

While I agree with the consensus of the class that this was an extremely poorly written story, I think it was expertly crafted. And while everybody felt that the Burnham chapters were the most compelling of the story, I was more interested in the story of Homes. I perfectly understand that for the most part, 90% of the information in those chapters is based on hearsay or imagination on Larson’s part, I wanted to know the down and dirty part of the fair.

I found it really interesting at the beginning when they were talking about the process of producing the fair and all of the hardships that went into the building, designing, and of course procuring the actual fair, but after a while I found it rather dense. I became distracted by the inordinate amount of detail regarding the menu’s at the meetings and such. Larson seemed to be over-dramatizing everything in this book and while it’s interesting to know what they had for dinner, it adds no literary merit to the story whatsoever. In fact as a reader, I just found it distracting. I was fascinated by his ability to research however. In thinking about the hours he must have spent in order to get the nitty gritty details of the procedure the fair took baffles me. When it comes to a writers perspective, you have to give Larson some credit for his ability to research because he must have spent a long, long time on that book.

When it came to the story of Holmes I found myself completely engrossed in wanting to find out as much as I could about what he did and how he did it. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but when the titles boats “murder, magic and madness at the fair that changed America” I have pretty high expectations on what I’m going to be reading regarding at least the murder aspect. This man was one of the most notorious murderers in the country, so I thought he would have been able to fulfill my expectations. Granted a lot of what Holmes did was never actually recorded, especially in detail, Larson was given a lot of liberty that he did not take advantage of. The way that he approached this liberty was to make up dramatic details that were overwritten. It came off like a cheesy romance novel and consistently left me wanting more. When it came to his writing style I felt that he should have been able to produce believable scenes that didn’t leave me rolling my eyes with annoyance.

As far as the style of the book, I felt that he did an adequate job of making the Burnham and Holmes stories intersect by alternating them. When I found myself getting bored with the inordinate amount of detail about the transactions going on in the fair he took a step back and began talking about Holmes, and when I got annoyed at the one-liners provided in the so called imagination of Larson, he switched back to the fair. Overall I would say that this could have been a fantastic book if had been written by a better writer. Perhaps this is not the type of book that is Larson’s forte, but whatever the case, it had the potential to blow me away. My interest in the character Holmes was just left so empty by his lack of creativity. He relied on the quick whips and cheesy lines that were distracting from the point that this mass murderer was under the nose of the police. The underlying story was adequately told, but the details that Larson was able to make up were just so poorly written that it became too much of distraction and a let down.


I checked Chicago Poems out from the library here at UIC. Upon opening it up and breathing in the smell of old pages tenderly worn, I flipped to the back where the date due slip resided. There are currently five pages of previous patrons who have taken this book out of the library. As I held the book in my hands and saw that it was first checked out in 1980 I felt a sort of chill. The amount of people who have opened these very pages I looked at nearly thirty years later was astounding. It’s as if we are all connected by the poetry of a man about the very city in which our university resides.

I find myself walking down Canal Street to the train station and gazing up at the looming presence of concrete and steel. I’m drawn to Sandburg’s Skyscraper poem in particular. We’re past the days of a skyscraper mounting 20 stories but the endoskeleton that is the past remains to this day. When I’m walking down this street I can’t help but think of the probably millions of people who have walked in the exact footprints I leave behind in time. Similar to my book experience; where I have walked people before me have walked, and the book I hold to read has been held before. It’s weird to think about. Obviously there’s no way that anything is absolute in originality, but actually thinking about the past makes it so much more real.

Sandburg says that the skyscraper has a “soul”. This is something that makes complete sense when you think of the city in a personified way. The fact that this city has such a rich history means that is has grown. Our city is built on the nickname that it is the second city. It has a past, albeit a dirty one, it’s a past that gives the city a personal quality. Throughout the poem Sandburg is constantly giving buildings and objects human qualities and I think this makes sense. To most of the people who live here, it’s not just a home, but much more qualitative. Even though we may never know who has walked in the footsteps we walk in today, it is still a metaphysical connection to the past. The past carries with it a deeper understanding of why we are where we are today. Without the men and women who put their lives on the line to build such fantastic buildings, we would never be where we are today with a building such as the Sears (I refuse to call it the Willis) Tower. If it wasn’t for the imagination of people we wouldn’t be where we are today. Sandburg realizes that imagination is a catalyst for change and even though change is constant something is always left behind, lingering like a soul would when a person dies prematurely. The men and women who reached out to advance the city put their entire beings into their ideas and in doing so left an imprint of their soul that can never be removed. Though most people wouldn’t slow down their busy lives of money and business to realize the amount of innovation it took to create their lives, the fact remains that when we slow down to look where we are, we can feel their souls talking to us and inspiring more and more change; because as Sandburg says, “the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul”.

So reading these poems mixed with the fact that this library book has been in the hands of potentially brilliant people makes Sandburg’s reading that all things have a soul so much more palpable. A book can’t have a soul, but it has a history and a history that is survived by those who continue to check out the books. My date due in now in this book and someone in thirty years might check it out and not think about it, but in a subtle way, I have left a part of my soul in the text. I may not be a skyscraper, but holding and reading this book with awe is part of my history and now the books. I only hope that someone has the same appreciation for it that I do and they cherish the books past crossing paths with their present and changing their future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chicago: City on the Make

I thought a lot of both Kerouac and of Sandburg as I read Chicago: City on the Make. Algren refers to Sandburg a couple of times in the book as "the white-haired poet" and quotes from Sandburg's "Chicago," a poem that Algren's prose poem parallels and extends in many ways. The musicality, strange lingo, and accelerated pace of Chicago: City on the Make distinguish it from other Chicago texts. Even those familiar with Chicago history may feel like outsiders in the world of Algren's swift name-dropping and swirl of historical references. I could see recommending this text to others with regard to Chicago literature, but would send a reader looking for a text on the general history of the city elsewhere. There are numerous lines of note in Algren's book ("Every day is D-day under the El," "Where somebody is always forgetting to touch second [base]" and "An October sort of city even in Spring"), and his claim that "'What can I do for you?' still means 'What can you do for me?' around these parts" seems to still hold true in current Chicago politics.

I remember first reading a collection of Algren's short stories 15 years ago. It was also the first time I read Kerouac, and I was really taken by the high energy and velocity of their writing. I came across a copy of the typed statement that Algren wrote at the police station, explaining why he stole the typewriter, and I photocopied it and gave copies to friends, and we all laughed at it and thought it was brilliant.

Chicago: City on the Make began as an essay in collaboration with Algren's friend Art Shay. Shay, a well-known photographer, collaborated on numerous text and image projects with Algren. Shay published a book of photographs titled Nelson Algren's Chicago in 1981. In 2008, the Lookingglass Theatre Company produced a show about Algren titled For Keeps and a Single Day, and the MCA featured an exhibit of Shay's collection of photographs of Algren and Chicago.

Last April, Steppenwolf Theatre hosteed a reading in honor of Algren's 100th birthday.
You can see/hear actor Willem Dafoe read from Algren's story "The Lightless Room" at:


Every year there is a walking tour led by the Nelson Algren Committee that goes to Algren's old apartment, the fountain, and visits places Algren used to hang out. (The Chicago Reader and New City usually run an ad with details for this event.)

Here is a link to Frommer's walking guide for Wicker Park, which includes the address where Algren lived from 1959-1975 and directions for how to get there:



Chicago: City on the Make

I feel bad for posting all these posts at the same time. Sorry guys. I had them all posted on my own blog but I wasn't able to post until recently, so...yeah. Anyways, City on the Make. I really liked it. At first I didn't know what to think of the book, because it was really random and I didn't see a very linear story. I had no idea what to expect, this being my first delve into Algren, and I thought it was going to be more of tale of something than a portrait of the city in pieces. However, after I got over my own expectations and accepted the book for what it is, I learned to love it. I think Algren does an awesome job showing a little slice of Chicago-ness. He captures the grittiness and underground feel that encompasses Chicago for me. I love that the people he draws upon come to life and really paint Chicago as a city of gangsters and corruption and darkness, but in a lovable sort of way. That is what Chicago really is for me; it is a place of mystery and darkness and shadow and wonder and awe, and I feel like Algren really captures these emotions. I saw a lot of similarities with the way Sandburg captures the feel of the city in Chicago Poems. Both men really see Chicago as a dark and corrupt place, but also a very wonderful and strange city. Algren takes the portraits Sandburg captures in Chicago Poems and makes them into a more prosy, stream of consciousness sort of portrait of a bustling and wild city that is highly intriguing. Both authors don't try to fluff up the way of the city, or to change it, but rather commemorate the way that it is scary and welcoming at the same time.

The Jungle

So...overall I really liked The Jungle. I think Sinclair did a good job of making a point. I think it is interesting, however, that he says he was trying to hit the heart and instead hit the stomach. Well duh. This is a story about the grossest things ever--slaughtering animals for a living. eew. It gives me the willies just to think about it. As we talked about in class, part of the reason he hit the stomach so hard is that he made the characters so generic. Anyone could have fit their descriptions. And while that tactic was useful because it made the story one that was relatable to all immigrants, it also made it rather bland. No one had a personality that was truly defined, and the character creating that he did do was based off of misery. All of the characters are entirely miserable for the entire novel. No one ends up happy, and their is no resolution. In the end, everyone is dead and alone and miserable, and that's just not pleasing. No one likes to hear about how depressing and hopeless life is constantly. He hammers it in through the entire novel, and not once is there a glimmer of hope. When I began reading the novel, I was very optimistic of the entire thing. I felt that I could relate to Jurgis. If there is something I want, my solution to get it is to work harder, get another job, do whatever it takes to make myself as happy as possible. And this was also his solution. However, unlike Jurgis, things go at least half-assed right from time to time for me. As I continued on in the novel, it made me feel so unbelievably hopeless that it became a struggle to continue. Every time I'd pick up the book, I knew there would be some horrible turmoil for these poor souls, and it became like a chore to continue to read it. I get that Sinclair was trying to make a point about the futility of the American dream for so many immigrants, but I think if he would have made the characters a little more...believable...or something...then he would have had much more success at capturing the hearts of his audience. I think he got the feeling that he missed his mark because he made the book too gross. While it was disgusting, it was more just too morose and hopeless. I could have handled the yuckiness if I could have felt some sort of compassion for the characters, but it became too unrealistic. They became like those "friends," everybody has one, you know the ones who do nothing but bitch about their lives, and nothing ever goes well for them, and everything is miserable? Yeah, it was like I made plans with them every night for a week once I got into the heart of the book. And while I did basically finish the book, I had to skip the end because it was such craziness. He could have been much more effective if he had developed a realistic and believable story that also moved the masses.

Devil in the White City

I thought it was interesting that everyone hated Eric Larson so much in our class. This is the second time I’ve read Devil in the White City, and admittedly it wasn’t nearly as captivating the second time around, but I didn’t detest him the way we seemed to. I did notice, after we pointed it out in class, that he overdid his prose once in a while, but I think that is probably part of the mass market appeal. People don’t want to buy a non-fiction book en masse if it’s written like a non-fiction book. And people also don’t think that those tactics which we as writers see as a lame cop out are so lame. The average, non-writer person would probably see the points that we detested as a great example of some beautiful language. (Trust me you’d be surprised at the type of prose people find compelling. Sometimes I can’t understand how they can see value in these things, but look at any NY Times bestseller list and you’ll see what I mean.) So I feel like we gave Larson a bit of a hard time for nothing. He has to sell books first and foremost, or his publisher wouldn’t want him and then he’d be an unemployed writer like the rest of us. I know it was cheesy, but I don’t think it was that bad.
I also think it was interesting that people thought the Burnham sections got boring. It could be my obsession with everything Chicago that makes me love it, but I was way more into what the architects were doing than what Holmes was up to. By about midway through the book I could care less. Yeah, that creepy guy is killing another innocent girl. **insert gruesome, speculative prose here** okay, now let’s move on with the fair already! I think part of what fascinates me about this book is that you can walk around Jackson Park and the area where the fair once stood in all of its gargantuan white glory and not have the slightest idea that anything ever stood there. I know that the first time I read the book, I had to go down and walk around in the area just to try to catch some long lost ghost vibes from the city. I didn’t find anything, but I still thought it was cool. Now, as we stand on the brink of an Olympic bid, I think about how that relates so much to Devil in the White City. Will we, if we get the Olympics in 2016, allow our memories to fade into disrepair and rubble like the Chicago of the past? I hope not. I don’t know how I even feel about the Olympics coming to the Chi, but regardless it is a possibility. And I hope that if we do get them, there is as much excitement and commotion (and less killers) as there was at the Colombian Exposition. So yeah…that’s my thoughts on Larson, and Devil in the White City, and the Olympics to a degree.

Chicago Poems

Chicago Poems is such an awesome piece of work. I can’t believe I’ve never read, or even really been exposed to it. Yes, it’s true, the self-proclaimed Chicago girl had never had exposure to this work before our class. I was really moved by the way Sandburg seems to draw a portrait of the city in motion and capture the spirit of Chicago. The opening poem is, of course, really awesome. It made me so happy and proud to be from Chicago. It doesn’t really faze me that there is so much exposure of injustice and rawness in the work; that is an integral part of Chicago. We are a city, like I said before, of underdogs. I also think that the frank discussion of the quality of life in the city at the time is great. Even though each poem is not specifically mentioning “Chicago,” the way the pieces all fit together makes a patchwork of our city as it existed and also as it exists. I don’t feel ashamed at the corruption; rather I feel empowered. The portrait that Sandburg creates, which is clearly of a past Chicago, is not really all that different from the city today. It made me want to go out and change things, and make an impact on the world.
I was reading this work when I took a trip to Murfreesboro, TN, and I loved the contrast it provided for my trip. The people I met in Tennessee were already amazed at my “northernness,” whatever that is, and I could feel the contrast of our ways of life so much as I read Chicago Poems. Sandburg does an excellent job of capturing the pace of the city, the fever pitch that we all have become so accustomed to experiencing. Reading that while trying to adjust to the slowness of the south was really interesting, because it made me realize just how different and special our city really is. The work captures something in our attitudes, our mannerisms, and our way of life that is different from anywhere else in the country. I think Sandburg really does the city justice, even if it is not always pretty all the time.

Random Chicago Stuff

I am a Chicago girl to the fullest. I have lived my whole life within 15 miles of the loop, and I can’t imagine ever calling anywhere else home. There is so much about the city that fascinates me, and I feel like every time I go anywhere, there is an amazing story to be had. Chicago is a city of stories; we have a vast abundance of ghost stories, as we have seen, and history, and literature, and mystery and crime and so many other things. Each neighborhood is a mosaic of the way things used to be, and the way things are, and, if we look close enough, the way things are about to become. Everything about Chicago is alive and electric—our public transportation, our parks, our people. Chicago emits life; it may be a tough life, we are a city filled with underdogs who have learned to pull ourselves up by our boot straps, but that makes the stories all that much more interesting. Every person who visits Chicago, every resident, everyone at all who has contact with this city has a story to tell. There is no such thing as bordem or stagnation in Chicago. It is a place of wonder and awe, it is gritty and tough, it is the underdog and the conqueror.
I’ve traveled to lots of other cities around the country and the world, and although they’re all very amazing, nowhere has emitted the electricity that Chicago does. Chicago is a little bit of what all the other cities of the world have to offer, but with a dark underbelly of mysticism and suspense and grime and fear that makes it such a fantastic place. NYC is “the city that never sleeps;” they don’t know that Chicago never does either. We might turn the lights off in the downtown area, but the city is always buzzing with people on the streets, modern gangsters and ghost hunters roaming the city long after people have retired to bed. San Francisco, “the city by the bay” has nothing on Lake Michigan. While they have a salty bay that keeps the clouds looming, we have an endless piece of blue that brings cool breezes and a refreshing piece of nature to such a metropolis. Paris might be “the city of lights” but no matter how many lamps they put on their Eiffel tower, it will never rival the glittering wonder of the Magnificent Mile at Christmas, or the view of the skyline from the lake, complete with the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier illuminated with a thousand tiny bulbs that can put Paris to shame. And it works that way for every city. No matter what they have to offer, Chicago has something just as good—and so much more.

Cemetery Stuff

So I've started in pretty heavily on my project, and I am finding a wealth of information. There is so much to learn about the cemeteries of Chicago! I decided to start with Forest Park, since that's where I live so it is the most accessible. I've found out that there are 5 cemeteries in my town alone! Thats a bunch. The eeriest by far is the one at Altenheim, which is the scary cemetery Luis was talking about in class. First I googled about cemeteries in FoPa, and that's how I got the name of the place. Apparently, the cemetery is actually owned by the old folks home. There's a bunch of history about it, but I'm going to save some of the mystery for my project. Anyway...I went over there yesterday to talk to the woman in charge of the nursing home (which is now an independent living community for seniors. That gets into the history aspect that I'm going to have in my project) and she gave me the little history that the Chicago Historical Society wrote about the cemetery in 1992. I guess that's the last time any real progress was made about the cemetery; there hasn't been a burial there in over 20 years. There is a bunch of political mumbo jumbo about the rights to enter the cemetery, because all accessibility has been bought up by the city, but I got permission to go in from the lady inside. I also have a list of all the people buried there, and the place where they are supposed to be buried. The headstones are all overturned and broken, which makes it really eerie. I didn't find the video tape Luis told me about, but there were some eerie fake flowers on one of the graves, and a few unopened Ice Houses. I'm trying to research some of the people buried there, and see if I can get any good ghost stories about the place. Diane, the lady at Altenheim, is sending me some info she has about the people buried there and their decendents, some of whom still reside at Altenheim. So I'm looking forward to possibly talking to some of them and maybe working on a collection of history about the cemetery. On another note, the cemetery is on some list of endangered cemeteries, and there is little effort being made to conserve it, so Diane was really excited to help me out for the sake of the cemetery. I also discovered a wealth of information on the other cemeteries in FoPa, so I'm really looking forward to my photo excursion for Saturday. I know my post probably isn't going to show up on the blog now, but if anyone reads the stuff directly from my page and you'd like to come with, I'm bringing people along so just email me and we can arrange it. I'll keep everyone posted. Happy ghost hunting!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Chicago Story

Having read so many Chicago Stories, which are, in essence, immigration narratives, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Chicago Story. In a lot of ways, the story of my family is a microcosmic view of the social trends in the Chicago of the 1950s.

My grandmother fled the South as a 19 year-old (in the mid-50s), seeking work in Chicago as a secretary. She was quite the rebel, working in the much-feared Northern world of increasingly integrated public spaces. A young woman alone in a big city, she had turned her back on the small-town South.

My grandfather, by the time my grandma had reached Chicago, had successfully escaped the tiny, war-ravaged Adriatic island where he was raised (off the coast of what was once Italy, now a Croatian territory) and was working as a bartender for William Wrigley. My grandfather’s life would fit quite well in a Carl Sandburg poem: an impoverished Italian without papers immersed in the world of the city’s wealthiest men. Speaking broken English, working himself threadbare.

My grandparents fell in love, conceived my aunt. My grandfather was deported; several years later he received papers and returned. No hiding in the hold of a ship, no secret journey. He came as an American.

Later, my father was born. Because it was an assimilationist era, or perhaps because my grandmother cannot speak Italian, my dad and my aunt were raised “American.” Not a word of Italian, not a hint of Italian cuisine or culture (beyond argumentativeness and occasional self-righteousness—very Old World European).

I live now in Little Italy, an olive-eyed Italian-American transplant in the city’s Italian-American capital. I am surrounded by what I never had, what my father never had: the culture to match our dark eyes and our dark hair. As I wander home from class, pass Our Lady of Pompeii, the benches painted with Italian pride, I wonder if my grandfather came here. Did he have friends in this neighborhood? Did he frequent its churches? I chase the ghost of my family, our collective past, our origin. I wish I had been raised with a language to match my name.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Capsizing of the Eastland & the Finding of the "Fool Killer"

I've found myself in quite the research mood tonight as I continue to find little pieces of information that relate to topics we've discussed in class over the past weeks. This time I've found some random info relating to the Eastland tragedy.

- 835 people died in the polluted river that day

- Of those that died, 22 entire families were included

- One particular prominent manufacturing family, the Plamondon's, had a history of being victims in several tragedies over the 1903 Charlotte Plamondon was barely rescued from her box seat during the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Plamondon were both killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. During the Eastland capsize, several members of the families of E.K. Plamondon and Ambrose Plamondon were aboard the ship but all luckily survived.

- One man, John Ebert, helped save 3 dozen people aboard the ship. Ebert had a previous experience of capsized ships, having survived the sinking of the Titanic.

- My favorite piece of info I discovered was the random discovery made by divers pulling bodies from below the river. Along with the hundreds of bodies discovered, divers also found a large, metal, circular object resting on the riverbed. Inside, the skeletons of a man and a dog were found. It was later determined that the object was an experimental submarine, called the "Fool Killer", designed by Lodner Phillips of Indiana who sold the contraption to William Nissen of Chicago. Apparently Nissen attempted to test the sub and sank to the bottom of the river. The sub was eventually raised from the river and put on display (skeletons and all) in 1916.


I'm just wondering where this submarine is now...

The Ghost of Mrs. Hull

I was completely unaware that Jane Addams and her crew were not the original inhabitants of Hull House until I randomly came across some information in a book I recently bought. Prior to the waves of immigrants that used to occupy the land that is now the UIC campus, this section of town used to be one of the finest residential districts within the city, which prompted Charles J. Hull to build a home in the area. Unfortunately, the Chicago Fire of 1871 caused the "better" classes to move from the area, replaced with large groups of Italians, Greeks, and Jews.

Hull and his wife, who died in her 2nd floor bedroom, remained in the house until their deaths in the 1880's. In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr obtained the property and opened their famous settlement house with the help of the Hull heirs who enjoyed the idea of helping the poor. Soon after moving in, strange noises were heard among the guests of the house which were attributed to the ghost of Mrs. Hull. Addams was actually the first occupant of Mrs. Hull's former bedroom and reported hearing footsteps each night while she tried to sleep. Gates then spent a night in the room and reported the same thing. Addams and Gates then invited author Helen Campbell to spend a night in the room after which she reported seeing a "white figure" standing next to the bed at night. Subsequent sounds and reports were given by others who later visited the house. The ghost of Mrs. Hull was described as a calm, friendly ghost though and the occupants of the building eventually grew accustomed to her presence.

That trip to Hull House is sounding like a better idea every day.

As for the rumored devil-baby ghost, I've read several sources that state the story was simply a ploy of the time to keep women from marrying men of other nationalities.

The O'Leary's and the Chicago Fire

After discussing the Chicago Fire in class a few weeks back, I became semi interested in what all happened to the O'Leary family after being blamed for such a devastating event in Chicago. A couple of questions ran through my mind: was a cow really to blame for the entire city going up in flames, did the city blame O'Leary simply because she was a poor immigrant, and what became of the O'Leary family (and their cow) after it was all over? After looking around for a bit, this is what I found.

First off, I should note that just a day before the actual fire began a visiting lecturer named George Francis Train visited the city and issued a warning to the residents of Chicago that "A terrible calamity is impending over the city of Chicago". This warning was in regards to the poorly constructed buildings and homes hastily built all over the city and the constantly present danger of fire. The city, ignoring Train's warning, ridiculed him instead.

People present within the O'Leary household offered a different version of how the fire began, saying that there was a party taking place celebrating the arrival of some newcomers from Ireland. Philip Michael Kane, a child of one of the men present at the party, claims that his father carelessly emptied the ashes from his pipe on the floor of the barn which ignited the blaze.

After the fire was finished, the city of Chicago, including the Chicago Tribune, investigated the O'Leary home and described the family and the surrounding area as despicable. Due to the unrelenting humiliation delivered by the city, Mrs. O'Leary, often referred to as a "hag" and "crone", and the kids moved to a home on Wallace St. on the outskirts of Chicago. Sadly, Mrs. O'Leary was forced to face the scorn of the city until her death caused by pneumonia in 1895 despite a Chicago Tribune writer in 1893 admitting that he had fabricated the story to make it "colorful".

One of O'Leary's sons, Con O'Leary, grew up and eventually murdered a woman and maimed his sister after a long night of drinking, and the other, James O'Leary, eventually became the gambling and crime boss of the Stockyards District at 4183 S. Halsted St.

As for the infamous O'Leary cow, she was lost during the fire but later recovered. O'Leary sold the cow to a man named Schick at 15th and Morgan and the sister of the cow, "Dudley", was sold to a "Paddy" Sexton at 28 Waller St. "Dudley's" death was eventually reported in the Chicago press in 1890.

In my opinion, regardless of how the fire actually began, the city of Chicago was done a favor by whoever or whatever caused the Chicago Fire. Without its destruction, Daniel Burnham and the other famous architects of the time would not have been able to create the marvelous city in which we now live.

White City's Little Triumphs

The little trivial facts that Larsen quickly mentions in The Devil in the White City, were neat to read about. At times, I was more excited to read about the little things that came out of the White City. These little things represent the powerful cultural boom occurring in Chicago during the end of the 19th Century. I am going list some of my favorites, and I hope you guys and gals post some of yours too. This first one was exciting because it is a glimpse of how the Disney Empire became a sparkle in its father’s eye.

“In all, the workforce in the park numbered four thousand. The ranks included a carpenter and furniture maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake. His son Walt would take note” (153).

Now, I know when you read that, you had to be like “Whooa!” Real long emphasis on “o.” I know I was. It is another example of one of those little cliffhangers Larsen lets you ponder. This particular hanger is answered immediately, compared to Mr. Ferris and his wheel. Your reading about Elias thinking, “Elias Disney? Could that be Walt Disney’s father?” and before you finish the thought Larsen answers your question. Well, at least that was my take on it. So without the White City we may of never had the pleasure of meeting Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, Pluto, and so on. Disney World might have never happened, and all the entertainment they influenced would be non-existent. Thank You Mr. Burnham.

There was also the array of “firsts” that debuted at the White City.

“Within the fair’s buildings visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music…transmitted to the fair by a long distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison’s Kinetoscope…They saw even more ungodly things – the first zipper, the first ever all electric kitchen…pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s. They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel- coated popcorn called Cracker Jack. A new cereal, Shredded Wheat…a new beer [that] did well, winning the exposition’s top beer award. Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon” (247-48).

Now, when I go to Kuma’s Corner and order a PBR with my burger I can be proud knowing I can’t afford their better beer, but that PBR was the champion beer at the White City in Chicago 100 something years ago. Kuma’s Corner is a metal bar with famous burgers. They only serves PBR because their feelings on the more popular beers are as follows: “Death to Miller and Budweiser…they are over-produced and inferior products that prevent passionate craftsmen from sharing their gifts with all of us. All the beer they serve comes from small breweries.

The trivial facts that Larsen brings to the reader are interesting, but because of his writing there sometimes questionable. Even though he told me in the beginning, “this is not a work of fiction”(xi), I still had trouble believing everything he said, because it felt, at times, like a work of fiction. So when I read about PBR or Walt Disney, I had to look it up online to see how truthful his research was, and the trivial facts seem to be factual. Larsen wins this time but only in the trivial sense. What about all his H.H. Holmes mumbo jumbo? I’ll be a sucker and believe every word he says about Holmes, because I want to. I give him the benefit of the doubt. Why not? Entertain me Mr. Larson!

Distance in the White City

The most striking features of The Devil in the White City were certainly the tiny details which Larson so carefully collected. One such particular was the fact that Burnham lived in a make-shift "shanty" in Jackson Park during the fair's construction. It was not possible for him to commute from his family home in Evanston. Although the disconnection between south side and north side continues to sometimes feel this extreme, it's obvious that we don't have communicate with loved ones in different parts of the city by letter, as Burnham did:

"You must not think this hurry of my life will last forever,' he wrote in one letter. 'I shall stop after the World's Fair. I have made up my mind to do this.' The exposition had become a 'hurricane' he said. 'To be done with this flurry is my strongest wish" (Larson p. 128).

It was obviously possible to get from Evanston to Hyde Park in 1892, in one chapter Burnham is up waiting for his son's to arrive by train, but the idea that the city was sprawling up its current size while communication and transportation raced to keep up is very interesting to me. It makes it easier to imagine how someone like Holmes operated in the relative anonymity that he did. You could get lost in very modern urban crowds, while worrying only about a letter from some concerned Wisconsin parents that would eventually tip of the police.

Long distance relationships from Hyde Park to Evanston raises interesting questions about the relative seclusion that different neighborhoods operated within-- it makes it clearer how allegiances, myths and stereotypes about different parts of the city were born. Living in apartments abutting one another, sitting next to each other on trains, standing in quiet elevators, It makes me wonder how distant we still are from each other.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems—#2

Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems—#2

Maybe sometime after 1906 Carl Sandburg met Jurgis Rudkus when they were both hobo-ing it across the Midwest. In the poem, ‘Boes, Sandburg states: We were three in all, the other being a Lithuanian who got drunk on pay day at the steel works and got to fighting a policeman.

I’d like to think that Socialism was just another of the many disappointments in Jurgis’ life. After quitting his bellboy job—mainly due to the boring and endless speeches— he returned to the slaughterhouse to look for secluded, sonically superior work where he could never hear anybody make speeches. But, he was never picked from the line: being too old and weak. So, he went back to the steel mill and harvester works and found employment. Jurgis pacified his pain with drink and convenient companionship. The policeman he punched was trying to arrest Jurgis’ recycled sweetheart as she was on her way to meet Jurgis at the same whorehouse where Marija lived and worked.

I could be wrong. Maybe it was a different Lithuanian hobo who liked to drink and fight policemen after working at the steel mill. Its great reading Sandburg again after Devil in the White city and The Jungle!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems—#1

Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems—#1
I felt that there were a few gems in this seemingly unedited collection of poems. Some descriptions are clichés that one might find in a high school kid’s journal. Sandburg may have invented these clichés, but the combination of these AND the formulaic writing wear me down:
  • There is an event.
  • It happens to somebody in the upper crust of society.
  • It is compared and contrasted against somebody in the lower rungs.
  • Themes are mostly about the suffering poor.
Cumulatives offers a more interesting way of comparing and contrasting.

The ones that really spoke to me:


To certain Journeymen
Under a hat rim
Bath is cool—a man transformed by music
To a Contemporary Bunkshooter—here I don’t mind his rambling ‘cause he is kicking some hypocritical ass.


And they obey


At a Window
Under a Harvest Moon
On the Breakwater
I sang—only the 1st two lines are needed, just great!

It is much
Harrison Street Court—I live on Harrison street, and I feel it.
Gone—Chick Lorimer, what a gal.

Dream Girl—very corny, but nicely put
Old Woman
Under a telephone pole
The Junkman

City on the Make (first half)

I am half way through my first reading of Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make and so far much of it reads like an extended letter written in the back of a high school senior’s yearbook, “Have fun in college and don’t forget L.E.M.F.!!! May Big Bill and the Del Montes live forever in the Senior Lunch Room!!! Good Times!!!” Nostalgic in-jokes to those in the know but completely meaningless to outsiders. As a confirmed Chicago outsider am completely left behind. The research required to make even a small portion of chapter two understandable makes me tired to think about. It seems like a book with a very limited audience since he does so little to explain any of his references.

Two cities, “one for the White Sox and none for the Cubs.” I think that is supposed to be funny, but I’m not sure why. And I assume all this stuff about Dwight Moody is related to the Moody Church that owns half of my neighborhood? The few references I do understand give me a feeling of accomplishment. I do know that Prohibition had its roots in Chicago, Evanston I think. And the line about, “if you’re entirely square yourself,” move to the North Shore, “where Reader’s Digest is a faith,” is funny.

Some of the themes present so far in this book we’ve seen in other readings: Chicago as two cities, a city of neighborhoods, a city where many people pass through anonymously, were all themes present in The Jungle, Devil in the White City, and linked to the Industrial Revolution. The millions of workers who populated the train yards, stock yards, and factories and make the city run, but individually pass through the city unnoticed. People seemed to experience Chicago at the turn of the century (and now, to a certain extent) as a city very much divided: the haves and the have-nots, and a city of neighborhoods which people very rarely ventured out of. Even now it is North siders and South siders, the cubs and the sox, those who vacation in Michigan and those who vacation in Wisconsin. Maybe it’s just due to the vastness of the city – it is too much to take in all at once so we create divisions in our minds.

So far this text definitely suggests more questions than answers. What is a “Trust” in the Chicago context? The Jungle had some kind of Trust established among the meat packing plants and the Tobacco Trust is mentioned in City on the Make. Is a Trust an inherently corrupt arrangement, like a monopoly?

City on the Make also has the same rough, direct writing style I have come to expect from Chicago lit. I am beginning to understand it as an expression of the mood the writers are trying to convey: tough, straightforward, unpretty.

Chicago Poems (second reading)

My second reading of Sandburg was remarkably different from my first. The lines and themes that bothered me so much before I had difficulty recognizing this time through and the tone read differently. I think reading The Jungle had a lot to do with my changed perspective, giving Chicago Poems context and also acclimatizing me to the harsh tone of so much Chicago writing. I think I had to learn to read Chicago Poems, to become able to get the content without becoming distracted by the writing style.

One of the poems that I thought was a great follow-up to The Jungle was The Right to Grief. It was a good illustration of the inflexibility and inhumanity of the newly industrialized world that Jurgis encountered. The workman’s inability to properly grieve his loss, coupled with his ambivalence about the child’s death echoed the immigrant’s experience in The Jungle where the family is unable to take a day off after their wedding, and Jorgis sense of self-preservation overwhelms any sense of filial obligation when he sets off on his own.

I also enjoyed A Fence, “passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.” While Sandburg is certainly a sharp critic of industrialization and the class structure, he is also able to recognize certain human truths that are universal despite race and class and money.

The Jungle

The Jungle was relentless. There is no redemption, no hope, no joy in the story that is not immediately destroyed. It is exhausting to read and it feels incomplete. Even the most desperately poor find time and energy for laughter. While Sinclair worked for a time in the stockyards to research the industry, it seems he skipped the part where he lives among the working poor to understand their lives. At times the Jungle reads like an outsider’s view of what it is like to be poor: nothing but horror. It is a one-sided portrait.

I thought one of the best social observations in the book was the depiction of the wedding. There is a timeless lesson there about the confusion that immigration brings and the failure of translating traditions. Marija was intent on giving Jurgis and Ona a proper wedding. A wedding is a symbol of ethnicity, religion and class – all the important social signifiers that announce and assure us of who we are and where we belong in the world. Literature and history is full of characters and people who are left unmarried because their families cannot afford a proper wedding. It was deemed better to be an old maid than to marry in a manner unfit to your class or culture. So Marija wanted to make sure that Ona was not dishonored (by the old country’s standards) with an improper wedding. But the traditional wedding the family was expecting, where the family fronts the costs and the community pitches in at the end, had been lost in translation and the community of new Americans did not meet the old world expectations. The family was financially ruined by the event. I was trying to come up with a modern day equivalent that has faired better and I think of the very successful translation of the Quincenieras party to American culture. I wonder what other traditions have been lost by modern migration.

Whatever financial security was not destroyed by the wedding was ruined in the family’s buying of the house. That story line affected me greatly because it is such a familiar story these days with the collapse of the housing market. I could feel myself tensing up as I read. The predatory lenders, inscrutable financial documents, uninformed buyers and lousy construction are familiar refrains. While the lawyers and bankers can assure the buyer that everything is standard and legal, the buyer still has no idea what lies in store for them. It is only in hindsight that they recognize they never stood a chance.

Sandburg's Chicago Songbook (first reading)

In my first reading of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems it was helpful to follow the perspective Urrea mentioned in class to think of the book as an album where each song was a part of a whole instead of individual works that could each stand on their own. Most of the individual poems sounded obvious to my ear, and while I understand Sandburg’s coarse tone was most likely intentional, rather than a function of poor writing, at times it felt like a sledgehammer in verse.

I was frustrated by Sandburg’s idealization of “the old country” which reads as willfully naïve. In Happiness and Child of the Romans he fails to recognize the circumstances that lead immigrants and other rural populations to Chicago. Instead of acknowledging the complicated realities of Chicago’s newest residents he chooses to simplify to the point of caricature: things were so great back home (a “home” which Sandburg probably had never visited) and here they are horrible. It seems like much of what Sandburg is responding to is the Industrial Revolution and the resulting devaluing of manual labor and the laborer, which was going on all over the world at that point, not just in the US. So while some of the laborers experienced it as an issue of migration is was a much broader phenomenon and I guess I just wish he presented a more nuanced perspective.

If I focus instead on the general themes of the work and the feelings the collection evoke in me, I am able to appreciate the Chicago Poems in a new way. The “album” carries themes of happiness, the working man, class, race and migration. I like how he is bringing together the experiences of the many different groups that populated the city to produce one portrait. It feels very human in that way. I also like that he is able to recognize a more rounded representation of the human experience, the joy and the frustrations, rather than getting stuck on one point.

One of my favorites of the collection was Anna Imroth. The final line is a bit of a sledgehammer, but with a lovely wry tone, “the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.”