Settings and the lessons of history

by Dan O’Shea

Say Chicago to someone, and then say the 1968 riots, and you’re going to hear about the Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and The Whole World Is Watching. Great political theater, sure. A seminal moment in the whole 1960s counterculture, in the anti-war movement. But it’s not what I remember. Nobody died, nothing burned.

I was nine years old in 1968. Say 1968 and riots to me and here’s what I remember. I remember the days following Martin Luther King’s assassination. I remember watching Chicago burn on the news, watching my grandparents’ neighborhood burn.



It was only three months before the convention that most of the west side went up in flames. 11 people were killed – all black, all shot by the police. Hundreds more were injured, thousands arrested. In a 27 block stretch running west to east between Roosevelt Road and Madison Street, more than 200 buildings were burned to the ground. The city sent in more than 10,000 cops. The state deployed more than 6,000 National Guardsmen. President Johnson deployed 5,000 regular army troops. Funny the parts of history that get ignored.

That’s why, for me, history is a part of, maybe the most important part of, a setting. That’s why I wrote Pillar of Fire for Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds. A story that delves not just into the history of Chicago, but also into the history of the characters from my debut novel, Penance.

Penance is set in Chicago. For some writers, setting is an afterthought, but for me, setting matters. As a geographic location, Chicago certainly has its points of interest. There’s the lake, there’s the architecture, there’s the feudal and still often racial nature of its neighborhoods. There’s the politics – maybe the last real big-city democratic machine still in operation, with all the attendant corruption.

But setting begins with history.

The architecture? Chicago is one of the world’s most interesting architectural towns because, just as the ideas and technology that made the steel-framed skyscraper a possibility germinated, a huge swath of this city – including most of the central business district – burned to the ground. This gave visionaries like Jenney, Root, Burnham and Sullivan a blank canvass to explore the new art of soaring steel at a time when most other cities were fully built. In New York or Boston, they could only envision a building. In Chicago, they could envision a skyline.

Chicago’s raw youth and explosive growth are also the foundation of the story of its politics and its racial unease. In 1840, Chicago was only four years old and its population numbered less than 5,000. By 1890, Chicago’s population had exploded to nearly 1.1 million – it had increased to more than 250 times its original size in just fifty years and was now the second largest city in the United States.

Unlike the cities on the east coast, which traced their histories back to the Revolution and before, this sprawling new metropolis had no establishment, no central locus of power, no families or ethnic groups well enough entrenched to make or shape the rules. Where New York had its financiers and Boston had its Brahmans, Chicago had a vacuum. Where those eastern cities saw their populations explode with the rising tide of immigration, those immigrants arrived in metropolises with established orders, established rulers.

Immigrants poured into Chicago in huge numbers – the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Ukrainians. In 1900, there were more Poles in Chicago than in any city in the world outside Warsaw, and more Czechs than in any city outside Prague and Vienna. The Germans and the Irish each accounted for nearly a fifth of the city’s population. And the ethnic groups tended to stick together. The Germans on the northwest side in Jefferson Park. Many of the Irish on the south side in Bridgeport. The Poles along Milwaukee Avenue. The Czechs and the Ukrainians – the Bohunks as my ancestors would have called them – on the near west side.

These immigrants arrived not as servants to an established elite, but to a political and commercial vacuum, a free-for-all where the only limit to power was what you could take – and what you could keep. Chicago’s official motto is Urbs in Horto – City in a Garden, but its operating principal has always been Ubi est mea est – Where’s mine? Bare-knuckle politics were nothing new in the U.S., but the brand played in Chicago was particularly brutal – and often overtly racial. And it was a brand of politics at which the Irish excelled.

In the early 1900s an explosive new element was added to the mix of white ethnic groups already slugging it out for power – the blacks. The early 1900s saw the Great Migration – the influx of blacks from the rural south to the industrial north, where they hoped to escape the discrimination, disenfranchisement and violence of the Jim Crow south. Their hopes were not well met. Much of the black population was shoehorned into a long, narrow strip of dilapidated housing on the south side centered on State Street that came to be known as The Black Belt – an area that bordered the fiercely defensive and often virulently racist Irish enclave of Bridgeport.

In 1919, a young black man name Eugene Williams was swimming in Lake Michigan and got too close to an area of beach considered “white.”  White beach goers started throwing stones at Williams, and he drowned. When blacks near the scene went to the cop on the local beat and called for an arrest, a black man was arrested instead. Already simmering racial tensions exploded into violence.

A white mob threatened to burn down Provident Hospital, where most of the patients were black. Scores of fires were set in the Black Belt and, when the fire department tried to respond, they found the streets leading into the area strung with cables, blocking their access. The mayor’s office would later report word of a plot to burn the entire Black Belt to the ground and the residents out of town. During the rioting, 38 people were killed – 23 blacks and 15 whites. Hundreds of blacks and almost no whites were arrested. Trains leaving Chicago for the south were crammed with black families fleeing violence. In the aftermath, unionized white workers threatened to strike at the stockyards – one of the city’s major employers and one of the few places where blacks held decent jobs – if black employees were allowed to return to their jobs. The blacks were largely nonunion workers, many who had been brought in by management as strike breakers during earlier labor disputes. Black employment at the stockyard plummeted.

An official inquiry found that Irish social clubs from Bridgeport were responsible for much of the violence – including the Hamburg Athletic Club, of which a 17-year-old Richard J. Daley, who would go on to found Chicago’s famous political dynasty, was a member.

And that’s why I wrote The Old Rules, for Shots e-zine.

I’ve got another story out there that offers some background into my novel and its characters – Wonderful Country  for Shotgun Honey. And there are more to stories to come. You can keep up with all of them at the Penance page on my blog.

The almost cliché quote from George Santayana says that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. I say that writers who fail to learn the lessons of their setting’s history miss out on the best stories.

Dan O’Shea’s novel, Penance: a Chicago thriller, will be published by Exhibit A in the UK and US in 2013.

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