Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Wednesday, June 12

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

Book Club
« Bookmarks Two Cookie Minimum Presents Industry Night »

Interview Fri Apr 27 2012

Interview with Gary Krist

images-4.jpgGary Krist's latest book City of Scoundrels:The 12 Days Of Disaster That Gave Birth To Modern Chicago was released April 17, 2012. He is the author of The White Cascade, and has written for the New York Times, Esquire, Salon, and the Washington Post Book World. His book covers the 12 days in Chicago in 1919 when a blimp crash in the Loop, the murder of a little girl, transit strikes, and a flurry of race riots sent the city into frenzy.

In the early 1900's things were changing across America as a whole. Why did you choose Chicago as a focus for this change?

I'm really interested in big cities and how they change over time, how they evolve, because it's always a very tumultuous, almost Darwinian process with groups being in competition with each other. I wanted to look at it as almost a test case of the whole American idea of can we build a Democratic society based on this collection of people of all colors, races, creeds, nationalities. And so the question was, could this group of people from all over the world come together and put aside racial hatreds, put aside ethnic hatreds, and cultural differences, and build the city into an economic powerhouse. We know now that the answer is yes, but there were times as in 1919 when it looked like the experiment was not going to work.

Your previous book The White Cascade focused on the early 1900's as well. Is there a particular fascination with this time period?

I think of this era, the Progressive Era, the first two decades of the twentieth century as really being the adolescence of modernity. Technologically I think it was an adolescence, and also socially. I think cities were growing and they were growing faster than they could really adapt. That's what really interests me about this era. It really seems that change is happening so quickly and our ability to control the change has not gotten there yet so you get all kinds of excitement.

Why did you decide to make Chicago's mayor William Hale Thompson, or Big Bill as he was known, the focus of your book?

First of all, he is God's gift to any narrative history; he is just so colorful, so corrupt, with the big cowboy hat, and he was the leader of the city. I think he represented the force by which the city's various groups were going to have to accommodate each other. He was a master at getting groups that should not be on the same side on the same side. A city has to change, and his changes of course were superficial, more often than not.

Big Bill had his good and bad parts in shaping Chicago. But, what part do you think Big Bill played during those 12 days?

I think the mayor's performance was bad during the crisis, but he really aced the recovery from the crisis. Because of the resolution of both the transit strike and the race riot investigation by Governor Lowden and by the Democratic States Attorney-they both just made a hash of the recovery, and Big Bill was able to use the resulting outrage to build a powerbase. So this created another upset among commuters and people who have to get to work. Big Bill was able to take advantage of that with his "save the five cent fare." So really the crisis harmed him, but the recovery from the crisis really brought him back to the fore and he was able to dominate Chicago politics for most of the '20s.

How do you think Big Bill's reaction or lack there of, affected how people in Chicago reacted to these 12 days?

He was a charmer and he was very interested in distraction, so he was able to distract people and say, look the Chicago Plan ordinances. He arranged for that ceremony to sign one of the important Chicago Plan ordinances on the day the riot ended. So, he knew that what he had to do was get peoples' minds on something else. He was a master of doing that.

Your book has some pretty extensive historical sources. How difficult was it to find the testimonies and witness accounts of these 12 days?

I spent a lot of time at the Chicago History Museum research center, the Newberry Library, and reading the newspaper microfilm. I'm always looking for specifics because I'm a narrative historian; I have to bring scenes to life. I'm always looking for somebody describing the scene, actually quoting what was actually said, what the room looked like, so I'm constantly looking for that kind of detail.

That must be difficult at times.

It is, but, having written novels and short stories, fiction, I was really sensitive to, I have to bring this alive and the thing you need to bring it alive is concrete detail. And since you can't really make it up, I have to find that in a historical record.

When you started doing research for this book, what findings inspired you the most? And how did this shape the way you wrote the book?

I was most inspired by the whole idea of the plan of Chicago. This idea that you can take a city that had grown up very chaotically and marshal the support in the city to do this thing, to remake the city from top to bottom to make it better.

In the end do you think Bill Big helped shape Chicago to make it what it is today? And if he did, what part did he have in it?

I think he was both good news and bad news for Chicago, perhaps more bad news than good news. He allowed crime to flourish in the city, which gave Chicago this reputation as a gangster town that it still really has in certain places. When you go to Europe and you say "Chicago," they say "Al Capone." People have called him the worst mayor ever and there is a lot of justification for that. But, I do think that he really did imagine himself as a builder, "Big Bill the Builder" as he called himself. So, I do think that a lot of the architectural gems that make Chicago such a showpiece today really came about under Big Bill's administration, so you have to give the guy credit for that.

GB store
GB store
Gapers Block presents Tuesday Funk, Chicago's ecclectic monthly reading series.
GB store



About GB Book Club

Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

Editor: Andrew Huff,
Book Club staff inbox:



 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15