Monday, February 19, 2007

The mobster who won't die

Tourists love Capone sites, but city cringes at gang legacy

January 28, 2007
Al Capone refuses to be rubbed out.

Chicago officials shun any association with the world's most famous gangster, whose Prohibition-era exploits made his name synonymous with the city. But 60 years after his death, they still can't run him out of town.

Visitors from all over the world come searching for anything to do with Capone, who died Jan. 25, 1947.

'I'm just fascinated by it all'
They drive by his house. They leave flowers, coins and cigars at his grave. They take pictures of places associated with him -- never mind that everything from hotels where he ran his criminal empire to the garage where his henchmen carried out the St. Valentine's Day massacre are long gone.

''It just seems to be that era, the mobsters, gun fights . . . I'm just fascinated by it all,'' said Nancy Spranger, of Fenton, Mich., before stepping on an Untouchable Tours bus -- complete with fake bullet holes -- to see sites tied to Chicago's gangland past.

Much of the mobster's history, though, is left to their imagination because Chicago officials have made little effort to preserve or promote sites tied to his legacy.

''Anything that glorifies violence, we are not interested in,'' said Dorothy Coyle, director of the city's office of tourism.

For decades, city officials have rebuffed preservationists' pleas to spare buildings associated with the mobster. In the 1980s, they gunned down an effort to designate Capone's house on the South Side as a national historic landmark.

A short-lived mobster-themed entertainment center/ museum called ''Capone's Chicago'' was greeted with loud complaints that it insulted Italian Americans and romanticized a cold-blooded killer.

Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, understands why the city wouldn't want reminders of Capone, but he doesn't believe there is a conspiracy to wipe out those sites.

'Destroying history'
Even so, he said, each teardown destroys a bit of the city's history. ''Destroying history is the most shameful legacy of all,'' Fine said. ''You can't erase it, so you might as well embrace it.''

Laurence Bergreen found Chicago officials far from receptive when he was researching his 1994 book, Capone: The Man and the Era.

''They rebuffed me: 'Why don't you write about the symphony, architecture, Mayor Daley?' '' he recalled.

John Binder, author of The Chicago Outfit, thinks that the lingering influence of organized crime in Chicago has the city dead set against anything that smacks of mobsters. ''It's not that they want you to forget about the past; they want you to forget about the present,'' he said a few days before a deputy federal marshal was arrested on charges that he fed information about an informant to the mob.

''There has been a strong hostility of the city to this kind of history,'' Binder said. ''They don't like this image of Chicago.''

Yet many people still are drawn to the city's mobster past.

Capone is the subject of 50,000 hits a month on the Chicago History Museum's Web site -- five times the number of inquiries about the Great Chicago Fire and ''by far the number 1 hit on our Web site,'' museum curator John Russick said.

Untouchable Tours owner Don Fielding said he has been able to stay in business for 18 years -- longer than Capone was around, he'll remind you -- because ''people like the idea of somebody getting away with something.''

Capone surely did -- for a while -- raking in tens of millions of dollars as head of a massive bootlegging, prostitution and gambling operation during Prohibition. Widely suspected in a number of murders but never charged, Capone, nicknamed ''Scarface,'' was brought down by federal income tax evasion charges and, ultimately, his own lifestyle.

After a trial in which his men tried to bribe jurors, Capone was convicted and spent seven years in federal prison. He died in 1947, his mind ravaged by syphilis.

''He's kind of been elevated to this status as the quintessential example of [the] American gangster,'' Russick said.

Thanks to countless films, television shows and books, he has stayed there.

''You hear somebody say, 'This guy's a regular Al Capone,' you don't need to say another word about the guy,'' said Robert Schoenberg, author of the book Mr. Capone. ''He's infected the national consciousness,'' Schoenberg said.

Union Station a big draw
Make that international consciousness. Tourists from Europe and Asia are particularly interested in Capone and love to see and hear about the places where his torpedoes pumped his enemies full of lead, tour guides say.

''European tourists who watch a lot of American gangster show reruns, they are fascinated,'' said guide Michael LaRusso Reis. ''The French and the Italians love to go to Union Station in Chicago where they filmed the baby carriage scene,'' in ''The Untouchables.''

About the only thing that has changed, guides say, is tourists don't pretend to shoot imaginary tommy guns as much as they used to.

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