History of Al Capone: In our backyard
Alphonse “Al” Capone, a.k.a. Scarface, was a 1920’s mob boss of the Chicago Outfit during Prohibition. He was known for bringing bootlegged alcohol in through underground tunnels as well as owning multiple illegal gambling houses, smoke shops, and brothels. Interestingly, many of his past headquarters existed only a few blocks from my place in the South Loop.
Over the last couple of months, during my post-boards free time, I’ve been researching this infamous gangster in many books, websites, and blogs. I’ve learned a lot about his life. Most of the buildings he was involved in have been demolished, but one is still standing, and it’s only 2 blocks away from me!
The story of Al Capone is just one of the many fascinating stories about Chicago history. It encompasses a very small percentage of historical landmarks in this city. This is one of the reasons Chicago is such a great place to live, when you can find time between classes and exams to explore.
2001 South State (below): What was once called the Cullerton Hotel (a headquarters for Al Capone) is today called Blue Star Auto Stores. The tunnels underneath it leading to his many other locations have been blocked off. Today, the building is undergoing renovations. I took this photo (below) only a few weeks ago when I walked over to one of my favorite South Loop restaurants, Opart Thai.
Michigan and Cermak (below): What was once known as the Lexington Hotel is now a large apartment complex appropriately called “The Lex.” The original Lexington was torn down in 1995. A lot of my friends at ICO have lived or currently live in the fancy new apartments that exist in that location now.
2222 South Wabash (below): One of Capone’s speakeasies is now an empty field near the Cermak Green Line station. A man by the name of Johnny Torrio became Al’s mentor in Brooklyn before either of them had come to Chicago. After Johnny moved to Chicago and the Prohibition was in place, Johnny recognized the opportunity and recruited Al to Chicago to help out. Al started working as a bouncer at one of clubs. It’s here that he was attacked with a knife and got his notorious nickname, “Scarface.”
During his time at the brothels, Capone contracted syphilis and gonorrhea- diseases that bring to mind an extremely red eye full of pus and infectious uveitis. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t know these facts while taking the red eye class; knowing that Al Capone had both would have made the material much easier to remember!
23rd and Michigan (below): Where The Shelby apartments exist now was once another hotel called the Metropole Hotel. This was yet another one of Al Capone’s homes. I looked at The Shelby as a potential place to live during my studies, but ended up finding some friends to live with only a few blocks north of it.
2128 South Wabash (below): James “Big Jim” Colosimo, one of Al Capone’s mentors and Johnny’s partner, owned a restaurant. Big Jim decided to get out of “the business” and continue with the restaurant. In the same spot today is Tommy Gun’s Garage, a 1920’s prohibition era dinner theater.
935 South State Street: Despite his crimes, Capone wanted to be seen as a good person to society. This gave him the motivation to open several shelters for the homeless and unemployed.
Al Capone was suspected of making $100 million per year. He liked it when his friends called him “Snorkie”, slang for “sharp dresser”. He had many members of the press and police force on his payroll, so he knew when a raid was going to happen and could escape through his tunnels to another one of his places.
After taking one of Chicago’s many gangster tours, I was amazed at how many Chicago historical buildings are still standing. When I consider my own school, it’s really cool to think that it started way back before Al Capone was even born and came to Chicago, the original school being founded in 1872. During the Prohibition Era, in 1926, the college was merged and changed its name to The Northern Illinois College of Optometry. A search of ICO’s alumni portal shows graduates dating back to class of 1918!!! It’s difficult to imagine how different it would have been to live and study here at that time.
While searching ICO’s historical archives, I came across this picture (below) from the 1931 class yearbook. Wow!
Over the past few months, it has been very interesting learning about this piece of Chicago’s history. The story of Al Capone interests me the most because I drive by many of these locations every day. I find myself noticing a lot more of the old buildings now when I take the bus to school and visit downtown on the weekends.
I still plan to visit one of the gangsters’ favorite restaurants, The Green Mill. “His” booth in this restaurant has perfect views of both doors, so he could watch out for threats. Another place on my bucket list is a visit to Tommy Gun’s Garage, a 1920’s style prohibition dinner theater, serendipitously located in the former location of “Big Jim” Colosimo’s restaurant. When I come back to Chicago in the fall for my 4th year rotation, I’ll have lots of time to check things off my Chicago bucket list before graduation next May.