Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Chicago. But one author has discovered 12 days in the history of the latter that indelibly tested its resolve and helped define its course.
In his New York Times bestseller, “City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago,” Gary Krist details the events of July 21-Aug. 1, 1919, when Chicago endured tragedy, violence and chaos that would challenge a young, rapidly growing city still trying to solidify its future.
Krist was drawn to write about Chicago because it was “the great test case of urban America” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It teemed with immigrants from around the world and a growing population of Southern blacks. In early 1919, its diverse citizenry was coming together to draw up their city’s future.
The city had a plan to modernize and transform, develop lavish parks and invest in roadways, bridges and waterfronts that would make it a city to be envied. But on the very day Chicago adopted the first ordinances in its plan, a blimp crashed into the downtown financial district and the first of 12 days of chaos ensued. Race riots, the murder of a young child and a train and streetcar strike soon shook the city. The militia took to the streets.
“City of Scoundrels” is a historical sketch of one of Chicago’s most challenging periods and is told with plenty of larger-than-life characters, action and drama. It illustrates just how quickly best-laid plans can be derailed and offers insight into the intricacies of race relations in a turn-of-the-century metropolis.
While “City of Scoundrels” is a fact-based account of a pivotal time in Chicago’s history, it unfolds like a good yarn with twists, turns and fascinating characters. Anyone interested in learning how Chicago found its way to its Second City status in America should find Krist’s latest book an enjoyable read.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Krist airs next weekend.