Saturday, December 13, 2008

Neil Harris

From an interview with Neil Harris, author of The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age:

Question: The Chicagoan first appeared in June 1926. Can you set the context for us? What was Chicago like in the mid-1920s?

Answer: The image of Chicago that was forged in the 1920s would last for decades. It is still quite familiar. Chicago was “stormy, husky, and brawling,” as Carl Sandburg once wrote. It was also at the peak of its economic power—the stockyards butchered twenty million animals annually; millions of bushels of grain were milled, stored, and moved through the city; stench from the stockyards and smoke from the steel mills and oil refineries hung in the air. The population grew by about 25% in the 1920s, an increase of 680,000 people. New apartment buildings and bungalows collared the city.

The skyscraper was born in Chicago and by the ’20s the city had plenty of them. It also had an opulent opera house, the world’s largest fountain, the world’s largest building, and the world’s largest hotel. Fine museums and great universities were established. But Chicago was also notable for its slums and squalor, its violent labor and racial conflicts.

Of course, this was the era of Prohibition and Chicago’s most famous resident—the world’s greatest gangster—was Al Capone. Chicago was the capital of racketeering and vice and, under the leadership of political boss and mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, the city administration was flamboyantly corrupt.

So despite dashes of culture, Chicago was widely perceived as a place of raw commerce and crime—brawny, philistine, vulgar, and violent.
Read the complete interview.

See a gallery of covers and illustrations from the magazine and sample pages in PDF (7mb) from the book.

--Marshal Zeringue