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12 days of disaster that changed Chicago forever

Author Gary Krist looks back at 1919 and the blimp crash, murder, and race riot that made the Chicago the metropolis we know today.

By Randy Dotinga / May 1, 2012

'You had a city going from a state of high optimism about the future to the brink of civil collapse and martial law,' Krist says of Chicago in 1919.

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Mention the city of Chicago and the year 1919, and someone might bring up the Black Sox scandal that disgraced major league baseball. But the Second City had much bigger problems on its mind earlier that year.

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A blimp crashed downtown in a fantastic accident. A young girl was murdered by a person (or persons) unknown. A race riot broke out and dozens were killed.

And on top of all that, a transit strike paralyzed the city, all during the heat of a Midwest summer. In his new book, historian Gary Krist takes a closer look at one of the most epic series of crises to ever hit an American city. "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago" is a crackling history, full of expert storytelling from the very first page. In an interview, Krist talks about the dashing of Chicago's grand post-war optimism, the
corruption that has long bedeviled the city's reputation, and the legacy of inept people making bad decisions.

Q: What happened in Chicago in 1919?

A: You had a city going from a state of high optimism about the future to the brink of civil collapse and martial law.

The war was over, the influenza epidemic was tapering off, the crime rate was low, and people had this plan for Chicago in view.

[Architect and urban planner] Daniel Burnham had this visionary plan that was going to turn Chicago into the Paris of the prairies, and people were very optimistic about this.

Then the postwar pressures just set in. And what started out looking hopeful disintegrated into this 12-day period when the city descended into chaos.

It started with a blimp crash, the first major aviation disaster in American history. And even before people had time to digest that, a child disappears from the North Side of Chicago, which created this hysteria about whether our children are safe from our neighbors.

The real mayhem began when a pretty minor incident at a South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst race riots in American history. As if that weren't enough, a transit strike was called.

Q: How were the ordinary people of Chicago affected by all this?

At a certain point, people wondered if Chicago would get through this.

I include excerpts from the diary a young girl of 17. She wonders if the city will ever settle down: What is going on in this city?

People thought the whole fabric of society seemed to be tearing apart: I can't get to work, I can't even go out on the streets. I'm looking at my neighbor a little askance. And you can't even walk into a bank without fearing that a blimp will crash into the roof.

There really was a sense of crisis and emergency felt by just about everybody.

Q: The government is supposed to help in situations like this, but it was entirely corrupt thanks to machine politics. Then again, ordinary folks often appreciated the machine, right?

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