The Encyclopedia of Chicago

James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, editors

University of Chicago Press

Chicago has finally made the big time. We have a brand-new 1,117-page encyclopedia of our very own, joining Indianapolis (1994), New York City (1995), Cleveland (1996), and Louisville (2000). A 13-year collaborative effort involving three editors, more than six hundred contributors, and three Chicago institutions–the Newberry Library, the Chicago Historical Society, and the University of Chicago Press–the Encyclopedia of Chicago’s dazzling collection of maps alone makes it an enjoyable as well as indispensable reference.

As coeditor James Grossman told the Sun-Times in September, most readers will start by looking themselves up in the book. I did, and the Reader wasn’t there–nor was any other alternative publication going back to and including the Chicago Seed. No biggie, the mainstream media ignore us all the time. But it did make me wonder what else might be missing. It may seem ill-mannered to crab about what Newberry Library president Charles Cullen has called “our gift to the city.” You wouldn’t tell Aunt Judy that her birthday present lacked a power cord. On the other hand, Aunt Judy probably wouldn’t charge you $65 for her gift either.

At the October 6 publication party at the Harold Washington Library, public-radio quizmaster Peter Sagal quipped that the book’s full title is really “The Encyclopedia of Chicago Richard M. Daley Mayor.” He may have been on to something. Over the years both rebels and members of the establishment have done things that the latter would prefer to forget, or at least gloss over. In too many cases the Encyclopedia does the deed for them. In addition, while events of the last 15 years are understandably scarce, a surprising number of entries grind to a halt in the mid-80s, and popular culture appears an afterthought at best.

If the Encyclopedia was the source for all you knew about the city, then you’d know that the tiny farm towns of Virgil, Kouts, Ringwood, Beecher, and Schneider are among the 298 incorporated municipalities in the eight-county area. But you wouldn’t know:

That white people rioted against black people who sought to live in Chicago Housing Authority buildings after World War II. The entry for “Chicago Housing Authority” sanitizes these attacks as “violent white-black confrontations,” as though both sides were violent. These white riots are accurately described under “Contested Spaces” and “Political Culture,” where few readers will find them.

That Aaron Freeman invented the term “Council Wars” to describe Mayor Harold Washington’s first term. There was room for other Freemans, however: Allen B., Bud, Charles E., Chico, and Paul.

Who John Wayne Gacy or Richard Speck were, though “White City” serial killer Herman Mudgett merits a mention under “Crime and Chicago’s Image,” which wraps up in the 1930s.

That in 1937 the University of Chicago funded the hostile efforts of white Woodlawn residents to oust Carl and Nannie Hansberry, parents of future playwright Lorraine, from their south-side home. The entry on “Restrictive Covenants” notes that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned housing restrictions in Washington Park in Lee v. Hansberry.

That the skills of a handful of Chicago DJs sparked an international music phenomenon. “House music” warrants a sentence under “Rhythm and Blues.”

What it means to say that Mayor Daley II’s 1989 election marked “the beginning of a new era in Chicago politics,” as the entry on “Political Culture” concludes. Diligent researchers will find under “Machine Politics” the claim that machine politics is now an “anachronism,” while a sidebar under “Patronage” hints at ongoing corruption without naming names.

The name of the state’s attorney responsible for the 1969 raid in which Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed–Edward Hanrahan–though the attack gets two mentions.

That any police brutality or torture has happened in Chicago since the 1960s, only that “postwar courts increasingly restricted police discretion.”

Which institution of higher learning benefited when Bethlehem Steel preemptively leveled the heart of the Indiana Dunes in the 60s. Northwestern University bought the sand for its expansion eastward into the lake. The entry for Northwestern chastely refers to “adjacent land reclaimed by filling in Lake Michigan.”

The identity of the architect of “Disco Demolition.” Steve Dahl gets no mention in the one-third of a page devoted to “Disc Jockeys,” which wraps up in 1986.

About Mayor Daley II’s midnight raid on Meigs Field. States the entry on “Airports, Commuter”: “Mayor Richard M. Daley closed Meigs Field in 2003.”

With help from Mark Athitakis, Martha Bayne, John Conroy, Jeffrey Felshman, Ted McClelland, and Elizabeth M. Tamny.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tomasz Walenta.