Richard Joseph Daley was a product of the bloody world of the Chicago slaughterhouses. Chicagoans of his day, both Catholics and non-Catholics, located themselves by referring to their local parish they came from Saint Mary's or Saint Nicholas's. Daley came from Nativity of Our Lord, the parish church of his childhood, where he would be eulogized seventy-four years later.
Nativity was founded in the mid-1800s to serve the poor Irish-Catholic laborers who were flooding the area to work in the growing meat-packing industry. The church's simple stone building stood at the corner of 37th and Union, on the fringes of the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport and hard up against a vast expanse of cattle-slaughtering facilities. Standing on the steps after Mass, young Daley could smell the fetid mixture of manure and blood that wafted over from the sprawling Union Stock Yards to the south. The gurgling in the background was the cackle of "Bubbly Creek," a torpid offshoot of the Chicago River that got its name from the fermenting animal carcasses and offal in its slow-moving waters.
If Nativity seemed like an unlikely place for spiritual repose, it had once been worse. The church's first home had actually been in the former J. McPherson livery stables. The name "Nativity" was a reference to the fact that the church, like Christ, had been born in a stable an attempt to put a holy gloss on grim surroundings. Nativity's new building had a pleasant interior, including ornate stained-glass windows, but nothing could make up for the harsh reality of geography. Daley's spiritual home was located just a few hundred feet from what one parish history called "the greatest and bloodiest butcher shamble in the world."
The whole city of Chicago had a reputation for coarseness and for lacking the style and sophistication of older cities like Philadelphia or Boston. "Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again," Rudyard Kipling wrote after visiting in 1889. "It is inhabited by savages."
Chicago was the industrial capital of the Midwest, a tough town dominated by factories that belched black smoke. Theodore Dreiser, who roamed the city as a reporter, marveled in his book Newspaper Days at the "hard, constructive animality" of the rougher parts of Chicago. It was not uncommon, he found on his rounds, to come across men standing outside ramshackle homes "tanning dog or cat hides."
The Chicago of this era was a town in which displaced farmhands and struggling immigrants competed for space in ramshackle tenements and rooming houses, and hooligans roamed the streets. Block after block of "disorderly houses" did a brisk business corrupting hordes of guileless young girls, like Dreiser's Sister Carrie, who arrived daily from small towns in a desperate search for a better life. And it was Chicago saloonkeepers who invented the Mickey Finn, a chloral hydrate-laced drink slipped to solitary patrons so they could be easily robbed.
"The New York Tenderloin," journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote, "was a model of order and virtue compared with the badly regulated, police-paid criminal lawlessness of the Chicago Loop and its spokes." Chicago's moral climate was shaped by Al Capone and the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, and by the ignominy of the 1919 Chicago White Sox the team that shocked the nation by fixing the World Series. "Chicago is unique," journalist A. J. Liebling would conclude after visiting for a year to research a book. "It is the only completely corrupt city in America." Loving Chicago, Nelson Algren once said, was like loving a woman with a broken nose.
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