Friday, November 12, 1999

Hamilton reviving 'Little Chicago'


City plan would use past to build future

BY RANDY McNUTT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Memories of John Dillinger and the Purple Gang have faded, but the city's notorious nickname won't go away: “Little Chicago.”

        The name resurfaced last month when the city bought three 1880s buildings on High Street and Cincinnati architect Robert Alan Powell drew plans for an upscale restaurant and retail complex. Little Chicago seemed a perfect moniker.

        Plans call for the three buildings to include a fine restaurant, a dance club and nightclub, private office space and specialty retail shops.

        Officials see it as another spark that could help start a much-needed revival — reversing downtown's decline by exploiting its wild past.

        “We have a tourist thing in its infancy,” said Councilman George McNally, a former police chief who remembers the Little Chicago days. “Most people want to use the name to make some hay in this town.”

        City Manager Stephen Sor rell said the city bought the buildings “to preserve the historical nature of our downtown. I think it (the project) will come about in time. It's just a matter of finding the proper developer.”

        But lawyer Harry Wilks, who sold the buildings to the city, isn't hopeful. “It's not a rosy outlook for the downtown,” he said. “Ohio Casualty is moving people out. Buildings are up for sale. A lot of businesses are leaving.”

        When Mr. Powell suggested the name, he used it whimsically, referring to Hamilton's past as a refuge for Prohibition gangsters, prostitutes and boot leggers.

        But to people who remember those days, the name is anything but whimsical.

        “This was a hard-drinking town,” said James Blount, a former newspaper editor and retired teacher who has studied the era. “The attitude was: Prohibition may be the law, but it is state and federal law and shouldn't be enforced here.”

        Today, only a dark High Street alley and crusty brick buildings suggest the time 70 years ago when sinister characters walked in the county seat.

        Development now covers their domain.

        Despite the changes, downtown Hamilton would look familiar to a gun-toting time traveler from 1929. After years of sitting vacant, the historic Anthony Wayne Hotel, a downtown focal point when built in 1926, is receiving a $3.3 million renovation to provide affordable housing for people 55 or older.

        On the west end of High Street stands the art deco city building, erected during the Depression but solid as ever and ready to become a museum or something else. East on High Street, the city's old opera house is reopening for offices and businesses in a $3 million private project, while an $18 million office tower, One Renaissance Center, nears completion at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

        Downtown also features a $6.5 million streetscape project, a $6 million connection to the Butler Regional Highway and, the biggest plum of all, the $35 million Government Services Building.

        “Collectively, all the things that are happening downtown have created momentum,” said city Planning Director Jim Boerke.

        Furniture store owner Roy Joffe said he understands why the name Little Chicago was chosen, but he wonders if its projects will ever start. “Those are fantasies,” he said. “But we have to dream.”

        A few elderly residents have been less forgiving. They've told city officials that the name Little Chicago offends them.

        “We've written to them personally and explained that the name is as significant as the buildings,” Mr. Powell said. “We're not trying to drag the city back into a period of ill repute.”

Haven for gangsters
        In the 1920s and '30s, the name Little Chicago rang throughout Ohio like a pistol shot. John Dillinger's gang stayed with impunity, bootleggers cooked illicit brew and gangsters on the lam found safe haven.

        Though Hamilton is credited with the dubious name, Little Chicago actually applied to all of Butler County, where six people died in underworld shootings in May and June 1929.

        “Besides bootlegging, there was rampant political patronage and bribery,” Mr. Blount said. “They were here before, but Prohibition enriched the pot. If you didn't approve, the best thing to do was keep quiet. Terror — and implied terror — affected everyone.”

        Mr. Blount pointed to a downtown building where his father, once a major bootlegger's driver, was almost killed on a cold night.

        “Dad went out to warm up the car,” Mr. Blount said. “As he walked back into the building, the car blew up. Somebody had dynamited it.”

        Nefarious acts weren't uncommon. The city's understaffed police department, the public's various illegal activities and stubborn defiance helped make Hamilton attractive to gangsters.

        “Dillinger's gang formed here without him when he was in the Allen County Jail in Lima in 1933,” Mr. Blount said. “They went to Lima on a Friday morning, posing as law enforcement agents from Indiana, which had jurisdictional rights to him. The sheriff didn't believe them, and they ended up killing him. The gang picked up Dillinger and came back to Hamilton to regroup.”

        Taking a reporter on a tour of the city recently, Mr. Blount turned on South Second Street and pointed to a two-story tan frame house where he says Dillinger stayed with about five other men and six women.

        “The strange thing is, a lot of people knew he was staying here,” Mr. Blount said. “My dad, a cab driver at the time, told me so. Dillinger's gang was so well-armed that it would have been suicide to go in there to get them. They had bulletproof vests and machine guns. Hamilton police had pistols. By the time out-of-town officers arrived, the gang had left town.”

Home brew popular
        That Dillinger chose Hamilton doesn't surprise Vernon Hornung, who as a young meat-cutter served local bootleggers and a gangster's mother every week.

        “Everybody was making home brew then,” he said. “We sold hops in our store and people would use them to make brew in their kitchens. They wanted it like people want soft drinks today. We had a gang that would actually go through the garbage looking for spoiled fruit to use in making whiskey.”

        As a boy in the early 1920s, he and his brother once saw people gather on Nilles Road in Fairfield Township to look at a body.

        “It was "Turkey Joe' Jacobs, shot in the head,” Mr. Hornung said. “I'll never forget seeing an officer stick a finger in the dead guy's bullet hole. A woman fainted on the spot.”

        A few miles away, the Stockton Club — opened by a former Hamilton police chief — entertained people from a wide area. “Supposedly it was controlled by the Purple Gang, a Detroit group allied with Al Capone,” Mr. Blount said. “Musicians told me that people would suddenly appear from the train, stay briefly at the club and then leave. They were "hot.' The club was a safe haven.”

        By 1950, however, new federal racketeering laws and changing economics finally stopped the reign of Little Chicago.

        “For years it had been one crook against another,” Mr. Blount said. “Your greatest fear was your rivals.”

        Today in Hamilton, concrete covers the memories.

        “The Government Services Center has rejuvenated the area around our store,” said Mr. Joffe, who has worked downtown for 58 years. “I think we hit bottom and now we're coming back. But will we ever get back to our former self? Nobody knows.”

Little Chicago: An early chronology



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School chief under fire steps down
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Children's Hospital expansion passes halfway point
- Hamilton reviving 'Little Chicago'
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