A fountain gently burbled as I walked into the pocket park at West Monroe and South Wells in the Loop this afternoon. Worker bees ate Jersey Mike’s subs and fiddled with their smartphones. Did any of them know the grisly, infamous history of this site? My guess is, probably not, unless they read Gus Russo’s 2003 book “The Outfit.”
Russo specializes in researching the Mafia and the JFK assassination. “The Outfit” traces Chicago’s mob scene and corruption in the city, which predated Al Capone by a good half-century.
Organized crime wasn’t the only problem in turn of the century Chicago. There were also lots of rats. That was due, in part, to infrastructure issues. The city was literally sinking into the mud, so its buildings were raised. That had the unintended effect of creating a maze of alleyways where bad stuff happened.
If you find this bitter historical gem intriguing instead of depressing, “Building The Dream,” a new exhibit at the Vertical Gallery, may be just for you.
The exhibit features works by British graffiti artist Graeme Brusby (a.k.a. “Xenz”), who makes his U.S. debut with “Building The Dream.” His paintings and drawings have a dreamlike quality, especially if your dreams are on the dark side. The works recreate the literal underworld of pre-fire Chicago in the late 1800’s.
Vertical Gallery owner Patrick Hull explained how Xenz developed his style for the exhibit.
“His whole inspiration was this underworld, and the Under The Willow club (a popular den of inequity), which was the first building that had an entrance into this world from the city after they raised the buildings out of the mud,” Hull said. “Xenz started reading the book, ‘The Outfit,’ and had this visual impression of the city, and so he did these paintings based on that impression and visualization.”
He actually got his inspiration for the works from Russo’s book before he’d ever set foot in Chicago. Aside from the printed word, he had little previous knowledge of Chicago. His imagination was also captured by the story of the Under The Willow club. In the late 1800’s, Under The Willow was run by Roger Plant, a Yorkshire man—just like Xenz.
“A friend told me about this book [‘The Outfit’], said I should read it,” Xenz said. “I was astonished at how people went to all this effort to create a complete world under the city. The idea of the paintings was to show it was quite an unsavory place.”
“Building The Dream” runs through July 26 at the Vertical Gallery, 1016 North Western Avenue.
So exactly where was the entrance to this underworld and the Under The Willow? Exactly at the corner of Monroe and Wells, where the quiet little park sits now.