A ride on the seamy side

Mob history is the focus of a new trolley tour organized by the Historical Society, giving new meaning to the term "neighbor hood"

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When people talk about Oak Park and River Forest neighborhoods, the emphasis is usually on "neighbor." But on June 26, the Historical Society will place the accent firmly on "hoods" with their first-ever "Welcome to the Neighbor Hoodâ€"A guided tour of gangster homes in Oak Park & River Forest."

There was a time when many local residents called hoods neighbors, as some of the most nefarious mob figures from the 1920s through the 1960s lived, for the most part peacefully, side by side with those of us who didn't make our living through bootlegging, racketeering and other forms of organized crime.

Sam "Momo" Giancana, operating boss of the "Chicago Outfit" was Oak Park's most notorious resident. Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, River Forest's No. 1 gangster-in-residence, was Giancana's boss. But there were plenty of others, including Paul "The Waiter" Ricca and the ill-fated Spilotro brothers, Anthony and Michael.

In fact, the Historical Society trolley will pass 14 homes of past ill-repute, led by River Forester and amateur mob historian John Binder, a University of Illinois at Chicago finance professor who has written a book, The Chicago Outfit, on the history of organized crime in this area. He has also served as a consultant for various cable productions on the mob.

"It's a hobby that got out of control," said Binder, who added that his residence in the village that once housed Accardo is "purely flukey." He moved back to the city where he grew up when he landed the UIC job, and the Oak Park-River Forest area was a natural place to look for homes. He didn't find what he wanted in Oak Park, so his realtor encouraged him to look west of Harlem.

But his River Forest residence is as close as he comes to a connection with the mob. "So many people have relatives who worked for someone or who lived nearby. I have the least interesting story. I've just always been interested in Chicago history, and this is one of the most colorful parts. It was front and center for many years."

Indeed, as Chicagoans traveling abroad have learned over the years, the mere mention of their hometown brings references to "Capone."

"Even Michael Jordan couldn't erase Capone," Binder noted.

Why did so many mob figures live here?

"They wanted the same things we want," Binder said, "a quiet, clean location, a good-sized house, a good education for their kids (many didn't want their sons to follow their career path), and there was a 'herding mentality' among mobsters. They liked being close to their friends."

And close to work, too. Many had operations on the West Side (e.g. Taylor Street) or the western suburbs, Binder said, so it was convenient to live here.

"Like many Westsiders, their dream was to move to the suburbs."

At least one magazine he saw made the claim that in the early 1960s as many as 55 top hoods lived in River Forest alone. Binder thinks that's an overestimate. He's seen the lists the FBI put out, and they often included "hoods, associates of hoods, and fellow travelers."

The tour includes 14 stops, Binder said, but don't expect Hitler-style bunkers with bullet-proof windows.

"External threats were irrelevant," Binder said. "They only feared their own people becoming dissatisfied, and when that happened, bullet-proof windows wouldn't save you."

As Giancana found out. He was assassinated in his own basement by an insider, his sausage dinner left cooking on the stove. Accardo's house was once broken into by burglars, but it turned out to be a bad career move since all were subsequently hunted down and exterminated.

The interesting details lie inside the houses. Accardo, for instance, had a 12-by-12-foot bank vault ("not a safe, a vault," Binder said) in his basement. It would probably be prohibitively expensive for the current owners to rip it out, even though "they don't have the cash-handling issues Accardo had," said Binder.

But the tour won't be going inside any of the homes. Binder will provide commentary on each figure and his relationship to mob history from the trolley outside. Each of the three tours that day will last about two hours, beginning at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 4 p.m. The cost is $25, or $20 for members.

Binder said it's a fundraiser for the Historical Society, and if the tour is successful, he may do it twice a yearâ€"or more if the demand is great enough.

Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, said Binder gave a presentation on mob history to the society and then suggested doing the tour. Board member Peggy Sinko helped him put it together.

Lipo said they've also kicked around the idea of leading other tours, organized on the theme of famous writers or "notables" such as McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.

"It's a very fertile area" for famous people, Lipo noted.

As for mob history, he added, "We don't want to glorify them, but these people are inherently fascinating."

Binder said, "There isn't 'good history' and 'bad history.' There's just history. Some of the past may have been unpleasant, but it's still worthy of study."

• Call the Historical Society at 848-6755 to make a reservation for the gangster tour on June 26.

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