This Is Not a Movie

The Insane Chicago Way by John M. Hagedorn

A certain conflict always exists in attempting to portray real violence in media. In one sense, violence is dramatic, wars are exciting, and crime is thrilling. But the destruction of human lives is something that responsible authors feel compelled to treat with some solemnity. In The Insane Chicago Way, criminologist John M. Hagedorn makes it clear that he won’t engage in a clichéd portrayal of violence on the streets of Chicago, neither the myth of the charming Mafioso nor the allure of gangster riches.

The book covers the life and death of a couple of Chicago’s biggest gangs in the nineties: the People and Folks coalitions and Spanish Growth and Development (SGD), the latter of which would become the Spanish Gangster Disciples. The narrative chronicles a failed attempt to reduce community violence, and Hagedorn’s subjects are a web of real people who were killed or had their lives destroyed through violence, incarceration, and drug use.

In the book, Hagedorn doesn’t directly dispute the typical image of a violent and territorial gangster; in fact, these personalities feature heavily. He does, however, present new narratives, clearly showing that the criminal network of Chicago is in no way homogeneous. There are people left with no choice but gang life; there are college-educated people who choose to go into crime; there are activists and corrupt politicians; there are gangsters obsessed with appearances and those who craft entire organizations around restraint.

Hagedorn’s narrative is anchored by a series of meetings, meals, and neighborhood tours between him and an anonymous gang member, Sal. Sal is alternately capable of composure and violence, of bias and rationality, facets of his personality that Hagedorn displays with skill. Despite Sal’s anonymity, it is almost impossible for the reader not to construct a vivid mental image of him.

Even better than Hagedorn’s descriptions are the ways in which these gang members describe themselves. When Hagedorn quotes from an interview at length, it gives his subjects the chance to explain themselves and the world they live in, whether it’s Sal describing the birth of the C-Note$—a mostly Italian street gang founded in the fifties—or a transcript detailing the near-bureaucratic nature of SGD.

While Hagedorn should be commended for these insightful interviews, his use of metaphors is sometimes forced, and his transitions can be tough to read. His own appearances in the text are also uncomfortable. At one point, he completely removes us from the story for an anachronistic anecdote about speaking for the Chicago Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization committed to criminal justice reform.

“[This] is a story,” Hagedorn writes, “that by its very telling is meant to encourage others to ask new questions and to look at familiar forms in different ways.” To that point, the book is surprisingly accessible. While Hagedorn does bring in outside sources regularly and the examination of academic criminology is a central tenet of his book, he does not ground his viewpoint in concepts that require outside knowledge.

The Insane Chicago Way is a fascinating recounting of a series of events from Chicago’s criminal past with a cast of vibrant characters. It’s also a thesis on the weaknesses of the current academic understanding of gangs and, consequently, the strategies employed by law enforcement and politicians to control them.

John M. Hagedorn, The Insane Chicago Way: The Daring Plan by Chicago Gangs to Create a Spanish Mafia. University of Chicago Press. 320 pages. $27.50.

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