THE BATTLE OF THE HALSTED VIADUCT

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May 12 2010, 11:22am

People who LARP can be divided into two categories--those who are interested in history, and those who are lonely and would rather spend their time pretending to be a 7th-Century Nordic Berserker than quit his/her job at the local Hollywood Video. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the latter. They're really good at knowing a lot about anime comic books, helping me with HTML coding, and having exaggerated opinions about The Lord of the Rings. However, I much prefer to socialize with those in the former category, like this guy I know named Paul Durica.

In much the same way that your neighbor with 15 cats in her two-bedroom apartment reenacts 15th century England at her Society of Creative Anachronism meetings, Durica reenacts understated events from Chicago's cryptic past. Aside from being a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, he organizes performances, lectures, and tours of Chicago's crime and labor history. His organization is called the Pocket Guide to Hell, which is based on a quote by a British labor reformer from the 1800s named John Burns, who said that "Hell is a pocket edition of Chicago." His first Chicago reenactment was the opening of Al Capone's vault, which he performed in the basement of an old video store with a real vintage dynamite plunger and an exploding wall. With an Eli Nash persona, Max Fisher's ambitious, hobbyist mentality, and a mustache that's so good it looks like it's from an expensive costume shop, Durica makes the best kind of nerd.

His most recent foray in Chicago historical reenactment was the Battle of the Halsted Viaduct, which essentially boiled down to an ultraviolent, ultradramatic, working-class uprising in 1877. It was a time known as the "The Great Upheaval of 1877," when rail worker wages were cut around the country, and the industrial workers of the US went on a general striking spree. The two events collided in Chicago at the Halsted viaduct. After labor agreements went awry at other major points on the rail system, word got around that "the Man" was throwing down his vile, greedy gauntlet, so workers left their posts, congregated at a busy intersection in an immigrant-heavy neighborhood, and highlighted their discontent by chucking rocks. According to the New York Times, 10,000 hell bent men were present for the skirmish, which was filled with ample club swinging, gun shooting, and stone throwing. Ultimately, 30 people were killed and at least 100 were wounded.

In Paul Durica's reenacted Battle of the Viaduct, a lot less people died. However, the whole production was nevertheless shockingly accurate to its namesake. I was drawn to the epicenter by a pre-ska era, brass pep band called Environmental Encroachment in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, finding myself amid a mötley crüe of lumbershovers, blacksmiths, meatpackers, rail workers, and the like. Off to the side there was a group of ten -year-olds throwing foam rocks covered with blood. According to the history books, most of the people killed in the incident were pitifully young men--making this a manneristic if unintended nod at realism. If it was actually planned this way, my 1870s working-class transman's hat goes off to you, parents of the small group of children. You clearly read, and accurately interpreted Durica's press release.

Before long, Paul and his mustache stood in front of a large map of North America and lit a long dynamite wick. Megaphone in hand, he told the dramatic story of the Halsted viaduct. As the wick began to shrivel under the map itself, Mexico caught on fire. Because of the impressive organization of the event thus far, I'm just going to round up and say that Durica planned this whimsical, ironic metaphor of Mexico's crippling drug war, the recent toxification of their precious gulf, and the depressing stab at Mexican livelihood by the Arizona state administration. Once Mexico was ablaze, the original, intended effects of the wick took place, and the industrial fortitude of the 1800s exploded, leaving empty patches on the map where Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis once were.

I assume that this brief explosion was the police cue because immediately after the map exploded, about 30 people dressed like police officers from a Curious George cartoon came walking toward the blue-collar brigade that I was a part of. Most of them looked like complete buffoons in their paper mustaches, but the police commissioner, who bore the resemblance of an extremely hostile Teddy Roosevelt, looked awesome. Somehow, the way that he was smoking his massive cigar came off like a nonverbal invitation to betray my working-class sympathies--like the police all sat at the cool kids lunch table and he was saving a seat for a reenactment blacksmith like myself.

I only had a brief second to contemplate pulling a Benedict Arnold, when suddenly reenacted chaos ensued! The police reenacted entering a crowd of angry blue-collar civilians as the blue-collar workers reenacted discontent towards their upper management. Before long foam bricks started flying at an alarming speed, mostly from the arms of ten-year-old kids. Paul Durica was yelling names out of his microphone to reenact the fact that certain people were dying. Certain people were reenacting dying while trying not to get stepped on by the kids throwing chunks of foam. Some middle-aged vegan with a squirt gun reenacted ruining the police commissioner's cigar. I experienced a moment of Stockholm Syndrome and reenacted a blacksmith who was contemplating treason because he thought the police commissioner, even after a 30% wage cut, looked like he lived a better life than a blacksmith. After a lot of standing around, someone gave me a piece of black fabric, which meant that I had been blacklisted, and could never work in Chicago again--another timely metaphor.

The group started to move toward the historic location where the end of the battle took place. Since it was a couple of blocks away, we had to walk on the sidewalk, which certainly ruined some of the mystique of the entire event. Every two or three cars someone would yell out of their window, "What are you doing?" and/or an obscenity, which certainly didn't help our already fractured imaginations. Eventually, we stopped at a newly redeveloped part of the neighborhood, divided sides, and started throwing bloody foam stones again.

Since we were fighting in the middle of a moderately heavily trafficked intersection, it became a Wayne's World-esque limbo between aggressive, reenacted combat and cordial calm as a car slowly passed. Eventually, the ten-year-old rail worker children were the only ones throwing bricks, and the thirty people who had reenacted being killed started socializing, so Paul Durica had no choice but to end the Battle of the Halsted Viaduct. He thanked the participants for their help, and the mass of people then reenacted going to an after party at a couple of young artists' house to sing Irish folk songs and drink beer. Theoretically, that was also a historically accurate event since most of the instigators in the uprising were immigrants. The home's post-apocalyptic appearance, and obvious problem with hoarding old mannequins and farm equipment, made it seem like the appropriate place to nurse wounds after fighting against labor injustice.

The whole event made me seriously reconsider my opinion towards groups like the Society of Creative Anachronism and people who fall in the aforementioned, latter category. If their sword fighting tournaments and Renaissance Fairs are anything like a Paul Durica event, then I might be a little more enticed by their shenanigans. I don't think that's the case though. Reenacted 10th century English knights can't compete with Durica's Eli Nash artistry, and I can't quite kick the thought in the back of my mind that instead of partying after their sword fighting tournaments, those English knights just go back home to play Dungeons and Dragons, which is simply an unhealthy amount of LARPing for one day if you ask me.

BEN MAJOY

PHOTOS BY JACOB S. KNABB

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