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Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

I just finished reading Chicago: City on the Make for, oh, I don't know, maybe the eighteenth time. Marvelous as always. One of my favorite passages is Algren's tribute to legendary First Ward alderman Michael (Hinky Dink) Kenna, a master of illicit vote procurement and, to Algren, a fine humanitarian as well. No, he's not being sarcastic in his praise.

    By the time Hinky Dink Kenna came along you had to cut in closer to answer the reverend's question ["Are you a Christian?"]. For in The Hink the border apache became a working citizen, a property owner assuming civic responsibilities, commanding a ward-wide loyalty and professing some sort of faith or other come Sunday morning. A hustler's hustler, part philanthropist and part straight brigand, The Hink sought his personal salvation in the ballot box.
    Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler's imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman's Exchange.
    He'd paid fifty cents in cold cash for every vote he'd bought, he'd let the archangels know--but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.
    Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs--while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.
    Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running one bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody's evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston's command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.
    Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?
    For always our villians have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes someone like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot rum and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein the warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one.

December 14, 2004 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink


city on the make is next on my chicago list. i feel lousy that i haven't read it yet.

Posted by: SR at Dec 20, 2004 10:00:41 AM

Don't beat yourself up over it, Shaz. All serious readers have dozens of books they feel guilty for not yet having read. I'm certainly no exception.

Posted by: Pete at Dec 20, 2004 3:48:58 PM

I wonder did Kenna shorten his name from McKenna as I have never heard of the surname Kenna before?

Posted by: seamus at Mar 10, 2006 8:22:09 PM

I am a great niece of Hinky Dink Kenna and was told by my mother that in Ireland the surname was McKenna. But I believe his parents also sported the name Kenna.

On a recent visit to Cavalry Cemetery I was shocked at the numbers of Kenna listed in the directory Kiosk. So it appears that were a great deal of Kennas living in late 1800s and to mid 1900s w/Kenna as the last name.

Posted by: Jayne at Oct 27, 2010 2:23:44 PM