Paul Durica is a tour guide to hell, but he’s no demon. Rather, the 31-year-old Durica is a mild-mannered University of Chicago English Ph.D. candidate whose research interest in hobo culture has led him to unearth a myriad of secrets from Chicago’s past. One such anecdote inspired the name of his quirky and informative walking tours of the city, which he calls Pocket Guide to Hell Tours.
According to legend (located in a footnote in Jack London’s 1907 novel “The Iron Heel”), a famous English labor leader named John Burns visited Chicago. When asked his opinion of the city, he said, “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell.” Later, as he departed for England, he was asked if he had changed his opinion of Chicago. “Yes, I have. My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.”
And thus the name was born. The material for Durica’s intimate walking tours grew out of his dissertation research on tramps and tramping in turn-of-the-century American literature. He has uncovered countless anecdotes and historical facts from late 19th- and early 20th-century Chicago that fill his tours with rich details.
His current tour is called “A Working Man’s Guide to the World’s Columbian Exposition” and leads participants through the history of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and its aftermath. Planners intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage of 1492, but the fair proved to be such an enormous undertaking that it didn’t open until May 1, 1893. The fair lasted through the summer and ended on October 31 of the same year.
The tour begins at the Museum of Science and Industry on 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, one of the few structures to survive from the 1893 Fair. Originally called the Palace of Fine Arts, it housed art exhibitions during the fair and later became the Field Museum. Eventually, the Field Museum relocated, and the building deteriorated until Julius Rosenwald endowed the museum and restored it to its former splendor.
The tour progresses through Jackson Park on what used to be the fairgrounds. Considering the expansiveness of the former grounds and the fair’s city-like infrastructure—which included a sewer system, transportation system and police force of 2,000 men—it is amazing that so little evidence of its presence remains today. Luckily, Durica loves to bring forgotten stories back to life.
Admittedly, he did not conceive the tours entirely on his own. Friends at Backstory Café on 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue suggested that Durica develop a series of tours that would culminate with a screening and discussion back at the café. But the tour philosophy is all his own. He believes “that direct engagement with spaces and places allows for obscured narratives of true crime, social justice, and labor history to reemerge and resonate with the present moment.”
Durica led his first tour in the fall of 2008, entitled “Crime of the Century: Leopold & Loeb and the Murder of Bobby Franks,” which told the infamous 1924 true crime story that began with a kidnapping by two UofC students in Hyde Park. He will resurrect the “Crime of the Century” tour in May and June of 2009 due to its overwhelming popularity.
Durica has been pleasantly surprised with the positive response to his tours and has consequentially doubled their size. But he plans to keep them not-for-profit and only takes donations for his efforts. He admits to mulling over the idea of creating a guidebook if his tours continue to be successful, but for now, they keep him engaged with Chicago’s history and provide him with a creative forum to “experiment with walking tours, see how they work and observe how place and space interact to tell a story.”
To that end, Durica plans to offer numerous tours in the upcoming year. After his current tour and round two of “Crime of the Century,” Durica will offer “Southside Blues” and “A Secret History of the University of Chicago: Part 1.” Next spring, his tours will move downtown to the Loop where he will present “Ben Reitman’s Hobohemia,” “Haymarket,” “Sex in the Second City” and “Beer! Lost Breweries of Old Chicago.”
The current tour “A Working Man’s Guide to the World’s Columbian Exposition” will be offered again at 11am on April 25 and May 3. RSVP online on the Google Group or Facebook page “Pocket Guide to Hell Tours.”