Paul Durica, owner and proprietor of Pocket Guide to Hell, tags his project with an intriguing slogan: true crime, social justice, labor history, peanuts. Why peanuts? “Peanuts make people think of circuses,” he shrugs. Under the guise of Pocket Guide to Hell, Durica reimagines Chicago’s history as something of an ongoing carnival. He’s organized walking tours, talks, and historical reenactments that all fall somewhere between street theater and LARPing, with a sneaky undercurrent of real academic fascination. As circus master, Durica has staged everything from a Ben Hecht house party to a real-scale recreation of the Haymarket riot to a walking tour of Hyde Park’s own Leopold and Loeb, and he’s not yet out of ideas–his imagination is as fantastic as his mustache.
You seem to wear a few different hats, and I want to start by asking you where you would place yourself. Academic, tour guide, historian, writer–what are you?
I think what I’m trying to do is straddle a line between a number of different fields. So a lot of the public history work that I do has developed out of the work that I do as a more traditional academic, whatever that means. I looked at the ways in which history gets narrated in public, and I thought, “Well, I could appropriate these forms and then do something playful and interactive with them.”
So that led to doing walking tours, and then public talks, and then beyond that we started these reenactments. Some people see what I do as really more of performance art, and I’m comfortable with that description as well. In fact, I’d rather have a variety of ways to talk about what I do. I like fitting into these multiple slots.
There are plenty of historians who do primary source research, but few go so far as to reenact the entire event. Why take that next step?
I think it really actually has helped me as an academic. Take the Haymarket Riot–we tried to do a to-scale reenactment, and we did, actually. We had people playing police officers to march up Des Plaines Street, and an equal number of people or more to play the historical audience. It was probably the first time since 1886 that so many people had been in that space. It was as simple as putting bodies back into the space, and seeing how those bodies move.
The other interesting thing, I think, is that it also allows you to reflect on how contingent so many aspects of these events were. By doing these reenactments, you realize how chaotic a lot of these experiences were, and that whatever meaning arose often got applied after the fact. It’s interesting to return back to that moment, when there were all these possibilities for how things happened, which you sort of experience while reenacting. You have the script, but these things are participatory, and not everyone follows the script. It gets you thinking about all of these alternatives or potentialities that didn’t get activated in the moment.
You used the phrase “public history”–that seems central.
Oh, yeah. Recently the concept’s been gaining a lot of traction and interest within the museum community. A lot of these older city institutions, at the moment, appeal to rather defined communities and demographics, but they want to survive into the 21st century. They have these amazing collections, all this wonderful material, so one way to approach the problem of these aging and shrinking audiences is to take the material and go out into the world with it and bring it to the city, and even activate these specific sites where an event occurred.
I’m really excited by that; I like doing site-specific projects, I like using a place to bring the past into the present, and also having these public events where anyone can attend. So in some ways, it’s also about thinking about the past as a kind of public space, in a very real way. You don’t need to go to a museum to inhabit it, and you don’t need to have any kind of authoritative figure there with you necessarily if it’s framed or presented in a certain way. You can just go to the corner of Randolph and Des Plaines and learn about the Haymarket Riot.
That’s a poetic idea, to take a space and then pull it through time. You have an MFA in Creative Writing, and you’re a PhD candidate at UChicago–is Pocket Guide to Hell relevant to your creative writing?
Definitely. I think the work I’ve done as a creative writer very much influences the way I approach the historical materials. For me, I’m really interested in crafting a narrative, and this process of construction. I try to ground it in a lot of primary source research, but it’s important to me that I still have a story to tell, and that participants who come to these events get to experience this narrative as it unfolds in real time.
They often even have a role to play in constructing it–I try to leave it open-ended, in some ways, which is why I try to give participants roles to play. They’ll play them in their own way sometimes, or they’ll bring in their own material. It’s always great when someone knows something idiosyncratic or specific.
Like on the Leopold and Loeb tour, someone grew up in Kenwood and had a grandmother who told them her own version of the story. I like those moments, when someone adds to the piece. So, yeah. I think story is really central to what I do, and I want the reenactments and the walking tours to feel as if someone is moving through a real-time narrative.
I’m wondering if you have a dream event, something you’ve had in the back of your mind for a while.
I’ve actually got two: coming up in 2015 will be the anniversary of Joe Hill’s funeral in Chicago. Joe Hill was a popular labor songwriter in the early 1910s. They had this big funeral for him here in Chicago. His final wish was that he be cremated and that his ashes be scattered to all the states. But they had this giant funeral; thousands of people came here in Chicago, and they sang songs, all these huge labor figures spoke. I think it would be great to kind of do that again, but as a concert to celebrate this music and also that early labor narrative.
On a smaller scale–this one’s sort of crazy. People are always asking me if I’m going to do something with the Great Chicago Fire, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. And then, recently, I figured it out. I want to make a public model, starting in the 1830s, and gradually fill in the city up to 1870. So people could come back over time and see the city changing and evolving. And then, some day in October, when it hits 1871, I would take it outside and set it on fire.
You’ve obviously consciously chosen Chicago as the place to do what you do. What is it about this city?
I could probably do some of this stuff other places, but it’s really Chicago that continually inspires me. Particularly the period I’m most interested in–late nineteenth century to early twentieth century. There’s really so much that happened here and so many amazing things that shaped not only the moment we live now in within this city, but also, I would say, within the country at large. It’s really great to be here where so much occurred, and also where so many problems existed, and where people tried to wrestle with them and figure them out.
And then all those problems still exist today, and we’re still kind of wrestling with them. And so there’s just something about the scale of Chicago, and really the swagger, as Carl Sandburg would talk about it, that’s really intriguing to me. The stakes always seem clear and apparent, and that’s really what keeps me engaged in the place, in its past and its present. There’s always a sense of urgency.
So why Chicago more than other cities?
That’s a good question. I think…it has to do with pace, in some ways. The pace for the twentieth century was probably set in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. I mean, we’re talking about a city that was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1871, and by 1893 had completely rebuilt itself, and expanded by several hundred square miles. Whose population, within that same twenty-year period, had gone from 300,000 to over a million. The country–the world–had never experienced growth at that sort of speed and on that sort of scale before, and it just continued, up until the thirties, at that same breakneck pace.
Think about the way in which things progress now–technologically, and the way populations continue to expand, and environmental degradation–all these things. This process of acceleration really continues, and it was in Chicago in the 1890s that people first began to get a sense of that tempo, or that rhythm. I think that’s what makes it interesting.
We’re still wrestling with the idea that our world–what we think we know of the world–can now change overnight. Historians might argue, because you could also talk about L.A. post-World War II, but I’ll make the case for Chicago. That’s the other thing about Chicago: I’ll always make the case for Chicago.