U of C grad student gives one “hell” of a tour

In their spare time, some people like to read books or watch movies, but on Sunday afternoons, Paul Durica gives “Pocket Guide to Hell” tours.

Dressed in an accurate reproduction of a Columbian guard’s jacket,surrounded by a flock of 30 to 40 people, Durica is ready to begin a two-hour walking tour in Jackson Park that he calls the Workingman’s Guide to the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

“My tours …were originally intended to be ‘guerilla walking tours,’ that is, un-sanctioned and un-publicized, but I like how they've evolved into participatory experiences in which my authority is continually being challenged,” says Durica.

He started his first tour last year, and it is his goal to focus on a new section of the city each year. For the current tour, Durica culled materials from newspaper articles, written records by the Fair’s organizers, travel guides, and scrapbooks.

The tour starts on the steps of the Museum of Science and Industry. Durica immediately gets the audience involved by assigning character roles of some of the great leaders behind the World’s Fair, including Daniel Burnham and Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr.

He draws audiences in by offering a stream of minute detail and facts, relying solely on his memory. He tells the group that the Columbian Exposition, also called Chicago’s World’s Fair, was held in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.

He also says the fair opened a year later than initially planned because of its massive scale, and says the fairgrounds covered more than 600 acres and drew nearly 26 million people through its six-month run.

“It’s excellent, well-informed, and there’s a lot of research,” says Jo Guldi, a professor of 19th century cities at University of Chicago who attended a recent tour after hearing about it from a friend.

Stephanie Weaver, a resident of Hyde Park, who attended the tour with her husband and two daughters, had a vested interest in the tour since the home she lives in housed the workers from the Columbian Exposition in the 1890s. Her favorite part was learning about the grandeur of the Exposition such as the 260-foot-tall Ferris Wheel, which was the largest attraction at the Fair.

"Things are on such a large scale scale and they must have seemed even larger to people at the time," says Weaver.

His first tour, held in November 2008, was entitled “Crime of the Century: Leopold & Loeb and the Murder of Bobby Franks.” It focused on places related to the infamous U of C students and the 1924 murder they committed.

Durica is developing two new tours -- “Southside Blues” and “A Secret History of the University of Chicago: Part 1,” which will be offered in July and September, respectively.

With Durica’s passion for storytelling and his background as an English doctorate student at the University of Chicago, the tours are a natural.

“It makes sense to people who know me,” says Durica. “My friends have been really supportive and encouraging.”

In the future, Durica hopes to cover a new section of the city each year. He would also like to create an actual Pocket Guide to Hell booklet so that people could have self guided tours.

His idea for calling it the "Pocket Guide to Hell" is just as quirky as the tour itself. During a visit to Chicago by British leader John Burns, he was asked his opinion of the city by a journalist, to which Burns replied, “Chicago is a pocket edition of Hell." Several weeks later, as he departed, he was asked the same question again and commented "Yes, I have. My present opinion is that Hell is a pocket edition of Chicago."

Initially, the idea was to hold a screening and discussion covering historical topics at the Backstory Café. But Durica says bringing tour-goers to the places where the events transpired brings the topics alive.

The tours are typically attended by 15 to 30 people. Durica gets the word out through ads in the Chicago Reader, as well as online tools like Google Groups, Facebook, and University of  Chicago mailing lists.

Durica doesn't charge, though he does accept donations.

“The cost of it is that people have to put up with my version [of the story],” he says.