An American Place
Published in the Chicago Reader
(The text shown here is the unedited draft I submitted to the
It contains some errors and some material that was
subsequently cut, moved or slightly changed. The final draft of any piece always goes through an editing process--
if it is good enough to get accepted in the first place! )
There's not much to see. You'd drive right by the
right by the little Spanish grocery, right by the currency
What? Another J. J. Pepper's? You'd drive right by that
Yes, the city is big, dirty, and dangerous, and some of it is getting awfully old, but this neighborhood without any apology has become what I call home. And home is not just a word you find in a Stephen Foster song. Home means the place where you live, all of it, inside and out and all around, up the block and down and across the streets and through the alleys and as far as you can stretch and still feel that you belong. Like it or not, there is the rest of the world, and there is home.
Home includes parts of two separate Chicago neighborhoods, Logan Square and Avondale, starting, in a larger sense, at California Avenue, running west to Central Park, south to Logan Boulevard, with the big six corner intersection at Diversey, Kimball and Milwaukee at its hub. Home is thirty-five years on the same sidewalks, seeing the same houses, shopping the same streets, sending kids to the same schools, voting in the same precincts, and watching everything change and change again, and evolve, as the world has always evolved, until it finally I am looking at something as familiar as my own hand, and yet, once again, it is new.
"Inglesia Evangeleo de Jesucristo, Primitiva Pentecostes," the sign on the little storefront church on Diversey declares. "Przeminelo Z Wlatrem" by Margareth Mitchell (with Rhett Butler breathing over Scarlet's naked shoulder) is for sale at the Polonia Book Store on Milwaukee Avenue. Arenciba Clothing has "Precious Bajos. Se Necesitan Revendederes," and Brzozowiski Fashion Clothes next door is holding a "3 dni sale, Platek, Sob e Niedj." At Diversey and Kedzie posters wired to the light poles remember a St. Patrick's Day party where you could have danced to the music of Ismael Rosa, Jesus Enrique, and the Orquesta Sabori. At Central Park and Milwaukee, more posters, Pepe Wroc with Grzegorz Markowski, Spiew, Ryszard Sygitowicz and Andrez Urny, Gitary, Piotr Szkudelski and Andrezes Nowicki, Bebeny I Bas. Who says this is an English speaking country?
As a young man in south suburban Blue Island, I knew nothing of Logan Square, never heard of Avondale. I imagined Chicago one huge city pretty much the same from end to end, a place to visit my father's relatives, see the White Sox, and sometimes take in a movie at the Oriental.
Then I bought a little variety store on Diversey, and moved my family north, an enterprise that made nobody rich but lasted long enough for us to set down roots. Now it feels like we've been here forever.
Compared to people in London, Paris, or Rome,
Chicagoans, of course,
shouldn't breathe the word forever, and if this is something we all
it is also something that can sneak up on a citizen from time to time
a way it never could to a Londoner or a Parisian or a resident of
City. You can be standing in the Loop watching construction crews
scoop out the site of some new building and suddenly it comes to you,
not going to find the remains of any ancient civilization down there,
city doesn't really go all that deep. Two hundred years ago
men were paddling canoes on the Chicago River which was probably clean
and clear, and when the sun went down the only light was the stars and
a few smoky fires. That's how fast things can change.
People lived in Logan Square before we got here, more than do now, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, Russian Jews, and Poles, to name a few. They came in waves, lived their lives, and their descendants have melted into that shapeless mass that is today's Middle-America. Still the waves continue to arrive; of some 80,000 people in present Logan Square, more than two thirds are said to be Hispanic, of 35,000 people in adjoining Avondale, almost half, and of those who remain enough are Polish born and Polish speaking to make parts of Milwaukee Avenue an eastern European street.
Most of my neighbors spoke English when I first walked this neighborhood. They were white working class people much like the people I grew up with in Blue Island, but somehow a bit more aggressive, a bit less neighborly, a bit more inclined to mind their own business. My new neighbors smoked cigarettes, followed the horses, and took the benefits of big city life for granted. Busses that stopped every fifteen minutes seemed tardy to them, stores open till ten closed too early, the twelve minute elevated ride into the loop they took for granted, the same with Riverview Park at Addison and Western Avenue, the same with the fine stores on Milwaukee Avenue, the same for the parks, the boulevards, and the neighborhood schools so close their kids walked home for lunch. Many of our new neighbors were old timers who remembered the old days when things were, of course, ever so much better, and some of them were very old timers who claimed to remember open fields and farmland and streets without sidewalks. These people had grown up in the shadow of the Eagle.
The Eagle is Logan Square's most visible landmark.
you step out of the Logan Square Subway Stop, you see it, a fifty foot
shaft of pure white marble set right in the middle of the Kedzie,
and Logan Boulevard intersection. People around here call it the
Eagle because of the stone eagle mounted on its peak, or they call it
Monument, or simply The Statue, but you hardly ever hear anyone call it
by its proper name which is the Illinois Centennial Column. This
intersection is Logan Square. For over sixty years the elevated
that now runs to O'Hare had its terminal here, and it here where the
subway daily transfers hundreds of commuters to CTA busses, and it is
where the Chicago Boulevard system ends, turning from Kedzie Boulevard
to Logan Boulevard while Kedzie Avenue continues on to the northern
of the city as a regular street.
Modern Logan Square is boundried by Western Avenue, Diversey, Armitage, and Kimball, and not all of it is beautiful. Thoroughfares like Armitage, Fullerton, and Milwaukee Avenue are loud, and dirty, the boulevards sometimes unclean, and throughout the sidestreets abandoned cars, graffiti, filthy little stores, run down apartment buildings, burned out houses, and uninviting Cerveza taverns are all too common. Anything said about Logan Square could be said about Avondale as well. And yet, and yet, there are mornings when I step out on the front porch, and the bells of the historic old churches are sounding in the distance, and the vendors who sell the Spanish ices and the ears of corn and the tropical fruits on a stick are pushing their carts, and the bright red cardinal who visits my evergreens is singing to his mate--all of this a few short miles from the lakefront and the zoos and the museums and the ball park and the symphony and everything that makes a big city great--there are these mornings, oh yes, when I feel a lump forming in my throat. Something Only home can do to you.
The land here is flat, true prairie. Those stories
farmland are really so. In 1843 a lawyer and politician by the
of Justin Butterfield bought 80 acres of what is now the heart of Logan
Square from the government for 1.25 an acre. At the time most
figured the location was too far out from Chicago to ever amount to
but old Butterfield must have known. Little villages and hamlets
took shape, places like Maplewood, and Pennock and Avondale and
all following the Northwest Plank Road, now Milwaukee
Most Chicago Streets are laid out on a grid, of course, so when you see
one like Milwaukee, or Vincennes, or Ogden running off at an angle
a good chance it may have been an Indian trail, and later one of the
plank roads. These roads literally were paved with planks and
charged tolls. Tolls were still being collected on Milwaukee
as late as 1899 when, in a show of good old American gumption, the
of Avondale disguised themselves as Indians, rioted, burned down the
booth and murdered the toll keeper. His name was Amos Snell and
least I can do is to record it here.
When I first moved into Chicago there were still loose ends left dangling back in home town Blue Island and it was a long long drive through a city that had not yet completed its expressway system. We took the boulevard then and had good driving until we reached 55th Street. After that we had the dreaded south side traffic. Before the Dan Ryan choosing a route from Blue Island to the North Side was a little like choosing a disease--with all the painless ones crossed off the list. I have yet to forget all those childhood visits to my father's relatives, and his inimitable navigation system which was to take any street heading north and hope for the best, nor have I forgotten the inevitable carsickness that always caught up with me just as we passed the stockyards.
When I speak of the home that is my home today, it is
denying that other home on the other end of Western Avenue. Here
is the home of the man, and there was the home of the boy, a community
that liked to imagine itself one of those Andy Hardy small towns
still tries to convince us are the heart of America. But Blue
was a gritty-aired industrial town, all sliced up by railroad tracks
crossing gates that seemed to spend as much time down as up, a Sanitary
Canal where used condoms and visible turds floated obscenely along, a
block business district, and not much future for a young man like
Without a car you had three choices to reach downtown Chicago, the
Central Railroad, the Rock Island Railroad, and The Safeway bus which
take you as far as 111th Street where you transferred to the Chicago
lines to complete a journey so formidable people used to write
articles about it.
But all was not innocent in my childhood home. My mother was once locked inside a restaurant refrigerator by holdup men. My father was assaulted outside a tavern on Western Avenue. The poolroom where he tried to make a living was burglarized regularly and methodically. Shadowy strangers followed women on our best residential streets and reached up their dresses. A peculiar man stood across from our Vermont Street apartment and demonstrated the art of masturbation. And this all happened in the good old days before there was crime.
Crime, it has always seemed to me, is something that can poison your life without actually even happening to you. I remember a woman who was convinced she would someday be struck by an automobile. Almost any day, watching from my store, I could see her perched on the curb, waiting in terror for the moment to cross the street. I kept wanting to call out to her. "Lady! Go on, you won't get hit!" But you know, I couldn't be sure, could I? It's the same with crime and some people. I'd really like to reassure them, but . . . who knows what can happen when you step out on the street? Anyone who wants to dwell on this will see that the only safe thing is to move to Pitcarn Island.
Yes, we do have gangs in my neighborhood, mostly young men who paint pitchforks and overturned crowns on garages, and keep a close eye on other young men who paint pitchforks and crowns upon garages. Sometimes they even eye me peculiarly when I wear a certain black and white cap. Colors matter a lot to them. A few years ago someone got blown away down on Fullerton for tieing his shoes with the wrong kind of laces, that's how much they matter, but Fullerton really is just a little bit outside of what I call home. Here, I ran a store almost ten years and never once got held up, only once called the police on a rowdy customer, and here, well, I must confess I lost track of how many times my business was burglarized. But it was always by the same people, and they finally moved away.
The city changes. It grows, it shrinks, it gets
heals, it's a living thing. When I take my walk I sometimes
to pass the house where I believe those burglars lived. I wonder
if what the present inhabitants would say if I were to tell them their
home once housed thieves and felons.
I walk down to Sacramento and find an autoparts store occupying the old bakery, find the supermarket across the street still in business, but now advertising in Spanish, find another little Spanish grocery trying to make it in the storefront where Father and Son Pizza, long an American success story on Milwaukee Avenue, had its start. I walk back toward Kedzie and the currency exchange that looks as if it has been here forever, and I remember it as a drug store where the man behind the prescription counter was the owner and not a pharmacist for hire. I cross over to where a little strip mall containing J.J. Peppers, a pizzeria, and a dry cleaners have replaced the independent Amoco station which finally died at this location after running the course of numerous owners, one of whom installed a set of brakes backward for me.
Even the little hot dog counter next to the currency
seems haunted, for I know how it evolved out of a hot dog wagon that
business on a vacant lot a block away and how, in one those attempts to
organize a community group, the neighbors allowed themselves to become
involved in a petition against the owner and the hot dog wrappers his
supposedly and probably did toss on their lawns, and I remember how I
the meeting and argued on his behalf for, after all, we were fellow
and how later my wife and I became friends with an older couple who
for the other side and more than once visited in their living room.
On Social Security day I walk from my house to the Avondale Savings and Loan, a mile that I used to run, back and forth, several times a week, until at last it began to seem like too much effort, and of course there were all those snapping dogs. I walk straight down George Street, past the apartment building where we once lived and from which my sons and all the neighborhood teens pushed my wife's baby grand piano down Troy to our present home, a sight I do not have imagine the neighbors forgot quickly; I walk on, past Avondale School which graduated both my sons and sent them on to Lane Technical High School, past my son's house, turn up Kimball remembering how just about here I would be catching a second breath in my running days, but now, moving easily, I take the time to study the old homes which in the Avondale half of my neighborhood, are not likely to make anyone think of millionaires, past, present, or future, but instead of successive generations of owners hammering on siding and additions and dormer rooms. There are a lot of frame houses in Avondale; supposedly one of things that originally drew people to the this area was the restrictions on frame buildings put into effect after the Chicago fire and the fact that these restrictions did not extend here. How old some of these homes are is a mystery probably even to their owners, but occasionally you will see one where the siding has peeled away, or a fire has opened things up, and you will see some very old boards indeed.
Somewhere between Kimball and Milwaukee Avenue, the voices of children playing on the sidewalks switch from Spanish to Polish and the faces become those of middle Europe. The neighborhood has always had a large Polish population but now, from Central Park to Belmont and beyond, Milwaukee Avenue almost feels like the old world itself, with restaurants, sausage shops, bakeries, and groceries where customers get their change counted out in Polish, although, at Bacik's Delikatessen the clerks switch to English when they see my Irish face.
It was my intention to continue this walking tour straight down Milwaukee until I reached the monument, but a last moment errand at Walgreens forces me to turn back up Central Park to Belmont which, now that Dominics and Walgreens and Wendy's have installed themselves in an open plaza has become part of the place I call home.
Belmont is a hard used commercial street for much of its length, and this stretch that runs through my home is no better than the rest, old stores, old homes, small factories and shops, auto repair facilities, construction companies, and, at Kedzie, the Kennedy Expressway overhead and under constant repair. How can they always be repairing this thing? It seems like only yesterday they built it.
Not quite. The final extension of the Kennedy, then known as the Northwest Expressway, opened for business in 1960, one year after I moved into the neighborhood. Before it opened, kids, including my own, rode their bicycles on the empty pavement making better time than most drivers do today. The expressway cut the heart out of Avondale, made it into two neighborhoods, and then, as surely as if someone had given the order, began sucking the population of both Logan Square and Avondale out to the suburbs.
Milwaukee Avenue--let's walk down it anyway--was a well
business street focused upon the Diversey/Kimball intersection when we
first moved here. "217 Stores To Serve You." Naturally I
them all as my competition, although I smile at the thought
It becomes a game with me, trying to figure out who was where, and
when they left, and what has replaced whom. Today, on Milwaukee I
see Blockbusters Video, Dollar Bills, and the Gap, I do not see
or Klaus's or Goldblatts, I see The Polonia Travel Agency, The
Chinese Restaurant, and newspaper vending machines selling La
and I do not see Rosalie's Corset Shop, Fordam's Men's Clothing, Beyda
Bros., The Patek Music Company, The Kingburger Restaurant, Bron's
Store, Bass Furniture, Raj Appliance, Charles Domek and Sons, the Logan
On this block or the next, perhaps only a few doors away from the broken awning and the gypsy woman, once stood Klaus's Department Store, one of the neighborhoods finest. Try as I might, even with the address in my hand, I can't quite fix the location, the building has either been demolished or broken up into a number of individual businesses, at any rate gone is a full department store with three floors stocked with fine merchandise and a jewelry counter where I once bought a gift for my wife.
On the next corner, set back on the lot strip mall fashion, is a single story L-shaped building containing Blockbuster Video, a pizza parlor, a LaSalle Talman bank, and a shipping company of some sort that seems to do business exclusively in Polish. The homeless man, I am told, works the parking lot, pretending to help people return their rented movies. There is nothing at all here to mark the tragedy that took place on this location one frigid morning in 1985.
Fires are not uncommon in Logan Square and Avondale, old houses, old wiring, space heaters, overcrowding; from my home I often hear sirens rushing up and down Diversey, Kedzie, and Kimball, and sometimes when I step out on the front porch I can smell wood burning somewhere beyond the rooftops. I think then of children and poor families, and my own frame building, and like everyone else I tend to take for granted the people who are racing to fight those fires for us. They have good jobs, we think, good pay, good hours, valuable insurance, and a fine pension.
Sometimes we forget--they don't always come back. On February 1, 1985, here, at this address, an arsonist set fire to one of those ubiquitous inner-city electronics stores that specialize in imported boom boxes, and this fire cost the lives of three members of the Chicago Fire Department's Hook and Ladder company No. 58. There were people, and I was one of them, who thought it impossible that anyone would ever rebuild on such a location.
But nothing is impossible in America.
A memorial of sorts does exist at the intersection of Diversey and Kimball. Next to the LaSalle/Cragin Bank the city has turned a tiny corner of vacant property into a park. Here, where people waiting for busses litter the ground with food wrappers and empty bottles, a metal plaque commemorates the fallen firefighters and a mural on the empty bank wall depicts them as angels, complete with large white wings. There was a certain amount of grumbling about this mural at first, too gaudy, some said, bad taste, said others, but time and familiarity have finally done what time and familiarity always do, and now, in a certain sense, it could be said that these brave men really do exist as angels. There names were Captain Daniel Nockels, Michael Forchione, and Michael Talley.
South of the Diversey/Kimball intersection, Milwaukee Avenue becomes part of Logan Square. On the southwest corner, occupying the ground floor of a large triangular building (and looking as if it could, at the drop of a lease, be moved overnight to another location) there is a Super Gap, an excellent place to buy jeans, I am sure, but it will never take the place of Goldblatts. There are still a few Goldblatts stores operating in Chicago, but anyone unfamiliar with the Goldblatts of the past should know that they are not the real thing. The real Goldblatts stores, and Logan Square had one in this building, were more than stores, they were part of Chicago's folklore. Long before there were shopping malls, discount stores, and those smarmy Wallmart television ads, women came to Goldblatts to try on dresses in the aisles while their husbands poked around in hardware downstairs, and the kids ran off to tap at the goldfish. Whatever it was, clothing, hardware, appliances, home furnishings, toys, pet supplies, jewelry, you could not only find it at Goldblatts, it would be cheaper. People told jokes about Goldblatts, ("What did the little bird say when he flew over Goldblatts?" Answer--"Cheap, cheap.") and pretended they were too proud to shop there, but eventually everyone did. And this Goldblatts, as an added feature, had something I have yet to find in any K-Mart, Target, or Venture--a first rate deli that sold the kind of hard salami my wife still talks about.
From here to Logan Boulevard, Milwaukee Avenue is a busy
of electronic stores, jewelers, shoe stores, clothing stores, markets
restaurants representing not so much Fortune 500 America as the sweat
industry of hundreds of lesser people. Just as the Avenue turns
Polish after Central Park, now it turns Spanish. There's a
yes, but right next door is the elegant Tania's, one of the city's
Cuban restaurants, there's a Dean's Market, yes, but the big red and
posters in front advertise Chamarro De Res (para caldo) and if
look across the street, you will see that the National Food Store has
transformed into Los Caminos Super Mercado, and if you go inside you
buy all those curiously shaped roots and tubers you have no idea how to
prepare. (Hint, peel, cut into small pieces, boil, and don't
they're all good).
I stand on Milwaukee Avenue just outside a music store called Disco City and try to put the past back together. Across the street, where Kedzie and Milwaukee make one of those triangular intersections, CTA busses are lined up waiting for passengers to climb out of the subway and transfer. This is the present Logan Square Station, opened in 1969 after the whole street had been closed off by construction. Buildings were torn down then, business forced to move, and a lot of things around here have never been the same again. For more than sixty years, Logan Square was as far as the rapid transit went, now it is just another stop on the way to the suburbs. People coming out onto Kedzie are welcomed to Logan Square by an amazing mural featuring a naked man holding the world on his shoulder, an assortment of jungle beasts, a waterfall, and another firefighting angel. People choosing the Milwaukee exit come up next to the Lutheran Memorial Church where descendants of the original residents still hold services in Norwegian. From either exit, you cannot help but see the Logan Square Monument.
Everything here circles the monument. The Illinois
Column--let's call it by its correct name---does not stand naked in the
intersection. It is set within a triangular park, possibly a city
block in length, with stone benches and steps and slanting lawns that
up in the center to thrust the eagle another dozen feet into the
For those who care about these things, the Column was designed by Henry
Bacon, the same architect responsible for Washington's Lincoln
and the sculptured reliefs which circle its base, are by Evelyn
a famous artist of the time; and the graffiti on the concrete steps is
by Goofy and Linda, Kim and Kelvin, Chatty and Shorty Ruff Nuts,
Christina, Philly, and Nick, none of whom has yet made it into the
A casual visitor would not guess how this place fits in the history of Logan Square. It's easy to take an elevated platform for granted, you won't find anything like that on the National Register of Historic Places, no battles fought here, no millionaires, just a place where uncounted thousands, most of whom have moved on in this world (or moved out of it altogether), boarded the CTA and went on about their business.
The platform is, of course. When you walk behind
building you will see where the tracks now sink into the subway, but
to suggest where they once hand ended, and nothing to suggest the
that had once stood above, waiting to return to the Loop, and nothing
suggest the people who had boarded here and settled into their seats
opened their newspapers.
Later I Now that the next door neighbors have moved with their dogs to California, he has it all to himself. He's gotten old in this gangway, the fourth dog to live a complete life with us, and can hardly raise his leg. He probably doesn't even notice that a cat has taken the place of his friends. We've had four sets of neighbors to the south, three on the north, new neighbors two and three times for almost every house on the block, among them people from Germany, Poland sit on the back porch and watch my dog sprinkle the gangway., India, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the far east, and the American south. A few years ago someone, I never learned who, kept a chicken, a rooster to be exact, and morning after morning people as far as a block away could hear it crowing in the alley, loudly, lustily, exactly as if it believed it were on a farm. It's gone now, or the neighbor is gone, just as so many other people and places and things are gone.
Gone, and I'm still here. Damned if I don't miss that chicken.