Street Smart Chicago

Partners and Companions: Life Spent in the Care of “Hill Street Blues”

Chicago History, Media No Comments »

hill street-orig castBy Martin Northway

Pink Floyd’s “Money” was haunting the airwaves, Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” was making the soon-to-divorce lonelier still, and Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” only intensified our despair.

These remain my “divorce songs.” Hearing them instantly summons memories of the winter of my discontent, separated from my wife and two children. I am propelled back into the offices I shared with a business colleague, clandestinely bivouacked until early mornings when I broke camp like a Scout, erasing evidence of my nighttime residency accompanied by my radio sound track.

I finally rented a flat, and friends began stepping up, extending me tender mercies. One such was Lynne. We had worked together at the newspaper in our small but bustling county seat deep in Southern Indiana hill country. On the TV she had seen trailers for a promising new cop drama. She knew of my ties to Chicago during college and my early working years, and though “Hill Street Blues” was supposedly set in a generic northern city, its production links to the Windy City were not cleverly hidden. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Northwest Passage

Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, City Life, Green No Comments »
Rob Reid, Mike Filipinski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

Rob Reid, Mike Filipski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

By John Greenfield

I’ve walked the whole length of eleven Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of local geography, architecture and culture that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t refuse.

The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a crooked wagon road. The multitalented settler established several businesses—making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey—he also served as a school inspector and alderman.

While Elston was first living by the thoroughfare that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers two-and-a-half cents per mile to use it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts—they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: When State Street Wasn’t “That Great Street”

Architecture, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, Green, Loop No Comments »
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State Street pedestrian mall in 1982/Photo: William C. Brubaker via UIC Digital Collections

By John Greenfield

When I was a bike messenger in the early nineties, the State Street pedestrian mall was the bane of my existence. In 1979 under Mayor Jane Byrne, the city closed the Loop’s main retail corridor to all forms of traffic except buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in an effort to bring back customers who had been drawn away to suburban shopping centers and the burgeoning Magnificent Mile. That meant I had to detour around State and access addresses along the strip via intersecting east-west streets.

Ultimately the pedestrian mall was judged a failure, and in 1996 under Mayor Richard M. Daley the wide sidewalks were jackhammered to make way for private automobiles again. That renovation, the $24.5 million State Street Revitalization Project, which included attractive Beaux Arts street lamps, ‘L’ entrances and other fixtures, is credited with turning the historically prosperous street back into a bustling retail district.

Laura Jones from the Chicago Loop Alliance provided background on the rationale behind creating the State Street mall. “When downtown started to empty out in the early seventies, business leaders from the Greater State Street Council went to the city with the idea of creating the pedestrian mall. They wanted to make State Street more like a suburban shopping mall, and also people were becoming more energy conscious, so they decided to try a transit mall.” Read the rest of this entry »

Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop, Rogers Park 3 Comments »

Photo: Thomas Marlow

By Harrison Smith

To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.

“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”

Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.

Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. Read the rest of this entry »

Miss Rose: The Life and Times of the Gold Coast Madam

Chicago History, Gold Coast/Near North, Love & Sex 1 Comment »

Rose Laws with friends.

By Harrison Smith

Rose Laws stands five-feet four-inches, with red hair, glasses and a strong Southern accent she’s retained from a childhood in Tennessee. She once had thirty-six-triple-D breasts, which she lost purposely because they were too big, and a tiny waist, which she lost with age because that’s how things go. She looks and talks like a grandmother, is gracious and warm like the best grandmothers, and at age seventy-seven is, not surprisingly, a grandmother.

Tonight she is without her grandchildren, though two of her sons are with her at the Everleigh Social Club on West Randolph. The club is pretty empty this early in the evening, and most of the people who are there—just about all of whom are friends or family of Rose—are sipping the night’s signature drink, a “Gold Coast Madam” cocktail mixed specially for the occasion. Read the rest of this entry »

Custer’s Last: A South Side Celebration at the Historic Ben Hecht House

Architecture, Chicago History, Hyde Park No Comments »

Photo: Harrison Smith

By Harrison Smith

Early Wednesday evening, when the first guests start making their way inside the Ben Hecht house on 53rd and Kenwood, Kelly Custer is sitting out on the porch with a friend, asking if “maybe it was too much.” Earlier that morning she had called someone over to her family’s historic ten-bedroom bungalow for a little house cleaning; eight hours later, the job was done, or done as well as could be expected for a short notice cleaning of a four-floor house in transition. The person was paid, but Custer—whose family is selling their home of nearly fifty years—is concerned that things still aren’t clean enough: there are boxes lying around in corners, books and papers piled on desks, and for the next couple of hours a hundred-odd visitors will be walking through it all, taking a look at the house and its history. And, she figures, its mess, which probably should have been cleaned a little better anyway.

Prompted by Op-Shop and Southside Hub of Production organizer Laura Shaeffer, the Custer family had decided to open up their home to the community before saying goodbye for good. Shaeffer, like many others at the “Ben Hecht House Party,” is dressed in full 1920s garb, greeting guests as she walks through the building in flowing white pants and a rustling jewel necklace-piece her friend Victoria, a psychic, found in Chinatown. “The family was so worried” about the mess, she says, “but I said that’s fine, we’re going to clean up the front room, make it really nice and comfortable, and let people roam around and see that this is a space in transition.” Read the rest of this entry »

Hillbilly Heaven: Chicago’s Other Migration from the South

Chicago History, City Life, Uptown 2 Comments »

By David Witter

It is two-thirty in the morning at Carol’s Pub. Most of the other bars in the neighborhood have closed, and customers of all ages—from twenty-one to sixty—file in to order more beer and whiskey, and to dance to the music of Diamondback, Carol’s house band for more than fifteen years. Some people talk, most drink, and some even dance beneath a sign which features a guitar, cowboy boots and hat reading: “Welcome to Carol’s, The Best in Country Music.”

By four o’clock in the morning, the music and beer have stopped flowing and dozens of people with beer on their breath and cigarettes in their mouths make their way through the streets of Uptown, humming the music of Johnny Cash as they go.

Forty years ago, the same streets were filled with similar spirits morning, noon and night. Take a walk down Clark Street or Broadway near Wilson and you would be sure to see hosts of men sporting Elvis-like sideburns and hair slicked back with the help of generous dabs of Brylcreem or Vitalis, usually wearing green work pants, a dark canvas jacket or nylon windbreaker and vinyl penny loafers with white socks. The women, often with children in tow, wore feminine white or yellow dresses and piled their hair high in a beehive. Together, these southern transplants transformed Uptown into what became known as “Hillbilly Heaven,” turning bars into honky-tonks, delis into diners, streets into drag strips and vacant lots and alleys into auto repair centers. Read the rest of this entry »

The Path of History: City Running Tours of Chicago Offer a Healthy View of the Town

Chicago History, Loop, News etc., Running No Comments »

By Zach Freeman

Ask Marlin “The Reluctant Runner” Keesler what the best thing about running is and he doesn’t hesitate: “Stopping!”

With his thick athletic build, crew cut and well-groomed mustache, Keesler can cut an intimidating figure at first glance. But as soon as he starts talking, the tough-guy image quickly fades. Wearing an almost constant grin and slinging a pocketful of deliberately cheesy one-liners, the soft-spoken tour guide, 50 States Marathon Club member and Chicago manager of City Running Tours is friendly, talkative and always on the move, which is appropriate considering that six mornings a week he leads a series of historical running tours through the streets of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Notes from the Underground: A Subterranean Safari in the Chicago Pedway

Chicago History, Loop, Transit No Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I make my way through the blizzard to the Blue Line’s Logan Square stop, seven pigeons are huddled on Evelyn Longman’s giant eagle sculpture atop the Illinois Centennial Monument. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, the streets are lined with slush and cars move at a cautious crawl. A scruffy, bearded guy in a hooded jacket trudges across the street toward me with wet snow blowing into his face. “No, it ain’t shitty out,” he says with a grin. Me, I’m planning to take a pass on this nasty weather and spend the rest of the day in warmth and comfort as I go urban spelunking in the Chicago Pedway, an overlooked layer of Chicago’s transportation system.

The Pedway is downtown’s network of indoor pedestrian pathways, including below-ground tunnels, street-level concourses and overhead skyways, covering about five miles, and connecting more than forty city blocks. Tens of thousands of downtown workers use it every day to traverse the Loop without having to deal with cold, heat, rain, snow or the Loop’s hectic, often dangerous, street traffic. Read the rest of this entry »

9/11 Revisited

Chicago History, News etc. No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke and the 2001 Staff

9/11 was a Tuesday.

For anyone who ever worked for or with Newcity, you know Tuesday means one thing: deadline day. On September 11, 2001, we’d been at it more than fifteen years, so it’d become fairly routine. Except this day.

Jan and I were the first ones in early that morning, ensconced in our office in the back of the Newcity space working away at whatever was on our plate that day. We’d taken a big risk with the business we’d built, trying to create a national alternative media portal and network on the internet, and the in-process crash of the internet economy was creating major headaches for us. (They were soon to get far worse.) Although I was editor-in-chief of Newcity, I’d ceded most day-to-day operations to our managing editor, Elaine Richardson. Print, we’d figured out (we thought).

Sometime before 9am, Dave Wilson, one of our senior sales guys, burst into our office. He’d just heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We rushed into the conference room and turned on the television, where we stood, transfixed, as the news unfolded: the second tower hit, the Pentagon hit, the towers collapsed, the plane crash, as staff members continued to arrive at the office and the congregation around the television grew in silent contemplation. Read the rest of this entry »