“You mean graft?”

In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger wants to buy a liquor store with the money from his late father's life insurance policy.

Walter: Yeah. You see, this little liquor store we got in mind cost seventy-five thousand and we figured the initial investment on the place be 'bout thirty thousand, see. That be ten thousand each. Course, there's a couple hundred you got to pay so's you don't spend your life just waiting for them clowns to let your license get approved--

Ruth: You mean graft?

Walter (frowning impatiently): Don't call it that. See there, that just goes to show you what women understand about the world. Baby, don't nothing happen for you in this world 'less you pay somebody off!

Spoken like a true Chicago realist! Marvelous play. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. After I finish, I'll be watching the 1989 American Playhouse production from PBS, starring Danny Glover as Walter Lee and Esther Rolle as Mama Younger, which is up on YouTube.

July 27, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Is For Algren

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am starting this occasional new series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The first, appropriately, is Nelson Algren, my very favorite.

How many books do I have by Algren?
Ten: Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, A Walk On the Wild Side (actually in a three-book Algren volume put out by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s), Who Lost an American?, Conversations With Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel, and Nonconformity. Plus Bettina Drew's biography, Nelson Algren: A Life On the Wild Side (I haven't read either of the biographies by Mary Wisniewski or Colin Asher.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Algren books I haven't read are Notes From a Sea Diary, The Devil's Stocking, and Entrapment (plus a few other minor posthumous volumes). I don't really regret any of my omissions. I've browsed The Devil's Stocking (his posthumously-published novelization of the Hurricane Carter case) but the prose didn't grab me at all, and I've read the title story of Entrapment without being overwhelmed enough to buy the book during the few times I've seen it in stores.

How did I start reading Algren?
I first heard about Algren from a newspaper column by Mike Royko (another of my favorites - if this series survives long enough for me to reach the letter R, he will definitely be profiled here), who exuberantly praised The Neon Wilderness. I found a first edition of The Man With the Golden Arm a few years later for the ridiculous price of $7.50 (yes, this was way back in the ancient 1980s, but even then it was a great price), read it, and was hooked. I've read Golden Arm four or five times, and several of the others multiple times. Besides the brilliance of his early books, I was also drawn in by his reputation as a great Chicago writer; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in the city for five or six years, and both of my parents grew up in the city, so Chicago has endlessly fascinated me.

General impressions...
I think Algren could have been one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, but to me he instead holds the dubious distinction of America's most squandered literary talent. The second through fifth books noted above are nothing short of brilliant: gritty yet beautiful, angry yet thoughtful, brutal yet funny; he was the first recipient of the National Book Award, in 1950, for Golden Arm. But after City On the Make, for a variety of artistic and personal reasons, his career went sharply downhill for the last thirty years of his life. His first book during the downhill, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is actually one of his better-known books (or at least the title is well known, thanks to Lou Reed, one of his admirers) but made little impression on me. (And I was even less impressed years later, when I read somewhere that Wild Side was basically a rewrite of his first book, Somebody In Boots - which was pretty bad - that was instigated by his publisher, looking for a big payday.) The Last Carousel had some good moments, including a couple of horseracing short stories which suggest that Algren still had a good horseracing novel in him during the late 1950s and early 1960s had he bothered to put in the work.

If you've never read Algren, then you should start with...
The Man With the Golden Arm. Followed by City On the Make, The Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.

If I had to get rid of one Algren book, it would be...
The three-book QPB volume, since I already own Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness (the other books collected there), and won't ever read Wild Side again.

July 2, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Heatless Mondays

“Bartenders wearing overcoats, sweaters, and gloves bustled about setting ‘em up for the chilled patrons, who also kept bundled up while they were partaking of the drinks the government had ruled were not to be dispensed.” (Connecting the Windy City, 2nd item)

Pretty cruel to not allow heat in public places, while also not allowing someone to have a stiff drink to ward off the resulting chill.


January 20, 2020 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

”An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost.”

Stuart Dybek, from "The Caller" (collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, 2014):

The vigil candle at St. Ann's will melt into smoke, though at this moment, after midnight, its tiny flame has the locked church to itself and in the darkness emits a numinous green light that has the stained-glass windows facing the L tracks on Leavitt glowing from the inside out. If a soul flitted mothlike, lost in a once-familiar neighborhood, the light might attract it. An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost. Blocks away the ring of a phone echoes in a musty airshaft, and all along the street graffitied pay phones, most of them out of order and all of them obsolete and scheduled to be torn out, beging ringing. And then the steeple bells of three churches toll.

Plenty of lovely touches there that convey a Catholic church and the Chicago streets outside. The kitchen in my first city apartment had a window that looked into just such a musty airshaft; the window was painted shut and I could never quite see all the way down to the bottom. I always wondered what might be found there.

January 15, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


“He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.” - Ted Binion

Bergstrom’s story sounds like it might have come straight from the fertile imagination of Tom Waits.

December 27, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a checkered canvas...”

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2019 induction ceremony for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which honored Frank Marshall Davis, Salima Rivera and Sam Greenlee. A fine evening. I really like Davis’ “Chicago’s Congo”, and especially this passage:

Across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church,
      women with cast-iron faces peddle love
In the flat above William’s Funeral Home
      six couples sway to the St. Louis Blues
Two doors away from the South Side Bank
      three penny-brown men scorch their guts with four bit
Dr. Jackson buys a Lincoln
His neighbor buys second hand, shoes
      —the artist who paints this town must
      use a checkered canvas ...

I hear echoes there of Nelson Algren's description of Chicago as being Janus-like and two-faced. Algren and Davis were contemporaries (born four years apart) and both were involved in the Federal Writers Project, so I assume they knew each other.

November 11, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...his father didn’t believe in touching the savings."

Mike Royko’s favorite everyman, his fictional boyhood pal Slats Grobnik, was a true creature of the the city. An actual news story about suburban Arlington Heights' banning the playing of sidewalk hopscotch lead to the column “Sidewalk Slats”, which includes this gem of a passage:

The best place for a child to play and learn is on a sidewalk. It is his natural environment. If you take a child into the woods, he can fall out of a tree and break a leg and ruin the weekend.

Nobody liked sidewalks more than I did, except Slats Grobnik. To this day, if he walks on grass for more than five minutes, his feet blister. His attitude towards lawns and gardens is summed up when he looks sick and says: “Worms live in that stuff.”

When the rest of us would go to Humboldt Park, Slats would shake his head and stay behind, saying: “Anything that can hide behind a fireplug is small enough for me to handle, but how do I know what kind of creep is in the bushes?” He feared being kidnapped and held for ransom because he knew his father didn’t believe in touching the savings.

When we built a tree house, Slats wouldn’t come up. He said, “If people was meant to live in trees, the squirrels would slip some nuts to the city building-inspector.”

Collected in I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It! (1968).

October 17, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole...”

In The Emigrants, the aspiring settlers have hired "Long" Landberg as interpreter and guide. He will take them as far as Chicago, for which he is not quite a booster.

Landberg said that he intended to leave Chicago as soon as he had performed his duties there. This town was the only place in North America he detested. But it was the gateway to the West, which all travelers must pass through, although most thanked the Lord they could journey farther. Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole, built on the low shores of a lake and a river. One the one side was the lake and on the other side the prairie, with no protection against the winds, which blew so intensely that eyebrows and hair were pulled off people's heads. The town had only three decent streets: Chicago Avenue, Kinzie and Clark Streets. Yard-high stumps still stood in the other streets, and almost all the surrounding country was desolate wasteland where cows grazed. The houses were newly built, yet gray, dirty, and unpainted, for the hurricanes blew the paint off the walls. And the whole town stank from the mud and ooze of the swampy shores. Pools of water abounded, filled with crawling snakes and lizards and other horrible creatures. Thirty thousand people lived in Chicago, and of these, several thousand earned their living as runners, robbing immigrants passing through. Grazing was fine in Chicago, and cattle lived well in that town. But honest people, non-runners, could ill endure an extended visit in the place. Landberg thought Chicago would within twenty years become entirely depopulated and obliterated from the face of the earth.

Wow. That's quite the rant. I was hoping for more, but was disappointed when Moberg fast-forwarded past their stopover in Chicago, going straight from their Great Lakes steamboat to the inland waterways. Though Moberg wrote this a hundred years after its mid-1800s time frame, I still would have liked to read his detailed descriptions of the fledgling city.

July 12, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“I intend to keep bossing others around."

I enjoyed this 2008 profile of Wanda Kurek, proprietor of Stanley’s, the last remnant of Whiskey Row, in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.

”If I quit I'll be like all those old ladies sitting there with their mouths open," she says. "That ain't gonna happen to me. No way. I don't intend to quit. I intend to keep bossing others around."  

Kurek recently passed away, at age 95. But the bar will continue on, which I’m sure is what she wanted.

June 26, 2019 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Everyday People”


I’ve been very tardy in passing this along, but Ben Tanzer and I recently had a great conversation about Where the Marshland Came To Flower, writing in general, and Chicago, and our talk can be heard on his venerated This Podcast Will Change Your Life. Enjoy.

April 1, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (1)

“... a group not to be matched elsewhere in the country...”

William Dean Howells, from Literature and Life (1902):

Could one say too much of the literary centre at Chicago? I fancy, yes; or too much, at least, for the taste of the notable people who constitute it. In Mr. Henry B. Fuller we have reason to hope, from what he has already done, an American novelist of such greatness that he may well leave being the great American novelist to any one who likes taking that role. Mr. Hamlin Garland is another writer of genuine and original gift who centres at Chicago; and Mrs. Mary Catherwood has made her name well known in romantic fiction. Miss Edith Wyatt is a talent, newly known, of the finest quality in minor fiction; Mr. Robert Herrick, Mr. Will Payne in their novels, and Mr. George Ade and Mr. Peter Dump in their satires form with those named a group not to be matched elsewhere in the country. It would be hard to match among our critical journals the ‘Dial’ of Chicago; and with a fair amount of publishing in a sort of books often as good within as they are uncommonly pretty without, Chicago has a claim to rank with our first literary centres.

February 14, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (4)

Fading Ad: J.S. Patterson Body Shop


J.S. Patterson Body Shop, formerly located at 3611 S. Archer Avenue in Chicago. The building is still car-related, but now houses Monte-Jalisco Auto Repair, which gives an indication of McKinley Park’s changing demographics. The age of the ad is suggested by the phone number lacking an area code - until 1989, the entire Chicago area had the area code 312, so the area code was rarely referenced. 

January 13, 2019 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Archer Avenue Tour

Last week I had a bachelor weekend (Julie and Maddie were away, at our city place), and my big thing to do for fun was to...drive the entire length of Archer Avenue, from Lockport to Chicago. (Yes, I’m quite the wild one.) My daily train runs generally parallel to Archer, so I've seen bits and pieces of the street here and there, but never the entire distance. So I hopped in the car on Saturday afternoon, with a bottle of water, an Epic bar and a couple of old CDs (Chris Mars, Treat Her Right) and set out.

Archer is one of the major southwestern arteries of the Chicago area, which starts just north of downtown Lockport, winds through the towns of Lockport, Lemont, Willow Springs, Justice and Summit (just edging Bedford Park) and the Southwest Side of Chicago, where it ends at 19th and State, in the South Loop. Archer follows the path of an ancient Native American trail (which paralleled the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers), and was originally built as a supply road for the building of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which was headquartered in Lockport.

Naturally, I stopped and took photos along the way.



St. James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church, in Lemont. St. James was built in 1833 to serve Irish diggers of the canal, many of whom are buried in the quaint churchyard. The church stands on a bluff above the canal and the Des Plaines River, on a highland that in prehistoric times was an island - in fact, the area is formally called Mount Forest Island. Driving up the short road between Archer and the church feels like stepping back in time.



Pleasanty creepy, Addams-esque (or Munster-esque, if you prefer) Victorian house in Willow Springs. I've seen online mentions of this house being haunted. Ghosts might be the only thing living there - it looks abandoned. The house isn't actually on Archer, but is visible from the street, on the bluff just a block up Charleton Street.



The main gate of Resurrection Cemetery, in Justice. Resurrection is one of the largest cemeteries in North America, with 540 acres and over 152,000 graves. The cemetery is infamous for being the purported resting place of Resurrection Mary, whose ghost supposedly haunts Archer Avenue.



Administration building of the former Argo corn starch factory, in Summit. These relief sculptures depict the history of corn, from its first planting and harvesting by Native Americans to the laboratory explorations of scientists. The factory is one of the largest corn processing plants in the world, and is so prominent that the town is often known as Summit-Argo in its honor. This building is now occupied by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. 



36th and Archer, McKinley Park, Chicago. This house, the setting of my story "Valentino’s Return" in Where the Marshland Came to Flower, is incongruously wedged between an auto repair shop and a CTA bus lot, on a very commercial stretch of Archer. I see the house from my daily train to the city, and am always struck by how out of place it looks. Thinking of the sort of people who would live in a house like this eventually lead me to my story.



Huck Finn Donuts, 3414 S. Archer, McKinley Park, Chicago. I've always been curious about the name - I don't remember any specific references to doughnuts in Huckleberry Finn, or from Mark Twain in general. Yes, I stopped for a doughnut, to fortify myself for the long drive home - tasty, good but not spectacular.



R.V. Kunka Pharmacy, 2899 S. Archer, Bridgeport, Chicago. Sadly, it's no longer in business - I would have loved to stop in for a chocolate malt. I hope that wonderful storefront is retained by the next owner.



Hilliard Towers Apartments (formerly Raymond Hilliard Homes), seen from Cullerton Street near Archer. Designed by the incomparable Bertrand Goldberg (best known for Marina City) and built in 1966 as a CHA public housing project, the complex was redeveloped in the early 2000s as a mixed-income development - middle-class, low-income and seniors. Hilliard is bounded by Cermak Road, Clark Street, Archer, Cullerton and State Street, and even though it is only briefly bordered by Archer, it bears a commanding presence over the street. Archer ends just two blocks east, at State, where I turned around and headed for home.

January 13, 2019 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)


“It is the foremost American city – vital, wonderful, and always on the move. Chicago is a huge ant hill. Push it a little with your foot, and you stir up a million little creatures, each carrying a grain of sand and scurrying around.  But that’s the point: they’re moving.” - Nathaniel Owings

December 28, 2018 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

The worst of Chicago

Given the pervasiveness of "Best of Chicago" pieces, it's refreshing to read the "Worst of Chicago" feature that The Reader ran last December. Here are some highlights, along with representative quotes.

The Chicago Authenticity Police might be worse than actual cops
“Deep-dish is just for tourists, they say. Real Chicagoans prefer thin-crust square-cut pies, delivered from a neighborhood joint that's been there so long the phone number listed on signage still starts with an obsolete alphabetical exchange abbreviation.”

Chicago’s thirst for a ‘celebrity culture’ is an embarrassment
“At best, it's awkward—with a distinct lack of self-awareness the media trumpets such people and attempts to shoehorn in ever more notables as a means of legitimizing Chicago's existence.”

The Chicago bro is coming to ruin your neighborhood
“The toxicity spikes during the the bacchanalian binge-drinking marathons of Saint Patrick's Day and TBOX (the Twelve Bars of Xmas bar crawl), when the bros are empowered to spill out from their barstools to treat Chicago as if it's their own private beer garden. Venture into Wrigleyville on those days and the streets look like a scene from the world's whitest, most dude-centric zombie movie—call it The Walking Ted.”

December 12, 2018 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Garrick ephemera


This old matchbook gave me a laugh - check out the message on the spine. Dubious selling point, eh?

December 11, 2018 in Chicago Observations, Ephemera, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Garrick Restaurant


My dad ate lunch at the Garrick every day, for about ten or fifteen years, until he relocated his office from the Loop (in the Oriental Theatre building, just visible at the far right of this photo) out to Arlington Heights. When I worked in the Loop, some of my favorite lunch restaurants were located on the ground floor of parking garages - Haute Sausage, Cafecito, Blackwood BBQ. Those places are generally low rent, no frills, just a focus on good, affordable food. I’m pleased to realize that the Garrick was a “parking garage restaurant” too – another bond between me and my dad.

(Via Urban Remains.)

December 11, 2018 in Chicago Observations, History, Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)


“The average magazine editor’s conception of good verse is verse that will fill out a page. No editor is looking for long poetry. He wants something light and convenient. Consequently, a Milton might be living in Chicago today and be unable to find an outlet for his verse… In other words, the modern English speaking world says ‘Shut up!’ to its poets, a condition so unnatural, so destructive to new inspiration, that I believe it can be only temporary and absurd.” - Harriet Monroe

I admire and agree with her opinion, while also admitting that, as much as I love the city and its writers, there obviously weren’t any unpublushed John Miltons in Chicago in 1911.

November 19, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Hecht and Paul Dailing

Henry Justin Smith, on Ben Hecht, in the preface to A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago:

It was clear that he had sat up nights with those stories. He thumbed them over as though he hated to let them go. They were the first fruits of his Big Idea — the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter.

Of course, that's hyperbole - nobody could ever be the interpreter of an entire city, especially one as vast and complex as Chicago. But Hecht did succeed in his inevitably narrowed focus - the book is wonderful.

I'm reminded of this quote from the penultimate post in Paul Dailing's blog 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, which chronicles (in 1,001 posts from April 2012 through last Friday) his encounters in seemingly every corner of the city, and hundreds of points in between. Dailing was heavily inspired by Hecht's premise, and in some sense took it further than Hecht (who gave up Chicago and journalism after only a few years, leaving for the bright lights of New York and Hollywood) ever did. I won't pretend that I intently read even a fraction of Dailing's posts - that's a ton of content, even spread over six and a half years - but those that I did read were never less than worthwhile. I'm tempted to read all the way through the blog, start to finish, or wait for what would be even better - the entire blog compiled into a single book.

November 5, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Gibbons Box Co.


H.R. Gibbons Box Company, 1210 W. Lake Street, Chicago. I took a longer-than-usual walk yesterday afternoon through an area I visit only rarely, and was very pleased to find this ad. Though I’ve walked this block before, I must have been on the other side of the street, where the ad is obscured by the L tracks. The company is long defunct, and doesn’t even appear in the State of Illinois corporations database.

This 1921 obituary for Harry Gibbons (from an industry trade journal, with a typically laudatory tone) seems to suggest that the company made boxes for Marshall Field & Company, where Gibbons worked before leaving to start his own firm. Great customer to have, especially back then. 


October 25, 2018 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I mean, I'm not interested in any violent reaction, obviously. But I think that there's something worse than riots, and that's when we end up with a whole generation that has absolutely no confidence in the criminal justice system. If Van Dyke is acquitted, we'll lose a generation. I think that's a worse outcome than a riot."- Reverend Marshall Hatch

September 13, 2018 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Welcome back


I’m very happy to see the recent return of Calumet 412 (“A pictorial love letter to the city and people of Chicago”) after its year-plus hiatus. This wonderful 1967 image of Marina City (by Yale Joel) is quite timely - Julie and I are buying a lakefront condo in Chicago as a weekend getaway, so soon we’ll become occasional high-rise people, too. Though maybe not as stylish as these folks.

August 14, 2018 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

“They’re not all bums that sleeps here.”

I love this Chicago reporter’s 1883 description of vagrants sleeping in Lake-Front Park (now Grant Park):

As a tramps’ paradise the park was an eminent success. Deep, raspy snores, indicative of a tranquil slumber, floated up from various quarters of the park, and here and there could be dimly seen a recumbent figure, flat on its back, its arms and legs ungracefully distributed about it, a coat serving as a pillow and darkness as a cove.


“They’re not all bums that sleeps here. Some of ‘em are pretty well-to-do, but put on their old clothes, leave their valuables at home, and come down here to sleep. It’s cooler, you know, than sleeping in a close room. Come down and try it some night, and I’ll see that you ain’t arrested.”

I can vouch for the latter. My dad and his siblings used to sleep in Chicago city parks on hot summer nights.

July 5, 2018 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (1)


“I despise your order, your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!” - Louis Lingg

”The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” - August Spies

”Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? ... Let me speak ...” - Albert Parsons

Lingg, Spies, Parsons and two other defendants were convicted, without evidence, of the infamous Haymarket bombing in 1887. Lingg killed himself before he could be executed, and the other four were hung, on November 11, 1887. 

January 28, 2018 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Honesty is the best policy. I know. I’ve tried it both ways.” - Richard W. Sears, founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company (quoted in City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, by Donald L. Miller)

January 14, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the soberest and the most clear-headed..."

Frederick Law Olmsted, writing about the aftermath of the Chicago Fire, in the November 9, 1871 edition of The Nation:

For a time men were unreasonably cheerful and hopeful; now, this stage appears to have passed. In its place there is sternness; but so narrow is the division between this and another mood, that in the midst of a sentence a change of quality in the voice occurs, and you see that eyes have moistened. I had partly expected to find a feverish, reckless spirit, and among the less disciplined classes an unusual current toward turbulence, lawlessness and artificial jollity, such as held in San Francisco for a long time after there - such as often seizes seamen after a wreck. On the contrary, Chicago is the soberest and the most clear-headed city I ever saw. I have observed but two men the worse for liquor; I have not once been asked for an alms, nor have I heard a hand-organ. The clearing of the wreck goes ahead in a driving but steady, well-ordered way.

Quite the contrast to Chicago's reputation, both then and now, as a den of ruthless, lawless incorrigibles. I'm puzzled, though, over the implication that the playing of a hand-organ is as immoral as drunkenness or begging. It must be some dated reference I'm just not catching.

January 7, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the perishable possibility...”

"4. Early September anywhere in the city, when the sunlight angle has changed and everything and everyone appears kinder, all the edges softened; the torments of the hot summer are over, the cold torments of the winter have not begun, and people bask in the perishable possibility of a gentle city." - Aleksandar Hemon, "Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List" (from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology)

December 4, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the splendor of the square window...”

Francesca Falk Miller, from her 1948 novel The Sands: The Story of Chicago's Front Yard:

Her own room was at the top of the house facing the street. It was the nursery during her babyhood, but had later become a schoolroom with the tiny alcove over the stairs for her bed. Tom had the hall bedroom at her back, and there was a dark bathroom between, where often Sulie would see the shine of a roach as it scurried to a hiding place under the tin tub. There was no window to this bathroom, but a square skylight showed blue sky and white clouds on clear days, and the stars on dark nights. Sulie who was never afraid of the dark, hated to light the wall-lamp and so shut off the splendor of the square window on the heavens above the tin tub and the roaches.

“Chicago’s Front Yard” is a misnomer, as the Sands (a desolate, nearly lawless stretch of squatter-inhabited lakefront during the mid-19th Century, long before beach property became fashionable) would have been better described as either Chicago’s back alley or its dumping ground. 

November 20, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

1000 W. Monroe Street








I'm glad I photographed these two charming rowhouses (now very rare in the West Loop) while I had the chance, because they were recently demolished, for yet another new development. As if the West Loop doesn't already have enough generic luxury apartment buildings. 

August 16, 2017 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Farewell, Selected Works

At South Side Weekly, Malvika Jolly writes a tribute to Selected Works, the used bookstore in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, which closed in June. The store was a bit too far from my office for me to visit on a regular basis, but I really enjoyed the times I did get over there. (And I petted the store cat, Hodge. I've always thought that one of the nicest things about owning a bookstore would be having a store cat.) I tried to visit the store during my city day at the end of my sabbatical earlier this summer, only to learn that it had closed the prior week. I'm very sorry I missed out.

On that city day I also learned that the Books-A-Million store on Clark Street had closed. For the moment (until The Dial opens in October, in the Selected Works space), the Loop doesn't have a single book store, with the closest stores now being Sandmeyer's on Dearborn in the South Loop, Open Books on Lake Street in the West Loop and After-Words on Illinois in River North. (No, I'm not counting the Barnes & Noble in DePaul's downtown campus, which is mostly geared to textbooks, or the Barbara's outlet in the basement of Macy's.)

August 3, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

"No orange flashes in the sky."

East Chicago: a blue-collar suburb, thirty miles or so south of the big city. It is—was—the archetype of Steel Town, U.S.A. Most of its breadwinners worked in the mills: Youngstown, Inland, U.S. Steel.
    On this rainy afternoon, the journey on the IC train offers a bleak landscape, as other industrial suburbs are whizzed by. Smokeless chimneys. No orange flashes in the sky. Empty parking lots. Not a Ford nor a Chevy to be seen near the deserted plants. An occasional abandoned jalopy, evoking an image of the thirties. A stray dog, no humans. A fleeting glimpse of the business end of the towns; enough to see boarded-up stores and empty Main Streets.
    A mind-flash of Willard Van Dyke's 1938 documentary, Valley Town. It was Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a steel city of the Great Depression, stone-cold dead. It is a moment of deja vu in reverse.
    The front lawn of every other bungalow in East Chicago, it seems, has the sign: FOR SALE.

- Studs Terkel, from The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream (1988).

July 22, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)



I'm pleased to announce the publication of my flash fiction piece "Spectacle", in the journal Chicago Literati. In case you're not a Chicago aficionado, the photo above should give a strong hint of the story's historical context. 

This is my first publication in almost two years, the delay being partly due to the fact that I only rarely submit to journals any longer, and also from lack of fresh material, as I've been writing long-form work lately instead of short stories. Though I might have to rectify this - seeing the story online this morning was quite a pleasant jolt. 

July 9, 2017 in Chicago Observations, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael Brand Brewery, the epilogue


Six years ago, I posted about the impending demise of the old Michael Brand Brewery complex on Elston Avenue in Chicago, which was about to be demolished for a new HH Gregg store. Which indeed happened, shortly after. And now comes the news that HH Gregg is bankrupt and is closing all of its stores. So, at the cost of an impressive relic of Chicago history (and buildings that could have easily undergone renovation and creative reuse) we got about five years of a crappy Indiana electronics chain. How stunningly short-sighted. 

April 8, 2017 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"You can't force a boat through it."

Chicago tour guides often marvel at the epic engineering feat of the late 19th Century that reversed the course of the Chicago River, diverting its noxious flow away from Lake Michigan (the city's source of drinking water). But what those guides never tell you is where all of that sewage went. In short, it was flushed down the I&M Canal and the Des Plaines River, to Joliet

The water is nastier here than it is in Chicago. They have as much sewage there, but the putrefaction is well under way when it gets down here. Down on Lake Joliet it is thick; you can’t force a boat through it.

Thank goodness for modern sewage treatment technology. 

February 11, 2017 in Chicago Observations, History, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

Grand and humble



I love this undated photograph of the Stratford Hotel, on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but only partly for the hotel's 19th Century grandeur. What really strikes me is the tiny white storefront at the far left, which is dwarfed by the surrounding structures. I can't tell what the building was, but I'd guess it was a cigar shop or newsstand, even though the hotel would surely have had both of those amenities within its own building.

The photo is taken from Chicago at the Turn of the Century in Photographs: 122 Historic Views from the Collections of the Chicago Historical Society, edited by Larry Viskochil.

February 5, 2017 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Madison and Halsted, 1959


This 1959 photo looks east, toward the corner of Madison and Halsted. The buildings in the left foreground are where my office building now stands. (I guarantee you that the goings-on at the Elite Hotel and Little Max's Clothing - the only two signs I can read in full - were a lot more interesting than what happens there now.) The only building in the photo that's still standing is the long one on the right, between the theater and the corner - the old Mid City National Bank, now vacant. 

December 6, 2016 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Something sinister

At The Millions, Jason Diamond surveys the books of Chicago's North Shore suburbs, from Waukegan (which, Diamond notes, generally isn't considered "North Shore", which is generally a enclave of the ultra-wealthy) to Evanston.

There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life...

Diamond omitted my favorite North Shore novel, Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, which is set in fictionalized versions of Lake Forest and, I think, Half Day (the original name of Lincolnshire). Just's coming-of-age story about a Half Day kid uncomfortably moving through Lake Forest high society is one of those books that has stuck in my mind, years after the fact.

Diamond has just published a memoir, Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From Watching 80s Movies, which I might check out eventually. I'm a bit too old for Hughes' movies to have much of an impact on my young life (I graduated high school in 1983, the year before Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, came out) but Hughes was a very big deal to Diamond (the writer grew up around the North Shore, where most of Hughes' classics were set), so the book might still be worth a look.

December 1, 2016 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seen in passing

Curious sight this morning, at Union Station. As I was leaving the north concourse, headed toward the Great Hall, I walked past an electronic board that features (presumably for Amtrak tourists) information on local attractions. An African-American railroad worker, with a grizzled beard, hardhat and reflective safety vest, was tapping the touch screen, presumably to help an Asian man who looked on with a slightly bewildered look. This wasn't unusual in itself - railroad, security and station workers are helping tourists with directions all the time - but after I left the station and walked a few blocks, I saw the two men again. They were standing on Adams Street, just east of Jefferson Street, and the railroad worker was pointing toward Old St. Patrick's Church, as if showing the other man exactly where he needed to go. I walked past them, and glancing back, I saw them warmly shaking hands as the railroad worker turned back toward the station.

Helping a tourist at the station, when it's not actually part of your job, isn't that big of a deal - a few moments taken from a long workday - but to walk with that tourist for two blocks, on a cold day, to show him where he needs to go, just seems like a really thoughtful, generous gesture. Thinking about it is still giving me a smile.

November 28, 2016 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boy's gotta have it.


A gorgeous pen, made of wood reclaimed from an 1874 Chicago building, Brand's Hall. Perfect. And then I saw the price. Boy's not gonna have it.

October 18, 2016 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Ginza Restaurant


Somewhat recent, but definitely fading, ad for Ginza Restaurant, at State and Ohio in River North, Chicago. Ginza operated here from 1987 to 2013. It appears that Ginza was gentrified out of the neighborhood, which is ironic given that its food was well-regarded, and the area is now booming with restaurants and hotels. If the food was good, you'd think the gentrification and influx of people would have benefitted the place, and not lead to its demise. Apparently the new landlord had other, more expensive plans.

This was a difficult photo to take - I only had my iPhone, the ad was up high (about eight or ten stories) and I was shooting toward the west and the setting sun, which inevitably caused it to be overexposed. I edited as well as I could, but ended up with sharpness that was much less than ideal. Then, again, this almost has a watercolor feel to it, which I like.

August 7, 2016 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

From the 'L'

Excellent series of photographs taken by Angie McMonigal from inside of Chicago's 'L' trains. (Yes, that's the proper nomenclature, including the single quotes. "El" trains are New York, not Chicago.) I think this one is my favorite. Some sort of metaphor there about being in the gritty outlying neighborhoods with the train taking you away to the Oz-like towers of downtown.

(Via Coudal.)

June 27, 2016 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

South Side

This week I found myself taking photographs through my train window while passing through the far South Side of Chicago. These were originally posted to my Facebook and Instagram pages but I thought it would be nice to collect them all here.



92nd Place and Vincennes Avenue, Brainerd



91st Street and Vincennes Avenue, Brainerd



78th Street and Fielding Avenue, Auburn Gresham



76th Street and Normal Avenue, Auburn Gresham



76th Street and Normal Avenue, Auburn Gresham



75th Street and Eggleston Avenue, Auburn Gresham



72nd Street and Stewart Avenue, Englewood



Marquette Road and Yale Avenue, Englewood


These neighborhoods have special meaning for me, since my mom grew up in Auburn Park (now part of Auburn Gresham) and my grandmother in Englewood. Though the neighborhoods have changed significantly since my family lived there, both economically and racially, it touches me to see (albeit from the distance of a train viaduct) the streets and many of the same buildings that they moved amongst every day, up until the mid 1940s.

My method was fairly basic. Since there was no way to carefully compose photographs from a moving train, I simply had to take a flurry of shots in promising areas, and then sift through them afterward for the best images, which I cropped significantly to cut out the extraneous, and adjusted for brightness and contrast. Some were taken facing east toward the sun, which resulted in darker images after editing, while others were taken facing west (especially the Brainerd photos, which were the only ones taken under a completely clear sky) and were marked by more natural, vivid light. Any blurring was the inevitable result of the train moving at twenty or thirty miles per hour - instead of marring the photos, I think the blurring helps create a sense of motion.

June 11, 2016 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)


"When I look at my life, all my misfortunes are pretty much self-made; the wonderful things the gift of others." - Lynn Becker

June 10, 2016 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Randolph Street, then and now (and still sort of then)


Since I started working in Chicago's West Loop and walking around the neighborhood, I was long puzzled by this stretch of Randolph Street (looking west from Desplaines), and why it was extra wide, with the buildings set far back from the main part of the street. The buildings are so far back that there is an extra service lane on each side of the street, which allows rare-for-Chicago diagonal parking. (You can see one service lane on the right side of this photo.)

Then, a few weeks ago, the wonderful photoblog Calumet 412 solved the mystery: 


The city's old West Market Hall once stood right in the middle of Randolph Street, at the exact spot where the cars are lined up in the center of my photo. With this important structure being sited there, the adjacent lots on each side of Randolph had to be set back to allow room for traffic to flow around the building. All of which now makes perfect sense to me.

In the old illustration, Desplaines Street is the horizontal street abutted by West Market Hall; the next street up (west) is Union Avenue, most of which was removed for construction of the Kennedy Expressway, and the next street west is Halsted Street. (My office is now located at the upper left corner of the illustration, on what appeared to have then been a small homestead.) Interestingly, although Randolph west of Halsted appears to have originally been a street of normal width, it now has the same service drives as the stretch between Desplaines and Halsted. The street must have been widened and those drives added after the time of this illustration, to accommodate the wholesale food market that later developed along Randolph. Though a lot of wholesalers still operate there, the area is rapidly redeveloping and the old companies are slowing being priced out the neighborhood.

April 16, 2016 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gapers Block going, going...

Andrew Huff is putting Gapers Block on hiatus, and the site might be going away for good. Sad, but understandable. Everything runs its course, especially in the Internet era, and it's clear that Andrew no longer has the passion that he once had to run the site. Andrew will always have my sincere gratitude, as he published my first major piece of writing, the non-fiction "Captions Without Photos" (for which he also did essential editing, to correct major flaws that a newbie like me couldn't recognize), and also the short story "The Fixer", which is still one of my favorites.

My hat's off to you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in wherever life takes you next.

December 21, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Amazon Hose & Rubber Company


Construction of the new building at the left appears to have prompted the partial removal of the canvas banner on the building at the center, at 140 N. Jefferson Street. When I saw the vaguely retro typeface and the orange background, my first thought was that this might have been an early logo for amazon.com. But an image search for old Amazon logos brought up nothing that looked anything like this, and so I kept looking, and a search on the address finally revealed that this was once the home of Amazon Hose & Rubber Company, a wholesaler of industrial hoses. The company was established in Chicago in 1945 but, oddly enough, now operates only from three locations in Florida - Miami, Tampa and Orlando. A corporate snowbird, I guess.

November 22, 2015 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Quality Food Products


A soon-to-be fading ad: Quality Food Products, a food wholesaler ("We sell produce, canned goods, dairy, frozen. No fresh meats.") at 172 N. Peoria St.; this ad is actually right around the corner, on another building in the company's complex, at 918 W. Randolph St. I really like the little chef face inside the Q. The company is still in business, but may soon be moving - the Tribune ran an interesting piece (source of that quotation above) on one of the co-owners earlier this year, in which he voices his regret of how much the neighborhood has changed, even though that change would make him very wealthy when the property is finally sold.

October 20, 2015 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)



A random alley doorway in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. During my afternoon walks I often like to stroll down the alleys, behind the storefronts and old factories. While the street side of buildings may have been cleaned up and polished, the alley doors are often an afterthought, left untouched and weather-worn. I'm slowly collecting photographs like this, and might someday run a series here.

October 11, 2015 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Farewell, Maurice Lenell

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7bf6894970b-pi

Maurice Lenell dodged the bullet in 2008, when the brand was taken over by Consolidated Biscuit. But now Consolidated is pulling the plug.
The company, which produced about 275,000 packages of Maurice Lenell cookies annually, discontinued the line shortly after the new year, when it also took down its website offering holiday gift tins. Antiquated equipment, slow sales and recipes that included controversial trans fats all led to the decision to stop making the cookies, Jasper said.

Today, all that remains of the old-fashioned treats are what's left in stores, including The Cookie Store and More, which opened in 2010 blocks away from the shuttered factory to serve as the unofficial local outlet for the brand. The store now has a "Last Chance for Maurice Lenell" countdown sign hanging in the front window. As of Thursday, the sign said 18 days until supply runs out, said Jeff Bach, the store's owner.
This time I doubt Lenell will find another rescuer, which means those wonderful, old-fashioned cookies will be gone for good.

August 14, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Russell's Silverbar

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7b1df0d970b-pi

I love this 1943 postcard for Russell's Silverbar ("Where the Crowds Meet") at State and Van Buren in Chicago. (The building is long gone; the Harold Washington Public Library now stands on that entire block.) The graphics are wonderful, of course, but what I really like is how all of the great old State Street department stores - Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt's, The Hub, The Boston Store, The Fair - are labeled, as if to say "When you're finally all shopped out, stop by Russell's for a stiff drink before you head home."

July 21, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)