Monday, April 24, 2017

After almost a two-month...

...hiatus, my son and I resumed our "Western Avenue Project" yesterday where we left off on March 5. (Admit it: you didn't think we would finish.)

We left the house around 12:30 yesterday, picked up the Pink Line at Polk, and got off at the Western Avenue station, just north of 21st Street, at one o'clock. Thus we began our seven-mile hike down to St. Rita where my wife was to meet us with the car and whisk us off to Vito and Nick's Pizzeria on the Far Southwest Side.

We could tell we were in Pilsen, on the Lower West Side, by the mural that greeted us almost immediately after stepping off the el.

But it was fitting, I thought, that the first picture I took yesterday on Western Avenue itself (the mural was on a side street) was of the Anderson Brothers Storage and Moving Corporation, at the corner of 27th and Western. Like the very first picture I took on the first leg of our journey back on February 19, it's an example of light blue glazed brick on a background of beige brick.

This, as I mentioned before, was a common practice in Chicago in the 1960s, and though I don't particularly care for mid-century modernism, it's a favorite of Robert Powers, the author (and one of my idols) of the excellent blog, A Chicago Sojourn.

Continuing on with this mid-century modernist theme -- and jumping a few community areas ahead to Gage Park -- is this example of colored, geometrically indented glass blocks which Mr. Powers also wrote about extensively. Once again, not my cup of tea, but it seems to be a uniquely 1960s Chicago thing and therefore worth noting.

Before leaving the Lower West Side and entering McKinley Park, we passed over the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which afforded this breathtaking view.

Also known as the Chicago Drainage Canal, it opened in 1900 in order to send sewage away from, rather than into, Lake Michigan. This was part of the effort to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which as a layperson I still find positively amazing. (I thought only Superman could "change the course of mighty rivers.")

Since the Irish were famous for digging canals I wondered if any of my ancestors took part in the construction of this one.

And that in turn reminded me of the play The Irish… and How They Got That Way, by Frank McCourt, in which one of the characters reminisces:

We came to America because we were told that the streets were paved in gold. And when we got here we discovered that not only were the streets not paved in gold, they weren't paved at all. And -- what's more -- we were the ones expected to do the paving!

After crossing the bridge and just before entering McKinley Park, we noticed that Western Avenue -- inexplicably, as far as I'm concerned -- splits in two. (I swear I was not seeing double!) It's not as if one road goes north while the other goes south; no, there are two parallel Western Avenues until 55th Street. (That's about twenty blocks!) Does the world really need two Western Avenues? Isn't one enough? Or couldn't they just think of another name for the second one?

"What are we gonna call this other road that runs parallel with Western Avenue, boss?"

"I don't know; I'm tired of thinking up names for all these streets! It's Friday and I wanna go home. Call it, call it . . . Western Avenue."


"You heard me! See you guys on Monday..."

The Western Avenue to the east is mostly residential while the other is more commercial. Since we knew we'd eventually want to stop and eat we chose the latter one.

A couple blocks later, between 37th Street and Pershing (39th), is the park containing a statue of the 25th president for which the community area is named.

John and I had been here before, in October, to see the house in which Ray Manzarek of the Doors grew up. (Yeah, and we're going to see Robby Krieger play at City Winery next month!)

Originally the home of Irish immigrants working on the Illinois & Michigan Canal in the 1830s, the area was incorporated as Brighton in 1851 and annexed by the city in 1863. Long the home of good working-class jobs in steel mills, brickyards and meatpacking plants, McKinley Park still has a number of hulking industrial buildings along Western Avenue that are remnants of an earlier era. I remarked to my son that for generations ethnic Chicagoans probably lived in this neighborhood and walked to work, but those days are long gone. I imagine the Irish, Poles and others began leaving the neighborhood in the 1950s as the jobs either moved to the suburbs or just disappeared altogether.

Jumping ahead, again, the Otto V. Stransky & Son Funeral Home and Body of Christ M. B. Church in Gage Park, and Yerkes Plumbing Hardware in Chicago Lawn, provide evidence for the old ethnic groups that once populated these South Side neighborhoods. Stransky could be Polish, Yerkes could be Lithuanian, and the Body of Christ M. B. Church looks to me like it was originally an Eastern Orthodox church of some sort. In any event, they stand out in neighborhoods that are now mostly black and Mexican.

Brighton Park begins at Pershing and extends to 49th Street. It took its name from the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, which was famed for its cattle market. Brighton Park was incorporated as a village in 1851 and annexed to the city in 1889. I snapped the picture above from the front of a private home or some unidentified business or something. It looks like a family sitting around a kitchen table with a birthday cake on it and a dog in the background. What that's all about is anyone's guess!

Just before we got to the end of Brighton Park at the Western Orange Line station at 49th, I looked to my right and saw this enormous piece of vacant land. I just had to take a picture because it's so at odds with everyone's image of an overcrowded big city. If there's one thing I've learned since moving back here three years ago it's how much available land there is! It's really a myth to think there's nowhere left to build.

After Brighton Park comes Gage Park, which goes down to 59th Street.

And it was time for us to have lunch! We found this Maxwell Street joint at 53rd Street and not a moment too soon. (John's stomach was growling.)

We were the only ones in the place (where was everybody?) and an almost Art Deco-style metal screen divided us from the two guys behind the counter. (Was it there to protect those guys from getting robbed? After all, the place is open 24 hours.) If you look really, really hard you can see bags and bags of onions piled up in the back. (Maxwell Street is known for grilled onions -- yum!) After eating we bade our two new amigos goodbye and continued on our trek.

Next came the community area of Chicago Lawn, from 59th Street to the railroad tracks at 75th, and I have to admit, things started getting a little dicey here. To the east of Chicago Lawn are the scary neighborhoods of West Englewood and Englewood. If you're one of those people -- like Donald Trump -- who thinks Chicago is a "war zone," Englewood is one of the neighborhoods you would have in mind.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this particular stretch of Western Avenue to just anyone; it's not for the faint of heart. (My wife couldn't believe we walked through here.) Even though Marquette Park is just a few blocks west and Chicago Lawn was once known as the "Lithuanian Gold Coast," there were no Lithuanians in sight on Sunday afternoon. (Let's just say it's not exactly Winnetka.) At one point, I think it was at 71st Street, there were about a half dozen guys just milling about on the sidewalk. They were probably harmless but we crossed the street anyway. What's the worst thing that could have happened? Honestly, I think they would have stared at us or called to us and maybe made us feel a little uncomfortable. But that's about it; I'm sure we were more of a curiosity than anything else. If you do try to walk the length of Western Avenue some day, though, my advice is just to try to look like the baddest mother****er in town and hope for the best. That's what we did and I lived to write this blog post. In truth, I don't think "bad" neighborhoods are anywhere near as "bad" as people think.

One building we passed in Chicago Lawn was this old brick structure with terra cotta trim. I thought it was absolutely gorgeous in the late afternoon sun. It looked empty -- perhaps a candidate for the wrecking ball -- but I loved it.

Look at the detail of that terra cotta! It would be a shame to lose it.

We finally walked under the railroad tracks at 75th Street and entered Ashburn, the home of St. Rita of Cascia High School.

It's such a large and beautiful school that I was surprised to find out it only enrolled around 600 boys. (Still no girls. Can you believe it?)

Founded in 1905, St. Rita moved in 1990 to what had been the campus of Quigley South, a seminary that had operated on the site since 1961. (I actually went to the old location at 63rd and Claremont Avenue on one of my Ray Manzarek pilgrimages. Can you believe that?)

I had been to St. Rita several times before for football and basketball games but always at night and never on foot. It's very pleasant during the day, and John and I found a shady spot in which to sit while we waited for my wife.

That's us walking to the car on 77th Street (the only picture I didn't take). Sticking to our plan, the three of us then drove the two miles or so to Vito and Nick's where my son and I regaled my wife with our adventures over thin-crust pizza and cold beer.

It was a beautiful day and we plan on tackling the last leg of Western Avenue, down to 119th Street in Morgan Park, soon. (Although my friend Kevin says we should keep on going, through downtown Blue Island. We'll see.)

So yesterday we passed through six community areas -- the Lower West Side, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn and Ashburn -- on the West, Southwest and Far Southwest Sides. Not a bad day's work.

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