Memories of a Chicago Neighborhood

John Floener

I was born in 1924 at Mercy Hospital located on South Michigan Ave. It was a dark, gloomy, 19th century type of building since replaced by sparkling steel and glass structures in the same area. However, the beginning of my neighborhood memories date from 1930. Although I can recall some incidents of the 1920s these do not pertain to "the old neighborhood."

We lived in a frame 5 room cottage at 5524 S. Hamilton Ave. in 1930. The definition we had of our neighborhood was roughly that area of the southwest side of Chicago with these borders: Ashland Ave. on the East; Western Ave. on the West; 59th St. on the South; and 55th St. on the North. This is one mile by one half mile. But the area known best to us would be the block we lived on and three or four blocks adjacent to our home. This is where most of our friends lived and where most of the residents lived who were known to us by name.

The houses in this area were built circa 1910-1912. It should be mentioned that 5500 South is also Garfield Blvd. The "Boulevard" was very big in our definition of our neighborhood. The North Boulevard ran from East to West and the South Boulevard, of course, ran from West to East. There was a parkway of about 50 yards in between. Some of the people living on the Boulevard were well-to-do and quite successful in life - a couple of radio stars, a lawyer.

However, for the most part it was a working-class neighborhood with many frame cottages, some bungalows, and some two-flats. It was not a scene of great intellectual activity or political activism. There were some large apartment buildings on Garfield Blvd. Rents for a five or six room apartment of house were in the range of $40-$50 a month. It must be remembered that these were depression years and these years did not end until 1941 as the nation prepared for war.

There is a "Depression Mentality" among those Americans who were born before 1930. Today, some romanticize the 30's but that is not the way it was. It was a time of despair and anxiety. Overall the mood was somber, especially among middle-aged men who were out of work.

In the era being described there were many changes. From a bare-bones depression to war and to what Carl Sandburg described as a "fat-dripping prosperity." Growing up in those days was heavily influenced by neighbors, playmates, school, church, and entertainment. My father bought a Philco console radio in 1930 for $90. This radio gave us more than 10 years of pleasure. This was our "cutting-edge entertainment." We thought it was a marvel to hear a radio program that originated in New York or California. Radio listening meant the end of group singing with friends and relatives around the old up-right piano. Radio programs - music, drama, news - became almost everyone's favorite pastime. My best friend and I listened to Orphan Annie and sent for the secret code device by which we communicated with each other.

The school we attended was a Catholic grammar school, St. Basil's by name and located at 1840 W. Garfield Blvd. This school was taught by an order of Dominican nuns. There was no gym at the school; we had no recess, nor was there a kindergarten. The physical plant of the school was inferior to that of the nearest public school, Henderson, which was at 57th and Wolcott. Even with these shortcomings, the education at St. Basil's was excellent. This was a matter of the era of Catholic education and the quality of teaching. Some elderly friends, who have since passed on, told me that at the turn of the century (1900) the Catholic grammar school faculty was made up of well-meaning nuns, mostly of a farm background, who were only about two lessons ahead of the children they taught.

Our church, St. Basil's, was located at 1850 W. Garfield Blvd. The Reverend John T. Bennett had founded the parish in 1912, and would serve as its pastor until his death in 1948. He built the church in 1926 at enormous expense, copying St. Sophia's in Istanbul at 1/4 scale. Rev. Bennett was an autocrat who liked the finer things in life, and a lot of parishoners disliked him; he undoubtedly overspent for the class of people in the neighborhood. I served mass for him in the mid-1930s, and he used to take us around afterwards and show us the inlaid wood, the marble floors and statues, and all of the other fine features of the building. He built the rectory in 1934 for $100,000, which went a long way in those times. I remember that once in the late 1930s, Cardinal Mundelein came in a parade on the Boulevard past St. Basil's. Rev. Bennett had built a grandstand in front of the church to welcome him. But the Cardinal snubbed the Rev., and did not stop to acknowledge him.

Two years ago St. Basil's was demolished. The neighborhood had changed and for the most part the new people were not Catholic. There were not enough parishoners to support and maintain the church. So what we thought was forever - our St. Basil's Church - is no more.

The boys at that time had play activities such as bicycling, ball playing, shooting marbles, and different street games, such as touch football, hide and seek and hockey on the street with sticks and a tin can. There wasn't much auto traffic at the time. The ball playing was softball. We would chip in a nickel apiece and buy a 14-inch softball. We all seemed to have bats. There was a square block of park at Garfield and Western that we called Horseshoe Bend. It had softball diamonds and there we would play our games. The ball field was part of the Gage Park complex to be made famous later by Dr. Martin Luther King. Our library and gym were also in Gage Park. We had to cross busy Western Ave. to get to these two facilities which were in the park fieldhouse. Also, there was a swimming pool there that we could use in a very regimented way. A group at a time were allowed into the pool as the previous group were made to leave. Those Park District pool attendants were the meanest bunch of grown-ups we had ever encountered.

Rollerskating and sledding were also important pastimes. We had skates with metal wheels and these skates were held to our shoes with clamps. The skates made a terrible racket on the sidewalk or street. Those in-line skates the kids have today are a great improvement. They're "cool" as they say these days. Sleds, of course, could only be used in the winter when there was snow. "Belly-flopping" was one of our favorite endeavors.

We ice skated at the parks or at a location called Froelich's field. This was a vacant lot flooded every Winter by one of the local politicians. The ice skating field was at 54th and Hoyne; it was close to home and served our purpose. These, then, were our playtime activities along with some parlor games such as Chinese checkers, monopoly, and parcheesi among others.

The "prairies" of the neighborhood should be mentioned. "Prairie" was the name given to any vacant lot in our vicinity. Since there was little or no construction going on, these were empty lots. Weeds grew tall there and we uprooted them and threw them around as spears a la Tarzan movies we had seen.

Saturday afternoon was movie time. We would go to the Boulevard Theater at Garfield and Ashland to see a double feature and the latest installment of the adventurous serial. These serials consisted of 15 separate episodes, usually about cowboys and Indians. At the end of each serial, our cowboy hero was usually in mortal danger; we thought he was a goner and couldn't see how he could survive. He always did, though. We usually were shown cowboy movies; sometimes World-War I based films. Errol Flynn as an R.A.F. fighter pilot winging away in his bi-plane to do battle with the nasty Germans. These movies were very important to us.

A word must be said about the "Corner." Probably every neighborhood has a place where people meet (especially the young people) and where people start from on the way to somewhere. Our place was the southeast corner of Garfield Blvd. and Damen Ave. On the Corner, there was a drug store, two groceries, a bakery and a butcher shop. Upstairs of the drug store was a doctor's office and a dentist's office. Also some residential apartments. At the drug store we enjoyed 15 sodas and 20 banana splits - if we had the money.

From the Corner we would take the #6 route bus to Downtown. The bus went east to Michigan Ave., and then turned north to Randolph St. This was the route we took to do Downtown shopping or attend the movies. Randolph Street at that time was a lively place. Movie palaces, stage theaters, restaurants, cabarets, and stores were on Randolph or nearby.

After six years in the Hamilton Ave. cottage, we moved to the 2nd floor of a two flat a few blocks east at 5640 S. Winchester, just across from Henderson grammar school, which was used as a branch of Lindblom high school because the main building was overcrowded. Gage Park High at 56th and Rockwell had not yet opened. I graduated from grammar school in 1938 and in the following Sept. began high school, the first year of which I spent conveniently right across the street. The teachers seemed very upset by the war in Europe. For 8 years at St. Basil's grammar school, we heard about God; for the next four years at Lindblom public high, we heard about democracy. Four years at Lindblom High were a good experience of diversity. The student body was truly a mixture of American ethnic backgrounds. In my first year classes, about 25% of the students were African-Americans. I remember those students as loud and happy-go-lucky but not hostile. However, most dropped out before graduation. Their future was blighted by the racism of those times.

Looking backward, it must be said that a good education could be had at Lindblom public high school. The teachers were qualified and took their job seriously. Most of those teachers were WASPs. That seemed logical since not many other group members had a college education at that time in the U.S. The main high school building was one block (an eighth of a mile) long and one half a block wide. The high school in the community where I live now has 40 acres and some complain about the lack of space. The big difference is the need for parking. Very few students drove to classes in 1940 and the teachers parked on the street.

The beginning of U.S. participation in World War II was the major event of my youth. The neighborhood was emptied of young men, many of whom were unemployed at the time they entered military service. Some have said that the attack on Pearl Harbor ended the Depression. Maybe so! The 1940s seemed to be a time of going away parties for the newest inducted into military service, and welcome home parties for the returning veterans. A few of these young men never came back - killed in the war.

The returning vets resumed their lives much as it was before the war. Some went to work immediately after coming home, some partied for a considerable time before seeking employment. Almost all lived once more in the old family home. The big change came as they married. After the vets married in the late 1940s, it was difficult for them to find housing. Housing was in short supply until about 1950. Many couples doubled up with their parents or relatives. This was by no means a good arrangement. Some lived in buildings which had been converted into 2nd-rate apartments. Eventually the suburban housing boom began and the newly married moved out of town.

What accounted for the exodus to the suburbs? There were various reasons. One was called "neighborhood change." This term meant that blacks were moving into the area. It is easy to understand why any black person would leave the social and legal discrimination of the South and come North where employment opportunities were better and his social and political status were somewhat improved. The change was inevitable. But I've always felt there was a complete insensitivity toward the existing white residents, especially the elderly. The high moral tone taken by the wealthy and powerful reeked of hypocrisy. The black people had been oppressed, ill treated, and ill educated for generations. Most had a rural background. It was too much to assume an assimilation with the white working class ethnics. The big cities of the U.S. have been impacted with this problem.

There have been enormous changes in America since 1930. The population has doubled. Television, the jet airplane, computers, and best of all, most of us are more prosperous than we ever thought possible in the 1930s. Racism has been confronted and totally discredited. The old neighborhoods had their era and will never come back. If there is no war in the future, the future will be marvelous.