THE SPIRIT OF OLD TOWN BY RICHARD ATCHESON – 1967
Chicago’s hippest neighborhood offers latent Bohemians a chance to rule all they survey
There is a little piece of Chicago real estate, west of Lincoln Park, that is the pride of urban conservationists and the despair of bulldozers. It is a community widely known as Old Town, a label pinned on it by an itinerant publicist, but adequate as labels go. Old Town is probably the most amusing neighborhood in the country; certainly the most entertaining one ever to outsmart urban renewal. Nobody ever had to lie down in the street for Old Town. Its friends and lovers didn’t picket for it; they improved it So that when the Chicago Plan Commission took a suspicious look, some years ago, it found a neighborhood ripe for conservation instead of demolition. As part of a larger urban-renewal scheme, Old Town will be altered slightly in the next few years-a widened avenue here, a closed mall there-but none of the projected changes will shatter the character of its streets or sense of community that animates its people.
It is surprising that Old Town should have this sense of community. Its past is checkered wi.th disasters, its residents are a marbled polyglot population of Germans, Irish, Italians, Negroes, Hungarians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Syrians, Greeks, Japanese, Appalachian whites and “wasps”, and its architecture a kaleidoscope of Victorian overindulgence and dyspepsia. Old Town is full of weekend Bohemians, precocious children, bawdy beer parlors, hanging gardens and stone Cupids. It teems with betterment associations, and eagerly they flail away at each other, seized with a common panic born of Old Town’s swift and dizzying rise from slum tattiness to urban stardom. Wells Street, Old Town’s main drag, has undergone an even more accelerated change. Five years ago it was a dowdy old charlady of a street, lined with frame boarding houses and taxi garages. Today it’s a shameless hussy, a twinkly, tinselly Great White Way of crazy shops and nutty bars, a commercial area grossing many millions a year where half a decade ago you could walk blocks without encountering anybody but a mugger. And Old Town, which did not count on all this fame and notoriety as part of the residential Good Life, is plainly scared. Some of Old Town’s lovers would really rather have the muggers back.
Three civic groups seem to describe the activist landscape. One, the Old Town Triangle Association, is composed of the old-timers and hold-the-liners. Their organization is almost wholly responsible for the fact that there is an Old Town to fight over in 1967, and by service and longevity alone they deserve a respectful hearing. Then there’s the Old Wells Association, a self help brotherhood of Wells Street merchants dominated by many of the original shoestring shopkeepers who started the money thing by, to their astonishment, making a lot of it in a hurry. The third group is the Old Town Chamber of Commerce. A lot of the newest money being poured into the area is not liked by the somewhat older money. So the Chamber of Commerce is the improvement association that new money made. Members of the Chamber tend to think that the Old Wells people are unwashed amateurs, probably nuts. The Old Wells people think of the Chamber as a sort of Cosa Nostra. The Triangle people cry a pox on both their houses and wish they would all go away, taking their 25,000 tourists a night with them. It was not for this, they say, that they labored so hard for so many years.
The old-timers cannot see that an Old Town without tourists, set in amber, would not suit them either, and that explosions of phenomenal growth, execrable taste and monumental bad temper are all essential to Old Town’s style. The place is pretty, yes, and popular. But its greatest strength is that it constantly vibrates with kinetic energy. Old Town is full of conflict, full of life; a sometimes maddening but always exciting place to live. It may be, in fact, depending on one’s residential proclivities, the nicest place in the world.
I used to think so, anyway. My wife and I had our first apartment in Old Town, in a red-brick Victorian house redesigned by a Japanese architect, and I am awash with sentiment every time I think of it. Also venality, I had lived in New York, she in San Francisco, and we both knew we could never have anything like this in either of those cities. For not very much money, we had a skating rink of polished floors, high white walls, rooms flooded with sunlight, a sybaritic bathroom with a slatted ceiling, four bedrooms, and a brick-walled garden at the back. We also had an Oriental Santa Claus for a landlord, some interestingly emotional but not pushy neighbors, charming tree lined streets to walk in, and a fifteen-minute bus ride to the Loop. In summer you put on your bathing suit and walked through Lincoln Park to the beach in minutes. Summer or winter, on a thirsty evening, the Twin Anchors and the Old Town Ale House comprised the circuit of local nightlife. Scratch a nubby sweater or a pair of Levis in either place and you’d discover a munic ipal bond salesman in hiding from LaSalle Street respectability. But those joints always looked racy, and we bought our own Bohemia with a twenty-five-cent stein of lager.
We knew people who had spent thousands of dollars on decor and wouldn’t let you sit on certain chairs. We knew others, more like ourselves, who furnished their apartments exclusively from the Salvation Army, and you couldn’t sit on some of their chairs either. We even knew people who had turned the whole ground floor of their classic old house into a mad aviary, with birds flying overhead and perching on tree limbs and guests indiscriminately. It was that kind of place. Most of it still is.
It is important to stress that there is no such legal entity as Old Town. Old Town is where you make it. The Triangle people insist that it’s only in the “triangle,” an accident of streets that seen from the air would suggest a wobbly arrowhead pointing north. Wells Street could be said to form the shaft of our fictional arrow, an off center shaft, but running zip-zap from the south and penetrating the triangle clear through. Old Town means just patterned, textured, informal living in a pleasant urban environment. You can live this life to the west and north of the triangle, and even here and there off the shaft of Wells Street, as some have done for years.
Strangely, what is now Old Town has always been sort of special. Before the Civil War, when it was outs ide the city limits, the area was called the Cabbage Patch. That was, perhaps because the German settlers who developed the area grew cabbages. Perhaps it was just a denigrating term for all those German farmers out north, and their notorious appetite for cabbage. When the area was annexed to the city, in 1851, it was known as North Town, still solidly and obviously German. Nor could the Great Fire of October 8, 1871, burn away the ethnic configurations that the city had already assumed. The fire travelled south to north in a wide swath, burning every building in North Town to the ground, except for the walls of Saint Michael’s Church, a brand new stone structure built to serve the German populace. Back they came, doggedly to rebuild their community and set their mark architecturally on all the streets of Old Town. The ubiquitous high cottages, little houses raised a full flight off the ground, follow German village custom, which demands that the ground level be given over to storage and tacking and such.
Three thousand “relief cottages” flimsy frame outfits were built by the city in Old Town after the fire, but only one or two survive. Most were soon replaced by the high frame cottages and, through the prosperous years that followed, wilder and more elaborate styles of housing in wood, brick, stone and stucco. The German builders were no architects; they were professional craftsmen practicing riotous eclecticism at a time when almost anything went. The carpenters and masons delighted in personal details; they showed off outrageously on every cornice and stair railing and plaster ceiling. Their legacy is a complex of fanciful dwellings, made with love and all but sealed with a kiss. They liked Gothic windows. Renaissance pilasters, mansard roofs, swooping, looping eaves and Bessarabian balconies, and they liked them all mixed up together on the same house. So what you see today in the short, stop-and-start streets of Old Town is a rich architectural goulash that somehow turns out exactly to taste. And the pleasant effect is heightened by the agreeable human scale of the neighborhood-the streets are narrow, random rows popping into each other by surprise here and there, turning unexpectedly into tiny mews or opening into broader thoroughfares. There is no grid pattern, nothing is predictable, and there is a silly, lovely elegance about it all.
One of the most charming areas in Old Town is Crilly Court, which dates from 1877, Daniel Crilly, a wealthy South Side contractor (in the days after the fire, any contractor had to get rich) bought a full city block in the triangle, cut a north-south street through it, and filled it with stylish row houses and four large apartment buildings. A sentimentalist Crilly named the apartment buildings after his four children, and t day you can still live in Isabelle, Oliver, Erminnie, or Edgar. The houses back up on one another to form a protected court, and most of the apartments sport balconies that adjoin and overlook each other in a most neighborly way. Some of the tenants have grown up great jungles of flowering creeper, and the balconies are festooned with it, rollicking and cascading up and down and around. This gloss of creeper tells a lot about the people who live in Old Town. Nice as they are, Isabelle, Oliver, Erminnie, and Edgar are not particularly distinguished buildings. But the people who live in them have made them memorable.
An early resident was George K. Spoor. Spoor was the S in the Essanay Film Company, which thrived on early Westerns when Hollywood really was a cabbage patch. They went in for Westerns mostly because the A in Essanay was Bronco Billy Anderson, a big star in those days. They also went in for comedy, and there is a legend, certainly apocryphal, that the first Keystone Kop on film chased his first bandit down Eugenie Street and into Crilly Court. It is said that parties given in Crilly Court by Spoor and Bronco Billy were Really Something.
Very gradually, Old Town began to suffer from the attrition that inevitably affected the German community as some of them got richer and began to prefer the suburbs. A hard core of German settler’s descendants is still there, however, and the pretentious old Germania Club still stands on Clark Street as a bastion of traditional Gemutlichkeit. When the club celebrated its hundredth anniversary, in 1965, its membership was addressed by a West German diplomat who said, “Lassen Sie mich Ihnen zu dem 100. Geburstage des Germania Clubs und Ihnen auch fur die Zukunft wunschen, dass der Club weiter b/uhen und gedeihen moge,” and unless Mayor Daley was there, there couldn’t have been a soul in the room who needed a translation.* (*For others in the Mayor’s predicament the diplomat said, roughly, “Let me extend to you my best wishes on the hundredth anniversary of the Germania Club. May the club bloom and blossom in the future.”
During the 1920’s and 1930’s Old Town fell on evil days. Many old-timers remained, but money was scarce, and the triangle developed a seedy look brought on by neglect, a look shared by too much of Chicago even today-straight, middle -class and indifferent. Curiously, it took World War II to rally the populace to an awareness of their environment, and of the special qualities they had, more in potential than in reality. In fact , the very concept of the triangle was imposed by a civil-defense map, the triangle of streets becoming a city unit. People rushed out in tin hats as block wardens, or as victory gardeners, and they came to think of their triangle as The Triangle. In 1948, having exchanged their tin hats for paint pots and rollers, the activist elements formed the Old Town Triangle Association, with a lawyer named James K. Beverly as first president Beverly was a pioneer. In 1940 he had bought and restored a fine old row of Triangle houses, demonstrating a confidence in Old Town that had not been seen in years.
Two years later, the Association staged its first Art Fair, directly following Clean -up Week. The members had become aware that a number of Chicago painters and sculptors and artsy-craftsy types who did beadwork and leather stitching had lived in and around the triangle for a while, and they wanted to raise money for a local boy’s club. So on a June weekend they closed off a couple of streets, got the local talents to set up stalls in which to sell their work, and invited the public. And they were swamped. Some of the painters and sculptors weren’t up to much, but the ambiance was terrific. The tourists came in droves, strolled up and down, had a beer at a street-side stand, maybe even bought a painting. And the Old Town Triangle Association, though it now may rue the day, had set the pattern for years to come. Old Town became Chicago’s instant Bohemia, a white washed, tree lined Greenwich Village, vaguely threatening but mostly innocent. In the three years that followed, the local churches got into the act. The Midwest Buddhist Church, in the middle of Old Town, began dispensing chicken teriyaki dinners to all comers. The ladies at St. James’s Church dispensed good home -cooked German meals, filling and fattening. Saint Michael’s continued to dispense straight Roman Catholicism, and the Moody Bible Church continued to dispense that old-time religion. But two out of four is not a bad participation record. The Art Fair, and through it all of Old Town, began to take on a reputation for providing reasonably safe thrills. It also became desirable, as it had never been before, to a wide spectrum of society. People walking through the streets during the fair could not miss the inequality of the event. They saw artists more or less lionized, if you can call a few yards of paintings, hanging on somebody’s picket fence, lionization. They saw the beard-and sandals set moving about confidently, made much of by people in chemises Lacoste. Most important, they had a peek at the back gardens of Old Town, fancily got up in stone figures and fountains; radios tuned to the Buxtehude and Baez programming of WFMT: Old Town residents coolly sipping gin and tonic on their balconies, idly assembling in Bermuda shorts, barefoot, almost disdainfully looking down on the throng below. And the visitors were jealous. Why live stuffily in the far north in mom and dad’s old apartment if we can be down here swinging, they asked themselves. So Old Town rents began to climb: the powdering and the painting was intensified; the demand for service at the Twin Anchors and the Old Town Ale House got out of hand and willynilly, Wells Street was reborn.
It started in 1960, with a dumpy little joint called Moody ‘s, a post-college beer hall that caught on. Second City, Chicago’s remarkable satirical cabaret, had already opened down the street, every night featuring the unknown likes of Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin, but it spawned no new night-life development. Moody’s success, however, and an astonishing prescience, caused four law students to acquire an old store front and start making it over into a new saloon. I remember walking down a dark, empty Wells Street one night with a bunch of friends, en-route to Moody’s, and seeing a group of young guys sawing away like crazy in this old store front, we asked them what they were up to, Wells being that kind of street in those days, and they agreeably told us they were building a new saloon and expected to make a pile of money. I also remember, bitterly, how we laughed as we continued on our way, pointing out to each other that Moody’s already had all the business Wells Street could handle.
Chances R, which is what they named the place, was an overnight success. Gradually investing $25,000.00 in a decor that has been called “calculated dilapidation,” the original four made a conspicuous bundle on good hamburgers, a mug’s worth of beer, and as many peanuts as you could crack and eat. You were supposed to drop the shells on the floor and crunch them, for atmosphere. “Sensational” everyone cried, and cracked and crunched in there, spending right and left, until the local smart money finally got the point. Since the success of Chances R, there has been no turning back- for Wells Street or for Old Town.
These days, a walk north on Wells by daylight is a revelation in commerce. Starting from Schiller, the first thing you notice is the big Dr. Scholl’s factory on the west side of the street, with its big Dr. Scholl’s sign. Beyond it, atop a building, a huge tin smokestack in the shape of a black ice-cream cone looks the more odd for a sort of giant exhaust tube poking out the top of it. The buildings, a true hodgepodge here, look run-down, meanly thrown together at any height, sadly in need of attention. But Wells Street was always this ugly. What it has now, in addition, is the poky, bleached-out quality of any honky-tonk area, with yesterday’s gay flags hanging soiled and tattered. By daylight, it’s blowsy. And there is all that incredible filth in the streets -a Chicago specialty to be sure, filthy streets-but here, unparalleled, with parking tickets, old Kleenex and a month’s accumulation of effluvia banked against the buildings and impacting the gutters and drains. (A well known collagist in Old Town once assembled a collage out of the trash that blew across her stoop in a month.)
Promptly at one o’clock every afternoon, the Skokie matrons come to Wells Street. They’re not all from Skokie, of course, but that is what they are called by the local antique and gallimaufry dealers, whose cluttered shops are the ladies’ Mecca. In among the innumerable drinking establishments (Mother Blues, a folk-rock joint; the Outhaus; the Plugged Nickle, quality jazz; the Crystal Pistol, bikini a go-go; the Snug, a piano bar decorated like a medieval torture chamber, with Stryrofoam chains and manacles on the walls) are innumerable potpourri shops, revving up every midday for this invasion from the suburbs. The storekeepers need to have their wits about them. “Honest to God,” said one “you don’t know what these women do. I find used Kleenex stuffed in with fresh candy, cigarettes stubbed out in the fudge. And shop-lifting! I have a rate of loss that would curl your hair.” The merchant ‘s lament is touching and probably just, but he also has a record of earnings that would straighten my hair back again.
By late afternoon, the merchants are contending with the bus tours, great masses of people loping through with quick looks to right and left, and a snatch and grab at some item of merchandise or other. The tourist buses go on cruising Wells Street and Old Town hour on hour, everybody goggling everybody else with brash astonishment. The sensation of the past year has been the sudden excrescence of teeny-boppers on the street, literally hundreds of them day and night, thirteen years old and up. Crowding in from the suburbs, like their mothers, for a taste of the sweet life. A tight circle of these kids are local drifters, in the sense that they never drift far away from Maiden Lane, a new shopping arcade on Wells that features a Franksville hot-dog stand out front. The local drifters are shaggy haired boys and short -haired girls who are wearing swastika insignia this year, and they like to go barefoot on the rotten dirty sidewalks and scandalize the passe rs-by. What the local drifters wear, 500 Skokie teen-agers want to buy, so they all come down to Maiden Lane and stand around smoking Salems as if they were roll-your-own sticks of pot. Like most of Wells Street, the teeny-bopper element is largely borrowed and a little blue. It is also organized on a strictly first-name basis and its members are effectively inarticulate. “Long hair” they scream at each other in mock horror. How disgusting!”
The police come along Wells with a chain of paddy wagons every now and then, stop at Maiden Lane and arrest a hundred or so teen-agers for such infractions as disorderly conduct or blocking the public way or breaking curfew. They load a batch of the kids into the wagons and then turn back to face a hundred or so on the sidewalks and they say they have room for more. The free kids scatter, but in ten minutes they are back, scuffing the white Colonial window sills with their jackboots, patiently hanging on in hopes of they know not what. The windows of the shops in Maiden Lane stare back at them. Granny Goodfox, which purveys “boutique toys,” gives them an eyeful of mini-skirted Raggedy Annes and little tin soldiers. Stickers in the window of Smuggler read, THE GREEN HORNET IS A FAGGOT AND MARY POPPINS IS A JUNKIE.
By night, with the lights ablaze and thousands of tourists and teenies and even some locals thronging the streets, Wells Street is in its glory. Many of the potpourri shops stay open and, aware that they are themselves tourist attractions, some of them even charge admission. For twenty-five cents you get to wander in a wonderland of pine-scented pillows, candy canes, broken chandeliers and felt beanbags. Far superior to this flotsam level is the Emporium, the best shop on the street. It’s owned and operated by an anxious merchant named Ed Cordeira (I sold the first Tiffany lampshade on this street for thirty-five dollars and was called a thief for it”) in the best traditions of retail merchandising and compared to its shoddier neighbors, it stands out brightly on Wells. “Basically,” says Cordeira “we’re the only people on the street, aside from Charlie’s General Store, who spend any money on our windows. You know, changed every Monday. And I am out in front of this shop every morning with a hose, washing off the sidewalk.” Cordeira is also the only merchant on Wells Street who seems to give a damn about the gas lamps that were expensively installed by the Old Wells Association a couple of years ago. Most of them are dirty, fogged over, broke n. Those in front of the Emporium are shiny, squeaky-clean and bright, because Ed Cordeira is out there every morning polishing them. “I guess nobody else really cares about it,” he said. “You get the business whether you do anything or not. And the vandalism gets you down, adult vandalism. People think this is their playground, their big fun playground.”
When they are not vandalizing the merchants, the public seeks its big fun in the restaurants and late night joints. The restaurants are deliberately fey. That Steak Joynt, a red-plush den that can handle only ninety-four at a sitting, has been grossing more than $1,000,000.00 a year for two years on account of its $150,000.00 decor and an unearned reputation for good eats. “Steak lover!” its menu blurts in a spasm of narcissism, “Here’s the moment you’ve dreamed about Your opportunity to enjoy a prime steak prepared in the manner of the Victorian era.” A comer is the newer Antonio’s Steak House, where atmosphere is all 1920’s Chicago -just a little too golden yellow, a little too crystal-ornate-and all the waiters look like George Raft; the decor is more subtle and the food is better. The closest Wells Street comes to a plain old restaurant is probably the Soup’s On, a very special establishment nonetheless. The Soup’s On dispenses only rich, rib-sticking soup dipped out of great copper pots. It’s the best gustatory gimmick on the street.
Across and up the street from the Soup’s On is the Sewer, an aptly named discotheque where the unwashed sweatily frug and monkey around until all hours. Across from the Sewer, on Burton Place, is Le Bison, the grabbiest discotheque in Chicago, but a private club and hard to enter without at least a recommendation. But Le Bison is worth the trouble. Its tiny dance floor features a two-story psychedelic light screen that oozes and pulsates with the beat of the music in at least fifty-seven colors. Its decor relies heavily on bunches of black balloons, and its clientele is as far out as Chicago ever gets. Ladies wrapped in silver foil, girls in transparent microskirts and guys who fire cap pistols during the frenetic dancing are packed in there every night. The night I was there, one girl of a sado-masochistic persuasion carried a whip with her onto the dance floor and snapped it at fellow patrons in time with the music.
For real danger, there are joints up the street that could show that girl a thing or two. Some have closed by the police in the past year on such charges as beating up a patron (who turned out to be an off-duty cop) and permitting prostitutes to solicit on the premises. But genuine vice has never gotten a good foothold in Old Town. Chicago seems to be able to tolerate almost any sort of bad action except prostitution, and the bordello that opened on Wells Street was shuttered in two days. “They were stupid,” a cop told me “Advertising hot and cold running blondes on opening night. Everybody in town knew what was up.”
Adjacent to some of the rougher bars is Old Town’s newest shopping complex, a sort of Chicago-Arabian bazaar called Piper’s Alley. You see a monumental plastic “Tiffany” shade extruding into the street overhead, and beyond it, down an alley and into the bowels of a defunct bakery, a cobblestone pathway hockablock with restaurants and boutiques and bars. It all cost more than $300,000.00 to install, and according to Rudy Schwartz, one of its masterminds, there is more More More to come. Schwartz used to be a merchandizer for Goldblatt’s, and he knows merchandising. He and his partner have a piece of the action in every shop in Piper’s Alley, in return for which, Schwartz has provided a crazy jumbled decor tailored to each shop’s needs. Schwartz is glowingly confident. “Chicago is the jumpingest city in the country today,” he says, almost jumping up and down himself,” and there’s lots of money to be made on Wells Street for a long time-if you don’t permit yourself to become a pig about it”.
Rudy Schwartz is originally from New York. He talks like a New Yorker and he thinks like one. He came into Old Town with a lot of money, and some of the old-timers don’t like him. But he knows what he is talking about. If Chicago is the jumpingest city in the country, Old Town is the jumpingest part of Chicago. And there is still room for everybody and everything-old character and hot times, dignity and dancing in the streets -so long as nobody ever gets to be a real pig about it. THE END
Before Richard Atcheson came to Holiday as a Senior Editor, he was a reporter for the Chicago “Daily News” and the “American.” An early inhabitant of Old Town, he still considers it “home.”
Article appeared in Holiday Magazine Volume 41 Number March 1967
Originally Published by the Curtis Publishing Company Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19105
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