"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." (Thomas Wolfe/Ellipses in original.)
Those memorable words are as true today as when Thomas Wolfe's book was published posthumously in 1940.
I went wandering around the neighborhood of my birth, what is now called Bucktown/Wicker Park. The neighborhood of Nelson Algren and Mike Royko. Both of Algren's Chicago apartments were within walking distance of the place where I was born, 1627 N. Winchester. The building looks the same as I remember it from the 1950s, except for the modern windows. The street is past gentrification. I have memories of the vegetable peddler and his green horse drawn wagon. There were the ding ding sounds of the knife sharpener, pushing his cart with the sharpening wheel. The yells of the ragman plying the allies and the organ grinder with his monkey on the corner of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenues. These people would not be allowed today. The alien immigrants from the suburbs would pitch a hue and cry.
On the corner of North Avenue and Winchester was a bus turn-around. When we were kids the bus drivers would give us stacks of spoiled transfers to use when we played cops and robbers. Yes, kids did play cops and robbers, with toy guns and all. None of us grew up to be mass murderers either. We had real parents who disciplined us when we misbehaved.
When kids were old enough to walk parents sent them out to play. There was no fear from stranger danger. The streets were always full of neighborhood people and elderly women kept an eye out through their curtains. People sat on porches and there were always people walking to and from stores or local taverns.
Parents also took their children to taverns. Taverns were family places back then. There were even taverns on side streets, along with other mom and pop stores and businesses. Something the gentrified suburban aliens would not put up with today. Better to get in your car and drive to the mall. I remember the times my dad brought me into taverns on warm summer days. He would have a beer and I would sit at the bar sipping a Green River. The taverns smelled of beer, cigarettes, pipes, and cigars. Bartenders wore white shirts with ties. There was always a black and white television up high in a corner with a ball game on. Yes, there was a time when television was only black and white and bars only had one or two. Now there are banks of televisions and patrons stare at them in rapt fascination, even though the sound is not on.
My grand parents owned a building at North Avenue and Honore. My grandfather ran his butcher shop on the first floor and the family lived above. I remember visiting my grandmother, even after we moved out of the neighborhood. Those stairs to the second floor seemed to go up forever.
There were several stores in the neighborhood. You never had to leave to buy the things you needed. There were butcher shops, dress shops, mens clothing stores, hat shops, furniture stores, and a host of other businesses to provide for the needs and wants of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was a rich diverse ethnic stew. What was once mainly a Polish and Eastern European area turned into a neighborhood of immigrants displaced by World War II. Poles, Germans, Italians, Russians, Croats, Serbs, and various European Jews.
Even after we left the neighborhood my dad would get prescriptions filled here and we would still get our haircuts at Adolph's barber shop at the Luxor Baths.
Like most of Chicago, the neighborhood has changed. It is still diverse. It is a melange of young, upscale dwellers, hipsters, artists, bohemian types, and those dratted immigrant aliens from the suburbs. Like commercial strips have done for generations, the merchants along Milwaukee, Damen, and North Avenues cater to these various groups. Many if not most are corporate names instead of the sole proprietors and families of the past. But there are some young people who are trying to make a go of their small businesses.
There are still some artist studios, especially in the Flat Iron Building. The area is know for "Around the Coyote", the annual art and street fair. Some artists try to sell their creations on the street near the Damen El stop.
There are more bars and restaurants and that is a good thing. The neighborhood is destination area, especially on weekends.
You can't go home again. But, you can wander around, savoring the memories and appreciating the changes.
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