Our Own Secret Street Right Here In Chicago

As the holiday season arrives, I want to do you a favor.

The favor of taking you by your most sentimental hand and walking you down Chicago’s great street State Street when it was still an amazing, awesome, astonishing midway of childhood desires. When exactly was that…? Exactly the last time you and I took the time to stroll it like a child.

My very first time was in the dark days of the Great Depression. Looking back now from the Great Recession, I remember it more vividly than I do this very morning. It began as a long, noisy ride with Mom on Chicago’s Lake Street L train….inhabited with all sorts of tall, heavily-dressed people sternly reading their newspapers…feeling the tug of her hand when someone called out “State & Wabash” ….then being led down the bustling station stairs to a large gray building marked Marshal Fields. [I understand something from New York City called a Macy’s has since usurped that grand old store].

The air was crisp, the crowds thick, and the place rang with bells, chimes and carols. I could only see it from down about Mom’s waistline, but it felt like some magical crash of sights, sounds and smells unlike anything I had known before. It quickly grew louder as we turned a corner and — then! — State Street itself. A long wondrous blaze of ornamented street lamps, store fronts, clanging streetcars, shoving adults, fat red Santas tinkling their bells, angelic choirs from loudspeakers somewhere. If this was heaven, Father Cunningham hadn’t been misleading us.

Mom efficiently took me by my little gloved hand to gawk at each of those celebrated Marshall Field window displays. They looked out on State Street, which in turned looked in at them. At age eight I had witnessed the excitement of giant coal trucks, horse-drawn milk wagons, screaming ambulances, and Dad’s splendid new 1937 Dodge sedan. But nothing quite like this. Nor, did it seem to me, did any of the other oohing and awing kids at the end of their mother’s hands.

Animated Victorian living room scenes with slippered children gathering around ornamented trees…Jolly Old St Nick squeezing down wreathed chimneys…puppy dogs and kitty cats and winking elves by what seemed like hundreds…oh and all those incredible dinner feasts around which the families would gather…plus of course the Nativity Scene reminding adults and kids alike what this whole day was supposed to be all about.

I remember instantly deciding I never wanted to leave. Very much like my own children the first time they walked Disney’s dazzling Main Street. But leave we eventually did. Not only State Street but also that delicious fourth-floor toy department inside. It seemed to me it held all the toys in all the towns in all the world!

I’ve since learned all those toys are actually in big-box warehouse stores like ToysRus where they have now turned in their credentials as Christmas magic for their new status as boxed-and-ready stuff. Sometime I miss being eight. I think maybe sometime you do too.

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  • My most vivid memory is of my mother taking me to Field's and buying me a Shirley Temple doll in 1958 for my birthday. I remember looking around in wonder at the regal store and all that it held with my mouth continually open.

    My husband and I used to take our kids to the State Street Field's at Christmas time when they were little. I hope their memories are as good as mine, but I doubt it.

  • In reply to siblingless:

    I hear and feel just what you're saying and feeling...!

  • Did the Christmas room in Marshall Fields and all the Christmas window fronts feel as gimmicky and commercial as it does now? And the Bloomingdales near Mag Mile had their Christmas decorations up since *before* Halloween!

    It all feels a bit too much.

  • In reply to Holly:

    Holly ~ It was all much smaller, much simpler, much more authentic in those days. America hadn't learned yet to be a super-power in which everything, even Christmas, has to be extravagant

  • Just a couple of notes. At the risk of breaking the moment, "State and Wabash" don't intersect. Also, what separates Chicago from New York (with is Macy-ite usurpers) has always been progress. Yes, Field's was always wonderful and it was a tradition - one you can still enjoy. But part of State Street has always been that it changes - unlike a static, imagined past, there's always something new, it is always reborn. I expect folks will one day be nostalgic about the subway entrances - the new ones are less than ten years old but designed though they'd always been there.

    Also, there is a real secret street in Chicago, one you have to hunt for but in a time of Mapquest it's pretty easy - Memory Lane. Yes, it's true, just south of Foster on the way to O'Hare, lies the actual street. What's coolest is that for some lucky few, it's where they actually live. :-)

  • In reply to ericd1112:

    Eric ~ I was just waiting for someone to catch my foolish error...of course, it was Randolph & Wabash...as for the dynamic od change on State Street, I agree and disagree...change is necessary in life, but I like to think so is continuity....they probably work best when they work together...as for Memory Lane, yep I don't live too far from there myself...and don't forget the new website called Memory Lane...oh as for being 8, I still miss it every Christmas!

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