A RETURN TO THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
The Near North is now Wrigleyville
By Mike Fak
My wife, Sharon, and I got up at 5a.m. on Thanksgiving Day Eve November 23rd 1998. We had come to Chicago for the holiday a day early so I would have time to make a jaunt over to Wrigleyville. Sharon, ever being the supportive spouse, had said she would be happy to go with me and take some pictures. She didn’t ask why after over twenty years of living together that I now had to go back home. I’m glad she didn’t ask. I really didn’t have a compelling answer to why all of a sudden I had to visit my old stomping grounds.
I had decided that a dawn raid on the neighborhood was best for two reasons. One, the area is now a mass of humanity and traffic and I wanted to drive slowly through certain areas. Two, I knew that walking around the area with my head bobbing in and out of alleys and buildings could look suspicious to residents. I didn’t care to have to explain myself to the inhabitants of Wrigleyville or worse yet, a Chi-Town cop or two.
Driving east on Addison, the days first light was illuminating the sky. My grand entrance back home would be at dawn. I felt myself tense as the great red shield of Wrigley Field came into view. It was all wrong. The park didn’t look right. The building was the same but the huge towers of lights on the roof just weren’t supposed to be there. Wrigley didn’t have lights until, strangely enough, the night of my 40th birthday. I recalled how the neighbors around the park had heavily contested their installation. They didn’t want night games to further crowd the already densely populated area every summer night. I found myself wishing the lights weren’t there for another reason. They had crushed one of my childhood pictures of what Wrigley Field was supposed to look like.
Driving past the south end of the park, we took a left on Sheffield. Immediately, I noticed that the Sheffield side doors were gone. The huge green iron gates had been replaced with modern ribbed aluminum entrances. They also didn’t look as big as I recalled. In fact the huge sidewalk on Sheffield of my youth didn’t seem as large as it once was either. I was shocked as my old block came into view. I had heard that Horace Greeley School had been razed many years before, but I was not prepared for what had taken its place.
Nearly the entire east side of 3800 Sheffield was a huge four-story brick structure. With only small glass block windows sparingly placed on the Sheffield side of the structure, the monolith came within just a few feet of the street. Allowing only enough room for the standard four foot wide sidewalk, the huge building made the whole block still dark a half hour after first light. My home block, so open and bright with the schoolyard across the street now looked like it was part of a passage through a giant cavern.
I turned left on Dakin, still shocked by what I had driven past. Once again, I noticed that the entire block was not as long as I remembered it was. The street also was a lot narrower than I recalled. We found a parking spot all the way up Dakin where the old railroad tracks were. The area, in fact everything, seemed condensed. Apartments snuggled close to the little street that ran adjacent to the tracks and Graceland Cemetery was just wide enough to get a car through.
I wondered how long these residents had to drive around to find a place anywhere near their house to park. One thing the Near North, or now Wrigleyville, never did have was enough parking spots for the huge amount of apartment dwellers in the area.
I found the cleanliness of the old tracks remarkable. Along them the great brick buildings stood clean and neat as pins as Sharon and I began walking the neighborhood. First up going back east on Dakin, was Alta Vista Street. It is a remarkably beautiful one block long street with house after house looking a year old instead of a century. With brightly lit streetlights and an impeccable asphalt street, Alta Vista wouldn’t scare anyone today. The two old lights on the whole block. The cobble stoned streets, the gargoyle statues and gothic fences are all gone now. With them I felt a little of Alta Vistas unique character also has been deleted.
As Sharon and I walked toward Sheffield, I soaked in the sights of all the buildings we were walking past. I had this strange feeling that things were the same only different. I was saying hello again to an old friend I hadn’t seen in four decades. I knew I was different now and so were these man made markers of my life so long ago.
Reaching the alley back of Sheffield, I started feeling more excited. The great back yard at the corner was still there. I had played in that yard a thousand times. It felt good to see it was still the same except instead of a field of dirt created by a thousand ball games, it boasted a marvelous lawn, with manicured bushes and trees. It obviously had taken the years a lot better than I had.
Walking down the alley showed just how much renovation had taken place since the early 1960s. The old cracked alley was now a smooth clean path of concrete. The old back stairs of the apartment buildings, exposed before to the elements like a strange scaffold covering the homes, now were mostly enclosed with walls of new siding or brick.
The few buildings that still had outside rear porches boasted redwood or cedar milling that showed great pride in ownership at no small expense. The days of garbage, abandoned stoves and refrigerators and graffiti on a garage door were now gone. I didn’t mind. I was proud of what had become of my old friends.
As I came to the back of my old apartment building, I had to pause for just a second. The flat roofed, six-stall garage was gone of course but the back of the building had enclosed stairways shielded from the elements that weren’t there many years before. The yard had become a parking lot with signs on a fence by each marked stall explaining whose car belonged in which spot and what dire consequences would befall a vehicular interloper.
As we finished our walk down the alley, I understood the investment that had indeed been made by the areas residents. When we had moved away in 1960, the Near North side was deteriorating badly. It was becoming unsafe. It was, to be honest, a dirty place with more and more undesirable elements moving in on a daily basis. Looking around I realized the neighborhood had indeed been reborn. I no longer felt contempt at the yuppies for renaming my old haunt. It was beautiful, and deserved a new name. I found myself saying good morning to Wrigleyville.
A turn east towards the front of the block brought us to the corner where the old Antiseptic Laundry building still stood. The only seemingly abandoned building in the area, boarded up windows with graffiti seemed to tell the tale of an ill-fated nightclub venture. Perhaps it was a thriving place and its look was for ambiance. Either way, this old friend like myself, was out of place in this neighborhood. I laughed at the thought that the laundry and myself both had aged rather poorly compared to the rest of the structures around us.
I found myself shaking my head as we walked to the middle of the block where I had lived. The block, now a full hour after dawn, still was dark from the strange building hovering over on the block. The new brick building still troubled me. I thought how unfortunate it was for all those upper apartments to loose their front window views. Views I had of an old school with an old schoolyard with the elevated tracks as a backdrop. Perhaps the new view was in fact better. Perhaps I was just starting to hate so much change to the pictures I carried in my memories.
I know I was upset that the gangways cut into the underside of the buildings now carried locked iron gates or doors on them. I knew it was a sensible security decision, but I hated seeing them lost to view. A few looked like they had been bricked over for good.
Remarkably, the greystone at 3824 Sheffield had a for rent sign on the door. The apartment my family had rented for $98.00 a month, utilities paid, now commanded the price of $1,920.00 per month, plus utilities. In my mind I quickly asked myself if the neighborhood was now twenty times better than when I lived here. Not with that damn building across the street, I decided. At the time I was looking at the apartment for rent sign with Sharon taking pictures of the block, a thin black man came out of what once was the Hotel Carlos. Looking strangely at us, he went about his task of sweeping the sidewalk in front of what now was called the Sheffield Inn. I smiled at myself and wondered if the Inn was still a home for transients.
Sharon and I decided to walk a few blocks down Sheffield going north. The corner where the tough old Irish cop ruled now looked like any corner intersection in any city. The deli was gone. All the little stores were as well. In their place were small professional storefronts for dentists or lawyers. Starting to feel totally out of place, I quickened my pace to get to the elevated station just before Irving Park Rd. I thought if anything was still as it was, the el station would be that place. The elevated system in Chicago had changed little over the years. I felt certain the Sheridan Rd. station would be no different. Going in the big glass doors, I felt a wave of recognition. It was as I remembered it. A little more modern, the interior was laid out exactly as it always had been. The newsstand to the right with papers, magazines, candies and gum could have produced a photograph interchangeable with one from the 1950s.
As Sharon took pictures of this one mental toehold of my past, the young man behind the counter stared quizzically at our rapture in admiring the inside of this old station. Tourists my wife said to answer the mans look. Back outside the station, a quick glance around told me that I had found my one landmark in this area.
It was time to get back to the car and drive up Sheridan Rd. towards St. Mary of the Lake. Driving the three blocks to the church, I paid no attention to the buildings going by, save one. The beautiful Jewish Synagogue was being replaced. A huge sign touting condominiums at the location for under $200,000 dollars was displayed over the front of the building.
As we came to St. Marys, I pulled over to let Sharon take some pictures of the huge greystone church. I felt a wave of sadness. St. Marys hadn’t received the attention the other structures had in the area. Its grey blocks of limestone were heavily stained with the wear of a century. Its huge triple front doors needing refurbishment and a new coat of varnish. In that moment, I felt fifty years old for the first time in my life. Looking at this venerable time worn church, it became apparent how long ago I had worn the robes of an altar boy in a magnificent looking church of an era now lost forever.
Later after I told my family of these thoughts, my brother-in-law told me he and my sister Mary Ellen had visited the inside of the church and it was still one of the most magnificent cathedrals that they had ever been inside. I laughed as I thought how St. Marys and I were brother and sister. Both still had a lot going for us inside but our exterior appearance left a lot to be desired.
Quietly, I drove back to Sheffield and made a right turn on Waveland at the north side of the ballpark. Shaking my head again at the light standards on the ballparks roof, it felt good to see the little fire station where it always was. Stopping to let Sharon take pictures of this pristine little one truck station, a young fireman walked out the door and looked at us. I thought of getting out of the car for a minute to explain myself, and then realized there was no explaining what I was doing let alone what I was feeling. Quickly I drove off.
Driving back up Addison, Sharon asked if we were going over to Belmont and Seminary where my grandparents, the Treacy’s, had lived. Feeling fortunate that I was wearing my sunglasses, I whispered to Sharon, It’s time to go home.
By Mike Fak
Published in U S Legacies Magazine November 2005