Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sour milk of youth

More pictures--somehow this is blog is becoming a photo-repository. This batch from my stepmother Sioux's grade school reunion, which I helped out at last night. These were students who graduated the 8th grade at Avondale elementary school in Logan Square between the years of 1962 and 1974. Real, old-school Chicagoans, though many have since moved to the suburbs. There were even a couple of multi-generational Avondale families in attendance, including Sioux's--her mother (my step-grandmother) Jule graduated in 1942, and was later a substitute teacher at the school. Sioux graduated in '66.

 We first toured the school, a beautiful building built in 1894 that smelled heavily of hardwood laminate, kid-sweat and sour milk. Many of the aging alums were clearly lost in their memories as they wandered through the school--the gym and the auditorium seemed to have particularly strong associative properties. Then we repaired across the street to the Logan-Avondale VFW Hall, where the school held their dances through the 60s and 70s. How many boys must have felt up how many girls in the dark recesses of that VFW Hall! The hall itself seemed suspended in time, as VFW Halls generally do, recalling an era when guns were considered fine decoration, cigarette-smoking was encouraged, and the signs on the wall read America--Love it Or Leave It. When an Avondale grad ordered a glass of wine from the bar, the bartender struggled mightily figuring out how to work his wine-bottle-opener--this was clearly not a place where wine is often ordered.

But the grads had their fun! They ate, drank, laughed and danced the electric slide, managing to keep their old childhood passions and jealousies at least submerged. I've always had a bit of a fascination with school reunions, where people come to face the ghosts of their pasts, and--hopefully--come to peace with the fart-blowing, acne-scarred, awkward days of youth. I watched two women, old classmates, staring one another in the face looking for a spark of recognition--and then, all of a sudden, wild squealing and passionate embracing as they suddenly remembered. "We're alive!," they exclaimed. "Can you believe it--we're alive!"

Saturday, September 18, 2010

El Grito

Mexico's founding story is much gnarlier, bloodier and more colorful than ours. We have hokey legends like Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party; they have human sacrifice, rebel priests and dashing revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Just look at our flag--a few stars and stripes stitched together by some old spinster named Betsy Ross; the Mexican flag, on the other hand, details a peyote-fried Aztec legend, in which the god Huitzilopochtli tells the people of Tenochtitlan to build their city at the spot where an eagle is perched atop a prickly-pear cactus, devouring a snake.

This past week Mexico celebrated its bicentennial--more specifically, the 200th anniversary of the grito de Dolores, the rebel-yell which set Mexico's war of independence into motion. On the 15th of September, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest in the small town of Dolores, managed to spring some eighty of his revolutionary comrades from jail. At dawn the next morning, he rang the church bells and gathered his forces, spurring them on to fight for independence. Will you free yourselves?, he thundered. Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once... death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!

Here in Chicago, there was a big celebration in Millenium Park, featuring the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and a host of other performers. I didn't stick around long enough, unfortunately, to hear the grito, but I did take a few pictures:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Field Tripping Part One: Brighton Park

The $2 cover price is beyond my budget these days, but when I was younger my family would get the Sunday Tribune every week, and I would often spend the whole afternoon digging through it. Besides the full-color comics section, my favorite part of the paper was a feature called Sidewalks that ran in the Tribune Magazine. It was a pretty simple concept--staff writer Rick Kogan and photographer Charles Osgood would venture out to the city's less-celebrated neighborhoods (there are a whopping 77) for slice-of-life vignettes covering everything from barber-shops to boxing matches to ballet classes--the stuff  of "everyday Chicago." When Osgood retired in 2008, the feature was discontinued.

I recently decided, in the spirit of Sidewalks, to grab my camera and do a little field-tripping of my own--I've lived in Chicago for most of my life, but there are still vast swaths of the city which I've yet to explore, and as unemployed as I am I certainly have ample time on my hands to do so. Although neither my photography nor my vignette-crafting abilities are quite up to Kogan and Osgood's level, I also don't have a large audience I have to pander to.

I decided to start off what I hope will be an ongoing series with a look at Brighton Park, on the city's southwest side, about midway between downtown and, uh, Midway. Though not as obscure as, say, Dunning or Hegewisch, Brighton Park is hardly a leading light among Chicago's attractions. Many of my friends, some of them lifelong Chicagoans, seem never to have heard of Brighton Park, though it's only spitting-distance from red-hot Pilsen. Solidly working-class and totally unflashy, the neighborhood might nevertheless, I hoped, yield some subtler-type charms.

Before embarking on our photo-safari, some Brighton Park history--necessarily brief, as the area doesn't have much history to speak of. Bounded roughly by I-55 to the north, 48th Street to the south, Kimball to the west and Western to the east, the area was in its early days a center for livestock trading and light industry. A freak accident in 1886--lightning struck an explosives warehouse, creating a 20-foot crater and causing extensive damaged to nearby properties--remains the neighborhood's most historically-significant moment. In 1889, Brighton Park was annexed by the City of Chicago. Largely residential, with some remaining industrial pockets--
--the area has seen, in its last 100+ years, several waves of immigration--German, Irish, Polish, Italian. Like many other Chicago neighborhoods, it has seen a huge Latino influx in recent decades, and is now predominantly Mexican.

As a part of the 12th Ward, Brighton Park is served by alderman George Cardenas, whose arrest at an immigration-reform rally made minor waves earlier this year. Despite this display of bravery in putting his ideals on the line, Cardenas seems in many ways to be a classic Chicago politician, married to the Daley machine and prone to accusations of corruption and graft--he was recently in hot water for using taxpayer money to rent this office on 38th Street in a building owned by close relatives:
Graft and corruption are, of course, omnipresent in this city, a way of doing business that is encouraged and rewarded. Brighton Park's public high school, as well as the adjoining park, bear the name of onetime mayor Edward J. Kelly--  

a sewer man handpicked by his good buddy, fellow sewer man/Cook County party boss Patrick Nash, to lead the city following Mayor Cermak's assasination in 1933. The two men headed up a notoriously crooked administration, the Kelly-Nash machine, under which old-school gangsterism thrived. Politics, Nash believed, was a business where "rewards equaled performance".

There isn't, truthfully, a whole lot more I can say about Brighton Park. Archer Ave., the neighborhood's main artery, angles toward downtown like Milwaukee Avenue's dingy cousin, lined with auto-repair lots, tattoo shops, greasy spoons and discount outlets:
Dig that slogan!

Elsewhere, the neighborhood is quiet, a lot of single family homes that look like this...
...Ice-cream shops--
... dive bars...
And an awful lot of churches, mostly Catholic. JPII even gets some street-name action:
And then there's this mean-spirited gem, spotted at 44th and California:
As luck would have it, my field trip to Brighton Park coincided with the Brighton Park Fall Fest, created in 2008 to "foster community pride" and "promote the economic viability" of the area. Sparsely attended even on a sunny and beautiful holiday weekend, it was hard to see the festival being a huge success in either regard, unless by economic viability you mean a buyer's market in Dora the Explorer inflatables:

But regardless of the festival's overall success, it did provide some wonderful photo-ops, like this shabby petting-zoo--the sheep looked especially haggard--that camped out in the middle of Archer Avenue:
I do hope you've enjoyed this first installment, and please let me know if there are any neighborhoods or areas you'd like to see profiled--I'm willing to go just about anywhere.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bottling it up

 Neighborhood life! I have to somehow bottle it up, distill its essence, because already September is here, and soon the stoops will clear out, the streets turn barren. The late-afternoon sun kisses 21st Street with special golden tenderness, knowing they'll soon part ways . The setting sun puts on a bravura performance over by the Super Mall on Cermak, and all the evening actors spill into the street--the old drunks who sing in the alleyway, pimply teenagers putting on passion-plays of toughness, stoopfulls of aunts, uncles and yapping dogs. Abundance!

But how to bottle it, how to distill it, save some for a snowy day? I browse the internet, looking for answers. A charming post on the WFMU blog has MP3s of popular ice-cream truck jingles, which seems like a useful sonic preserve to put up in the larder. I consider buying up a store of fireworks and explosives--drive to Indiana, or order some online; few words bring to mind Midwest American summer more readily than mortars, shells and reloadables, and with names like Texas Cyclone, Operation Justice and Black Thunder, well, it just makes my American skin tingle. Having spent the summer in Berlin, I missed out this year on the explosives-orgy that always consumes my neighborhood around the 4th of July. Berliners somehow don't care for explosives--I supposed losing two consecutive world wars will do that.

To consider the problem in more literal terms--I think it's high time I put aside a few gallons of fruit wine that will be ready by Halloween. Pete's Fresh Market has pulled out all the harvest-time stops, a fire-sale bounty of obscure fruits--currants, persimmons, pluots... I've never even heard of pluot wine, although it's probably incredible, and the idea of black currant liqueur just screams late-summer debauchery. Then there's food-canning, which NPR (who else?) reports is on the upswing, part of the post-economic-crash DIY chic (NPR has also reported, in a story they regrettably titled Coop Dreams, on thrifty citizens who've begun raising their own egg-chickens)--and my friend Virginia has bags and bags of fresh-picked pears sitting in her dining room, from a tree tended by her solar architect friend. I had one just today--they're awfully good pears.

Somehow this rumination on neighborhood life took a wrong turn and headed for Martha Stewartville. I'll admit to having difficulty focusing my attention in these last weeks of winding-down summer. How I've idled the summer away, when you come down to it! And now the dreaded Labor Day weekend, when millions of hot-dog guzzling Americans run amok before buckling down and getting back to Work. Will I return to my work, whatever that might be? Or just relax at home, riding out the market crash with a few bottles of black currant liqueur?