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.

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