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In Print: Neal Samors's Rogers Park stories

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Neal Samors opens his book, Chicago's Far North Side: An Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge, to page 139. There's a picture of the Howard Street he knew as a boy. The marquee of the Norshore Theatre advertises Lady and the Tramp. The word "Bowling" rises in neon letters from the front door of the Howard Bowl.

"Typical Saturday for me was going to Hebrew school in the morning," Samors says. "And it was going to the Granada Theatre or the Adelphi. Double feature for a quarter. Even when I was younger there was live entertainment. I saw Roy Rogers and Trigger at the Granada. And then in the afternoon we'd go bowling, play football in the park."

Big city neighborhoods never let their natives go. Woody Allen has always carried Flatbush around with him; Martin Scorsese is still a child of Little Italy. Samors left Rogers Park in 1976, moving first to Niles, then Buffalo Grove. But he brought his daughter back to the old neighborhood to show her Eugene Field, his elementary school. He drove the streets with a video camera on his shoulder, shooting "a video of growing up." Through 25 years of suburban exile, he has filled his files with Rogers Park history, intending to write a book someday.

"People of my generation feel very strong ties about Rogers Park and West Rogers Park," Samors continues. "There's something about the city that gets to you, that suburban life doesn't get you at all. In the city we were out all day, just because apartments were so small. I do not remember anyone moving. You knew all your neighbors, whether you wanted to or not."

Samors's book (which is coauthored by Mary Jo Doyle, Martin Lewin, and Michael Williams) begins in the 1830s--a century before his own parents moved to Rogers Park--with the arrival of Philip McGregor Rogers, an Irish immigrant who built a log cabin in the birch forest just west of a deer path known as the Ridge. His settlement grew into two separate villages--Rogers Park and West Ridge--which were divided by the deer path, by then known as Ridge Avenue. Both joined the city of Chicago in 1893, during the annexation frenzy that accompanied the Columbian Exposition. In the 160 pages that follow the construction of that one-room cabin, Samors tells some colorful tales from his neighborhood's history.

There's the story of the "Cabbage Head War" of 1896, for example. Afraid that their tax money would be spent to improve the Lake Michigan beaches, the German farmers of West Ridge opposed joining a park district with the citified "silk stockings" of Rogers Park. Jimmy Barbour, the state senator for Rogers Park, denounced his uncooperative rural neighbors as "cabbage heads." The farmers marched on Barbour's house, waving poles topped with cabbages, and voted to form a park district of their own.

Samors also covers the founding of WBBM--the radio station inside the Broadmoor Hotel on Howard Street--whose initials stood for "We Broadcast Broadmoor Music"; the early days of the A.C. Nielsen Company, whose international headquarters stood for almost 40 years at 2101 W. Howard; and West Ridge's own franchise in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was immortalized in the movie A League of Their Own. The team played in Thillens Stadium from 1943 to 1954.

The Rogers Park that Samors loved was born in the 1920s, when the semirural farming community was overwhelmed by "the construction of new apartment buildings and hotels, businesses, churches, synagogues and movie theaters." From 1914 to 1929, the population increased tenfold. Jews, who were discouraged from living in many neighborhoods, crowded into tolerant Rogers Park and West Ridge, opening Nathan's Delicatessen, Neisner's dime store, and the famous Ashkenaz Restaurant.

"Walking on Devon, it was just a Jewish world," recalls a West Ridge native in one of the book's many oral history excerpts. "Everyone was Jewish, the storeowners, the delis. You always ran into people you knew. It was like your neighborhood."

Plenty of famous Jews emerged from that world, including borscht belt comic Shecky Greene (who joked about Sullivan High School in his act), potboiling novelist Sidney Sheldon, New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow, and congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who was Janice Danoff when she went to Sullivan.

His history ends in 1970, about the time he and other Jewish residents began moving to the suburbs, making room for the Indians and Pakistanis who now dominate Devon Avenue. Carrying the story all the way to the present would have spoiled the book's nostalgic tone, he believes.

"We had a lot of discussion about when to end it," Samors says. "Our feeling is, this is a book of memories. My intention was to do 'before and after' pictures. We went to Howard Street, and I said, 'We may have trouble doing before and after.' It looked like a war zone...we don't have to beat people over the head with the way it looks now."

On Wednesday, January 24, at 7:30, Samors will present a free slide show of some of the book's 230 pictures at Borders Books & Music, 3232 Lake in Wilmette (847-256-3220). He expects plenty of ex-Rogers Parkers to attend. "I guarantee you," he says, "that people will want to talk, ask questions, and tell stories about the neighborhood."

--Ted Kleine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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