By Jack Clark
I first came across Raymond Chandler in the late 60s in a used-book store on Harrison Street in Oak Park. I found a paperback copy of Farewell, My Lovely, his second novel, turned to the first page, and read, "It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barbershop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home."
I turned back a few pages to read the copyright, which was 1940, then read the opening scene, in which Philip Marlowe stumbles on Moose Malloy, a small-time hood who's back in Los Angeles after eight years in prison. Malloy has come looking for his old flame, Velma. But he soon discovers that their old haunt, the Central Avenue nightclub where Velma once sang, is now a "Negro" club. Nobody there knows anything about Velma or where she might have gone.
After some hesitation, I decided not to buy the book, which was strange since I usually bought anything that seemed even remotely interesting. The books cost me nothing. The store would trade one book for two, and our attic was loaded with old books that had belonged to my sisters, my brother, my cousin. Anytime I needed credit at the Book Hunter I'd fill up a couple of shopping bags and cart them through Columbus Park and across Austin, the boundary between the west side and Oak Park.
Chandler would later become one of my favorite writers. But I wouldn't read any of his books until after I'd moved away from the west side.
The blocks that are not yet all Negro. I'm sure it was those eight words that had scared me away from the book. Chandler, writing about an LA neighborhood in the 1930s, saw nothing but resegregation ahead--a message I apparently not only didn't want to believe but didn't even want to consider.
Trying to remember the days when my childhood neighborhood had its brief fling with integration is like trying to reconstruct a dream. Most of the details are lost. The emotions linger.
Some of my clearest memories involve Austin High. The school board's decision to move the boundaries of the school into the black neighborhood east of the Belt Line Railroad brought the first large numbers of black students to the school. Racial strife followed. White flight increased.
If nobody moves out they can't move in was a neighborhood mantra. But people continued to move out. Sky Realty. Panic peddling. Jackson Storage trucks rumbling down the streets.
The afternoon after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, in April 1968, an announcement came over the loudspeaker at Austin asking all black students to immediately leave the building through the south exits. Moments later the white students were asked to leave through the north exits.
We got outside and saw thousands of black students coming up Pine Avenue to liberate the black students at Austin High. The march had started at Farragut High, five miles away, then had picked up students from Harrison, Crane, and Marshall. But school bureaucrats had waited until the last minute to dismiss the black students. Then they made the mistake of sending the white students out too.
There was plenty of name-calling. Several scuffles broke out between blacks and whites.
The two groups of black students merged into one teeming mass at the south end of the school. A small group of white students stood at the north end. There was more name-calling, and then some of the black students charged.
Police commander Mark Thanasouras of the Austin District, who'd tried to turn back the march at Washington Boulevard by sending his men wading into the crowd with billy clubs, fired two shots into the air. He later claimed it was an attempt to disperse the students. But the move backfired, and Thanasouras earned his place in Chicago Police Department history by being the only cop ever faulted for single-handedly starting a riot. A few years later his infamy increased when he led about a dozen of the men in his command to prison after they were convicted in a tavern shakedown conspiracy. After he was released from prison, he was executed gangland style on the north side.
After the two gunshots a squad car was overturned at the corner of West End Avenue. I'd already fled west with the last of the white students.
The black students headed back east, attacking cars and houses with rocks and bottles. Looting broke out in the shopping district around Madison and Pulaski, two miles east of Austin High. That night and the following nights we watched smoke drift over our heads as entire blocks of Madison Street disappeared in flames. A mile south, huge sections of Roosevelt Road disappeared as well.
The smoke was a catalyst for many white west-siders. After the riot the question wasn't if you were moving but when.
We got back to school and found that the National Guard had taken up residence.
Thirty years later I sometimes still find myself wondering, What if Mayor Daley hadn't changed the boundary of the school? What if the University of Illinois had been built in Garfield Park, where many west-siders wanted it, instead of on the near west side, where it destroyed an old Italian neighborhood? What if Sky Realty and the other panic peddlers had somehow been stopped? What if redlining hadn't taken place? What if the Federal Housing Administration hadn't encouraged real estate agents to sell houses to people who couldn't afford them? What if racism hadn't been so prevalent? What if Martin Luther King Jr. had never been assassinated?
Well, that game gets you nowhere. In retrospect Austin seems doomed from the start. Chandler had been right back in 1940--trying to stop resegregation in a place like Chicago was like trying to stop rain from falling. By the autumn of 1971 we were one of two white families left on our block. We moved north that November.
I didn't make a clean break from the west side. My girlfriend, Nora, still lived there, a block from where I'd grown up. I would take the CTA to see her, and many days we'd end up walking through Columbus Park to the Book Hunter. The new arrivals were stacked just inside the front door, and plenty of new used books were always coming in.
White families, with little faith in Oak Park's plan to stop resegregation, were moving out of there too, and many of their books ended up on the bookstore's floor. It was a rare day when I left with less than a dozen.
The store's owners were an elderly couple who'd been there for years and years. They'd originally opened the place as a lending library, then converted it to a used-book store after paperback books put most such establishments out of business. I can't remember their names. But I know they were barely getting by and that, at least for a while, they lived in the back of the store illegally.
I read a variety of books. Nora and I both did. I know she read every book about the Holocaust she could find, though they weren't called Holocaust books yet. Together we went through most of John O'Hara's novels and short stories.
I read plenty of mysteries, sometimes two a day. I once found a hardcover first edition of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, but I put it back on the shelf after another quick look at that opening page. I'm sure that even then it was worth more than the 25-cent asking price.
We'd walk back through the park with our books. Sometimes we'd sit on a bench and have a cigarette and talk or just read.
One day after the neighborhood had been predominantly black for a while we were heading through the park when a squad car made a U-turn on Jackson Boulevard and came back our way. My old friend Joey was behind the wheel. It was the only time I ever saw him in uniform. He'd grown up across the street from me, and he wasn't long for the Police Department. He asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Nora still lives here." I pointed across Jackson, toward Waller Avenue.
We stood there and talked about old friends, the old neighborhood, life on the police force. "Do you know Rocco?" I asked, referring to another Austin District cop.
A look of amazement came over Joey's face. "That son of a bitch knows everybody."
I'd met Rocco a few years earlier. I was walking down Austin Boulevard with a couple of friends one night when a Chicago squad car pulled over a southbound car. Being bored and curious, we crossed to the Oak Park side to see what was going on. As we strolled past the cops we made a few comments, mostly contending that they couldn't give the driver a ticket because they were on the Oak Park side of the street. I don't know if we were dumb enough to actually believe this. But I do know we were smart enough not to do our razzing too obnoxiously.
"Hey, you!" one of the cops called.
I turned around and the cop was pointing right at me. "What?"
"Come here a minute."
He waved me over. I was too smart to fall into that trap. There was no way I was stepping off the curb into Chicago.
My friends were on my side. "Don't do it, Clark," they advised. "He can't touch you if you stay in Oak Park." "That's right. No jurisprudence."
But like a lot of cops, this guy didn't seem to give a damn about the law. He walked right into Oak Park, and he came right up to me. "Where do I know you from?" he asked.
Did he think I was crazy enough to confess my crimes? I shook my head. "I don't know."
"You work on Chicago Avenue?"
"Where do you hang out?"
"Madison and Menard."
"OK. When I figure out where I've seen you I'll stop by and let you know." And he turned and walked back to Chicago.
"Clark, you idiot," one of my friends said. "Why'd you have to tell him where we hang out? Now he's gonna come and--"
"Oh, Jesus," I said.
A few days later he did come. We were all sitting on a fence in front of the empty lot on Madison when a squad car pulled up. The same cop got out and came right up to me. His shoes were polished to a perfect gloss. The creases on his pants could have been used in a knife fight. Not a hair was out of place. He would have been the neatest cop at any roll call in town. The buttons on his cuff gleamed as he pointed a finger my way. "Your name's Clark," he said. "You live on Menard down by the park."
"Wow," I said. "How'd you do that?" Had he somehow got into my permanent record?
"Your house was burglarized last summer. I was the one who answered the call. I'm Rocco. What's your first name?"
So I told him my name, and we got to be friendly--as friendly as a street-corner punk can be with any good cop.
He would stop by from time to time. Actually, a lot of cops stopped by from time to time, usually to hassle us or chase us off the corner. One of my all-time favorite cop lines is "We're gonna drive around the block, and if you're still here when we get back we're gonna make your balls look like a porcupine."
But Rocco wasn't that kind of cop. I think he had better things to do than waste his time with minor-league punks. He would stop by, spend a few minutes shooting the breeze, and then be gone.
One by one, my friends' families moved out of the neighborhood. Most of them rented trucks, and we got plenty of exercise filling them up. Most went to the northwest side or the northwest suburbs. I remember only one family moving to Oak Park, and they got as close to Harlem Avenue, the far side of the village, as they could. Everyone I knew assumed that Oak Park would soon follow the pattern of the west side.
I remember once entertaining my friends with a vision of the future. Blacks would move through Oak Park and Forest Park and hook up with the blacks in Maywood and keep right on going--and we could come in behind them and buy back our old houses. If I'd put my money where my mouth was, say, starting around Halsted and Madison, I'd be a wealthy man today.
Even though my friends no longer lived in the neighborhood, they came back to hang on the corner. The gas station at Madison and Menard became our refuge. For years the boss had been trying to keep us from hanging around, but as the neighborhood got blacker and poorer, he decided he didn't mind our company. The cops liked us better too. Rocco wasn't the only one who pulled up to shoot the breeze. Some of our old adversaries now saw us as protectors of the few remaining white residents.
I don't remember much crime, but it's what everyone feared. Late one night in the summer of 1970, a year before we moved, my cousin Johnny McIntyre was transferring buses at Cicero and Madison. He was on the way to our house from the south side. He made the mistake of going into a liquor store, then compounded the mistake by attempting to pay with a $20 bill. He was pulled out of the store into a nearby alley, robbed, and then stabbed to death. He was 22.
One night Nora and I stopped at my house on the way back from a movie. This was probably a month or two before we sold the place, but the house was all but empty. We'd found an apartment on the north side. My brothers and sisters had already moved. My mother still worked on the west side, so she spent weekday nights at the house and weekends on the north side. I was the only full-time resident.
My mother wasn't there this night, so it must have been a weekend. I was upstairs when I heard a crash and then Nora shouting my name. I ran downstairs. A woman was in the front hallway calling for help. I pulled the door open, and she rushed past me into the house, her pants around her ankles. She ran up the stairway to the second floor. But someone else was in the darkness of the hallway.
"Get the hell out of here," I shouted. Then I yelled to Nora, "Call the police."
I hit the switch, and the porch light came on. He was just inside the front door, a skinny black guy, my age or a little older. "Get the hell out of here," I shouted again. I stayed where I was, a few feet away. He didn't move. He stood there staring at me. Then after a very long moment, he turned and went down the front steps.
Nora, who was upstairs with the woman, called down that they would wait there until the police came. I wasn't surprised that it was Rocco who got the call. A while later a sergeant showed up too.
The woman was truly terrified, still shaking with fear long after the police arrived. She sat on a coffee table, the only piece of furniture in the room, as the cops took her report.
She said she knew the guy from around her neighborhood, somewhere a little east, but she didn't know his last name. He'd seen her on the street or waiting for a bus and had offered a ride. She'd said OK, and he'd driven to Adams Boulevard, alongside the park. They'd necked for a while, and then the guy wouldn't take no for an answer. He pulled down her pants and then his own. She managed to open the door and jump out of the car. She ran up the street, past the first house, whose yard was enclosed with a high Cyclone fence, and then up onto our front porch.
I described the guy as best I could. I said he looked just like one of Nora's neighbors, a guy a couple of years older than me. I'll call him Leon. He wasn't all there, but he could be very funny. He liked to imitate white people. He could do an entire Tide commercial, word for word, and make it sound just as stupid as it did on TV. But this guy wasn't Leon, I told Rocco. This guy seemed a little more together.
The cops took the woman over to see Leon anyway. Rocco later told me she agreed that the guy who tried to rape her looked just like Leon, but it wasn't him.
We finally sold the house. It had been built in 1896. When my folks bought it in 1954 we became the third owners. The Smiths had lived there for 47 years, and they lowered the asking price $3,000, to $15,400, so my parents could afford it. They wanted to sell the house to a family with children.
When they moved out, the Smiths left an attic full of odds and ends. We didn't complain. There were trunks from World War I full of U.S. Navy uniforms and long dresses from the same era. There was an old settee, which was usually part of the set when we put on plays on rainy afternoons. There were boxes full of old Esquire magazines from the 30s and 40s, with stories by Hemingway and drawings of those beautiful Vargas girls.
The neighborhood was a wonderful place to grow up. Columbus Park was right there, with playgrounds and tennis courts, a golf course, a lagoon, a swimming pool, baseball diamonds, and a terraced waterfall. At the other end of the block was Madison Street, with all the usual stores and plenty of jobs for kids and roofs to climb. The State theater was a Balaban & Katz second-run house. There were lots of saloons and restaurants because Oak Park, a few blocks away, was dry.
We lived there for 17 years and sold the house for about $3,000 more than we'd paid for it. My folks had put $5,000 dollars down back then. My father was late for the closing because he was still scrambling to get the money together. In 1971 the people who bought the house put $500 down.
The place was a bit run-down. The garage had burned down a few years before. But the house had a new roof, three fireplaces, and a wonderful open stairway, and every room except the kitchen and the smallest bedroom had a view of the park.
At first we didn't understand the Federal Housing Administration's appraisal. We had neighbors with much smaller houses whose appraisals were higher. And the appraisal in Austin was almost always the sale price. If you asked for more, the buyers would have to add the entire amount to the down payment.
Eventually we found out that this was FHA policy. Our house was big, so it would cost more to heat and maintain. It sat on a large lot, so the taxes would be higher. The appraised value had to be lower so the new residents could afford to live there. Three quarters of a mile north, home owners probably had to pay people to take their Midway Park mansions.
On the way into the house after the closing, my mother stopped on the sidewalk to take a look at the property she'd just signed away. Four little black kids ran up, and one of them grabbed her purse. She held on. "Let it go, lady," they shouted. "Let it go." She let go, and they ran toward the park with the purse, the check from the closing inside.
I went around the neighborhood and tried to talk sense to the little punks who were taking my place. Tell your friends to keep the cash, I told them. We just want the other stuff back.
The next morning there were two purses on the front porch. Neither was my mother's. I called the police, and they came out and picked the purses up. They knew who owned one of them.
My little brother and a few friends gave the house one final cleaning. The movers came and loaded the remaining pieces. And that was that. We were north-siders, as odd as that still sounds.
One day a year later I was getting off a Howard train in the Loop and this black guy was giving me an odd look. I transferred to the Lake Street el, took the Austin bus to Madison, then walked four blocks through the old hood to Nora's house.
"There was this weird guy when I was getting off the train downtown," I told Nora. "The funny thing, he looked just like Leon." Oh Jesus, I realized. But I quickly decided that it was OK. What would I have done if I'd figured it out sooner?
I still saw Rocco around the neighborhood. One day Nora and I watched as he spent hours going between Leon's house and another neighbor's trying to settle a feud. I don't remember what it was about, but I remember the compromise Rocco worked out: Leon would be arrested on some minor charge, but the neighbors promised not to go to court. His punishment would be a few hours in the Austin District lockup before he made bond, and a round-trip to the courthouse.
I remember how calm and patient Rocco was that day. Anyone else would have been shouting and making accusations. But Rocco was there to solve the problem, and he did. And I'll bet that before he was done he knew everyone's name.
Months turned into years, and the neighborhood got poorer and more run-down and more dangerous. But Nora's parents weren't going anywhere. She was one of six kids, and her folks had no intention of selling. They'd moved all over the west side, from one apartment to another. This was the first house they'd ever owned--they'd bought it on contract--and being the last white family on the block wasn't enough to make them give it up.
Yet the fear of crime was always there. Nora remembers a knifing across the street. And one day in front of her house a guy was beating up his girlfriend. We got the woman up on the porch, and the guy wanted her back down on the sidewalk. He put his hand in his pocket as if he had a gun. That was a common bluff on the west side back then, a bluff I never saw called. So I put my hand in my pocket too, and we ended up with a west-side stalemate. The woman stayed on the porch until the guy went away.
One night Nora's front door suddenly flew open, and we all thought, this is it. Honky-lynching judgment day had finally arrived. But it was only the wind. Somebody had forgotten to lock the door.
Another night Nora and I were going to the grocery store on Madison Street, and her mother prevailed on us to take Moose, the family dog, as protection. Which I still find pretty funny, since her mother wouldn't even discuss moving out of the neighborhood.
Moose had long black hair. He was a mutt, part labrador, big and friendly. He loved to play and be petted, but he wasn't all that bright. We tied him in front of the grocery store. I doubt if we were inside long. We were probably just getting ice cream. When we came out he was gone.
"A little boy took your dog," a guy said. He told us that the police were already on the case. A few minutes later a squad car pulled up. They had the dog, the cop told us. His partner was walking back with him.
By this time, a bit of a crowd had gathered, and everybody was talking and laughing. This was the kind of crime it was easy to enjoy. Before long I saw Rocco walking down Waller Avenue, leading Moose and a little boy. The dog and the boy were obviously in love, and Rocco was all smiles.
Moose was probably five times as big as the boy, a kid of six or seven with huge little-boy eyes. They were a perfect match. Nora and her brothers and sisters were all grown up, so Moose didn't usually get to play with kids. He kept licking the boy and wagging his tail like crazy. And the boy kept petting him and jumping up to wrap his arms around his neck.
"He started licking me," the little boy explained. And then somehow the chain had come untied from the pole, and Moose had pulled the little boy away. In other words, the dog had kidnapped the boy.
Well, it was a great story, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Rocco asked the little boy to apologize, and the boy said, very quietly, "I'm sorry I took your dog." The apology brought more smiles. Nobody wanted to leave. We'd found a little spot of sunshine in what had become a dreary neighborhood.
Then the other cop, his voice dripping with bitterness, said, "Yeah, you start off with dogs, and the next thing you know, you'll be ripping off apartments. And then..."
I don't remember where he ended up, but I know he went on and on. Long before he stopped, all the smiles were gone and we were back on a dreary little street corner in a dangerous part of town.
Rocco gave me a helpless shrug. He wasn't about to criticize his partner, at least not in front of civilians. I suddenly understood why he preferred to work alone. We walked Moose back down Waller Avenue.
That's the last time I remember feeling part of the west side. After that night I was never anything but an outsider, a north-sider who'd come slumming.
Nora's father eventually got transferred to Seattle. The family wouldn't move across town, but they picked up and moved 2,000 miles.
Nora later moved to Los Angeles, then back to Seattle, then to San Francisco. She came back to Chicago for a few years in the 80s, and I tried to talk her into driving out to the west side. "The west side's gone," she said. "I've no interest in visiting the ruins."
I still go because I can't stay away. I like to start on the edge of downtown and take Madison Street all the way to the Oak Park line. The street's constantly changing, and if I stay away for six months there are always a few surprises.
Skid row, once the most decrepit part of the street, is long gone. It used to start just past the North Western Station and run most of the way to the Chicago Stadium. Once you could get a bottle of wine for 19 cents and a bed for the night for a quarter on this part of Madison, but it has turned into one of the trendiest parts of town.
The Holiday Inn, now the Quality Inn, at Halsted and Madison, somehow got in on the ground floor of redevelopment. It opened in '69, but then redevelopment stalled. The hotel sat there in the middle of skid row for years, offering a grittier view of the city than most visitors were probably interested in seeing.
But redevelopment finally came. Its most distinct symbol is probably Claes Oldenburg's $100,000 Batcolumn, which stands in front of the Social Security Administration building. If the 101-foot sculpture were to fall directly across Madison, it would land where the Starr Hotel once stood.
The Starr, a step up from a flophouse, is where Richard Speck went in 1966 after killing eight student nurses on the southeast side. It was here that he botched the job of killing himself. He was taken to County Hospital, then arrested after a doctor recognized him from the police description.
When the Batcolumn was dedicated in 1977 the Starr was on its last legs. The hotel's residents and other area winos were kept behind police lines on the Starr side of the street so they wouldn't disturb the ceremony, which was attended by Mayor Bilandic, Ernie Banks, and Joan Mondale, the wife of the vice president.
A group of protesters showed up carrying signs. TEAR it DOWN, one read, referring to the sculpture, not the hotel. Expensive Joke, another declared. Police arrested three.
Of course it wasn't just vice presidents' wives who visited Madison Street. Presidents came too. Franklin Roosevelt was nominated at the Chicago Stadium. President Clinton accepted his nomination across the street, at the United Center.
The rifle that killed President Kennedy was sold to Oswald, who was using the alias A. Hidell, by Klein's Sporting Goods. It was shipped to Dallas in March 1963 from a warehouse next to the Belt Line Railroad on Madison. The building is still there.
On a sunny afternoon the ride west can be pleasant. Late on a hot summer night, with barely a cop in sight, it can be terrifying.
I take the ride out Madison on a gray and drizzly summer afternoon. I drive across that snazzy bridge over the highway, still decked out with blue lights from the Democratic Convention. The fancy new flower boxes in the median block your view of cross traffic.
Many of the buildings west of the bridge are gone, but you don't really notice. Most have been replaced by tidy parking lots for the multitude of businesses and loft buildings that have sprung up on the cross streets. Almost every lot is enclosed by one of those wrought-iron fences the mayor likes so much.
I drive past a couple of new sports bars and a brand-new icehouse--whatever that is--and a row of fancy town houses under construction. The new police 911 center stands across the street from the Palace Grill, which looks like it's been there forever.
There are several bar- and restaurant-supply places that have been on the street for decades. They outlasted skid row. I wonder if they'll survive affluence.
The missions and the soup kitchens, the flophouses, the saloons, the liquor stores, and the thousands of winos that kept them going and gave the street its character and its special ripe smell are all long gone. A new Salvation Army facility is on the corner of Ogden Avenue, but I don't see any winos hanging around. When I check I find that it's a temple and community center.
The elevated tracks cross Madison just west of Paulina, but trains seldom pass, and the station that once stood there is gone. The CTA keeps the spur open to shuttle trains between lines. This is where Frankie Machine--the poker dealer and heroin addict in Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm who's on the run with a bullet in his heel--got off the el on the last day of March in 1948, just before the end. He would find nowhere to hide today.
Between the tracks and Damen Avenue there's nothing but the United Center, parking lots, and one lonely currency exchange.
The flower boxes play out just before the spot where an old funeral home once stood, just east of Western Avenue. This was the headquarters of the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers. The infamous state's attorney's raid in which Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed had happened just a block away, on Monroe Street.
A few blocks later I drive under a viaduct and see prostitutes strolling both sides of the street.
On some blocks the buildings are gone completely. On others most of them have somehow survived. I'd venture that more than half the structures in the six and a half miles between Halsted and the Oak Park line have disappeared in the last 30 years. Most of them had survived the riots. It was in the years after the riots, when Madison Street and most of the west side were all but written off, that arson and neglect took their toll.
The blocks on either side of Kedzie Avenue, which were nearly destroyed in the riots, look better than blocks east or west. Years ago new apartments were built on top of the ruins--nice-looking brick structures set back from the street. They have balconies and barbecue grills and lawn chairs, neatly trimmed bushes out front, green grass, and plenty of trees. Some of the buildings are enclosed by wrought-iron fences.
One beautiful old building still stands on the corner of Kedzie Avenue, the heart of the riot. Something tells me its survival was more than just happenstance.
The stores at Madison and Pulaski were targets of the '68 riots--and the Bulls victory riots--but somehow the strip appears to be thriving. There's a slew of clothing stores, an Aldi supermarket, a Harris Bank, and a Robinson's Rib place. There's even a new White Castle and a McDonald's. A Burger King has been there for years, on the spot where Balaban & Katz's majestic Marbro Theatre once stood.
On the western edge of the shopping district is the intersection of Kildare and Madison. Nine men died in the '68 riots. Four of them died within a few hours of one another on either side of Kildare. "None was resisting arrest," states a report published that same year by Mayor Richard J. Daley's Riot Study Committee. "Allegedly two police cars containing two to four white policemen in each car who were armed with rifles were in the two block area at this time and were seen shooting on the level into stores in these two blocks and shooting on the level in the alley in question. These squad cars were not under the command of the Fillmore District Commander. This entire situation has been called to the attention of State's Attorney Stamos and Police Superintendent Conlisk for investigation."
No charges were ever brought. The four dead men were Ponowel Holloway, 16, who was shot inside a store in the 4100 block of Madison; Robert Dorsey, 31, found in an alley in the 4300 block of Madison; Cyrus Hartfield, 34, found in the rear of a store in the 4100 block of Madison; and Paul Evans, 24, found in an alley behind the 4100 block.
Back then, Saint Mel High School stood on the northeast corner of Kildare. Today there's a laundromat and a big parking lot. When I drive by, a beautiful Rolls-Royce is sitting in the lot, glowing like a rose in the desert.
I can never pass Cicero and Madison without thinking of my cousin Johnny McIntyre being dragged into that alley and stabbed to death for 20 bucks. He'd got the money from a south-side mission where he'd been staying. He was a smart but fucked-up kid who'd been given very few breaks in life. His parents were a mess. He'd been thrown out of schools and the army. But he'd just found himself a decent job and was starting Monday morning. He must have just missed a Madison bus, I tell myself all these years later. If one had come moseying along at just the right moment, maybe his luck would have finally changed.
There's a new bank at Laramie Avenue. I read somewhere that it's the first new bank on the west side in decades. Across from the bank is a brand-new Walgreens. But there are more empty lots than ever. What was once the best part of the west side--the great west side, they used to call it--often looks like a ramshackle ghost town.
At Parkside Avenue are two big, rotting, multiunit, multibedroom apartment buildings with commercial spaces on the ground floor. They sit waiting for the wrecking ball or the arsonist's torch. If you could transport them to the north side--even with all their windows out--they'd probably be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The State theater, just west of Menard, was torn down a couple of years ago. I could have led you straight to my old seat. At Mayfield Avenue a couple more buildings beg for the wrecking ball.
The grocery store where Moose was dognapped is still there. It seems darker in the middle of the afternoon than it did that night. I wonder what happened to the little boy. Was that cop right? I tell myself no, but it's hard to feel much conviction. He would have needed plenty of luck, growing up out here. Had he gone on to Austin High, where for years the dropout rate topped 70 percent? What kind of chance would he have had in a place like that?
Most of the bars and restaurants are gone. Once there were close to 20 saloons in the half-mile strip between Central and Austin. Now I find only three--two little neighborhood joints and one fancy-looking place that's all decked out in yellow.
The gas station's still there, but it's a modern building with a completely different feeling. If it weren't for the street signs, I wouldn't recognize the place. Maybe Nora was right. Maybe you are better off with just old memories.
But the side streets look OK, maybe even better. There's a big new garage behind my old house that replaces the small one that burned down more than 30 years ago. Nora's house looks the same. Adams Boulevard, across from Columbus Park, looks as glorious as ever.
But you can't get to the park from Madison Street anymore. Some of those cul-de-sacs favored by Daley--"You can't have a drive-by shooting if people can't drive by"--now cut off the side streets.
The streets near the park have got much better in the last ten years. There are fewer boarded-up houses. Lots of black professionals have moved in, even a few white professionals. But I have a feeling that few of these new residents ever walk up to Madison to buy groceries or get a beer. And without that walk, without all the jobs and the interaction that a street like Madison should offer, you don't have a real city neighborhood. If you have to get in your car every time you leave the house you might as well live in Arlington Heights.
I have some friends who live in Oak Park about a quarter mile from my old house. Some of their neighbors are white. Some are black. They walk down the streets without fear, but they seldom cross Austin Boulevard on foot. "What's there?" they ask. The only answer they can come up with is Columbus Park.
The Book Hunter is long gone. But Harrison Street has become a bit of an artist's strip, with galleries and a print shop.
Later in the summer I call Nora in LA. She's moved again since the last time I talked to her. She remembers the attempted rape and fills in a couple of details. But she doesn't remember anything about Moose's dognapping. I tell her the story, but it doesn't jog her memory.
"Do you remember that bookstore on Harrison Street?" I ask. "I mean, we went there a lot, didn't we?"
"I hated that place," she says. "I never wanted to go."
"It was the only date you ever took me on."
When we hang up I'm still chuckling. I think I took her on plenty of other dates. Or I would have if I'd had any money. Then I remember that she really did hate the bookstore. I had always had to talk her into going.
The only windows faced north. It was small, dark, dusty, and cluttered with old books--a dying store on a commercial strip that was well past its prime.
The old couple who ran the place barely moved. I think the old woman was sick. She stayed in the back room most of the time. The old man sat quietly behind the counter, usually hidden behind a stack of old books. Sometimes he slept.
I remember being there once when a neighbor came in with half a package of bacon, a few eggs, and some other perishables. She was going on vacation and knew the couple could use the food. There wasn't much money in used books, not when you sold first editions for a quarter apiece.
I don't remember what happened when the bookstore closed or what happened to the old couple--they're certainly long dead by now. But I can still remember exactly where I was standing when I opened Farewell, My Lovely for the very first time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.