By Tony Fitzpatrick
As any good car thief or auto parts thief can tell you, Western Avenue is home to the Midnight Auto, the night-and-day marketplace for hot cars and parts (now mostly just parts) in the city of Chicago. Western is also the longest continuous street in the city. It is not like Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; one of those stretches of road that goes from the outhouse to the penthouse and back. Western pretty much goes from the outhouse to the dog house, not so many penthouses.
Until 1870, Western was the western border of the city limits. Western used to be home to Riverview, the much storied amusement park that was torn down in 1967 to make way for a police station. In its later years, Riverview had an unseemly reputation. It was full of beatniks, sailors and kids who were to become known as hippies. Older friends of mine tell me it was a good place to buy pot, and maybe the last place one could play Skee-Ball, a poor man’s version of bowling.
Almost every transit line in the city crosses Western; the Blue Line twice, as well as the Green, Orange, Pink and Brown lines. Hardwired into the DNA of this street is the whole idea of transportation. Western once hosted the longest streetcar line in the world. Green Hornet streetcars zipped up and down Western until the mid-fifties. My father took this streetcar to school and back. So much for that bullshit about him walking five miles to school, in the snow, uphill. You get the idea.
Western is a working-class street, traffic is dangerous as hell and, for the longest time, it didn’t even have bike lanes. If you’re going to speed, this is the street to do it on. In fact, if you are going to run pedestrians over, this is the street to do it on. If you are going to sideswipe pickups full of junk and pass on the right-hand side; this is the street to do it on. Western Avenue is a kill-or-be-killed automotive proposition. It ain’t for pussies.
Lane Tech is on Western. It used to be the biggest high school in the country. Years ago it taught high-school students the trades; plumbing, auto-body work, sheet metal and the rudiments of construction. A great many of the tradesmen I’ve hired over the years were graduates of Lane Tech.
It is an avenue of pissed-off people going to and from work. There is nothing leisurely about Western Avenue. It is the mud and the blood and the beer. The Working Class 500, with a little roller derby thrown in for good measure. The people speeding down this 23.5 miles of Chicago’s gut? They’re busy dying, eight hours at a time, forty hours a week…’til death do us part.
It is the very picture of what Nelson Algren referred to as “Hustler’s Land.” Grime and shining lights in equal measure. An avenue with one foot in the gutter and the other dancing on a star.
When I was a kid, I was enthralled by all of the used-car lots and their endless neon sequential lights that blinked a semaphore of promise and cash and deals. I thought of them as palaces of some kind—the OK used car lot with its spires of tiny white-hot bulbs, the Cars-For-Less-No-Money-Down! streams of pointy red, yellow, green and blue triangular flags. When I hear the term “primary colors,” well, these are mine.
Every once in a while, I spot a fat pigeon or two—some too fat to fly—raggedy-assed, mutt-like pigeons with fucked-up feathers who are at the end of their string, ambling the sidewalk on Western. Birds that are as resilient as a brick shit-house—kind of perfect creatures for this kill-or-be-killed avenue, who maybe came there to die, knowing there are only the quick and the dead on this American avenue of the relentlessly mortal. They do their sad bird-waltz along with the buzz of the insane traffic, wind and merciless screeching and skids of bad brakes—the automotive howl of night time; the saddest music on Western Avenue.
To this day, Western is where you go when you want a used car and always, buried in their iconography or right upfront, there is a star.
The stars are a promise of something on this street: something better, E-Z Terms, something sexy, Good Credit?, Bad Credit?, and No Credit; something closer to the top and nearer to the shiny bumper and new-car smell of the American Dream.