Street Smart Chicago

Custer’s Last: A South Side Celebration at the Historic Ben Hecht House

Architecture, Chicago History, Hyde Park No Comments »

Photo: Harrison Smith

By Harrison Smith

Early Wednesday evening, when the first guests start making their way inside the Ben Hecht house on 53rd and Kenwood, Kelly Custer is sitting out on the porch with a friend, asking if “maybe it was too much.” Earlier that morning she had called someone over to her family’s historic ten-bedroom bungalow for a little house cleaning; eight hours later, the job was done, or done as well as could be expected for a short notice cleaning of a four-floor house in transition. The person was paid, but Custer—whose family is selling their home of nearly fifty years—is concerned that things still aren’t clean enough: there are boxes lying around in corners, books and papers piled on desks, and for the next couple of hours a hundred-odd visitors will be walking through it all, taking a look at the house and its history. And, she figures, its mess, which probably should have been cleaned a little better anyway.

Prompted by Op-Shop and Southside Hub of Production organizer Laura Shaeffer, the Custer family had decided to open up their home to the community before saying goodbye for good. Shaeffer, like many others at the “Ben Hecht House Party,” is dressed in full 1920s garb, greeting guests as she walks through the building in flowing white pants and a rustling jewel necklace-piece her friend Victoria, a psychic, found in Chinatown. “The family was so worried” about the mess, she says, “but I said that’s fine, we’re going to clean up the front room, make it really nice and comfortable, and let people roam around and see that this is a space in transition.” Read the rest of this entry »

Hillbilly Heaven: Chicago’s Other Migration from the South

Chicago History, City Life, Uptown 4 Comments »

By David Witter

It is two-thirty in the morning at Carol’s Pub. Most of the other bars in the neighborhood have closed, and customers of all ages—from twenty-one to sixty—file in to order more beer and whiskey, and to dance to the music of Diamondback, Carol’s house band for more than fifteen years. Some people talk, most drink, and some even dance beneath a sign which features a guitar, cowboy boots and hat reading: “Welcome to Carol’s, The Best in Country Music.”

By four o’clock in the morning, the music and beer have stopped flowing and dozens of people with beer on their breath and cigarettes in their mouths make their way through the streets of Uptown, humming the music of Johnny Cash as they go.

Forty years ago, the same streets were filled with similar spirits morning, noon and night. Take a walk down Clark Street or Broadway near Wilson and you would be sure to see hosts of men sporting Elvis-like sideburns and hair slicked back with the help of generous dabs of Brylcreem or Vitalis, usually wearing green work pants, a dark canvas jacket or nylon windbreaker and vinyl penny loafers with white socks. The women, often with children in tow, wore feminine white or yellow dresses and piled their hair high in a beehive. Together, these southern transplants transformed Uptown into what became known as “Hillbilly Heaven,” turning bars into honky-tonks, delis into diners, streets into drag strips and vacant lots and alleys into auto repair centers. Read the rest of this entry »

The Path of History: City Running Tours of Chicago Offer a Healthy View of the Town

Chicago History, Loop, News etc., Running No Comments »

By Zach Freeman

Ask Marlin “The Reluctant Runner” Keesler what the best thing about running is and he doesn’t hesitate: “Stopping!”

With his thick athletic build, crew cut and well-groomed mustache, Keesler can cut an intimidating figure at first glance. But as soon as he starts talking, the tough-guy image quickly fades. Wearing an almost constant grin and slinging a pocketful of deliberately cheesy one-liners, the soft-spoken tour guide, 50 States Marathon Club member and Chicago manager of City Running Tours is friendly, talkative and always on the move, which is appropriate considering that six mornings a week he leads a series of historical running tours through the streets of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Notes from the Underground: A Subterranean Safari in the Chicago Pedway

Chicago History, Loop, Transit 3 Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I make my way through the blizzard to the Blue Line’s Logan Square stop, seven pigeons are huddled on Evelyn Longman’s giant eagle sculpture atop the Illinois Centennial Monument. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, the streets are lined with slush and cars move at a cautious crawl. A scruffy, bearded guy in a hooded jacket trudges across the street toward me with wet snow blowing into his face. “No, it ain’t shitty out,” he says with a grin. Me, I’m planning to take a pass on this nasty weather and spend the rest of the day in warmth and comfort as I go urban spelunking in the Chicago Pedway, an overlooked layer of Chicago’s transportation system.

The Pedway is downtown’s network of indoor pedestrian pathways, including below-ground tunnels, street-level concourses and overhead skyways, covering about five miles, and connecting more than forty city blocks. Tens of thousands of downtown workers use it every day to traverse the Loop without having to deal with cold, heat, rain, snow or the Loop’s hectic, often dangerous, street traffic. Read the rest of this entry »

9/11 Revisited

Chicago History, News etc. No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke and the 2001 Staff

9/11 was a Tuesday.

For anyone who ever worked for or with Newcity, you know Tuesday means one thing: deadline day. On September 11, 2001, we’d been at it more than fifteen years, so it’d become fairly routine. Except this day.

Jan and I were the first ones in early that morning, ensconced in our office in the back of the Newcity space working away at whatever was on our plate that day. We’d taken a big risk with the business we’d built, trying to create a national alternative media portal and network on the internet, and the in-process crash of the internet economy was creating major headaches for us. (They were soon to get far worse.) Although I was editor-in-chief of Newcity, I’d ceded most day-to-day operations to our managing editor, Elaine Richardson. Print, we’d figured out (we thought).

Sometime before 9am, Dave Wilson, one of our senior sales guys, burst into our office. He’d just heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We rushed into the conference room and turned on the television, where we stood, transfixed, as the news unfolded: the second tower hit, the Pentagon hit, the towers collapsed, the plane crash, as staff members continued to arrive at the office and the congregation around the television grew in silent contemplation. Read the rest of this entry »

Hospital Emergency: The Save Prentice movement goes national

Chicago History, Gold Coast/Near North No Comments »

Architecture advocacy groups Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago have spent more than a year trying to save the old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville. On Wednesday, they made it a national issue.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the now nearly vacant building to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places during a press conference and rally held just outside the building.

Both groups continue to fight for granting the building landmark status. In April, Northwestern University, the building’s longtime owner, agreed to table its demolition plans for sixty days while Chicago considers its possible status. But the Landmarks Commission deferred its vote on June 2, and now the advocates remain uncertain as to whether it will be even on the agenda for the July 7 meeting. In what he feels is a closing window of opportunity, Preservation Chicago director Jonathan Fine says the city needs to recognize the need to preserve its cultural legacy that extends inward from its most visible areas.

“Chicago, as great of a city as it is, sometimes can’t look beyond its own navel when it comes to architecture,” he says. “Two years ago we lost eight of the nine Gropius Buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus, and in exchange we now have a sea of taxpayer-funded mud down there. We are on the verge of making the same mistake twice. Read the rest of this entry »

A Thousand Voices in the Night: The University of Chicago celebrates the centennial of its Interfraternity Sing

Chicago History, Hyde Park No Comments »

Lanterns have been strung from the trees around Hutchinson Courtyard in the University of Chicago quads, speckling the area with light on a dark and warm summer night. This is the Saturday of Alumni Weekend, so the campus is already buzzing with tradition and remembrance, but the chairs of the courtyard tonight are specifically (but not exclusively) filled with alumni who were in the Greek system.

The Interfraternity Sing is an annual University of Chicago tradition that harks back to June 1911, when it began as a way to replace the less popular Senior Sing. Now, it’s a beloved and successful Panhellenic singing competition. In 1916, twenty fraternities marched into Hutchinson Courtyard, but by 1922 there were thirty fraternities and more than 18,000 participants. Today, the IF Sing draws over 1,000 and is 100 years old—so it’s more than ready to have a birthday party.

“We are just really excited for Sing in general this year,” says Jessica Sheft-Ason, Kappa Alpha Theta’s public relations VP. “I think because it is the 100th anniversary, many of the girls in our sorority are looking forward to it even more than usual.” Read the rest of this entry »

411: Haymarket Rioting, as Planned

Chicago History, Events, West Loop No Comments »

Striking laborers and plotting anarchists crowd Haymarket Square while policemen attempt to keep the peace. Suddenly, a pipe bomb explodes on the police line from an unknown source. Thus began the Haymarket Riot, which is still considered the day in which the Chicago Police Department lost the most officers it ever has in a single day. Consequently, this will also be what occurs on April 30 at 2pm with Paul Durica’s fourth reenactment, which he plans to “remind us that we all share in the legacy.” To do this, the Pocket Guide to Hell teamed up with the Illinois Labor History Society, the Version Arts Festival, Haymarket Pub & Brewery and the Fulton River District Association, enlisting the help of Chicago’s historian Tim Samuelson and musician Jon Langford, who will perform the song one of the convicted anarchists sang in his jail cell. Just like on his walking tours, Durica sets this reenactment at the actual site of the original Haymarket Riot—Randolph, Desplaines and Halsted—which demonstrates his goal of “reanimating spaces and connecting past and present.” Considering the current state of labor affairs in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, this connection should not be difficult to find. Volunteers will don period hats and badges, and everyone is encouraged to wear a costume. In fact, everyone will become a participant by acting either as a policeman, an anarchist, a laborer or a curious onlooker. For more information, visit (Elizabeth Kossnar)

411: Of Sausage Kings and Building Amenities

Chicago History No Comments »

The real Sausage King of Chicago

In between such overly familiar tourist attractions as Navy Pier or Wrigley Field are the unsung Chicago landmarks. In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” for example, Matthew Broderick proclaimed himself “Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago” in a Gold Coast restaurant on West Schiller, between Dearborn and State Parkway. Adolph Luetgert was known as “Sausage King of Chicago” because he put the body of his murdered wife in a sausage vat of a Lakeview meat packing company on Diversey, between Ashland and Damen., a web-based listing of Chicago apartments for renters and landlords, has created a historical map of Chicago with all the things we wish teachers taught us in history class. The project started out as a simple interactive map for the users to learn more about an area they may want to live. Domu’s Andrew Porter and John Kristoff created a basic Google map and “as we began to get deeper, we unearthed more and more history. The list kept increasing in size and we were permitted to grow along with it,” says Porter. The map now has twelve categories of Chicago history and more than 500 entries. Categories include oddities, mobsters, residents, tragedies, alumni and more. “We got a little carried away but we were really excited about it,” Porter admits. Read the rest of this entry »

Pipe Dreams: How tobacconist Iwan Ries survived the Civil War, the Great Conflagration and the smoking ban

Chicago History, Loop 1 Comment »

Photo: Kristine Sherred

By Jennifer Kelly Price

I remember smelling my grandpa’s pipes, pulling them one by one from an immaculately polished brown leather box kept on quiet display in his den, lifting the lid and instantly being transported to another era. Though I never saw him smoke them, I remember picturing him young—a dashing soldier in his twenties, courting my grandma, puffing a pipe all gentle-like. I could smell that sweetness in the air and on his skin. The smell of a good pipe strikes a note of palpable nostalgia, even for those without direct associations. It’s almost as though the marriage of sweet tobacco and burning wood sprung forth far enough back in history that it exists in our collective memory. Comforting. Relaxing. Swathed with manliness and class.

That’s what the Iwan Ries family stands for. Iwan Ries, the oldest family-owned tobacconist in the country, has touched three centuries and passed through five generations of one family. A phenomenal boom in the fifties and sixties gave the family-run business the momentum to develop their own brand of tobacco, Three Star Blue. They launched a catalog and mail-order service, and began filling orders worldwide. Ries’ daughter Rosalie married Stanley Levi, and Ries passed the business onto his son-in-law. The current owner, Chuck Levi, joined the business as a young man in the fifties, allowing his father to travel the world and gather pipes never before available to American consumers. His own son Kevin Levi now manages the business. Read the rest of this entry »