In April of 1968, my family moved from Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood to the Albany Park neighborhood, on Chicago's northwest side.
It was a step up for us. Those familiar with those neighborhoods now, nearly 40 years later, would laugh; Lincoln Park is now the yuppiest of yuppie neighborhoods, while Albany Park is a little rough around the edges these days. In 1968 Lincoln Park was a blue collar neighborhood, with lower-middle class whites, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, with a handful of "urban pioneers," mainly hippies, artists and political progressives attracted by nearby Old Town's great night life. Albany Park was a solidly middle class blue collar neighborhood. It had been a primarily Jewish neighborhood until the mid-sixties. It was still probably about 20% Jewish in the late sixties, but already pretty diverse-- it had become the neighborhood to move to when you could afford to get out of Uptown, which was primarily Appalachian (i.e. hillbilly) then, and getting rough. Appalachians were moving into Albany Park, joining the Lebanese, Latino, Koreans, Polish, Italian, Irish and other ethnicities that mixed with the folks like my family-- blue collar folks.
Tonight I went out on a bike ride. The city has been installing bike lanes on many of the major streets, including Lawrence Avenue, which goes right through Albany Park, right by the end of the block I grew up on. On my way back, I took a little detour and took some pictures.
This was taken at Lawrence and Central Park Avenues, at the end of the block I lived on as a kid. Over the years, the signs in the store windows have reflected the the groups that lived in the neighborhood. When I was a kid, many of the signs were in Hebrew. Beginning in the late seventies, they were increasingly in Korean. In the last last five or six years, more and more of them are in Spanish, as Mexicans move into the neighborhood. Albany Park was and still is a "port of entry" neighborhood-- a neighborhood new immigrant groups live in-- even as yuppies move in. The Mexican folks will certainly follow the pattern all the other groups have-- establish themselves in the neighborhood for a decade or two, then move to the suburbs, while a new group moves in.
One of my favorite childhood memories is my mother giving me some money, and me and one of my brothers would walk down to the bakery, which was in the second storefront from the left, and we would pick out a "baker's dozen" doughnuts to bring back for my family's breakfast on Saturday mornings. Back then, the writing in the window was Hebrew. As you can see, it's still a bakery-- a Mexican "Panaderia."
I hope some other kids in the neighborhood are developing great memories, running down the street to buy Mexican pastries for their family.
This is a view of the 4700 block of N. Central Park, the block my family lived on. It's hard to believe that it's the previous picture was taken at the other end of the same block.
We lived on the top floor of this three-flat at 4724 N. Central Park-- my mother, my father, my two brothers Dean and Kevin, who were one and two years younger than me, and our dog Partly, our cat Cleo and our hamster Freddy. It was a two-bedroom apartment, with hardwood floors and radiators.
The old coal chute was still in the basement, though the building had been converted to a gas boiler long before. One day, my brothers and I found the coal chute and spent a happy afternoon using it as a slide. Of course, we were covered in coal dust, which sent my mother through the roof.
I had by then developed my lifelong habit of always having two best friends. One of them was Richie Gustek. He lived two doors down from me. His parents, who were Polish, never learned English, and he or his brother and sister had to translate for them. My other best friend was Stephen McCarter, who hailed from Alabama originally. His dad had the coolest job ever, in our eyes-- manager of a "Toys 'R' Us." Steve lived in this building:
Richie and I stayed in touch for years. In December of 1979, I sent him a Christmas card. I received a card from his sister thanking me for thinking of him; one night in August of 1979, a week or two after the last letter I'd recieved from him, he'd been with a carload of guys, and the car had crashed. He died on the operating table. Steve and I lost touch over the years, but I tracked him down in 1986, right after I finished college. He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. He had never finished college, though-- he'd gotten involved with drugs for a while, and was then working as a delivery guy, running medical specimens to labs.
A couple of years ago, Adam asked if I'd ever heard of a game called "pinners." I had, indeed. We played it right here when I was a kid, in the alley that ran behind my house, down on the end of the block.
Pinners is a baseball-based game. In pinners, one player would throw the ball down near where the alley and wall met-- it had to bounce on both-- and the other player or players tried to catch the ball for an out. If the ball got past the other player or players and hit the opposite wall, they scored singles, doubles, etc. It was funny-- we would play the game all day, or sometimes we'd play baseball in this alley, further back. We'd use a real baseball bat, and an inflatable ball, partially deflated.
Back then, there were no "scooper" laws, so there were added obstacles to play...
The funny thing was that there was a perfectly good park about a block and a half away, Jensen Park. We'd end up playing in the alley because the younger kids on the block weren't allowed to leave the block, but could join us in a ball game in the alley.
In the winter, they would flood the field and we'd ice skate. They'd have track and field contests once a year. I'd sometimes go and play on the swings and teeter-totters (seesaws to the rest of the world), and would frequently end up playing with this guy whose name I never learned. He never learned mine either, and he always called me "kid" ("Hey kid...").
A couple of years ago, they tore down the old fieldhouse, and took up the north end of the park to put up a new middle school. They also tore down the handsome old synagogue across from Jensen Park that I used to go to my Cub Scout meetings in, to make a parking lot for the middle school.
I remember how funny Steve and I thought it was that there was a plaque commerating the fact that the synagogue was dedicated to the memory of "Fanny Finklestein." It amused us mightily that someone would be named "Fanny." Or "Finklestein," for that matter.
In the eighties the synagogue had become a Korean church, until the Koreans, like the Jewish people a generation before them, had moved to the suburbs for better schools and safer streets when they could afford it.
This was my old grade school, Haugen Elementary. It was named after a Norwegian-American Chicago alderman, Helge Haugen. There's a bust of him in the hallway, near the office. In the auditorium, where I would sit and eat my lunch on days that were too cold to walk home and eat lunch, back before they finally added a lunch room to the school, is a portrait of the late Mr. Heftal, the assistant-Principal, who inspired fear back then.
When Adam was little, I went to visit an old colleague, who'd ended up at my old grade school, so she could meet Adam. I'd stopped and said hello to my old third grade teacher, who was shorter and nicer than I remembered. And I'd run by Heftal Hall; even Mr. Heftal's portrait inspired fear, though he was long-dead.
I remember a hundred games of tag in this playground, which is now a parking lot for the teachers. I also remember leaning on the wrought-iron fence, which they'd just painted green, and my mother having to clean the paint off my winter coat.
On the way to the school, I'd passed this house, which this post was about-- where I took a walk through the neighborhood in 1982, a little over a decade after my family had moved out of the neighborhood, and sadly discovered a "service star" still in the window.
In 1978, when I was a senior at Lyons Township High School, in Lagrange, Illinois, I took a Creative Writing class with Bill Lally, one of the best teachers I ever had. One of the requirements was to keep a journal. I'd actually started keeping a journal a couple of years before that-- in January of 1976. I just integrated my assigned journal into my regular journal.
One of the epiphanies I had in the assigned journal was that the best times of my life up to that point had been from April, 1968 to April 1971, when my family lived in Albany Park. It was funny-- a family of five living in a two-bedroom apartment in a crowded city neighborhood-- yet, it was idyllic to me. I loved my friends, the diversity of the people in the neighborhood, the architecture-- everything about it. My parents moved us to the suburbs-- better schools and affordable homes. Yet I found we lost something when we left Albany Park. The people were less interesting, the experience less fulfilling. Ironically, the quality of my schoolwork plummetted after we moved to the suburbs. I felt isolated. Kids were narrow and mean in our new home.
Looking back, I realized that I spent a lot of the time from age ten, when we moved out of Albany Park, to age fifteen or so, clinically depressed.
In 1989, I began studying education at Northeastern Illinois University, just a few blocks from Albany Park. One day, when researching a paper I'd been assigned in my "Kid Psych" (Child Psychology) class, I came upon a study about psychological survival among kids who'd live through the unspeakable-- things running from sexual and physical abuse, to genocide. The study had a surprising finding-- that kids were able to surivive those things and grow into happy and thriving adults if they had even one thing to hang on to during the bad times of their childhood. This thing might be a hobby or interest, a positive relationship with an adult-- a teacher, a neighbor, a shopkeeper-- or a friend.
I had another epiphany at that moment in the Northeastern Illinois University library-- that when we left Albany Park, that thing, that one thing I was able to hang onto, was taken away from me. My family life was not great. But since I had a wonderful, lively neighborhood, and wonderful friends at school, I was fine. When those things that my neighborhood offered were taken away from me, the quality of my life plummeted. Ironically, in trying to improve my life, my parents inadvertently derailed my life.
I realize now, though, that I still had one thing that carried me through those tough times-- the memory of living in Albany Park as a kid. Albany Park was that "one thing" that carried me through.
Over the years, I go through the old neighborhood once in a while, and always find it comforting. It's on the upswing right now. I saw at least a half dozen condo conversions going on when I passed through this evening. I also saw dozens of families hanging out in their front yards. Albany Park always defies definition-- for nearly fifty years, it's been a mix of ethnicities, incomes and expectations. I've lived there twice-- when I was a young kid, and nearly a decade ago, when Adam and I lived there right after I finished teacher school, in 1998, just a couple of blocks from where we live now. I may never actually physically live in Albany Park again, but in my heart and soul, spiritually, Albany Park will always be a reminder of how good life can be, no matter how difficult it actually is, and it will always be my home, no matter how far I roam.