Monday, November 23, 2009

Wicker Park: Algren's 'hood (and mine too!)

Sometimes on my way home from the farmer's market, bags stuffed to the brims with the spoils of the harvest, I walk a block out of my way to pass by 1958 West Evergreen Street. As I stare up the third floor, I can't help but wish that some of the words that swelled, the images that sharpened, the ideas that formed up there in that apartment will drift down and assault me, the enchanted bearer of vegetables. Algren lived on the 3rd floor

I know the neighborhood has seen a lot of changes since then-- hell, the old timers won't let you forget it. It's a point of contention for sure--from 'it was better before the yuppies and their cookie-cutter condos, when, fill-in-blank-here with now-defunct local tavern, was open." to the cabbies that tell you, "Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn't have agreed to take a fare over here." It can be hard to be an outsider, especially if you don't know the history. It's clear the neighborhood's changed, but it was probably the same story when Algren walked Division. From the Pottawattomies to the days of the "Beer Barons" in their mansions on Hoyne Avenue to the rough Polish neighborhood Algren knew, Chicago had already seen a lot of changes.

Algren on Division Street

Maybe that's the point, I think, as I, hands-in-pockets, wander on a colder day down Division. I finally walk inside the dimly lit Rainbo Club that Algren used to frequent (some say with Simone de Beauvoir)-- in the 30's and 40's the club featured jazz and burlesque performances. The stage still stands behind the bar. I know I don't fit in with the skinnier, artsier, hipper crowd that claims this hang-out. But I order a beer anyway, and remember Algren wasn't always the biggest hit with his neighbors either; afterall, West Evergreen Avenue would still be West Algren Avenue if he were.

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