The Prairies of Montrose Avenue

Back in the days before autos were common, most Chicagoans traveled by public transit. That meant by streetcar.  If you were starting a business and wanted customers to have easy access, you set up shop near where the streetcars ran.  By the 1920s commercial strips had developed along most of the car lines.

The city encouraged this development with zoning regulations. Blocks along arterial streets were reserved for commercial construction.  The lots there remained vacant while the nearby side streets filled up with homes.  Then, when enough people were settled in the neighborhood, businesses would be eager to buy and build on those commercially-zoned lots.

Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

1959—Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

That’s what happened in my Portage Park neighborhood. Grandpa Price built the second house on the 4300-north block of Mason Avenue in 1922.  By the end of the decade, the block was filled with bungalows and two-flats.  Meanwhile, a few isolated stores had sprouted up along the commercially-zoned vacant lots on Montrose Avenue.

Then the Depression hit. Then World War II hit.  Then the postwar auto-boom flight to the suburbs hit.  By the time I came along in the 1950s, most of Montrose Avenue from Central west to Narragansett was still commercially zoned, and still vacant.

We called those vacant lots along Montrose “prairies.” This seems to have been a term used in all parts of the city, as readers’ comments indicate.  In our neighborhood, the local boys would clear a prairie and set up a baseball diamond.  There were at least five of them along Montrose.  One of them even had a backstop.  Looking back, I wonder who paid for it.

Montrose Avenue, 2017---Where are the prairies of yesterday?

2017—Montrose @ Menard, and where are the prairies of yesterday?

Our particular prairie was at what’s now 5919 West Montrose Avenue. Unlike most of the other prairies we weren’t a corner lot, so our baseball field was only about 80 feet down the right field line to the old Sinclair gas station.  But like most of the other prairies, we had to deal with dog owners using our beloved ball field as a canine toilet—in those days, they weren’t expected to clean up afterward.

Sometime around 1960 the city relaxed the zoning along Montrose, and all those prairies were soon filled with yellow brick houses and apartment buildings. Today it makes for an interesting streetscape, bridging two eras.


Horse Butcher for the World (1-19-1952)

If you’re getting ready to eat, maybe you’d better bookmark this one for later.  You have been warned!

All set?

As 1951 turned into 1952, many Chicagoans noticed that their meat was tasting—well, different.  And now, a couple of weeks into the new year, the reason was clear.  They’d been eating horse meat.

So much for moving to Chicago!

Guess we cancel that trip to Chicago!

Federal officials had been looking into meat sales around Chicago.  Today the papers reported that another state meat inspector had been fired for refusing to co-operate with the feds.  That made seven.

The investigation had started with a packing plant in Lake Zurich.  The feds claimed the “pure beef” shipped from there was actually 40% horse.  The plant had processed more than 10,000 pounds of meat a week.  Most of it wound up in Chicago.

Simple economics was the reason.  In 1952 beef sold for 59 cents a pound.  A pound of horse meat went for 14 cents.  The feds had shut down the Lake Zurich plant, but other area packers were still under suspicion.  And the Chicago mob seemed to be behind everything.

State meat inspectors had been bribed to look the other way.  Any retailers who complained about getting strange meat were warned to keep their mouths shut.  As a result, Chicagoans had consumed up to 4.5 million pounds of horse meat in the past two years.

News of the scandal had immediate impact.  Hamburger sales in Chicago dropped 50%.  Fruits and vegetables were suddenly in demand.  Meanwhile, city food inspectors became hyper-vigilant.  The world-famous Blackhawk Restaurant was found to be serving horse meat, and had its license pulled.
No thanks---I'll just have a salad!

No thanks—I’ll just have a salad!

There was also political fallout.  Governor Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, was running for re-election.  The parade of disgraced meat inspectors didn’t do credit to his administration.  Though the governor wasn’t involved in the scandal, the Republicans were now making jokes about “Adlai-burgers.”

The horse meat probe led to several indictments.  In the end, only a few people did any prison time.  The Blackhawk reopened, and Adlai Stevenson wound up as his party’s nominee for President of the United States.  He lost that election, but horse meat was not a factor.

And that sound you now hear is your vegan friends . . . laughing.


Then and Now, 51st-St. Louis

1955--51st Street @ St. Louis, view east

1955–51st Street @ St. Louis Avenue, view east

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

In the 1955 photo, the north side of 51st Street was lined with factories and warehouses.  Like the earlier streetcar line, the 51st Street trolley bus ended its run at St. Louis Avenue.  West of here 51st was a local side street.

UNO High School now occupies the north side of 51st Street.  Many of the buildings on the south side of the street have been razed.  The 51st Street bus no longer runs here, but terminates at the Orange Line ‘L’ station at Kedzie-50th, a few blocks to the east.


The Blizzard of ’79 (1-14-1979)

Chicago’s two worst blizzards came within the space of a dozen years—1967 and 1979.  And like the Cubs and the Sox, each blizzard has its diehard, no-compromise fans.  Which of these storms was really our number one, all-time, downright-most-horrible weather experience?

The Golden Anniversary of the Blizzard of ’67 will be celebrated (?) later this month.  Today our topic is the Blizzard of ’79.

In 1979 the snow started on Saturday, January 13.  When it stopped the next day, 20.3 inches had fallen.  The total snowfall in 1967 was 23 inches.
Our house after the Blizzard of '79

Our house after the Blizzard of ’79

So that means 1967 was the worst?

Not so fast.  In 1979 the city already had 9 inches of snow lying around from an earlier storm.  Now Chicago had about 30 inches on the ground.  And on January 14 the temperature got down to 14-below-zero, with a wind chill of 49-below.  Both were records for that date.

So that means 1979 was the worst?

In some ways.  But in 1979, the snow fell over the weekend, and Monday was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  The 1967 storm had started on Thursday, a workday, and really screwed up travel.

Okay—so in 1979, the city had three days to clean up.  And by Tuesday, everything was back to normal.

No, it wasn’t.  As soon as the snow started coming down, Mayor Michael Bilandic was all over TV, talking about the heroic job his administration was doing in this weather emergency.  But the public could see he was wrong.  The snow was not getting cleared.

The City That Works wasn’t working.  Mike Royko, the newspaper columnist, put the blame squarely on the mayor.  According to Royko, city crews didn’t know how to deal with the snow because their skills were too specialized—specialized in cranking out votes at election time.  That was the real job of Chicago payrollers.

Our garage after the Blizzard of '79

Our garage after the Blizzard of ’79

Bilandic was running for re-election.  He was being challenged in the Democrat primary by Jane Byrne.  Now Byrne began hammering Bilandic about snow removal.  In one of her commercials she was filmed with snowflakes falling around her.

Byrne’s message connected with the voters.  Six weeks after the blizzard, she beat Bilandic in the primary, then went on to win the general election.

So when all is said and done, 1979 was Chicago’s worst blizzard?

Maybe not.  A few weeks after those super-cold temps, we had highs in the 40s, and the snow melted.  In 1967 the snow stayed on the ground past St. Patrick’s Day.  I lived through both events, and I’ve always felt the Blizzard of 1967 was our worst.

But then, I wasn’t running for mayor.


My Latest Book


Okay.  This isn’t Chicago history, exactly.  But it is history.  And now for the commercial—

The Bowling Chronicles has just been published.  The book contains a selection of 90 columns and feature articles drawn from those  I’ve written for Bowlers Journal International since 1990.  Available in print or on kindle, it’s 248 pages long, with 36 photos from the BJI archives and my own collection.

Here are the great bowlers—Carter, Weber, Varipapa, Ladewig, Welu, Hardwick, Anthony, and the rest.   Here are the historic events—Therman Gibson’s big jackpot . . . Ed Lubanski’s TV Double 300 . . . the greatest team match . . . the greatest action match . . . the first national tournament (and it wasn’t the 1901 ABC) . .  . Dreamer, bowling’s first feature film (and it wasn’t as bad as some people claim).

Here are the offbeat stories—the bowling ball that went around the world . . . the 300 game that took a week to bowl . . . the bowler who won an ABC championship with a total score of 41 . . . strange bowling inventions . . . strange bowling injuries.

And here are the colorful people—the hustler who passed himself off as a German nobleman . . . the A-List movie star who was a serious bowler . . . the traveling bowling fan who gave away over 11,000 cases of Coca-Cola . . . Johnny Small and his magic ball . . . Johnny King and his magic cigar.

You can order The Bowling Chronicles on Amazon, or direct from McFarland Publishing.



One Mystery Solved!

Some months ago, I posted three Chicago pictures I took during the 1970s, which I could no longer identify.  Happily, I’ve been able to pinpoint the location of one of them.  The photos below are of the 6100-north block of Melvina Avenue, looking north from the intersection of Elston and Milwaukee Avenues.


1974–Melvina Avenue @ Elston Avenue, view north


2017–the same location

In the Chicago of my youth we had a name for vacant lots—the prairie.  The next photo  from further up the block shows the not-so-little houses that now occupy much of this particular prairie.

2017--no more "prairie"

2017–no more prairie

What finally convinced me that I’d found the right location was a telephone pole in the distance of the 1974 photo, center and slightly to the right.  That pole and the buildings behind it are still there today.

1974 background

1974–background close-up

2017--the same location

2017–still there!

Thinking back, it makes sense that I’d take a photo of this spot in 1974.  I was probably on my way to Superdawg, and spontaneously decided to snap a picture of a Chicago prairie—so I could remember what it looked like decades later.


Then and Now, Elston-Addison

1939--Elston Avenue @ Addison, view northwest

1939–Elston Avenue @ Addison Street, view northwest

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1939 the Irving Park community was already residentially mature.  The Elston-Addison intersection was dominated by a Chicago Surface Lines carbarn on the northwest corner.  The streetcar running on Elston in the older photo is a special service, transporting patients from Cook County Hospital to the Chicago State Hospital at Dunning.

Declining ridership in the CTA era resulted in the closing of more the half of the old transit barns, among them the Elston-Addison facility.  Today a strip mall occupies the site.