R.I.P.—Mr. Superdawg

Maurie Berman, who opened his Superdawg drive-in in 1948, has died at the age of 89.  There will be countless stories about Mr. Superdawg and what he wrought, so I’ll offer my personal memories.

I go back to Superdawg’s beginning.  We lived a couple of miles away from Milwaukee and Devon, and that same summer of 1948, Grandpa Price began bringing home carry-out from the new drive-in.  Family legend claims that my first solid food was a Superdawg.

Superdawg in 1978

Superdawg in 1978

Later, when I was growing up, having a Superdawg was my favorite Easter treat, once Lent had ended.  It was also a great place for a snack after a visit to Whealan Pool.  And in my college years, when I started dating Terri, there was a geographic bonus—she lived mere blocks from Superdawg.

Life moved on.  Terri and I got married.  We lived in Rogers Park, then bought a house in Oak Park.  The visits to Superdawg became less frequent.

In 1987 we moved to Park Ridge.  Once again, we were in the Superdawg orbit.

25th Anniversary party--May 18, 1997

25th Anniversary party–May 18, 1997

We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in 1997.  We talked over how we wanted to mark the occasion.  Terri suggested we have a backyard party catered by Superdawg.

So we arranged it.  Maurie’s crew came out and set up their cooker in the garage—on May 18th, eighteen years ago today, as it happened.  Everyone had a great time, and our friends still talk about the best anniversary party they ever attended.  After it was over, the pleasant aroma of French fries lingered in our garage for a month.

Our anniversary caterers

Our anniversary caterers

If you’ve never been to Superdawg, you’re missing a bit of the real Chicago.  And don’t forget—our hometown drive-in is featured in the book 1000 Places To See Before You Die.


Council Wars (5-16-1983)

The new mayor and the city council were preparing for war—one against the other.

A month ago, Harold Washington had been elected Mayor of Chicago.  He was the first African-American to hold the office.  He was also a reform Democrat who’d beaten the party regulars.

Washington had tried to purge three council kingpins from their leadership positions.  One of the three, Ed Vrdolyak, assembled a coalition of 29 aldermen and fought back.  The Vrdolyak 29—all party regulars and all white—took control of the council.  Then they shut out the mayor’s allies from all important committee chairs.

Mayor Washington

Mayor Washington

This was something new.  The council had been a rubber stamp for whomever was mayor.  But these aldermen didn’t want to take orders from a reformer—or maybe some of them didn’t want to take orders from a black man.  Whatever the case, today the mayor and his foes were in court.

Judge James Murray of the Circuit Court had been called in after the stormy May 2 council meeting.  Now he ruled that the council could make committee assignments in any manner it wished.  On the other hand, the mayor could veto funding for the council.

Murray said that court cases would not solve the conflict.  The two sides had to work out their differences around the bargaining table.  They had to reach a compromise.

Alderman Vrdolyak

Alderman Vrdolyak

The Vrdolyak 29 seemed pleased by the judge’s ruling.  They hinted they’d be willing to share a bit of power with the mayor’s aldermen.  The mayor himself had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, Washington was putting his brand on the office of mayor.  During the campaign he’d made an issue of Mayor Jane Byrne’s $30,000 Cadillac limousine.  Now he exiled the “vulgar” Caddy to storage and said he’d bring it out only for special occasions.  His everyday car would be an Oldsmobile.

The mayor and the Vrdolyak 29 would continue their battle—the newspapers called it Council Wars.  In 1987 Washington defeated Vrdolyak in the mayoral election, and finally achieved a council majority.  But before the year was over, Washington was dead from a heart attack.



Montrose-Austin at Night (1960)

When I was a kid one of my hobbies was photography. I never learned many technical skills, nor tried to develop film, nor bought fancy equipment. I just liked to take pictures.

In the summer of 1960 I was going into eighth grade, and figured out how to do night photos.  My camera was a cheap Brownie, which meant I had to manually hold the lens open for a few seconds, until I gathered enough light on that low-grade roll film.  And of course, since I didn’t have a light meter and was just experimenting with different exposures, I wasn’t sure whether any of the photos would turn out.

Montrose @ Austin (1960)

Eventually I got the prints back from Skrudland’s.  Most of them weren’t very good.  I gave up taking long-exposure photos until I was an adult, and could afford a 35-mm camera.

A few months ago I rediscovered those 55-year old photos.  As a matter of historical interest, I’m sharing two of them here.

The first photo is Montrose Avenue at Austin, looking east.  Note the low illumination provided by the street lamps of that time, just before they were replaced by the more modern Mercury Vapor lights.  Still, the photo manages to capture the trolley bus wires over Montrose.  And check out the price of gas at the Mobil station.

60 (7-7)--JRS self-portrait

The second photo is me. Though we didn’t use the name yet, we can call this my first selfie.


When Nelson Met Simone (5-10-1947)

They always called May 10th their anniversary.  But let’s begin at the beginning.

Early in 1947, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir was traveling in America.  A friend suggested she look up Nelson Algren when she got to Chicago.  Algren was just starting to build a reputation as a writer of realistic fiction.


When she arrived in the city, de Beauvoir had trouble getting through to Algren on the phone–hearing her thick French accent, he thought she was one of the Polish people from his Wicker Park neighborhood. But they did arrange a meeting.

Algren took de Beauvoir to see the seamier side of town.  She liked it.  They hit it off.  When she left, he kissed her good-bye and asked her to stop in Chicago again.  “If you don’t, I will come to Paris one day after you,” he said.

By May de Beauvoir was in New York, preparing to go back to France, when her departure was delayed.  She had not forgotten Algren.  She phoned him and said she was coming to Chicago for a few days.  On the morning of May 10, he met her at the airport.

Once again, Algren showed her the city.  They went to a cafeteria and a Sox game and a bowling alley.  Then he dropped her off at her hotel.

Now de Beauvoir was wondering whether they were on the same wavelength.  Why didn’t he come up to her room?  For that matter, why was she staying in a hotel, and not back at his place?  Maybe she’d made a mistake coming to Chicago.


That evening Algren took her to a Polish restaurant.  They hit a couple of jazz bars.  In the taxi, he kissed her.  Before the night was over, they became lovers.
The next morning he gave her a silver ring.  When de Beauvoir flew back to New York a few days later, Algren went with her.  “It’s funny that we get along so well,” he told her.  “I’ve never been able to get along with anybody.”
They parted in New York, Simone returning to Paris, Nelson going back to Chicago.  For many years afterward, they carried on a trans-Atlantic love affair.  Algren wanted marriage, de Beauvoir did not.  The situation was also complicated by her longtime relationship with Jean Paul Sartre.
Nelson Algren died in 1981, Simone de Beauvoir five years later.  She was buried wearing the ring that Algren had given her.


Then and Now, Sheridan-Wilson

1947--Sheridan Road @ Wilson, view north

1947–Sheridan Road @ Wilson, view north

2014--the same location

2015–the same location

Sheridan Road was the first Chicago street to have a bus line.  By 1947 closed-top double-deck buses had replaced the original open-top models.  The building on the left of the older photo is Sheridan Recreation—with 58 bowling lanes and 45 billiards tables, one of the country’s largest “pleasure palaces.”

In our time, double-deck buses and Sheridan Recreation are gone.  So are the globe street lights.  However, this part of Sheridan Road is enjoying a renewal, with new construction and more landscaping.


The Haymarket Incident (5-4-1886)

Haymarket Square was located on Randolph Street just east of Halsted, about where the Kennedy now comes through.  On this date in 1886, the site became infamous.

Chicago was having labor troubles that spring.  On May 3 two striking workers had been killed in a confrontation with police at the McCormick Reaper Works.  A local anarchist group called for a mass protest meeting at Haymarket Square the following evening.

Announcing the rally

Announcing the rally

Something like 2,000 people came to the rally.  Mayor Carter Harrison was one of them.  He was things were peaceful and left.

The speakers continued for three hours.  Light rain began falling.  People drifted away.  By 10:30 about 300 people remained in the square.

Samuel Fielden was the final speaker.  He climbed on the wagon that was being used as a stage and began his remarks.  A few police officers had been on hand during the rally.  Now a larger contingent arrived.

The police halted.  Inspector John Bonfield called out, “In the name of the law I command you to disperse.”  As the cops began to move forward again, someone threw a pipe bomb into their midst.

The bomb exploded.  Then the shooting began.  Five minutes later it was over.

Contemporary newspaper illustration

Contemporary newspaper illustration

A century-and-a-quarter later, just what happened during those five minutes is still a matter of dispute.  Did the anarchists start firing guns at the police?  Did the cops begin shooting blindly into the crowd and hit each other?  It depends on whom you listen to, and how you interpret the accounts.

Eight officers died.  About 50 of them were wounded.  The number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined.

Governor Altgeld

Governor Altgeld

“A Hellish Deed” read the front-page of the next day’s Tribune.  That was typical of the general public opinion.  The anarchists were blamed for the violence.  They were thought to be preparing for another blood-bath like the French Revolution.

Officer Matthias Deegan had been killed by the original bomb.  Eight anarchists were eventually charged with his murder, tried, and convicted.  One of the defendants received a 15-year prison term.  The rest were sentenced to death.

Four of the condemned seven were hanged on November 11, 1887.  A fifth committed suicide.  The other two—including the speaker, Samuel Fielden—had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

In 1893 newly-elected Governor John P. Altgeld re-examined the case.  He concluded that the trial had been a miscarriage of justice and pardoned the three surviving defendants.


The Ground ‘L’

The Loop ‘L’ has become a tourist attraction.  Major cities no longer have iron railroad trestles running over streets in their central business districts.  This remnant of Nineteenth Century transit is distinctly Chicago, the same way the cable cars are distinctly San Francisco.

Yet there’s another feature of the Chicago ‘L’ that most visitors ignore—the ground-level run on the Brown Line.

The original South Side ‘L’ opened in 1892.  Soon other lines on elevated iron trestles followed.  But building trestles cost serious money.  When the transit companies wanted to extend their original lines into sparsely-settled areas, they simply laid the tracks on the ground.

Ravenswood (Brown Line) train at Rockwell

Ravenswood (Brown Line) train at Rockwell

Over the course of a century, much of this surface trackage was grade-separated.  Today four CTA routes continue to have some ground-level service.

The last mile of the Purple Line runs at grade to its terminal at Linden Avenue in Wilmette.  The outer portion of the Pink Line, from Kildare Avenue in the city to its 54th Avenue terminal in Cicero, is also on the ground.  So is the Skokie section of the Yellow Line.

Still, the Brown Line is the real point of interest.  The last mile of this route operates at grade-level in the middle of an alley, right through one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods of Chicago.

The Brown Line was originally the Ravenswood branch of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad.  In May 1907 service was opened on the branch to a terminal at Western Avenue near Wilson.  As required by city franchise, the trains ran on an elevated trestle.

Douglas Park (Pink Line) train in Cicero

Douglas Park (Pink Line) train in Cicero

West of terminal, a large parcel of land stretching to Kimball Avenue was being developed by the Northwest Land Association.  The company knew that train service would boost the sale of its lots.  So a deal was struck between the developer and the railroad.

Northwest Land gave Northwestern Elevated a free right-of-way through its property to Kimball.  Since this part of the line was being built entirely on private land, no city franchise was needed, and the tracks could be laid at grade level.  Construction would be quicker and cheaper.

There were also some bonuses.  Northwest Land agreed to share the construction costs of two stations.  And for three years after the extension was built, the developer would pay for all operating losses.

Before 1907 was over, trains were running on the extension.  At first there was only a shuttle car between Kimball and Western.  As traffic picked up, this was replaced by through service from Kimball to the Loop.

1958--Proposed Ravenswood 'L' grade-separation at Kedzie

1958–Proposed Ravenswood ‘L’ grade-separation at Kedzie

As mentioned, the area around the outer edge of the Brown Line is now thickly-built, justifying Northwest Land’s concessions to Northwestern Elevated.  The ground-level track has six crossings and four stations.  Despite the obvious safety concerns, there are very few accidents.

From time to time there are proposals to grade-separate the outer Brown Line.  However, CTA recently spent millions of dollars to extend the station platforms here, so perhaps these ground level ‘L’ trains will stay in place for another century.



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