Then and Now, Avenue L-109th

1937–Avenue L Boulevard @ 109th Street, view north

2019–the same location

Chicago’s East Side community was generally settled from north to south.  The Great Depression of the 1930s halted most construction, and in 1937 much of the area south of 108th street remained empty.  By then Avenue L had already been widened, designated a Boulevard as part of the Park District’s chain of parkways.

World War II followed the Depression.  Construction resumed after the war ended in 1945, and today this area is fully built-up.  Avenue L is no longer called a Boulevard, though it’s still pretty wide for a local street.


Then and Now, Wilson-Kenmore

1924–Wilson Avenue @ Kenmore Avenue, view east

2019–the same location

During the 1920s the area around Broadway and Wilson was booming.  In New York, Midtown had displaced Downtown as the focus of commercial life.  In Chicago, there was talk that Uptown would surpass the Loop.  Even Al Capone was investing in Uptown real estate.

The Stock Market Crash and Depression killed the Uptown boom.  The area remained stable into the 1960s, then went into a long decline.  More recent years have seen a revival.


The Magic Motor Bus (3-25-1917)

On this date, a strange new vehicle appeared on the streets of Chicago for the first time.  It was called a “bus.”

Since 1859 public transit in Chicago had been—literally—street railways.  The first railcars had been pulled by teams of horses.  Then came cable cars, and finally electric streetcars.  For moving large numbers of people, streetcars seemed to be the ultimate form of surface transportation.

1917–first Chicago motor bus

Meanwhile, the automobile had been invented, and was evolving.  Though early gasoline engines were small, they soon became bigger and more powerful.  By 1910 full-size gasoline buses were a reality.  Since buses weren’t tied to rails, they had more flexibility than streetcars.

The City of Chicago had granted a transit franchise to the Chicago Surface Lines company.  But the boulevards and parks were controlled by another government entity, the Chicago Park District.  In 1916 the new Chicago Motor Bus Company was awarded a franchise by the Park District.  Now, on March 25, 1917, their new vehicles were ready to roll.

1943–motor coaches on Michigan Avenue

Mayor William Hale Thompson and a collection of dignitaries boarded the bus at Sheridan and Devon.  The ceremonial trip moved off over the regular route, down Sheridan to Lincoln Park, through the park and over various streets, until reaching its south terminal at Adams and State.  Then, while the invited guests were brought back to the Edgewater Beach Hotel for a luncheon, revenue service began.

The buses operated from 6 in the morning until 1:30 AM.  Each double-deck vehicle had a two-man crew, with a conductor to collect fares and a “chauffeur” to drive.  Passengers could board at any intersection.  Though only 11 buses ran the first day, another 39 were on order.

1960–old Chicago Motor Coach bus in CTA service

The buses were popular from the start.  True, the 10-cent fare was higher that the 7 cents paid on the streetcars.  But the ride was usually faster—and prettier, too.

During the next few years, the Park District gave franchises to other companies.  As the advantages of buses became more apparent, even Chicago Surface Lines began replacing their streetcars with the rubber-tire vehicles.

All the different Park District bus operators were later combined into the Chicago Motor Coach.  That company continued in business until 1952, when it was bought out by the CTA.


Hef’s Galewood Homestead

With Playboy magazine on the ropes, this section from my book Hidden Chicago Landmarks seems timely. 

Many Chicago tours will take time to point out the massively-elegant brick-and-limestone building at 1340 North State Street. Today it is divided into condos.  In an earlier era it was the original Playboy Mansion.  Hugh Hefner lived here from 1959 through 1975, before decamping to Los Angeles.  This is where he perfected the persona and lifestyle that made him famous—or notorious, depending on your point of view.

The South Side apartment building where Hefner created Playboy magazine is long gone.  But his childhood home still stands on the city’s far West Side, at 1922 North New England Avenue.

Hugh Hefner was four years old when his family moved into the newly-built brick home in the Galewood section of Austin. His father Glenn was an accountant, his mother Grace a homemaker and part-time teacher.  The year was 1930, and the Depression was just getting underway.  Glenn had to work long hours to scrape by, leaving the raising of Hugh and his younger brother mostly to his wife.

The Galewood neighborhood was still sparsely settled during the 1930s. Hugh remembered growing up amid prairies and prairie animals, with gas street lamps and milk delivered from horse-drawn wagons.  During the week he went to the Sayre Elementary School, a couple of blocks from his home.  Sundays meant services at the local Methodist church.

Hugh was an underachiever at Sayre. Teachers observed that he was intelligent, yet would work hard only at those things which interested him.  He seemed to be living in a world of his own.  He liked to write stories and was especially skilled as a cartoonist.

At Steinmetz High School, Hugh reinvented himself. Outside the circle of his closest friends, he’d always been shy.  Now he upgraded his wardrobe, adopted a confident demeanor, and literally forced himself to become more outgoing.  He also began referring to himself in the third person as “Hef.”  “I became the imaginary adolescent, the teenager I wanted to be,” he later said.

It paid off. By sophomore year Hefner had become the leader of the school’s self-styled sophisticates.  He wrote copy and drew cartoons for the school newspaper, appeared in plays, and even filmed his own fifteen-minute horror film.  As a senior he was elected president of the Student Council.

Hefner graduated from Steinmetz in January 1944. World War II was on, and shortly afterward he enlisted in the army.  Trained as an infantry rifleman, he wound up serving stateside as a clerk.  He was discharged as a corporal in 1946.

Hefner used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana. His girlfriend Millie Williams was already a student there.  He graduated from the accelerated program with a degree in Psychology in 1949, married Millie, and returned to Chicago.

The newlyweds moved in with Glenn and Grace on New England Avenue. They made do with a single large bedroom.  Postwar housing was in short supply, and they didn’t have much money, anyway.  While Millie worked at the nearby Mars candy factory, Hugh drifted through a series of jobs.  He enrolled in a graduate program in Sociology at Northwestern, but dropped out after one semester.

In the spring of 1952 Millie Hefner became pregnant. The couple finally moved out of the house in Galewood, renting an apartment at 6052 South Harper Avenue.  Hugh saw his cosmopolitan new neighborhood near the University of Chicago as “a sort of Greenwich Village.”  It was here that he put together his magazine in the fall of 1953.

Hugh’s parents continued to live on New England Avenue while their elder son became famous. Glenn Hefner died in 1976.  Grace sold the house and moved to Arizona nine years later.  She died in 1997, at the age of 102.

Hugh Hefner made a number of sentimental journeys back to Galewood in the years following his move to Los Angeles. The 1992 documentary Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time includes scenes from one such trip.  After his death in 2017 there was some discussion about turning his boyhood home into a museum.  Nothing has been done as yet, and the house remains a private residence.

For this story and 59 more, buy a copy of my book Hidden Chicago Landmarks.  Available in print or on kindle.

Controversial Classic (3-19-1928)

The most popular show of radio’s golden age made its debut in Chicago today.  The show was “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”  The title characters were two African-American men who had moved from the South to a big city in the North.

Amos was played by Freeman Gosden, and Andy was played by Charles Correll.  Both men were White.  They did their show in what they considered Southern Black dialect.

3-19--gosden & correll.jpg

Gosden and Correll had been doing a similar program called “Sam ‘n’ Henry” on WGN.  When they moved to WMAQ on this date, they had to change the names of their characters.  Within a year, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” went national.  Within another year, it was the biggest thing on radio.

The original show ran six days a week with continuing story lines, like a soap opera.  Listeners really got involved.  The program was so popular that many theaters would halt their movies at “Amos ‘n’ Andy” time, and pipe the radio broadcast right into the auditorium.

As time passed, many episodes revolved around the head of the local lodge.  Known as the Kingfish, he was usually involved in some shady scheme that would later backfire on him.  Huey Long, the famous Senator, was called the Kingfish by his followers, and considered the nickname a badge of honor.

What did African Americans think of “Amos ‘n’ Andy?”  Some said they liked it, others said they did not.  The Pittsburgh Courier organized a boycott, but abandoned it after awhile.

“Amos ‘n’ Andy” became a TV show in 1951.  During their early days on radio, Gosden and Correll had actually made a movie in blackface.  They knew better than to try that again.  They kept on doing the radio, but put African-American actors on the tube.

3-19-aka.jpgAmos, Kingfish, Andy (Alvin Childress, Tim Moore, Spencer Williams)

The TV program ran two years on CBS, then went into syndication.  Gosden and Correll ended their radio run in 1960.  Pressure from the NAACP convinced the network to pull the TV reruns off the air in 1966.

“Amos ‘n’ Andy” remains controversial.  Critics claim it was demeaning and reinforced stereotypes.  Others say that the TV show was never as offensive as the radio program, and that it did provide a showcase for many African-American actors.

Here’s a thought.  A few years ago, Jackie Gleason’s old TV show “The Honeymooners” was made into a movie, but with a Black cast.  Why not remake “Amos ‘n’ Andy” with a White cast?

Personally, I think Bill Murray would make a dandy Kingfish.


Then and Now, Franklin-Van Buren

1947–Franklin Street @ Van Buren Street, view north

2019–the same location

We are a half-block north of Van Buren Street. In 1947, like all downtown streets, Franklin had two-way traffic. On the ‘L’ structure above, a Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban train waits to begin its westward journey. Meanwhile, a streetcar is about to turn into the Chicago Surface Lines tunnel under the Chicago River.

In our time this portion of Franklin is a one-way street. The ‘L’ tracks are gone and the old CSL tunnel has been closed. Other than those changes and the newer cars, this block looks pretty much the way it did seventy-plus years ago. (And, of course, that fireplug has been relocated.)


Killer Flu

We are hearing a lot about the Coronavirus lately. But the city has never seen anything like the Spanish influenza outbreak in the fall of 1918. On one day alone, 362 Chicagoans died.

A century later, scientists still argue over the origins of the disease. We do know that the 1918 flu was the deadliest pandemic since the Black Death. Over 40 million people died worldwide—four times the number killed in World War I. About 600,000 Americans were flu fatalities.

Unlike the usual pattern, most of the victims were not the very young or the very old. Healthy people in the prime of life were dying, and dying quickly—often within hours of showing symptoms. In Chicago, health commissioner John Dill Robertson decided on drastic actions.

The disease spread through close human contact. Therefore, all large gatherings were banned—athletic contests, labor and political meetings, banquets, and so on. Schools shut down, and children playing in the parks were told to go home. Theaters and cabarets closed. Weddings were postponed, and even funerals were suspended.

Because they were considered essential for morale, churches remained open. However, Robertson requested that pastors shorten their services. Even so, attendance at religious events was down about one-third.

Most people had to continue working, so officials asked businesses to stagger their hours. Robertson suggested that commuters walk whenever possible, to avoid overcrowding on public transportation. Laws were passed to ban public spitting and to outlaw smoking on ‘L’ trains. Citizens were asked to wear gauze face masks when they appeared in public. 

By October 21, Chicago had received 100,000 doses of flu vaccine, and inoculations began. Whether this helped is debatable. But over the next weeks, flu deaths rapidly dropped. World War I ended on November 11, and the Spanish flu was forgotten in the excitement.

About 8,500 Chicagoans had died. Former mayor John Hopkins and pioneer educator Ella Flagg Young were the most prominent victims. And there were all the others, known only to their family and friends.

Those left behind dealt with their grief. One of these was a 29-year-old Bucktown bricklayer named Florian Przedziankowski. In October 1918 he lost both his wife and his mother to the killer flu. 

But Florian moved on, as he had to. In 1920 he remarried, and a year later, he had a daughter. And that daughter became my mother.