Then and Now, Clark-Superior

1937--Clark Street @ Chicago, view south

1937–Clark Street @ Superior, view south

2015--the same location

2014–the same location

We are on Clark Street, just south of Chicago Avenue. In 1937 this stretch of Clark was a busy commercial strip, though far from fashionable, as evidenced by the two pawnshop visible in the photo. Many of the buildings here dated from the years just after the Great Fire of 1871

Today nearly all the buildings from the 1937 photo have been replaced, and the old Hotel Wacker has been upgraded into the Hotel Felix. Clark Street has become more upscale, while continuing to be vibrant–though not at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when I took the picture!



The Adventures of Mayor Martin Kennelly

Martin Kennelly looked like a statesman. Tall, white-haired, and reserved, he gave off a vibe of quiet dignity.  He might have been the movie version of a senator, or an ambassador, or perhaps even President of the United States.

Martin Kennelly was actually the Mayor of Chicago. During most of his two terms in office, he did seem more like an actor playing a role.

Mayor Martin Kennelly takes the oath of office from City Clerk Richard J. Daley, 1951

Mayor Martin Kennelly takes the oath of office from City Clerk Richard J. Daley, 1951

Like Ed Kelly before him and Daley Senior after him, Kennelly was an Irishman from Bridgeport. Born in 1887, he grew up poor.  He opened a moving business, worked hard, got rich, and left the old neighborhood behind.

He dabbled in Democrat politics as a contributor. Though he accepted appointment to the Park District Board, Kennelly turned down offers to run for public office—until 1947.

Mayor Ed Kelly was finishing up 14 years on the job.   There had been a series of scandals, and the Republicans looked like they had a shot at reclaiming the mayor’s chair.  Remember, this was back in 1947.

The party mandarins told Kelly it was time to retire.  Martin Kennelly was a popular civic leader with no political taint, and was the perfect “clean” candidate for mayor.  He agreed to run.  Though the Republicans did pick up 18 of the 50 city council seats, Kennelly was easily elected.

Chicago was enjoying a postwar boom. Kennelly’s tenure saw many major public works projects, including the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway, O’Hare Airport, and the extensions of both Lake Shore Drive and Wacker Drive. After two decades of depression and war, private construction was also rebounding.

Kennelly worked to clean up the public school system, and had some success. His efforts to reform civil service had less impact.  His raids on open gambling generated a lot of newspaper ink—and brought him political trouble.

Congressman Dawson

Congressman Dawson

The Mayor’s gambling raids were nearly all in the South Side fief of Congressman William L. Dawson. Dawson and his constituents were African American, and he thought the raids were racist.  Calls for party unity finally convinced Dawson to support Kennelly for re-election in 1951.

Kennelly won that 1951 election without much bother. Still, the party old guard had decided the mayor was a loose cannon, and had to be replaced the next time around.

City Clerk Richard J. Daley became Democrat county chairman in 1953. Two years later, when Kennelly appeared before the party slate-makers to ask for their endorsement, he was dumbfounded when they picked Daley instead.  Refusing to go quietly, he ran against Daley in the mayoral primary.

Kennelly mounted a vigorous campaign. But he was learning to say “hello” when it was time to say “good-bye.”  Daley won the primary, and then the general election.

Kennelly retired to his Sheridan Road apartment, and very little was heard from him after that. He died in 1961.  Years later, one scholar began an essay on Kennelly’s political career with a simple sentence that might serve as his epitaph—“He was a nice man.”


Al Capone’s Home

More than eighty years have passed since the feds sent Al Capone into involuntary retirement.  Many of the landmarks of his career are gone.  Yet his Chicago home still stands at 7244 South Prairie Avenue.

Capone was 24 years old when he bought the red brick two-flat for $5,500 in 1923.  He had risen to second-in-command of the Torrio mob, and was flush.  A place in a nice, quiet neighborhood was just what he wanted for his wife Mae and their young son.

He also wanted his relatives near him.  Capone brought his widowed mother Teresa to Chicago from Brooklyn, along with his two younger sisters.  There was also room for his brother Ralph, who was married with two children of his own.

Capone Home

The two-flat had fifteen rooms.  Al took the seven rooms on the first floor for his wife, son, mother, and sisters.  Ralph’s family occupied the eight rooms upstairs.  In later years, two other Capone brothers also lived in the second-floor flat.

When the Capones moved into the two-flat, the most noteworthy thing about the family was that they were Italians settling in a mostly-Irish area.  Al was not yet a celebrity.  He told neighbors he was a second-hand furniture dealer.

Al soon personalized his residence with some special touches.  For the master bath, he imported a seven-foot tub from Germany.  A steel door was installed on the basement, and steel bars were set in the ground-floor windows.   An oversize brick garage was built to accommodate Al’s big armor-plated autos.

While the Capones were getting settled on Prairie Avenue, Chicago mayor William E. Dever was cracking down on the illegal liquor trade.  The Torrio outfit moved its operations to suburban Cicero.  Al kept the two-flat.


Chicagoans first became acquainted with the Capone residence in 1924, when brother Frank was waked there after a police shoot-out.  As Al became more famous, his home was often in the news. Visiting reporters knew he was good copy, and they sometimes got a plate of home-cooked spaghetti during an interview.  By the time Dever was voted out in 1927, Capone had become the new mob boss.

Now Al established headquarters at the Lexington Hotel, just south of the Loop.  As his business expanded, he spent less time on Prairie Avenue.  In 1929 he moved to Florida.  He maintained his legal residence there, through all his legal set-backs, until his death in 1947.

Al’s mother and various siblings continued living in the two-flat.  Teresa Capone died in 1952, and the family sold the building.  Since then it has passed through several owners.

In 1989 the Capone home was nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  “He was a historical fact,” one historian said. “He lived here, and we need to come to terms with that.”  Opposition from Italian-American organizations and other concerned citizens killed the proposal.

More recently, the current owner has put the property up for sale.  Preservationists are concerned that a purchaser might tear down the historic two-flat.


Chicago Dibs

It happens every winter.

A major snowfall hits Chicago.  The next day, near the curbs on residential streets throughout the city, you’ll find various neatly-shoveled spaces among the drifts.  In the center of each space is a chair or a table or a crate or some other object.  They spring up after every blizzard, like mushrooms after a thunderstorm.

If you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll understand.  Someone has shoveled out that parking space, and is reserving it for future use.

For many years this local practice had no name—rolling out the old furniture to protect your parking space was just a natural reflex that didn’t have to be justified, or even named.  Then some wiseacre began referring to it as Dibs, using the term from our childhood games.  That’s what we call it today.

1967--Dibs at my childhood home in Portage Park

1967–Dibs at my childhood home in Portage Park

No one is sure when the custom originated.  It may be as old as the Model T.  My first memory of Dibs is from the Blizzard of 1967.

A record 23 inches of snow in 24 hours fell on Chicago on January 26-27, 1967.  Within a few days, the city was clobbered with 14 inches more.  The weather turned frigid, and the snow cover lasted through St. Patrick’s Day.

People who dug out their cars started marking their spaces.  Though this was technically illegal, the city didn’t bother to enforce the law.  Perhaps Mayor Richard J. Daley reasoned that the shovelers had earned the right to their space.  Or perhaps he simply didn’t want to rile voters before the mayoral election.

From that time on, the custom has endured.  Chicago Dibs has become a tradition.  Reports have filtered in that Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other cities have copied the practice.

1979--More Dibs on the same block

1979–Twelve years later, Dibs on the same block

However, though Chicago has made Dibs famous, we may not have started it.  People in Pittsburgh have been saving shoveled-out parking spots for decades—and if you’ve ever driven on the narrow streets on some of their hills, you’ll understand why.  Some reference sources even refer to a piece of furniture planted in a cleared space as a Pittsburgh Chair.

There are said to be photos showing Pittsburgh Dibs back in the 1950s.  Still, Stefan Lorant’s massive pictorial Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City doesn’t have anything about it.  Perhaps Dibs wasn’t yet a city-wide practice, but only a few isolated incidents.

In any event, Chicago Dibs may be on its way out. Vandals recently wrecked a couple of “trespassing” cars on the Northwest Side, prompting city crews to start clearing the streets of the tables and chairs and other props.

And once the crews have collected all that furniture, what are they going to do with it?  Can the owners retrieve a confiscated chair by paying a fine, like you do when your car is towed?  Or will the city have a giant flea market sale in the spring?

Chicago Dibs may prove to be an even greater source of revenue than speed cameras.



The Leaning Tower of Niles

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has been leaning in the Italian city since the 12th Century.  Closer to home, at 6300 West Touhy Avenue, Chicagoans can visit the Leaning Tower of Niles.

The story begins in 1934 with Robert Ilg, owner of an electric air-ventilating company, who was planning a park for his employees. A water tank was needed for the park’s swimming pool.  According to one story, Ilg decided to house the tank in a Leaning Tower replica as a tribute to Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance scientist who’d carried out experiments at the Italian original.

The Leaning Tower--Pisa version

The Leaning Tower–Pisa version

The Pisa tower leans because it was built on sandy ground—the tilt was a mistake that was never corrected.  Ilg hired a San Francisco engineering firm to construct his tower with a ready-made tilt.  To ensure that the angle would stay constant, they laid a concrete foundation.  The tower itself, made of steel and concrete, was a half-scale model of the marble original, 94 feet tall with a 7-degree tilt.

Robert Ilg died in 1964.  He left the tower and the surrounding land to the YMCA, with the stipulation that the tower had to be maintained for 95 years.  Shortly afterward, a new facility was built on the property called the Leaning Tower YMCA.

Meanwhile, Ilg’s monument was attracting a special sort of notoriety.  The site was just down Touhy Avenue from O’Hare Airport, and travelers on layover could hop in a cab to Niles, snap a few pictures at the tower, and be back at the terminal in less than an hour.  Tightened airport security ended these jaunts.

The Leaning Tower--Niles version

The Leaning Tower–Niles version

Of course, word had filtered back to Pisa that some crazy American had built his own Leaning Tower.  So when Niles officials began pursuing a Sister Cities agreement with Pisa during the 1950s, the Italian city was leery.  Why should a prosperous metropolis of 100,000 people join with a “grape-stomping village?”  After Pisan officials finally visited Niles in 1991, the Sister Cities pact was signed.

The Italian city was having structural problems with its 800-year old tower then.  About the same time its much-younger American replica was having its own problems. Public access to the interior had to be closed.

In 1995 the Village of Niles leased the tower from the YMCA.  The village spent $1.2 million on repairs and renovation. A 30-foot reflecting pool and four fountains were added, and the landmark appeared to be saved.

That was nearly two decades ago.  Last year a new study determined that the tower needed further repairs, with an estimated price tag of $600,000.  Pisa has spent nearly $30 million to restore its own tower in recent years, so we can be reasonably sure that funds will be available to preserve our local Leaning Tower.


Then and Now, Cermak-Kedzie

1908--22nd Street (Cermak Road) @ Kedzie, view east

1908–22nd Street (Cermak Road) @ Kedzie, view east

2015--the same location

2014–the same location

Here’s an example of historical detective work.  The older photo was labeled as “22nd Street at Rockwell” in the original source.  However, Atlas Studio is visible in the picture.  That business was located at what’s now 3144 West Cermak Road.  Sure enough, when I visited the site just east of Kedzie, I found a number of buildings that matched the 1908 photo.

Of course, there have been a few changes in a hundred-plus years.  In 1908 traffic was so light that the bicyclist didn’t demand a dedicated bike lane.  And though no horses are to be seen in the older photo, they have left behind some souvenirs.


Robinson Family Burial Ground

If you’re driving down East River Road, along another of the county’s forest preserves, make a stop at the pullout just north of Lawrence Avenue.  Follow the paved footpath a few hundred feet into the woods.  You’ve just found the Robinson Family Burial Ground.

Alexander Robinson

Alexander Robinson

Much like the history of early Chicago, the story of the family patriarch is liberally salted with legend.  Alexander Robinson was probably born near the straits of Mackinac in 1787, the son of a Scottish trader and a Chippewa woman. His tribal name was Chee-chee-pin-quay, which translates as “blinking eye”—he was said to have poor vision.

Some time after 1800 Robinson settled on the banks of the Chicago River and engaged in the fur trade. He is credited with helping rescue Captain Heald and other Americans after the destruction of Fort Dearborn in 1812. When the fort was rebuilt, Robinson found additional employment as an interpreter. For a while he also operated a tavern.

In 1829, through some convenient maneuvering, Robinson became one of the Potawatomi chiefs. He then helped negotiated the two treaties in which the native tribes ceded their local lands. In recognition of his services, the federal government granted him a 1280 acre reserve on the Des Plaines River, near today’s Schiller Park. He also received a lump-sum cash payment and an annual pension.

Though his colleague Billy Caldwell moved out of the area, Robinson decided to settle on his land.  He built a house near the banks of the Des Plaines and eventually raised a family of fourteen children.  One of the early city directories lists him as a “farmer.”

Path to the Robinson Family Gravesite

Path to the Robinson Family Gravesite

From time to time, history buffs and curiosity seekers trekked out to the homestead, and Alexander Robinson delighted in telling the familiar old stories. He died at his home on April 22, 1872, and was buried on the property.

Members of the Robinson family continued to live on the homestead after Alexander’s death. At various times portions of the reserve were sold off.  Questions arose whether the sales were legally executed.

At length the Robinson heirs became involved in a dispute with the Cook County Board, which wanted the land for a forest preserve. The result was a court decision conveying the land to the county, but guaranteeing Alexander Robinson’s descendants the right to continue their residence. The old homestead was destroyed in a 1955 fire, after which the last heirs vacated the property.

Memorial Boulder

Memorial Boulder

By then eleven members of the Robinson family had been laid to rest in the family plot.  Because of vandalism, the county later removed the headstones and placed them in storage.  Today the graves are unmarked, lying beyond a large memorial boulder.  The homestead site is deeper in the forest, closer to the river.

In 1991 legal proceedings were begun by persons claiming descent from Alexander Robinson’s first marriage. They believe they have a claim on part of the reserve.  As of this writing the matter is unresolved.



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