Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

The Short, Unhappy Life of Algren Street

   In 1968 Chicago changed the name of South Park Way and South Park Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Renaming a street is expensive, both for the city and the people located on the street. The tragic circumstances of King’s murder overruled any concerns about cost. The change quickly went through.

   Such swift and smooth transition from one name to another has not always been the case. Chicagoans are protective of their street names.  

   In 1924 the city council changed Western Avenue to Woodrow Wilson Road. Street signs went up, and the Tribune conducted interviews at the corner of “Woodrow Wilson Road and Washington Boulevard,” asking passersby what they thought of the new name. Most responses were positive. But property owners complained, and within a month, the street was again Western Avenue.

   In 1927 the council again tried to change a street name. Robey Street had been named for land developer James Robey, most likely by Robey himself. In June an ordinance was passed changing the street to Damen Avenue, after West Side pastor Father Arnold Damen. Again the property owners protested. This time the council didn’t budge.  Robey Street was gone for good, and Damen Avenue remained.

   In 1933 Mayor Edward J. Kelly responded to pressure from the Polish voting bloc by having Crawford Avenue changed to Pulaski Road. The result was pressure from various groups who wanted the old name back. The Illinois Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Pulaski after nineteen years of litigation.

   All of these name changes involved major arterial streets. Renaming a little local street should not be controversial. At least, that’s what Tribune columnist Mike Royko thought when the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren died in 1981.   

   Algren had lived in a three-story walkup at 1958 West Evergreen Avenue for many years. He’d been one of Royko’s friends. “It would be a nice gesture for [the city] to rename one of the little streets around Wicker Park after him,” Royko now wrote. “Algren Court or Algren Place. Nothing big. He wouldn’t expect it.”

   That was in May. Early the next year, Royko received word that Mayor Jane Byrne had taken up his suggestion. Three blocks of Evergreen Avenue, between Milwaukee and Damen, would be renamed Algren Street. The mayor even sent Royko one of the new street signs.

   The trouble started when city crews began putting up those signs. Algren had never been popular with the city’s Polish community, who thought his writings slandered them. There were still a lot of Poles living in Wicker Park in 1982. They didn’t like the new street name.

   Neither did some of the people who lived on Evergreen. Handbills began circulating in the neighborhood. They warned of all the problems and expense the name change would cause. Residents would have to spend a small fortune revising their driver’s licenses and other official documents. Delivery men and visitors would get lost. Someone might even die if an ambulance couldn’t locate an address.

   Pressure was put on the aldermen to change the name back. In the meantime, activists began hanging cardboard signs reading “Evergreen” over the Algren Street signs.

   After a few weeks of this guerilla warfare, the city gave in. It turned out that the crews had put up the “Algren” signs before the city council had officially voted on the mayor’s proposal. The local alderman asked his colleagues to reject the name change, and they did. Evergreen stayed Evergreen.

   The whole business made an impression on the politicians. Shortly after the Algren Street debacle, Chicago began issuing honorary street names, those brown and white signs you see hung under the real street signs at hundreds of places around town. This way, some worthy person can be memorialized without arousing the voters’ wrath.

   I’d heard that the city had settled on making a few blocks of Evergreen an honorary Algren Street. But the last time I visited there, I didn’t see one brown sign. And in front of Algren’s old home, the Chicago Tribute marker was tilting badly to one side. It looked like it had been hit by a truck.

   Some people have long memories.

This is just one of 59 stories in my most recent book, UNKNOWN CHICAGO TALES. Available at local bookstores or on Amazon.