Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

Joe Louis’s Home

Joe Louis was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit. He spent his later life in Las Vegas.  But during the twelve years he reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he lived in Chicago.

Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914, he dropped his last name when he began amateur boxing as a Detroit teenager, so his mother wouldn’t find out what he was doing. As Joe Louis the kid fighter attracted the attention of John Roxborough.  Roxborough, one of the city’s gambling kingpins, became Louis’s manager.

In 1934 Louis turned pro. Roxborough began grooming him for a shot at the heavyweight championship, and that meant a move Chicago, where Louis could train under Jack Blackburn. Local promoter Julian Black joined Roxborough as a partner.  He found Louis an apartment on 46th Street off South Park Way (King Drive).

Joe and Marva

Louis quickly rose through the ranks with a string of knockouts. During one of his gym sessions he noticed Marva Trotter, a secretary at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. They started dating.  On the morning of September 24, 1935 Joe and Marva were married in New York.  Joe then went off to Yankee Stadium, knocked out ex-champ Max Baer in four rounds, and went back to his hotel and Marva.

The new couple settled in at the Rosenwald Apartments at 4648 South Michigan Avenue. The 454-unit complex had been built by white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide decent housing for the city’s African Americans.  Louis later said that the Rosenwald “was the most fabulous building black people could live in at the time.”  Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat “King” Cole, and other prominent Chicagoans were also residents.

Louis continued winning in the ring until Max Schmeling stopped him in June 1936. Louis then rebounded with a new string of victories.  On June 22, 1937, he knocked out James J. Braddock at Comiskey Park to become the new heavyweight champion.

Marva was not at the fight. According to the Tribune, she listened to the action on the radio in their apartment at 4320 South Michigan Avenue.  After the fight, Louis had trouble driving back the few blocks home through the crowds.  “I thought all of Chicago was standing outside my house,” he wrote in his autobiography.  “Marva and I had to come out, I don’t know how many times, and wave at the people.”

Joe Louis’s Chicago Home

Exactly when the Louises relocated from the Rosenwald is unclear. According to the 1940 Census, Joe had purchased the three-story apartment building for $7500—about $140,000 in today’s money.  Their personal flat had five rooms.  At that time the tenants in the other five units paid rents ranging from $40- to $65-a-month.

One year to the day after he’d won the heavyweight title, Louis took care of his old nemesis, Max Schmeling, in just over two minutes. In the course of twelve years Louis would successfully defend his title 25 times, more than any other boxing champion.  Some critics scoffed at his challengers as the Bum-of-the-Month Club.  More likely, Louis was just too good for anyone.

Louis served in the army during World War II, mostly fighting exhibitions. When he came out of the service, his skills had noticeably deteriorated.  He won a few fights, but the magic was gone.  In October 1949 he announced his retirement from the ring.

Meanwhile, Louis’s marriage had also deteriorated.  Joe liked the ladies, and the ladies liked Joe.  Joe and Marva divorced in 1945, remarried in 1946, then divorced a final time in 1949.  Marva kept the two children and the apartment building on Michigan Avenue.

The rest of Louis’s life was not happy. He had trusted too many people with his money, and the Internal Revenue Service came after him for back taxes, which he couldn’t pay.  A boxing comeback was an embarrassment.  He had health problems and battled substance abuse.  His final years were spent as a greeter in a casino.

Joe Louis died in 1981. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A few years after his death, his favorite local golf course—Pipe O’ Peace in Riverdale—was renamed Joe Louis the Champ Golf Course.  The apartment building he owned on Michigan Avenue during his glory years remains a private residence.

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Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.

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Hef’s Galewood Homestead

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 last year 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.

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Carl Sandburg in Chicago

Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders . . .

There was a time when every child in a Chicago school learned those words.  They are the opening lines of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.”  This house, at 4646 North Hermitage Avenue,  is where he wrote them.

Sandburg was born in Galesburg in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrants.  As a young man, he drifted through a series of jobs—milkman, bricklayer, fireman, soldier, hobo, political organizer for the Social Democratic Party. Then he got married.

Time for stability.  Sandburg moved to Chicago and became a reporter.  He landed a job with the Daily News.  He’d been writing poetry for years, with little success.  That began to change.

His collection Chicago Poems appeared in 1916.  Another anthology followed, then a series of children’s books.  Sandburg was gaining a reputation.  His publisher suggested he write a Lincoln biography for young people.

Sandburg did the research, and more research.  In 1926 he emerged with Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.  The children’s book had morphed into an adult book in two volumes.

The Lincoln book was a best-seller and ended Sandburg’s financial worries.  It also made him a literary lion.  For the rest of his long life, he was as famous for being Carl Sandburg as for anything he wrote.

Sandburg-Monroe (1962)

Sandburg with Marilyn Monroe (1962)

He moved to Michigan in 1930, and eventually settled in the hill country of North Carolina.  The Lincoln biography grew to a total of six volumes, with the publication of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.  He won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for the Lincoln books.  In 1959 he even won a Grammy for his narration of Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
The house on Hermitage was built in 1880 by attorney Samuel B. Gookins.  Sandburg rented the second floor apartment from 1911 through 1914.  He later lived in Maywood and Elmhurst.  The Carl Sandburg Home is an official Chicago Landmark.  It is privately owned.

Though he lived elsewhere after 1930, Sandburg remained one of Chicago’s favorite sons.  In 1960 the city embarked on an urban renewal project in the Clark-Division area.  The idea was to stabilize the west end of the Gold Coast with a series of high-rise apartments.  They called the new buildings Sandburg Village.

Sandburg himself kept Chicago in his heart.  He often returned to the city that made him famous.  He appeared regularly on Irv Kupcinet’s TV round-table.  When Orland Park named a high school in his honor, Sandburg came to the dedication and had a grand time, telling stories and singing ballads.

He had been a workingman.  He always cultivated the image of the people’s poet, with rumpled clothing and unkempt hair.  A few years after the dedication, he decided to revisit “his” high school.  By then a different principal was in charge.  The new man thought Sandburg was a panhandler and threw him out.

Carl Sandburg died in 1967.  Some years earlier he had summed up his philosophy this way: “What I need mainly is three things in life, possibly four—to be out of jail, to eat regular, to get what I write printed, and then a little love at home and a little outside.”

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Chicago’s Oldest Public Monument

Chicago has hundreds of statues, monuments, and historical markers. But unless you do a little exploring, you’re likely to miss the oldest one.

In 1833, as Chicago and the Midwest were starting to grow, Congress ordered a new survey of the boundary between Illinois and Indiana. When the survey was completed, a 15-foot high limestone obelisk was put in place on the shore of Lake Michigan, straddling the state line.

Illinois-Indiana Boundary Marker

Illinois-Indiana Boundary Marker

Civilization gradually engulfed the boundary marker. The shoreline was extended north by landfill. Multiple railroad lines came through. Commonwealth Edison built a huge generating plant. The South Park Commissioners laid out Calumet Park.

By the 1980s the marker was isolated and neglected among the rail yards. Allen J. Benson, a ComEd executive, convinced the company to sponsor its restoration, in conjunction with the East Side Historical Society and other interested groups. In 1988 the marker was moved 190 feet north to its present location, just outside the plant gate. A new base was added at that time.

Before the work was finished, Benson died. A plaque next to the boundary marker was dedicated to his memory.

Chicago’s oldest monument—and Hammond’s too, for that matter—is difficult to find. It’s located at what would be the intersection of State Line Road and 103rd Street.

In Memory of Allen J. Benson (1928-1987)

In Memory of Allen J. Benson (1928-1987)

The best way to get there is to approach from the north, via 95th Street. Go east on 95th past Ewing, then turn right onto Crilly Drive. Continue south on Crilly, along the western edge of Calumet Park, to the junction with Avenue G. Turn right on Avenue G, keep going south past the park’s Field House, until you arrive at 100th Street.

Now you will see some grade-level railroad tracks on your right. Ahead of you, parallel to the tracks, a small access road continues south-southeast. Follow this road to its end, at the old ComEd plant and the boundary marker.

The access road you just took doesn’t have an official name. This has led to some confusion. Since the road continues the route of Avenue G, most reference sources will tell you that the boundary marker is located on Avenue G, at 103rd Street-extended.

Trouble is, a few blocks away, there is a real intersection of Avenue G and 103rd Street.

So let’s end the confusion. Name the access road along tracks “Allen J. Benson Drive.” How expensive are a couple of street signs?

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The Rise and Fall of Jesse Binga

Today the street where Jesse Binga lived is named for Dr. Martin Luther King.  That’s appropriate.  When the street was called South Park Avenue and Binga occupied house at #5922, the building became a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Jesse Binga was a go-getter.  Born in Detroit in 1865, he started out to be a barber like his father.  He moved through a number of jobs before settling in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.  A few years later he entered the real estate business.

Chicago’s African-American population was small at the turn of the 20th Century, but that was about to change.  Here Binga saw his opportunity.

During the first decades of the new century, Southern blacks began moving north.  Chicago’s neighborhoods were segregated, like most northern cities.  The newcomers settled in a narrow section of the South Side.  But as more people arrived, they began to burst the boundaries of the “Black Belt.”

Jesse Binga became the main agent of racial succession.  He bought property from whites who wanted to move out, fixed it up, then resold to blacks who needed a place to live.  He helped his community—and he got rich.

From real estate he moved into banking.  He took over a failed bank at 36th and State, and reopened it as the Binga Bank, the city’s first black-owned financial institution.  In 1910 he ran for the County Board as a Republican, but lost.  After that he steered clear of politics.

Binga moved into 5922 S. South Park Avenue in 1917.  The Washington Park neighborhood was then all-white.  He received death threats and the house was repeatedly bombed.  He had to hire 24-hour security guards. Binga defiantly refused to move, saying he was an American citizen and could live where he pleased.  Years passed before the violence stopped.

The Binga business empire reached its peak during the 1920s.  He rechartered his bank as the Binga State Bank and erected a new building at the northwest corner of 35th and State.  Next to it he constructed a five-story office building called the Binga Arcade.  He announced plans to open another, federally-chartered bank.

Then the Stock Market crashed.  The Depression followed, the Binga State Bank failed, and thousands of African-American depositors were wiped out.

Jesse Binga was wiped out, too.  He later served a prison sentence for embezzlement, though many people thought the charges were trumped up.  He spent his last years working as a janitor at St. Anselm Church, for $15 a week.

Jesse Binga died in 1950.  His home is a registered Chicago Landmark, and is privately owned.

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Tastee Freez/Cal’s Creemy Whip/Toot’s Drive-In

The Drive-In Formerly Known As Cal's (1975)

The Drive-In Formerly Known as Cal’s Creemy Whip (1975)

During the 1950s Chicago had a bunch of ice cream drive-ins called Tastee Freez.  Our local branch was located on the southwest corner of Montrose and Central.

Everyone had a personal Tastee Freez treat.  Mine was the dip-top, vanilla ice cream covered with frozen chocolate syrup, served in a square cone.  However, I usually bought a sundae because of the premium attached to the dish—little plastic statues of presidents or baseball players or Jesus and his twelve apostles.

Around 1965 the shop became known as Cal’s Creemy Whip.  Cal’s last name was Hilton, and he claimed to be related to James Hilton, the famous author of Lost Horizon and other novels.  I don’t know whether Cal was telling the truth.  I also don’t know whether he misspelled “creamy” on purpose.

Cal eventually sold out.  The place was spiffed up and became Toot’s Drive-in.  By that time I’d moved out of Portage Park, so I stopped by only occasionally.  Toot’s closed a few years ago, and the old building was finally leveled.  There’s a more “modern” restaurant on the site now.

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