Posts Tagged 'South Side'

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.



Then and Now, Stony Island-63rd

194-1974-Stony Island @ 63rd

1974–Stony Island Avenue @ 63rd Street, view north

2018–the same location

In 1974 the Jackson Park ‘L’ terminal at 63rd-Stony Island was in its eighty-first year of service.  By that time the neighborhood was in decline, and many of the buildings that had gone up around the terminal had been town down.  Meanwhile, CTA had announced plans to replace the old station with an elaborate park-and-ride facility.

Today the ‘L’ line ends a mile west of here at Cottage Grove.  The South Side YMCA now occupies the site proposed for the park-and-ride garage, and the Obama Presidential Library is the area’s latest redevelopment project.


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.


The End of Big Jim Colosimo (5-11-1920)

This was one historic day in the annals of Chicago gangland.  This was the day Big Jim Colosimo was killed.

Big Jim

Colosimo was a native of Calabria, in southern Italy.  He’d come to Chicago as a teenager in 1895, and at first was just another two-bit hustler hanging out on the 22nd Street Levee.  Then he grabbed for the gold.  He married one of the city’s leading madams.

Colosimo had a good head for business.  He expanded his wife’s operation until the couple was running dozens of brothels and gambling halls.  By 1910 he had also become a political power in the First Ward.

That year Big Jim opened a cafe at 2126 South Wabash Avenue.  Italian cuisine was considered exotic by mainstream American then—think Ethiopian food today—and Colosimo’s became a chic dining spot for the “best people.”  Visiting celebrities and knowledgeable tourists flocked to the place.

In the spring of 1920 Big Jim divorced his first wife and married a young singer.  A few weeks later, on May 11, he went to his cafe to wait for a delivery.  At about 5 in the afternoon one of the employees heard a shot.  The man followed the sound and found Colosimo lying dead.

Souvenir postcard from Colosimo’s

The police had two suspects, the dumped wife and the trophy wife.  Both women were cleared and dropped out of sight.  The killing was officially credited to that old standby, “person or persons unknown.”  Only later did the whole story emerge.

Johnny Torrio

Johnny Torrio was Colosimo’s chief lieutenant.  Prohibition was on the way, and Torrio knew there was a fortune to be made supplying liquor to thirsty citizens.  Big Jim balked at the idea.  He’d gained a certain measure of respectability, and didn’t want to rock the boat.

So Torrio decided that Big Jim had to go.  The identity of The Man Who Shot Big Jim Colosimo is still in dispute.  But many scholars say the deed was done by Torrio’s young friend from Brooklyn, Al Capone.

Torrio proved to be a visionary.  With Colosimo out of the way, bootlegging became big business.  And with the profits from that business, the mob entrepreneurs flourished and grew.

Colosimo’s Café endured some hard times after Big Jim’s death.  For awhile the business was shuttered.  A new owner took over in 1948, but couldn’t make a go of it.

Still, Chicagoans counted the café at 2126 South Wabash Avenue as one of the city’s historic sites.  When the building’s planned demolition was announced in 1958, the property was overrun by hundreds of souvenir hunters.


Then and Now, Dearborn-Cermak

1911–Dearborn Street @ 22nd Street (Cermak Road), view north

2018–the same location

In 1911 this neighborhood two miles south of downtown was the Levee, Chicago’s red light district.  The building on the far right of the older picture is the Everleigh Club, the most famous (and expensive) of the city’s bordellos.  Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. had just shut down the club when this photo was taken.

Dearborn Street was vacated in the late 1950s to make way for the CHA’s Raymond Hilliard Homes.  The buildings were designed by Bertrand Goldberg, the architect of Marina City.  Today some on the units in the complex have been converted to market-price rental apartments.  There is no historic plaque for the Everleigh Club.


Lost on the Dan Ryan

Signs on expressways are supposed to help you find streets.  Driving north on the Dan Ryan, you encounter a series of overhead signs directing you to the express lanes.  The signs also warn that if you enter the express lanes, the next exit is 22nd Street.

Chicago doesn’t have a 22nd Street.

Dan Ryan @ 59th Street

There was a 22nd Street in the city until 1933.  Then Mayor Anton Cermak was killed, and the name was changed to Cermak Road.  In some of the western suburbs, it’s still called 22nd Street.  But those towns are at least ten miles away from the Ryan.

True, most of the streets crossing the Ryan have numbers instead of names, so why not have the signs be consistent?  But Roosevelt Road doesn’t have signs announcing “12th Street.”  Pershing Road is not called “39th Street.”  Maybe there’s some anti-Bohemian prejudice at work here.

Dan Ryan @ 47th Street

But keep heading north on the Ryan to Exit 53A.  There the sign reads “Canalport Avenue-Cermak Road.”

They finally list Cermak Road, and they’ve still made a mistake!  It would make more sense for this sign to announce “18th Street.”  That’s the major cross-street a block from the ramp.  When you get to this exit, you’ve already overshot Cermak, and have to backtrack three blocks.

Dan Ryan Exit 53A

So what’s the reason for all these misleading signs?  It’s probably very simple:  somebody made a mistake when the Ryan opened in 1962, and the city has never fixed it.

Those expressway signs are pretty big, but they can be changed.  Until 1968, the next-to-last exit on the Stevenson was labeled “South Park Way.”  When the street was renamed for Dr. King, the old exit signs were quickly replaced.

The Ryan was rebuilt some years ago, and all the overhead signs were temporarily removed.  That would have been the time to correct the mistake.  I still can’t figure out why it wasn’t done then.

Nobody knows how many drivers have gotten lost following these bogus signs.  After 56 years, isn’t it time to make things right?


Then and Now, Commercial-92nd

1922--Commercial Avenue @ 92nd Street, view north

1922–Commercial Avenue @ 92nd Street, view north

2017--the same location

2017–the same location

Here we are in the heart of the South Chicago.  By 1922 the blocks around Commercial-92nd had become a major commercial district.  Because of the slow travel in pre-expressway days, residents of the surrounding communities rarely ventured to the Loop, and looked upon this intersection as their own “downtown.”

The closing of U.S. Steel’s South Works in 1992 hit the area hard.  However, massive new construction is planned for that property, and local boosters hope for a rebound.