The Chicago DSA Office

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These are some photos of minor historical interest, mostly for those preoccupied with left history or with Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

My inspiration for posting them is this: Some days ago, I received an email notification of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual membership convention on June 8. If that sounds at all interesting, check out their web site; you need not be a member to sit in. While I’ve been a member since the organization was formed from a merger in 1982-1983, and a day-to-day activist from 1989 to 2017, I had only a transitory impulse to attend. There’s not much political about my decision; in fact, if you’re a Chicago lefty but not a marxist-leninist, I think you really ought to be there.

My decision is mostly personal. After almost 30 years, it’s time to spend my time on other things, even if I continue keeping an eye on politics as a spectator… mostly. But that transitory thought brought to mind a few photos I had taken of Chicago DSA’s old office at 1608 N. Milwaukee Avenue. These are from 2003 and 2004.

Chicago DSA’s very first office was in a building owned by In These Times at 1300 W. Belmont. It was a generous suite of offices that we shared with a regional DSA office run by the national organization. Along about 1985, it became clear that the money wasn’t there to maintain regional offices, never mind staffing them, so Chicago DSA had to look for smaller, cheaper space. We found the Northwest Tower Building. (Also see chicago.designslinger.) Our first office there may have been on the 5th floor or the 7th; I forget. We spent some time on both. By 1987, we were in a tiny space on the 12th floor. Sometime early in 1988, we moved to a somewhat larger space on the 4th floor, where we stayed until 2014. Around the turn of the century, we knocked down the wall to a tiny office next door to create a comfortable meeting area.

For most of the time we were in the Northwest Tower, the building was a commercial slum. I strongly suspect the owner for much of that period used the property as an ATM machine. The windows were the original 1929 installation, rarely cleaned and in precarious condition. On the other hand, they also opened from the top, making the office temperate for all but the very hottest days of the summer. When we expanded the office, we finally bought an air conditioner, mostly because of the intolerable roar of passing CTA trains and the dust and diesel exhaust from North Avenue.

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That’s not snow! On average, the windows were cleaned once every 4 or 5 years. Photo by Roman.

The building was also notable for being one of the three remaining buildings (at the time, that I know of) in Chicago with public elevators run by human operators. The operators were all real characters and I fondly remember them all, especially the two mainstays of the operation, two Polish immigrants: “Grandpa” and Victor. The building would have been a disaster without either of them.

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Looking westward at the original 4th floor office. It included the two windows visible. Photo by Roman.
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Another look at the original Room 403. Photo by Roman.
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Looking east at the meeting area and what was once Room 404. We did dust before meetings! Photo by Roman.
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Sticking my head out the window, this is a look westward on North Avenue. The CTA trains were incredibly loud but so was North Avenue.
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People watching was always entertaining. By 2004, Wicker Park was well on its way to being hip. Photo by Roman.

After another change in ownership and another bankruptcy, the building was sold to a developer who would gut the structure to convert it into a boutique hotel as it is today. Right before we moved, I wrote this for New Ground 151:

“After something like 28 years in the same building, Chicago DSA is moving. Chicago DSA staffer Mark Davidson found the Northwest Tower Building when it was a nearly empty shell in the process of being rehabbed. The neighborhood was neglected, sometimes dangerous, and gritty. The landlord was politically friendly. The rent was cheap. We moved in.

“It hasn’t been all 28 years in the same office. The first few years we moved just about every year, dodging the rising drywall. But we have been in 403 since 1988. Come the 21st century, we took over the office next door so we could have meetings in the office, and we added an air conditioner, mostly to cut down on the noise and dirt from outside.

“Built in 1929, the Northwest Tower (sometimes called the “Coyote Tower”) is a gently art deco 12 story (190′) masonry clad structure (architect: Perkins, Chatten, & Hammond). Its construction was financed by the long defunct Noel State Bank whose gorgeous headquarters still stands (as a Walgreens today) right across the street. The capital, it is said, came from the alternative pharmaceutical trade.

“Even after having been rehabbed, the Northwest Tower building was not in the greatest of shape. And the quarter century since has not been kind to the structure. The neighborhood, however, has become an expensive part of Chicago’s party district. Judging by the number of bars, bistros and restaurants, it’s not clear that anyone actually cooks at home in Wicker Park / Bucktown except to entertain and maybe not even then. Or that they go home sober on a weekend evening.

“The property has gone through two bankruptcies in the years we’ve been here. This last was rumored to be a saga of fiscal chicanery that involved ten different banks. But now that’s all settled. The building (and the “fireproof” warehouse next door) is to become a boutique hotel.”

I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the building: the elevators, the doors, the stairwells. But with a film camera, I was overly parsimonious with my shots.

Chicago DSA ended up at 3411 W. Diversey Avenue, right at the northern border of the Logan Square neighborhood. It is a smaller and less expensive space with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. But like the Northwest Tower Building, it’s also an art deco structure, dating from 1939.