The Chicago DSA Office

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.

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Before & After

The Heartland Café building came down around the end of April, 2019. All that remains is rubble and palleted bricks for recycling.

At present, there is talk of constructing a 60 unit apartment building. I don’t recall if these would be condos or rentals, but it would require a zoning change. Parking might be an issue also except that it is immediate to the Morse Avenue Red Line station.

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Heartland Cafe: May 6, 2019. Photo by Roman.
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Restaurant room at the Heartland Cafe, mid-December, 2018. This room was originally the general store. Photo by Roman.
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This was the Heartland Cafe’s grocery, mid-December, 2018. Originally this was the restaurant and “Buffalo Bar”. Photo by Roman.
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A final look at the rubble remaining from the Heartland Cafe. Photo by Roman.

May Day in the Haymarket 2019

May 1st — May Day — is Labor’s holiday around most of the world, a notable exception being the United States, even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Affair (aka Haymarket massacre, aka Haymarket Square riot) here in Chicago that happened on May 4, 1886, as part of a nationwide strike demanding an 8 hour work day. As a result of the police riot, 8 activists were tried in a show trial. 7 were sentenced to death. Of the 7, 2 had their sentence commuted, 1 committed suicide (probably), and 4 were hung.

Why we celebrate the labor movement in September instead of May is another story, though you wouldn’t be far off simply assuming that it is an ideological statement. After all, May 1 is officially Law Day in the United States.

Even so, union activists and lefties have insisted on observing May 1 with rallies, demonstrations and educational programs. In Chicago, the Illinois Labor History Society served as the point organization for most years since the 1970s. Some years have been bigger than others.

While there is monument to the Haymarket martyrs in the Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park (administered by the Illinois Labor History Society), in recent years most of the Illinois Labor History Society commemorations have been taking place at what was the old Haymarket. Chicago has erected its own monument to the event. Strictly speaking, its subject is freedom of speech and assembly, so it covers “Law Day” as well.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This year’s event was not the smallest I’ve been to but it was nowhere near the largest — try a half million people in the streets. My guess is the crowd at its largest was around 200. If you were much further than two dozen feet or so, the speakers were nearly impossible to hear. Consequently, I can’t tell you much about the program.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This wasn’t the only May Day related event in Chicago. There was a labor march of some sort in Hyde Park. There was also a celebration of Mother Jones’ birthday. But I’m sure there were other events as well.

 

 

I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been…

a memory for May Day

… a Trotskyist, Surrealist Poet.

And what, pray tell, would ever cause someone – anyone! – to identify me as such an odd chimera? I’m frequently mistaken for someone else but the answer to this misidentification is found back in the mists of… well, back in the roiling fumes of grass in the past.

Way back in the early 1970s, I had ambitions, or at least aspirations, to be a poet. How and why and when I jettisoned that goal is another story, but part of the project of becoming a poet involved attending poetry readings. The really big Chicago event at that time was a weekly reading organized by Richard Friedman’s Yellow Press at a local theatre on Chicago’s north side.

For all that the Yellow Press readings were really the place to be for poets and readers thereof, the audiences were usually no more than a few dozen. And for me, the readings were almost always excruciatingly boring, no matter the quality of the verse. There was one memorable exception.

Friedman had scored a big fish. Robert Bly was to read. Given the vagaries of the Chicago Transit Authority, I arrived early that day and found the event in a larger than usual venue. It was already well populated by representatives of probably every English Department in the city. With my long hair and ragged Army field jacket, I didn’t exactly fit in, but neither was I unique. Most of the empty seating was in front. I took a seat in the first row.

Show time! Robert Bly came down the aisle to the stage. But then he stopped and sat next to me. Looking very intense and pointing to a utility table on stage, he hissed, “I’m going to sit on that table and read from there.”

I was thoroughly confused but managed a shrug and said something like: “Cool.”

Bly hadn’t gotten far into his first poem when suddenly a handful of long haired characters – a few in pristine Army field jackets – rushed the stage, scattering leaflets and shouting: “Bourgeois Pig!”, “Assassin!”, “M_____ F_____!” and other assorted obscenities. One threw a pie in Bly’s face. They didn’t pause but skedaddled out the exit with Friedman and a few friends in close pursuit. They may have gotten away.

As Bly wiped the pie from his face, he explained that he had published a book of his own translations of work by the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. When Bly announced his reading tour, a local collective of Trotskyist Surrealist poets threatened to “get him” if Bly dared to read in Chicago. Their beef was not only that Neruda was a Stalinist Communist (I can recall at least one embarrassing poetic homage to Stalin by Neruda.) but in 1940 while serving as a member of Chile’s diplomatic staff in Mexico, Neruda helped a suspect in an assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky get out of jail and out of Mexico. As Wikipedia put it:

“In 1940, after the failure of an assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky, Neruda arranged a Chilean visa for the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was accused of having been one of the conspirators in the assassination. Neruda later said that he did it at the request of the Mexican President, Manuel Ávila Camacho. This enabled Siqueiros, then jailed, to leave Mexico for Chile, where he stayed in Neruda’s private residence. In exchange for Neruda’s assistance, Siqueiros spent over a year painting a mural in a school in Chillán. Neruda’s relationship with Siqueiros attracted criticism, but Neruda dismissed the allegation that his intent had been to help an assassin as “sensationalist politico-literary harassment”.”

I don’t remember any more of Bly’s reading that evening. I do remember Friedman glaring at me as I left and again every week after.

Really, Richard, I was not then nor have I ever been…

But damn! That was the best poetry reading I ever attended.

The Bridge to Goose Island

These two photos were taken in 2003 and scanned in 2017. Several years after 2003, Chicago replaced the North Avenue bridge over the Chicago River and as part of the project also replaced the deck of this rail bridge to Goose Island so that it could be used by both trains and pedestrians. People had been using it as a short cut anyway. There was even a year in the 1990s when a homeless fellow built a shack on the span. It eventually burned, as I recall. Lately, I do believe these tracks have been abandoned. The last customer on Goose Island, a lumber yard, closed and the other remaining customer (scrap metal) moved. For a while, some of the trackage was used to store idle freight cars, but I believe the line is now inactive.

This was the last of what had been once a fairly dense network of railroads that complimented the Chicago River as a means of transporting freight. A number of railroad companies actually operated car-float services on the river, delivering railroad cars to isolated customers along the river by barge. These days the river is residential, mostly.

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Looking south from North Avenue toward Goose Island in 2003. The one regular customer even then was a lumber yard just south of Division. Photo by Roman.
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Looking south at the bridge to Goose Island and the Chicago skyline. The bridge in the picture was an active railroad bridge in 2004 but there are no longer any customers on Goose Island in 2018. Photo by Roman.

The last operator of the tracks around Goose Island was a switching railroad called Chicago Terminal. Aside from being a picturesque item for railroad geeks (street running and gritty industrial landscapes), the operation could be an excellent case study for how to extract every penny from a doomed operation.

During the final days of government micromanagement under the Interstate Commerce Commission,* it wasn’t unusual for railroads to be looted by management and shareholders, regardless of whether the operation was losing money or showing a meager profit. Generally the money was diverted from maintenance to be invested in new, unrelated businesses (as happened with the Chicago & North Western and the Illinois Central) or into dividends (as with the Rock Island). That is not what happened with the Chicago Terminal. Rather, the company inherited property easements on branch trackage that had no customers nor any apparent prospect for customers in the future. If you don’t use the easements, you stand to lose them, one way or another. What to do? Run trains on the track (including one truly epic “inspection” trip with a single passenger car). Park surplus freight cars on the sidings.

For the property speculators and entertainment venue business owners and retail businesses and home owners, this was a serious irritation, something you would likely complain about to the Alderman, and in Chicago, an Alderman is a serious player in negotiating land usage in the ward. If there had been any prospect of new rail customers on those branches, it would have been really foolish to step on these toes. On the other hand, as a “pay me to go away” maneuver, it was really rather clever.

For fellow geeks and foamers out there, this 15 minute 2017 video by “boxcarFrank” of the Chicago Terminal retrieving a dozen or so stored freight cars is an excellent last look at the railroad in operation. I’m not sure, but this video may document one of the last moves on that trackage, though the Chicago Terminal did have another switching operation in suburban Elk Grove Village.

 

* I phrase it this way deliberately. Usually, the abolition of the Interstate Commerce Commission is referred to as “deregulation.” This has ideological overtones and in any case is untrue. In point of fact, railroads are still regulated, but the Surface Transportation Board that replaced the Commission has far less authority over how the railroads are run.