19 August 2011

Six Houses in Chicago

This piece is part of the second installment of City by City, an online project. Read the rest of the series so far.

My family moved a lot when I was growing up. We didn’t move around the world like a military family or around the country like a salesman’s family. (I didn’t even know what these two categories of family were, much less how we were or were not like them). Instead, we hopped around a small rectangle of our small neighborhood, Hyde Park. The borders of our world were 50th Street in the north and 58th Street to the south, Dorchester Avenue in the west, and, just five blocks away, the eastern limit of all of Chicago, Lake Shore Drive.

In 1983, the year I was born, we moved to 5000 East End, a gothic high-rise along Lake Michigan. My sister Lucy was 2. My father was a young real estate lawyer who practiced at a firm in the Loop fifteen minutes from Hyde Park on the northbound Metra Electric train. My mother had grown up in 5000 East End, and my grandparents still lived in the same ninth-floor apartment.

I loved the building basement’s endless blue-gray hallways of narrow-doored storage closets. Its hypnotizing laundry room was home to vending machines full of Coke so cold it didn’t even taste sweet. But I barely remember our apartment; the clearer images in my hazy early memories tell me that I was far more fixated on our neighboring buildings.

5000 East End was on the northern outskirts of Hyde Park, in a four-block sub-neighborhood called Indian Village, after the tribal names of the skyscrapers in the area: the Chippewa, the Narraganset, the Algonquin, and my favorite, the Powhatan. Among my earliest recollections is my excitement at crossing two windswept blocks to the Powhatan, whose front door was gilt-on-glass and doorbells were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The Powhatan had a doorman and an elevator man, and in the elevator there was a dignified little bench. And more than that—much more than that—the building had a pool, the ne plus ultra of childhood amusements.

A family in the Powhatan collected Joseph Cornell boxes, which my mother once took Lucy and me to see. Lining a dark dining room, the boxes held frightening arrangements of clock faces, newspaper cuttings, and birds, which I was afraid might start moving. Looking at the boxes was like listening to adults talk to each other, overhearing some words I couldn’t understand, but whose feeling I could begin to guess at.


Given how many times we moved, it’s clear that I wasn’t the only member of my family more interested in other people’s houses than my own. Like the model Hyde Parkers they were, my parents read the weekly real estate listings printed on the back of the Hyde Park Herald like a gossip sheet. They were restless, but cautiously so. As often as we moved, we never risked a loss—which is, I suppose, the essence of upward mobility. 

When I was in nursery school we moved to the Stein Building on Dorchester Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, a safer, greener part of the neighborhood hugging the main campus of the University of Chicago. We spent only a year in this fifteen-story stone tower set on a squat brick plinth. Our apartment overlooked the athletic field of the university’s Laboratory Schools where my sister and I (and decades earlier, my mother, my uncles, and my great-aunt) went to school.

From the third floor of the Stein Building, Lucy and I watched high schoolers playing soccer from the apartment’s broad, west-facing windows. We watched with our housekeeper Ruth as our parents drove off to a private vacation. We watched my mother drive home from the hospital to tell us that our Great-grandfather Sam had died.

Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, also died while we lived in this apartment. That day, I came home from my half day at nursery school to find Ruth crying on the couch. Later, over a dessert of pound cake, I asked my mother why the mayor had died.

“He had a heart attack,” she said.

How did people get heart attacks?

“He ate too much pound cake,” she said. Understanding that it was somehow lethal, I didn’t dare eat pound cake for years afterwards, deep into the two-decade mayoral administration of Richard M. Daley, which ended only this year.

Because Lucy was at school then for a full day, I got to spend a lot of time alone with my mother driving around the neighborhood, going to the grocery, the drive-through bank, the dry cleaners, and, for a treat, the 53rd Street McDonald’s, which was constantly getting held up. I don’t recall ever being out of the house without my mother. Once I ventured into the hallway to look at the elevators.

“Psst,” my mother said. “Where are you going?”

I had never heard the sound “psst” before and I asked her what it meant. “It means come back to me,” she said. I felt awful for thinking that she thought I was leaving, and I climbed into her lap.


From the start, we knew that the Stein apartment was only temporary. We were spending only a year there while we waited to close on our next place. The townhouse on 5522 S. Harper Avenue sat a quarter mile northeast from the Stein Building in a row of identical townhouses, on a block of the same. 

Our new block and the four blocks surrounding it had landed in the late ’60s like Dorothy’s house in Oz, flattening old tenements as part of what was then the nation’s most ambitious urban renewal project. At the time, after weighing a move out of the city entirely, the University of Chicago decided to stay put instead in its crummy neighborhood and get rid of everything it didn’t like. Chicago had no Jane Jacobs to stand in the institution’s way—and so scores of townhouses went up on Harper. Like its siblings, our house was three stories of khaki-colored brick, with a sunken first-floor lounge, two second-floor porches, one in front and one in back, and three businesslike, rectangular bedrooms upstairs. Each house had a little front yard and bigger backyard, and shared a common green on every other block. It was urban order by way of Levittown.

I can’t say if this massive, top-down urban project destroyed any sense of community: I was still young enough that my world was confined mostly to the walls of our house. It was on Harper that, when running circles around the living room, Lucy and I tipped over a bust of Abraham Lincoln, breaking off the nose. (The bust had been given to my rich Great-grandpa Sam as a token of admiration from a business associate, who spontaneously reached into his file cabinet, pulled out the sculpture of history’s greatest Illinoisan and thrust it at my great-grandfather. “Here,” he said. “I’ve got a ton of ‘em.”)

Still, Chicago was pushing itself into the corners of my vision. 5522 S. Harper was on the walking route of Throckmorton who, without being too old-fashioned about it, was the local madman. He walked by our front door every morning around sunrise, carrying a freshly bloodied handkerchief and a closed umbrella, held upright. Hyde Park was full of homeless people, panhandlers, and familiar drug addicts who would scream at you as you walked past them on the street. (My father blamed their presence on the University of Chicago students, who tolerated and supported them with handouts.) But Throckmorton was distinct. Before he had lost his mind, he had been a scientist at the university. Before you saw him you could hear him coming, singing his song: “Hey loser, loser, loser, sexy, sexy, sexy, looo-serrrrr, looser!” 

Driven either by principle, or the fact that he just hadn’t grown up in the neighborhood, my father did not take local eccentrics like Throckmorton in stride. He seemed opposed to the neighborhood’s customary policy of salutary neglect. So Dad didn’t laugh at Throckmorton, nor just quietly shake his head when his car window was smashed and his radio lifted, nor let teenagers’ drunken Halloween antics go un-yelled-at. He had grown up on the comfortable, suburban North Shore of Lake Michigan and he had different expectations. I used to think that his submitting to live in Hyde Park was his labor of love for my mother.

Dad was also unhappy with the house on Harper in its own right. He simply didn’t like the undecorated modernism of the place. Starting when we lived in the Pei house, he would take me and Lucy driving through the South Side’s un-renewed neighborhoods: we’d go west on Garfield Boulevard and north Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard into the blighted black areas between Hyde Park and the Loop. These broad streets were the scaffolding of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago—and, but for the public park that ran along the lakefront, all that was left. The boulevards were blocks-wide, Champs-Élysées-style thoroughfares, with browning, trash-strewn lawns separating the north- and south-bound lanes. Century-old mansions, either abandoned or carved up for apartments, lined the empty streets.

Dad loved the houses that lined these boulevards, and I think he loved the decay too. They were redbrick boats with slate turrets and Italianate flourishes in granite (also boarded-up doors and windows tagged with graffiti). They were the legacy of a city bursting with entrepreneurial genius and immigrant energy. Symbols of 19th-century Chicago, the center of the industrial world, they shamed the fumbling, post-industrial city Chicago had become. The ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were rough on Chicago: civil unrest was followed by white flight, and the city rotted from inside out, hemorrhaging money, population, and influence. 

My parents were very clear about why this had happened. First, when Mayor Daley’s father, Richie Sr., was mayor, he segregated the city by building expressways to separate poor neighborhoods from rich ones. He let places like King Drive go to pot. Second, Ronald Reagan was president and he only cared about money. Finally, there weren’t enough people like us, who were principled enough not to move to the suburbs even when things got rough. 

The heavy hand of the University of Chicago had somewhat stayed this decay in Hyde Park, although we certainly had our share of crime and disorder. By the time Dad was taking us on drives through the wasted neighborhoods, the roaring ’90s were about to shake the whole city out of its mid-century torpor.


In 1989, my parents bought a big, old redbrick townhouse of their own. Until we moved in, 5736 S. Blackstone Avenue had for decades been occupied by a woman with the unforgettable name of Mrs. Raven I. McDavid. During Mrs. McDavid’s tour of the house, Lucy and I fell down the curving basement steps, and upstairs we fell into hysterics over the wiggling of a spring doorstop, which we pretended was the flapping penis of a boy running to catch a school bus. The house had a back and front staircase, a laundry chute, odd dormers on the third floor, and a windy attic with nails sticking up from the floor (and a bawdy spring doorstop). Lucy and I approved without reservation.

The house at 5736 Blackstone was in the quietest, safest part of the neighborhood, on a tree-shaded block of other townhouses, only two blocks from my and Lucy’s school. It wasn’t on Throckmorton’s route, and was close enough to the University of Chicago campus to be patrolled by the university’s private police. The place was big, big enough that when our brother Felix was born after we moved in, Lucy and I were able to avoid his crying by decamping from our bedrooms on the second floor to two vacant ones on the third floor. 

Our new home was one of the last of its kind: an underpriced, decaying professor’s house. Property prices fell along with the white population of the South Side in the ’60s. Low-paid university faculty who stayed in Hyde Park, out of convenience or a political belief in integration, snapped up mansions and townhouses they could suddenly afford to buy, if not maintain. Now, thirty years later, it was time to start cashing in.

All of which is to say, the place needed work. In the first six years we lived there, my parents renovated the kitchen, the dining room, and then the living room; redid the second floor, which included removing a wall and installing rows of library shelves; redesigned the master bedroom; renovated all five bathrooms; made the prehistoric basement habitable; tore down and rebuilt the back porch; overhauled the back and front yards; and painted and wallpapered and tuck-pointed and did whatever else was needed. It seemed like there was always someone redoing something in the house: Norman Latearneau, the painter who smoked his cigar in the house; Ed Malm, the carpenter, who drove in from Indiana with his movie-star handsome son John; Jack Spicer the gardener, who seemed to have an instinctive understanding of what made Felix such an angry toddler.

And then, when the house burned, they did it all again, and all at once. 


By the time we had our fire, we had lived at 5736 for nearly seven years, longer than we had lived anywhere else. I was 12, Lucy 14, and Felix 6. My father ran upstairs in the middle of the night to shake Lucy and me awake; my mother and brother were already on their way out of the house. I sat next to my brother and sister in the car and wailed as I watched flames curling out of my bedroom windows onto the roof.

The fire started in our neighbors’ house as an accident of their own fevered renovation, but our house sustained just as much damage, and had to be gutted and the inside rebuilt. This process took about six months, during which we rented an apartment in an old building by the lake called Jackson Towers that was—ridiculous, I think, is the right word for it.

We had a piss-elegant two-story unit with a spiral staircase up to the bedrooms, where, unlike in our thoughtfully decorated house on Blackstone, crummy rental furniture was thrown any old place. The apartment had a plugged-up fireplace with fake logs illuminated by Sterno cans. And the building itself was in a no-man’s land, a part of the neighborhood you couldn’t safely walk to at night.

But Jackson Tower did have one thing going for it: its views were unparalleled. From the living room you could see the lakeshore stretching south to Indiana, and, just below, the copper corkscrews topping the domes of the neoclassical Museum of Science and Industry, a well-kept relic of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. From the west windows, you could see the whole South Side, broad and flat and infinite. Lucy, Felix, and I had spent so much of our lives in dark townhouses that the brightness of the place seemed like a real liability. The apartment’s owners had the place on the market while we were living there, and Lucy used to walk around the apartment, squinting and saying, “This place gets so much natural light—how are they ever going to sell it?”

After six months we got to go back home. It took six more months to finally complete all the renovations, but the house came out better than it was before the fire. No scars either, except for one: in late March, the melting ice on the roof stirs some old ghosts, and for a few days the closets on the third floor start to smell like smoke.


Around the time we moved back into 5736 Blackstone, the city had begun to do some of its own renovating. Through the ’90s, Mayor Daley imploded the failed public housing high-rises along Lake Shore Drive. He set up planters full of native prairie grasses in every neighborhood, including the poor ones. Having fallen in love with the semi-robotic street cleaning machines he saw on a visit to Paris, he bought a fleet of them for Chicago. To capstone his career, the mayor built a giant park over the ancient train yards between the Loop and the lake (it came in $375 million over budget and four years late, making its already ridiculous name of Millennium Park additionally comical). By the end of the decade, Chicago’s reputation for being beautiful started to rival its reputation for being corrupt, dirty, dangerous, and segregated. Rest assured, the city is beset by problems—endemic violence, crime, inequality, and the ever-present scourge of political corruption. But it’s a better place than it was when I was born.

We stopped moving and I grew older in the same house; my parents still live on 5736 Blackstone. I got a driver’s license, and drove up and down Lake Shore Drive, up and down the Kennedy Expressway. But my mobility only showed how alien my city was, full of neighborhoods that kept their secrets. There was no room for me in Pilsen’s Polish-Mexican mix. I never felt at ease among the cool art students in Ukrainian Village. The vast west side was a hot-asphalt mystery to me. And even in my first, tentative explorations of Boystown, it seemed to me I had little in common with the guys leaning against the walls of the clubs. They were farm boys, thrilled to be in a lively, crowded place called Chicago. 

Maybe it’s just that old chestnut about Chicago being a city of neighborhoods, maybe it’s because my parents saw in Hyde Park a whole city’s worth of opportunities, but I never felt more like a Chicagoan than I did like a Hyde Parker. Driving around the city was fine, but I liked coming back to Hyde Park. You knew you were back in the neighborhood officially when you drove over the satisfying bump on 47th Street Bridge. My Chicago is as narrow and as deep as a well. 

At my family’s final home, the townhouse on Blackstone, my bedroom window had a view of the street, but you couldn’t really see anything but the cars parked below. I preferred lying on my sister’s bed after she left for college, and looking out her window. Lucy’s room was in the back of the house. Framed by the branches of the tall trees in the backyard, you could see the steeples of churches and the tops of tall apartment buildings. Below that were our neighbor’s backyards. And sometimes the tenants in the building next door would start moving from room to room, as purposeful and mysterious as the birds in a Cornell Box.

Image: Windermere House, June 2004.

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