Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Old Town: A Rant

The first several years that I lived in Chicago, I had an apartment in the "Near North," roughly at Division and Wells, a couple of blocks from Cabrini-Green, a low income, high crime housing project, and a couple of blocks from the foot of "Old Town," a once popular area that had gone downhill and was on its way back up.

I haven't much to say about Cabrini-Green. I lived in that apartment for four years and never had any kind of problem.

But Old Town . . . .

It was a little smaller than I might have expected, given Chicago's size. Others I've been to were larger - Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia, for example, but like the others it was interesting.

In Chicago's Old Town, there was:
  • A Mexican restaurant that was *hopeless* - the refried beans were Campbells mashed, I suspect, and there was one middle aged mariachi who was so pot-bellied that he simply rested his guitar on his stomach.

  • Second City, a comedy club where many subsequently famous comedians appeared early in their careers. I saw John Candy there before he made it big.

  • O'Brien's, an excellent fine dining restaurant that looked from the outside like a place you'd go to order meatloaf.

  • A Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum.

  • An expensive men's clothing store, Davis, I believe.

  • That Steak Joynt, another expensive but very good restaurant.

  • Treasure Island, a supermarket used as the site of employment of the bag boy in the Paul Galloway/Bob Greene fictional series, Bagtime, in the Chicago Tribune. This was almost directly across the street from That Steak Joynt, and if memory serves, the bag boy lived over the restaurant.

  • The Earl of Old Town, a small bar featuring live folk music, where entertainers such as Don Gibson, Bonnie Raitt, and others played and sang, often for nothing, just to keep folk music alive in Chicago during one of its bleaker periods.

  • The Bizarre Bazaar, the biggest head shop I have ever seen, about the size of a small Woolworth's deparment store, for those of you old enough to remember those.

  • A smaller head shop, name gone from my memory now.

  • Other restaurants and coffee shops, ranging from less expensive than those above to dirt cheap. There was one on the northwest corner of Wells and North Avenue that seemed to change hands and name every two or theree years.

  • A store that sold old juke boxes, and perhaps other things.

  • Other places, not coming to mind, but for the most part mom-and-pop owned places.
It's been a few years since I was in that area, so this could be a little out of date, but I suspect not.

Old Town is no longer Old Town. The same thing has happened to it that has happened to others (it was happening in Alexandria when I left that area in 1998). It was on its way up and kept going until it was too far up. These areas become popular and begin making more money, and property values go up. Mom and Pop can no longer afford the taxes, and bigger money moves in. Pretty soon when you go there you find that you're in a nice - but cookie cutter nice - area, with Pier 1 Imports, McDonald's, etc., and all the atmosphere and character have leaked away, much like the air in a five cent balloon.

When last I was there, Ripley's and Davis were gone for reasons unknown. The Earl of Old Town had become a dry cleaning establishment. Cook County paraphernalia laws had done the head shops in, although the Bizarre Bazaar hung on for a while selling tee shirts and other junk. The last time I saw it, it was a hole in the ground awaiting the condominiums that were to be built on the site.

The Mexican restaurant was still there, as was O'Brien's. I think That Steak Joynt might have closed, although the lettering was still there. Treasure Island was still open, and might outlast us all.

I lament the passing of places like this, places with genuine atmosphere, but I have no solution that would enable them to survive prosperity.

During the writing of this post, one incident from living in that apartment has popped into my head, so I'll close by relating it.

(Recognize it? That's a segue. What follows is connected to what precedes by only only the most tenuous of threads.)

One night I had an informal party of perhaps twenty people. Not far from where I lived was a place called Chester's, which not only made the best greasy food around, but delivered it as well. I ordered a ton of chicken, fries, onion rings, etc., picked up some beer, made sure the bar was stocked, and awaited my friends. There was a pass-through from the kitchen to the living room, and when the food arrived I spread it out there, along with paper plates, napkins, cups, and whatever.

Unbeknownst to me, this was the night that the "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas was to air, and about fifteen minutes before show time, the people began to divide into two groups - those who would remain in the living room and watch Dallas and those who would scoot down the hall to the bar area. I was with the latter group, so with five minutes to go I made sure the door was unlocked for any late arrivals and abandoned the Dallas fanatics.

Dallas began and but for its own sounds you could hear a pin drop. We closed our door almost all the way and spoke softly, but even so were occasionally subjected to a chorus of "Shhhhhh!" from fifteen feet away.

Once an especially loud "Shhhhhh!" was heard and it was unrelated to us. A moment later, a newcomer - Jeanne - joined our company, food in hand, closed the door, and with an injured look whispered "I took my fries too loud."


Richard Beck said...

I worked in the head shop part of Bizarre Bazaar 1972-1973? Also worked in that 'other' head shop you might be recalling but forgotten the name - The Old Town Trading Post, 1402 N. Wells next to jean/clothing store made from an old house owned by the same owner but the name of the clothing store escapes me. that was the summer of 1972. Also worked in Jack B. Nimble's candle shop which was in Piper's Alley which was another whole Universe back in those days full of Head shops too and blown glass and antique clothing and the Pizza place in the back? Remember the "Sneak Joint" behind the Earl of Olde Town were the street people not the visitors drank. I lived above Sandler's Apartment shop '73-'74. I was only 19! But yea those were the days! Enjoyed your blog about Old town and your other Blogs too.

Richard Beck

P.S. I had a long lost girlfriend named Debbie too who changed her ISP and my emails fell into that blackhole - they still do!

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

Oh, great. Thank you for an interesting comment.

Most of what you mention is familiar to me, but not all of it. I didn't arrive in Chicago until 1979.

Although I didn't mention it, Piper's Alley was still there last I knew.

Anonymous said...

Another Smaller Head Shop Was Called "The Smuggler".....

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

That's the one! Thanks.

Demetria said...

Smuggler's moved north to Clark Street, several years after the Occult Bookstore had moved there. It was on the same block as The Alley. I think the owner retired and it is now a paint store. Another head shop in Old Town was on Wells two or three doors south of North Ave. It was called The Wildflower - you had to walk up two steps into the shop. They sold underground comics, bells, beads, pipes, papers, bongs, incense, candles,, t-shirts, and more. it was where my brother & I could buy underground comics like The Furry Freak Bros., Tales of Toad, Mr. Natural, ZAP!, etc. It was run by my friend's brother, and their family had two more head shops at the time - one another brother ran down at 63rd & Halsted, later torn down to make way for Kennedy-King City College of Chicago. Her dad's shop is still run by siblings down on S. Michigan Ave. in Roseland.

I knew a bouncer for a neighborhood brothel who lived above That Steak Joynt - there was more than one apt. there. The record store inside Piper's Alley had a good selection, the cookie place was ehre all of us underage kids would go. Piper's Alley was funky and popular, even with adults who were not 'counter-culture'. It was paved with authentic cobblestones from when it was really an alley, not the bland ugly brick box it is now. RIpley's Belive It or Not museum was nice, but there was also a House of Horrors down the street that cost only a dollar or two to get in. It was like walking into a darkened, narrow, aisle, and there were lifesized dioramas of movie monsters, famous bad guys and evil murderous scenes. When it was $1 it was popular with us since we didn't always have $3-5 for Ripley's. The Up Down Tobacco Shop and the Fudge Pot are still there.

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

Hi Demetria,

Thank you for the update. As with Richard Beck's comment above, you mention some establishments that predate my arrival in Chicago. And I'd completely forgotten the Fudge Pot.

Living so close to Old Town, I spent more time there than the average person, and having a friend at Sandburg Village, I walked through Old Town frequently, generally in the early evening and then again late at night. In short order it became my favorite part of Chicago.

It sounds as if you must have lived close by as well.

Thanks for posting.

Evan Alston said...

Ah yes bizzare bizzare the ulti ate head shop, my friends and I made frequent trips to that monstrosity of a head shop.