Thursday, July 08, 2010

Spending A Day in Chicago's Past

I love history, not so much in terms of wars or rulers, but in terms of people, how they lived and what they created. I am particularly fascinated by much of Chicago's rich history, and in the past have learned about and/or explored the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, old movie theaters, the Essanay Studios, classic hot dog stands, the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Graceland Cemetery and much else. (I also value the Chicago History Museum, but as I wrote here, feel they greatly need to enhance the modernity of their exhibits).

A couple weeks ago, I noted with interest--via this Tribune article--that it was the 30th anniversary of the Blues Brothers movie. I rewatched the film and also spent some time exploring this website, which is a handy guide to the movie's shooting locations in and around Chicago.

In doing so, I became curious to know more about Chicago's old Maxwell Street Market, which I'd long heard about but had never gone to (although the original marketplace still existed for the first 25 years of my life). Combining what I already knew with what I learned on Wikipedia and by watching an excellent documentary called Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street (not even available on Netflix; try your local library), Maxwell Street is one of the Chicago's oldest residential districts. Its famed market existed from the late 1800s until 1994, when expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) displaced the market--according to the documentary, in part because of some shady deals and dubious reasons (i.e. self-interests of those involved).

Though the market still takes place Sundays along Desplaines St., north of Roosevelt Rd., it is but a fraction of what it used to be. Back in the day, it was supposedly a socially vital, inter-racial gathering place where people of myriad statures and backgrounds sold their wares. The market was also the birthplace of Chicago Blues and the "Maxwell Street Polish."

So, motivated as I often am by my taste buds--though in trying to diet I ate nothing else that day--as well as a sense of curiosity, last Thursday, I drove down to visit Jim's Original, said to be where the Maxwell Street Polish (sausage sandwich) was created in 1943. Now located about a block from its original location at Maxwell & Halsted and next to another surviving old Maxwell Street Polish sausage purveyor, Express Grill, Jim's Original remains a blast from the past.

Although both Jim's and Express are surrounded by newfangled UIC buildings and new commercial developments--some with old facades of Maxwell Street buildings affixed to their fronts--the two 24-hour stands, devoid of seating areas, comprise a delightedly utilitarian island in a bourgeois-sea.

And--I say this as a long-time devotee of Polish Sausages throughout Chicago, including my beloved Poochie's in Skokie--I think the Polish at Jim's was the best I ever had. Plus, with a hefty portion of fries that accompany all sandwiches, the Polish was only $3.25! (Monday, July 12, Jim's is having a Founder's day celebration, with Polishes only 75 cents from 2-6pm, but as someone there said, the line will be down the block).

After also grabbing a regular hot dog at Express--it seemed appropriate as I was taking pictures--I drove around the corner and parked momentarily near Maxwell & Halsted just to say I was at the location of the original marketplace (although I've been to the newly developed area before).

Sadly, there really are no remnants of the past in the old location, other than the old building facades and perhaps some sculptures I didn't notice (but later read about).

Continuing my magical history tour, I drove up to Taylor Street, had a Blue Raspberry Italian Lemonade at Mario's (which as the sign says, has been there since 1954), took a photo of my long-loved original location of Al's #1 Italian Beef and drove past the stately St. Ignatius High School and the church with a beautiful tower next to it. 

I then headed southeast, where I was able to drive into the grounds--and even enter the main building--of the South Shore Cultural Center, which used to be the ornate South Shore Country Club, has a still-in-use 9-hole public golf course and is where Barack and Michelle Obama were married in 1992.

But for me, the main draw for the South Shore Cultural Center--which in getting to at 71st & LSD had me the only white face for blocks on end--was that it was used as the Palace Hotel for the final concert in The Blues Brothers (just the exterior, the interior shots were done at the Hollywood Palladium).

But the interior of what is now the Cultural Center is ornate and spectacular in its own right and is home to the Parrot's Cage restaurant, operated by the Washburne Culinary Institute.

I was also able to walk out back and practically right up to the lake.

Finally on my day of exploring some of Chicago's storied--and cinematic--past, I drove to Jackson Park, scene of the Columbian Exposition, aka, The Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

It has always fascinated me that what looked like a huge old Roman city existed in Chicago over 100 years ago and then disappeared (except for the Museum of Science and Industry building, which was the Palace of Fine Arts at the Fair). As I understand it, most of the structures of "The White City" were meant to be temporary, so even if a fire hadn't burned them down in 1894, they likely wouldn't have survived until today.

But in addition to enjoying the MSI and seeing photos and even virtual interpretations of the Columbian Exposition, I also love the beautifully gilded--albeit 1/3 scale--1918 replica of Daniel French's Statue of the Republic (also known as Columbia) that sits in Jackson Park on the former site of the fair's Administration Building (the current statue is atop this post; the original stands across the Grand Basin from the Administration Building in the 1893 World's Fair photo at left).
I wanted to explore a bit more of Jackson Park, including the Wooded Island and the bridge that was used for the Nazi rally scene in the Blues Brothers, but it was getting late and there seemed to be some potentially shady dealings going on in the park's parking lot, so it didn't feel too prudent to be wandering around snapping photos.

But all in all it was a great day (re)discovering part of Chicago's wonderful history and I look forward to similar future excursions.

And of course, having another Polish at Jim's.

No comments: