Friday, March 10, 2017

A Walk on the Beguiled Side: Exploring Albany Park (on foot) and Nelson Algren (on film)


Albany Park Walking Tour
Conducted by Patti Swanson
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Albany Park Neighbors

Algren: The Movie
Directed by Michael Caplan
Presented at Tortuga's Latin Kitchen
Followed by a panel discussion | Facebook Page

If you gave me a map of the Chicago metropolitan area devoid of place names and asked me to cite the names and approximate location of all the suburbs I knew, I'm guessing I might tally well over 50.

If asked to do likewise with Chicago neighborhoods (and/or official community areas, which are different), I likely couldn't get much more than 10.

West Rogers Park, Pilsen, Hyde Park, North Center, Wrigleyville, Andersonville, Edgewater, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Bridgeport, Uptown and I think I'm tapped out.

Realizing that friends and relatives of a certain age likely know dozens of city neighborhoods, perhaps well more than suburbs, this may be what earmarks me not an actual Chicagoan.

Though I've lived in the area for all but three of my 48 years, have occasionally worked downtown going back to age 15 and have abundantly visited Chicago restaurants, theaters, stadiums and even a good variety of "neighborhoods," I've never resided within the city limits.

And while I've long known the names of a good handful or two of neighborhoods or community areas, I don't readily think about nor reference them beyond a few of the most commonplace (such as Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Wrigleyville and Uptown).

Even then, I certainly don't know the borders of specific areas.

But it seems that city dwellers, past and present, can be quite precise and proud of the neighborhood(s) in which they grew up and/or now live.

Which brings me, as it did last Sunday afternoon, to Albany Park, on Chicago's north side.

I had certainly heard of Albany Park--which unlike many similarly monikered areas, isn't named for an actual park--and have even been in its environs occasionally over the years, but had you asked me to identify it on a map...

No way.

Not even with a margin of error of several centimeters.

But now--though still without claiming any degree of expertise--I know a bit of Albany Park, having traversed a few miles of it as part of an excellent walking tour conducted by Patti Swanson, a Texas transplant who founded a nifty little organization called Chicago For Chicagoans.

From their website:
Chicago for Chicagoans is a pay-what-you-can walking tour service, designed to give locals a fresh perspective on their Chicago neighborhoods. We believe in educating residents about the history of the places and spaces that they inhabit. Each month, a new walking tour takes place in a different Chicago neighborhood.
Upcoming walking tours include Roscoe Village, Uptown and Albany Park, Part 2.

I only came to know about the Albany Park tour on the day before I went on it.

Initially, my friend Ken--a big fan of the late Chicago author Nelson Algren and contributor of this related Seth Saith guest post--alerted me to the screening of a new documentary being held on Sunday night.

Rather than at a movie theater, library or school, the movie was shown at a restaurant called Tortuga's Latin Kitchen, at 3224 W. Lawrence in, yes, Albany Park. (Running east-west at 4800 North, Lawrence Avenue is seemingly the main artery of the neighborhood, one of the most diverse in Chicago.)

I've yet to read Algren's Chicago: A City on the Make, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side--yes, it inspired Lou Reed--or Mary Wisniewski's new biography, Algren: A Life.

But thanks in large part to Ken's enthusiasm, I've come to appreciate Algren's lore as a "bard of the bordello," empathetic chronicler of hardscrabble Chicagoans, supremely talented award-winning novelist, streetwise paramour of famed French feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir--even as she was in a relationship with esteemed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre--and drinking buddy of Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and other such hard-boiled-yet-brilliant Chicago characters (the "gritterati"?) that no longer seem to exist.

Per Wikipedia, Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham, to Jewish parents in Detroit in 1909. The family moved to Chicago's south side when he was 3 years old, and to an Albany Park apartment at 4834 N. Troy when he was 8. (The building wasn't part of the walking tour, but Ken and I made a point of driving past and I snapped the included photo.)

With the Algren documentary--which has yet to be publicly released, but whose development Ken had followed and supported--being presented just two blocks from where he grew up, I came across a Facebook posting for the Albany Park Walking Tour, which was not only a perfect accompaniment, but for whose participants seats were held at Tortuga's.

Armed with an obviously substantial amount of research, a binder full of old photographs and the pride of being an Albany Park resident, Patti Swanson led a rather insightful tour for 20-some people over the course of several blocks and nearly 2 hours.

The tour began at the Kimball CTA station, which is the northern end of the Brown Line. I noted the rather cool pillars outside, but Patti ruefully shared that in 1973--undoubtedly before she was born--the current station replaced a much smaller and prettier one, which dated to 1907 when Albany Park was largely farmland.

In an informative introduction offering interesting factoids that would continue throughout the tour, Patti noted that Albany Park is one of 77 officially-defined "community areas," but that Chicago also has 228 neighborhoods, such as Ravenswood Manor which sits within Albany Park.

While walking west on Lawrence from Kedzie to Kimball to meet the tour, Ken and I had been struck by a beautiful Art Deco building with a fish motif to its exterior design. (Just days before, I had been dazzled upon driving by this gorgeous Art Deco building on Western north of Devon, and am trying to learn more about its origins.)

So I was delighted when the building (on Lawrence & Christiana) became the first stop on the walking tour. Patti revealed that the building--which now has a blood bank occupying the bottom floor--was built in the early 1930s to house the L. Fish Furniture store, hence the fishy carvings. (I've now found that the L. Fish company has an interesting history going back to 1858--and still exists--and have learned a bit more about the building from "Ask Geoffrey" Baer of Chicago Tonight.)

I'm not going to retrace every step of the walking tour--though will include more photos at bottom--but I appreciated Patti pointing out a variety of interesting structures, parks and more, as well as places that no longer exist, such as the Terminal Theater that once stood just east of the Kimball Station. (Old movie palaces are another of my fascinations.)

The tour took us north of Lawrence, nearly to the North Park University campus, and east to--and through a Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary right alongside--the North Branch of the Chicago River where it intersects with the North Shore Channel, before bringing us to Tortuga's Latin Kitchen.

Hence it did not take me past Roosevelt High School, alma mater of my mom and Nelson Algren--the latter when it was called Hibbard High School--that is on Kimball a block south of Lawrence.

But we did stop at the splendidly ornamented Von Steuben High School, from which my dad and at least two aunts had graduated.

Patti shared that Von Steuben is now a CPS magnet school and--from her binder--showed that it was pictured on a 45-single sleeve for Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958. (The song was recorded in Chicago at Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan, albeit relatively far from Albany Park.)

In taking the group to River Park, Patti spoke about an architect named Clarence Hatzfeld, who had once designed several Chicago Park District field houses with considerable flair.

Along the river, we were told--demurely--about several sewage treatment projects over the years, and Patti pointed out the "only waterfall in Chicago."

We also learned that one of the founders of Albany Park, a streetcar magnate named DeLancy Louderback, had named the enclave after his hometown of Albany, New York, and was seemingly poisoned to death by his mistress, after she had likewise done in two husbands.

Throughout the tour, Patti spoke about the diverse demographics of Albany Park, initially inhabited predominantly by Swedish and German farmers, but now with a large Korean population--among many other ethnicities--with respect to which Lawrence Avenue was christened "Honorary Seoul Drive" in 1993.

With the sun setting, we were led to Tortuga's Latin Kitchen for the Algren documentary screening, but not before Patti pointed out a couple of beautiful old buildings along Lawrence.

One, now housing Richard's Body Shop, had been built as an automobile showroom in 1925, when this stretch of Lawrence was something of a Motor Row. (A piece on gives a glimpse of the ornate interior. Patti noted that the original owners, the Burnstines, were also responsible for this similar masterpiece on Broadway near Thorndale.)

At 6:30pm, Ken and I joined a near capacity crowd at Tortuga's, where we ordered some dinner and heard from a few speakers before the film, including Patti Swanson, the documentary's director Michael Caplan, representatives of Albany Park Neighbors and 2nd Story, a woman who read excerpts from Nelson Algren's Chicago: A City on the Make and a local poet who recited a couple of his works. (Apologies for not knowing all the names.)

The documentary was rather informative, giving a good overview of Algren's writing, rise to fame, empathetic perspectives on junkies, prostitutes and others that he chronicled, romance with Simone de Beauvoir and aversion to Otto Preminger's movie version of The Man With the Golden Arm.

Whatever your degree of inherent interest in its subject, Algren: The Movie should be well-worth 80 minutes of your time, if you can find it. (See my website and Facebook links at top for updates.)

You might be surprised to learn that Algren was once one of the most famous writers in America but wound up living several years in near obscurity, scrambling for work.

The film is rather well-paced and I liked that Caplan weaves in plenty of on-camera commentary from Algren friends, associates, lovers and admirers, hearty praise the author received from contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway & Richard Wright and considerable humor, including Algren's whimsical "3 Rules of Life."

One gets a good sense of Algren as a truly insightful writer of remarkable craft, but also a somewhat cantankerous "take no bullshit" Chicagoan, who spent his last 20 years living away from the city.

Though not actually Polish, Nelson Algren became something of a hero to Chicago Polonia, and some years after his death of a heart attack in 1981--while living on Long Island--he was honored with a fountain at the Polish Triangle (where Division, Ashland & Milwaukee intersect).

Following the film--which hails Algren for championing those who "otherwise wouldn't have a voice"--came a brief panel discussion and Q&A session.

Along with the director Michael Caplan, Algren's biographer Mary Wisniewski and an editor & educator named Bill Savage answered questions from the moderator--a woman named Lauren from 2nd Story, a storytelling organization based in Albany Park--and from the audience.

The engaging and astute conversation made for a nice culmination of five or so enlightening hours in Albany Park, getting to know about Nelson Algren, the neighborhood in which he was raised and the city & people--of all stations--that he loved.


Ken said...


A really great recap! Congratulations! I don't know how you remembered all the details. I especially like the invention of "gritterati"and I detect quite a bit of associative learning here too.

A few addendums:

1) Algren arguably remains one of the 20th Century's finest novelists. So much so that he was the first recipient of the First National Book Award in 1950 and was later inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. Still, he died an unknown like Herman Melville, to whom he is often compared. I hope Algren's work experiences a resurgence not only for it's subject matter (i.e. when enough people fall out of the middle class flat on their asses you'll see a resurgence quick enough) but more so for his artistry with language. The poignancy of his prose can be so short but heartfelt that it makes your chest ache. For the first thirteen years of my life I lived within a mile of him, but never met him. On the other hand, I did meet ( a couple of times) Pops Panczko, the infamous bungling burglar that was more than once the subject of some of Royko's funniest columns.

2) I think you should include in the gliterati Tom Fitzpatrick (columnist counterpart to Royko) Jay Robert Nash (noted crime writer) and Bill Mauldin ( 2 time Pulitzer award winning cartoonist), all of whom were recognized boozers. I drank with Mauldin one time in Ricardo's. I still remember it was a beautiful August afternoon and they had the front opened up all the way with the canopy awning rolled down so that a warm summer breeze rolled across the bar. It was almost as refreshing as the cold beer. Royko and Algren could, upon occasion, be mean drunks. Mauldin, while no candyass was one of those World War II vets who didn't want to talk about it. I remember him talking about his future retirement plans in Arizona. I think he froze so bad during the winters in Italy while covering the war that he wanted to live out his days someplace where it was warm and dry.

3) Algren: The Movie had one public showing on March 28, 1915 at the Music Box. I financially supported the DVD production, but Michael tells me they've run into licensing issues that prevent the DVD distribution of the film.

4) I know that Royko hung out in Billy Goats on lower Wacker Drive but I don't have a recollection of any of the other cast of characters holding court there. Gee, maybe Royko liked it because it was closer to his office? Although I know Algren visited the Rainbo Club he wasn't a regular (just like my daughter now) but his real home was a place on Cortland called Lottie's. It's been rumored to be the gambling den he intended to portray in The Man With the Golden Arm. The joint, far tamer, still exists.

Ken Stasiak said...

My apologies regarding the date error in the above comment. 1915 was meant to be 2015.