LeRoy Blommaert (Growing up in Edgewater)

 

My Early Neighborhood Memories
 
by LeRoy Blommaert
 
Technically, I was not born in Edgewater but I spent my fugative….I mean formative years here. I was born in the Illinois Masonic hospital, but my parents lived in Edgewater at 5977 N. Clark at the time (south east corner of Elmdale). I have no recollection of living there, probably because we soon moved first to 5757 N. Broadway (southeast corner of Ardmore), where I stayed but about a year, and then to the building at the north west corner of Ridge and Hermitage—and, of course, I was an infant so my memory was not as good then as it would be later. We lived in a basement apartment on Ridge (6053) that I believe might have once been a store. I remember that upon entering one had to walk down two or three steps.
 
One of my earliest recollections was of a fire in one the apartments. One of my playmates in the building lived there. His name was Joey Struebel—strange that I remember his name after all these years. The firemen threw a lot of stuff in the apartment down into the courtyard, and among the debris were some of his toys. I felt really bad for him. They moved and I learned that he died a few years later.
 
Probably my second recollection was my first day of kindergarden: I did not want to go, and I cried; I cried a lot. But I recovered, and the next day I was fine.
 
Sometime in first grade we moved to the west side to live with my mother’s family while my father was in service. When he returned we moved into my father’s parents’ newly purchased 2 flat at 6337 N. Lakewood. They had not yet moved in. It was during this very short stay that I first visited the Arcade building with my mother. It made an impression. It was a street within a building, and it had a post office and I believe also a barber shop. Another thing I remembered while living there was a special place between two buildings across the alley. There was just a narrow space separating them, but enough for a small skinny kid to get through (and I more than qualified), and once through there was a big space between the buildings. It was a cave…my private cave.
 
We soon returned to the Ridge and Hermitage building. My father was the janitor of the building and as fate would have it we moved to the first floor apartment at 6051 N. Ridge that had suffered the fire damage. It would be my home until we moved to Rogers Park in my senior year of high school.
 
But in my pre-teen years (and perhaps a bit afterwords as well), it was not only my home: it was my castle, my fortress. There were only two entrances to the inter courtyard where the back stairs were located: one on Hermitage and the other off the alley to the north. The one off the alley into the courtyard was a like a long tunnel. I imagined it as a fortress and wished there had been a higher fence to the west. I also wished there had been gates at each entrance. Ironically today there are.
 
In view of my present interest in everything—or almost everything—that is old and the need to preserve and restore, I look back with amusement my helping my mother do just the opposite, such as when we painted the fireplace and adjacent bookcase white and when we placed asbestos tiles over the oak floor in the hall.
 
I went to St. Gertrude’s grammar school. We lived at the outer edge of the parish boundaries. That had two consequences: (1) it was a longer walk to school than most of my classmates and (2) I had two sets of friends, my classmates during school days and my neighborhood friends after school, on weekends, and during the summer. Later in my grammar school career some of my school friends would come over, but not many, and not very often. Most of the time I would visit them.
 
I took the journey from home to St. Gertrude’s and back, four times a day: going in the morning; coming home for lunch; returning afterwards; and coming home after school. I had a distinct travel route. I went north on Hermitage to Glenlake, east on Glenlake to Clark, north on Clark to Granville, where I crossed Clark and then walked on the north side of Granville to Glenwood where I walked north again to the school which was just south of Thome. I recently retraced that route and timed it. Each leg took an average of 11 3/4 minutes.
 
On the west side of Clark between Glenlake and Granville, there was a small store that sold sweets and stationery. It’s owner was a man by the name of Wasserman, I remember him as being very old, but he probably was younger then that I am now!
 
From grammar school I remember a number of things: playing in the street during recess (weather permitting), walking two by two to Mass “guided” by a nun with her clicker instructing us when to stop and start, being in a chorus line dancing to the tune of Percy Granger’s Country Garden, the opening of the new gym building, the Christmas bazzars at one of which I won a record player and at another my grandmother won a bike which she gave to me, the statue in the school hall of the Infant of Prague, which was still there when we visited the school again on the 50th anniversary of our graduation.
 
In the neighborhood one of my friends was Wayne Corey who with his parents lived in his grandfather’s house on Hermitage, but who once lived in the apartment building where we lived. Other boys on Hermitage were the Cumey brothers, Michael Quinn, and Peter Banks. One of my earliest friends was a Billy Karey, but I don’t remember where he lived. I also remembered Barbara Tilges, who lived in the building (and who later became a high school classmate), Lynn Vranklin who lived upstairs from us, and Linda Voss, who lived in the building across the alley to the north.
 
At school my friends were James McGuire, Peter Huml, Francis Johnstone, and Bernie Zehren.
 
There is another event that I remember vividly; it was probably in 6th or 7th grade. I was walking in my neighborhood and a group of my classmates came by in an open truck; they were in back and one of them called out: “We are going to the Arcadia to roller skate. Do you want to join us?” They were not my regular friends; they were the more popular guys. I was surprised but honored that they would ask me, so I said yes and climbed in. I had never been to the Arcadia before. It was way out of the area on Broadway just north of Montrose. In fact, other than with my parents or another relative, I had never been outside the neighborhood. I also had never roller skated before. I tried, but I was not very good at it. (This experience would be repeated for other sports.) For some reason we didn’t go back in the truck. At least two of us, Jim Laurie and I rode the “L” getting on at Wilson. The fare was 5 cents. I don’t know where I got off and how I got home, but I remember that when I got home, I got a good scolding. You should have let your mother know where you were going, I was told. But we didn’t have cell phones in those days and I didn’t want to tell the other boys: I have to let my mother know first.
 
I remember playing softball in the street on Hermitage with the boys in the neighborhood. One time as catcher I stood too close to the batter and was hid in the head just above my left eye by the bat. I ran home crying and covered in blood. I think back how terrified my mother must have been seeing me like that. And it was not the only time. We boys in the neighborhood played cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians, and one time an arrow got me just above that same left eye. Just a little closer and I probably would have lost an eye. I remember having stitches and being told by either my father or the doctor that I was “brave.”
 
Another early remembrance: On the Hermitage side of the building to the north of the entrance to the inner courtyard, there was a small studio apartment at the ground level. One summer day we boys on the street noticed smoke coming out of the apartment window and went to look. There on a bed was a young woman totally naked. I remember being curious and looking but then feeling guilty for doing so. I was not the only one who looked, nor was I the first. My mother then came, pulled down the shade and found the cause of the smoke: a cigarette.
 
There were two “comings” that I especially remember. The first and most important was the coming of Television. We were not the first among our neighbors to get a TV. The family upstairs were, and they invited us to witness the new arrival. We all sat in the dark, just like in a movie theater. It was not on 24/7 like it is now. Quite the contrary. In the early days it was just on during the evenings, and then not every evening. Tuesday was the big day, other than Saturday. We watched Sid Caesar and his Show of Shows. Later, as TV programming expanded I would go over to Wayne Corey’s house and watch the westerns, such as Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue, and Tom Mix, along with Flash Gordon and Captain Winslow. Then finally we got our own TV. My father paid for it with some insurance rebate money. I seem to remember it cost $500.00, which was a significant sum then (and not small change now!) It was a small 12 inch model and was enclosed in fine piece of furniture, which had doors that closed to hide the screen when not in use.
 
The second “coming” was the new, streamlined streetcars. I learned as an adult that they were called PCCs for Presidential Commission Cars, but as a kid they were just the “Green Hornet” streamliners, and in the neighborhood we asked each other when we had seen the first one on Clark, which was just two blocks east. They first arrived on October 30, 1946, but we probably saw our first one in November. (The last one ran on September 8, 1957. I remember I was in Colorado for two weeks and when I came back they were gone, and I remember being upset about it.)
 
The Chicago and North Western Railroad’s line to Milwaukee was less than a block from where we lived and I remember the 400 streamliners roaring by, but most of the trains were commuter trains and still powered by stream engines. I would ride my bike north on Ravenswood to the Rogers Park library (we didn’t have one in Edgewater then) and at times I would race the train. When it left the Kenmore station (near Granville) it would start quite slow and I would gain on it, but then when it ended its acceleration and reached its stride, it would invariably pass me. Another thing I remember—and this wasn’t so neat—was the soot that it would leave that somehow came into our apartment.
 
Another thing about the Chicago and North Western Railroad I remembered then was that I could get close—very close to it. On the east side of tracks on the south side of Ridge there was a small opening between the embankment and the building immediately east of it. That opening had a dirt incline that led up to the tracks on the embankment; once up on the embankment, the tracks were very close, but I did not have to get on the embankment to get up close. If I paused just before the top and stayed in the narrow “corridor” between the building and embankment I could watch the train go by and not be in any danger.
 
I never had a pet, at least not in the house, except for guppies and gold fish (but I guess they don’t count), but a number of cats stayed in my father’s boiler room at various times and they become my pets. One was named “six-toes” (for the obvious reason); another was named “sugar” probably because he (she?) was sweet. There is a photo of me holding one, but which one I do not know.
 
I had a garden. It was located in a vacant lot at the southwest corner of Paulina and Glenlake which I was told it was a victory garden during WWII. I had only a small section of the lot, which was divided up into many sections. As I recall I was the only young person gardening and the older folks mentored me. I grew radishes, carrots, and lettuce. I didn’t much care for radishes and the carrots were not that tasty, but I ate them nonetheless because I had grown them and they were mine. Within the last ten years, I learned that greenhouses had originally occupied the land. Later the gardens were replaced by five four flats.
 
I also had a paper route and delivered the afternoon papers, which I picked up with my bike at the Edgewater News distribution building at the southeast corner of Glenwood and Hollywood. My bike had a big wire basket on the front and that is where I carried the newspapers, which I had to roll up and rubber band in order to throw them up onto the back porches. Many a time I just couldn’t throw that high and so I ran up the stairs and hand delivered them. I was small for my age at the time and wonder now how I did it.
 
Basic shopping was very local and it was with my mother; we would walk down Ridge towards Clark, then at Paulina, switch to Peterson. A new Jewel was built on the west side of Clark just north of the corner where there was a Firestone store, and we shopped there. The exact address was 6018 Clark. Across Clark, at the southeast corner of Elmdale (the name of the same street east of Clark) was—what else—a drug store. On the same block going south was a shoe repair shop owned by a man by the name of Frank Rappolo who became a friend of my father. My father was was also janitor of the corner “Elmdale” building. Mr. Rappolo liked antique cars and I remember seeing his restored Model T. Further south was the National Tea grocery store. We would shop there too, but mostly at the Jewel after it was built. For banking and clothes, we would take the Peterson bus and transfer to the L at Bryn Mawr and get off at Lawrence. Our bank was the Uptown National Bank at the southeast corner of Lawrence and Broadway. In those days, the bank lobby was a very busy place. The vaults were downstairs and upstairs in the lobby next to the elevator was a free scale, which I used to weigh myself. Remarkably that scale remained until very recently when the upper lobby was closed. In the same building was our dentist until we switched to Dr. Madack in the Elmdale building. We would also shop at Goldblatts. I don’t remember our ever shopping on Bryn Mawr, but I do remember the red Belle Shore Apts sign. The one place we did shop in the area was not on Bryn Mawr but at the northwest corner of Ridge and Broadway. It was Heinemann bakery and it was where we waited for the Peterson bus going west—and home.
 
For shoes we went to Dewitt’s at the corner south west corner of Devon and Broadway. I remember the store had a device that was basically an X-Ray machine. One would put one’s feet in it, and see one’s bones in green. I thought it was cool and I would wiggle my toes. I was not the only kid that did so. Little did we know at the time that such prolonged exposure was not good for one’s health.
 
For major clothes shopping (which was not very often) we took the L downtown. We would sometimes eat at the Woolworth lunch bar on State Street; other times we would at Holloway’s cafeteria on Randolph. Two other places I remember well, one was Stop and Shop. We would have to go down stairs from the street into the basement; the other place was Vaughn’s Seeds. It sold seeds but the real draw for me was the toy shop on the upper floor, particularly the very detailed painted “lead” solders.
 
As I mentioned, my father was a flat janitor (as was his father and brother). It was not a 9 to 5 job. He had to get up very early in the morning to stoke the fires in the boiler so the tenants would have heat when they got up. There was no 24 hour heat in those days. It was before natural gas and even before oil. Coal was King. In the evening, he had to be home before 10 pm to “bank” the fires—meaning to put them out.
 
A janitor had a number of things he had to, some every day, and others weekly or semi-weekly, but outside of the demands of the boiler, he could set his own time when he would do them. One of the things he had to do was take down the garbage. In those days the tenants did not have to bring down their own garbage and place it garbage cans; the janitor had to do it. It was strenuous work. Another job was vacuuming and dusting the front hallways. A janitor was also on call to fix things in tenant apartments. My father was good at it.
 
Because of the general flexibility inherent in the job, my father was able to meet with his fellow janitor buddies for breakfast or lunch, but generally breakfast. Just like there is in many professions, such as police and fire fighters, there was a sense of comradery in the “janitor game,” as they called it. They would help each other out when needed, such as banking the fires so one of them could stay later at an evening event. The beneficiary of the help would later reciprocate.
 
I remember being with my father’s janitor friends on many occasions, generally on Saturdays and during the summer. They did not treat me as a kid and I came to regard them as friends too—my adult friends. I visited one periodically in Florida where my father retired until he died.
 
There were two places I remember being with my father and his friends: one was an outdoor market on Ridge where later the Town and Country restaurant would be built. It had animals in cages in the back. The other was a restaurant just to the east, on the south west corner of Ridge and Clark St. It was called Pike’s I believe, but haven’t been able to verify the name.
 
When it was time to go to high school, there was really no choice. I certainly did not have one. Loyola Academy was too far, but probably more important—too expensive. And so it was St. Gregory’s. And it was about the same distance as St. Gertrude’s. I either walked or rode my bike. In those days a guy riding a bike was not cool as it is today. Quite the opposite: It was thought of as nerdy, but that was me…at the time… and still so.
 
As it was for many boys and girls, going from grammar school to high school was a major transition for me; it opened vistas and offered freedom. I remember in my freshman year one day after school riding my bike with two other boys to a place I had never been before—the apartment of one of the boys which was way west on Western Avenue. We traveled through an open area, which was probably Bowmanville road, and I remember feeling a sense of euphoria: I had successfully made the transition. I had friends. One of the boys, Tom Dienes, would be my best friend for as long as he lived.
 
One time during high school I had the occasion to visit Clark Street in what is today Andersonville, but wasn’t then. It didn’t have that name—or any name, but I remember how vibrant and bustling it was. I think it was around Christmas time. And then it had a real Scandinavian flavor.
 
For college, I went to Loyola. Unlike high school, I had more than one choice—but only one: It was either Loyola or DePaul. I chose Loyola. Why I don’t remember but it might have been because my best friend Tom Dienes decided to go there. By the time I entered college, we were living in Skokie, and I commuted. I took the 97 Skokie bus to Howard St and then took the L to Loyola. It was very convenient. One thing I remember while riding the bus one day was seeing a guy that looked like one of my grammar school classmates. I couldn’t resist and I asked him; it turned out he was my classmate’s brother.
 
Except for visiting one of my grammar school classmates at his home, I have no memory of visiting Edgewater during this period. Again, while in Chicago during my grad school days in St. Louis and Philadelphia I had no occasion to visit Edgewater.
 
After grad school I had to get a job, and fortunately found one within a short bus ride of where we lived at 3950 N. Lake Shore Drive; it was the Railroad Retirement Board. Unfortunately, not too long afterwards we moved to DesPlaines where my father got a job in a new apartment building. It was a long trip for me, a suburban bus to Howard Street and then the L to Chicago Avenue, and then back again in the late afternoon. It was at this time that I decided I needed my own place and one close to work, so I looked where I grew up: Edgewater. After looking at a few apartments, I selected a 2nd floor studio apartment at 1044 N. Bryn Mawr. It was just a block from an L station and a block from the Sheridan Road bus; it was also within walking distance of the Lake.
 
At the time I moved in, the downstairs door was open, not locked like it would later be and the street was in transition…from gentility, as exemplified by a women’s dress shop downstairs, to something very much less so. I remember one day coming home from work when I was confronted by a drunken native American…who had in his hand the largest knife I had ever seen. I did not wait to investigate. That talked-about fight-or-flight impluse kicked in….and I ran away as fast as I could, and as luck would have it I ran into a policeman. Catching my breath I told him what I saw, and sure enough the man with the knife was walking toward us. I kept walking in the opposite direction.
 
The other thing I remembered while living on Bryn Mawr was the great snow of 1967. When I arrived in the morning at the Chicago avenue L station, I meet some of my co-workers who informed me that the Board had closed due to the weather and so I went back the way I came. I had planned to walk the neighborhood to experience the impact of the snow storm, but I started to experience an episode of my Crohn’s disease and so instead I went to bed. When I woke I looked out the window onto Bryn Mawr and there was absolutely no traffic.
 
I was still living on Bryn Mawr when the next big snow came; this time it shut down the L north of Wilson Avenue because the snow had no where to fall down. For several days I had to walk in the cold to Wilson Avenue to board the L.
 
After living on Bryn Mawr I moved to a two bedroom apartment at 5357 N. Magnolia in a building that the owner promised to sell to me; he never did. I remember coming home one New Year’s Day and noticing as I opened the door to the apartment something out of the corner of my eye that was out of the ordinary. It was a small speck on the wooden door frame. As I got closer I identified what it was: a bullet. I went into the bedroom and noticed that the bullet had left a hole in the glass. Had I been at home at the time……
 
While living on Magnolia, I experienced another big snow. It was on New Year’s Eve, and it was a custom that I spent it with some of my high school friends and their wives at one of their houses. This time it was in Elgin. I was determined to go. I prevailed on a neighbor to help me get my car out of its parking spot and on to Broadway. From there it was onto Foster and then the expressway then the tollway. Surprisingly, it was easygoing, and not much traffic (the sane people stayed home). The tollway was being plowed and I got to the Elgin exit with no problem. The major road onto which I exited likewise was clear; however when I got to the road I had to take to get to the house, I got a surprise: It was not plowed and there was but one set of tire tracks on a two lane road. But I pushed on and I got to the housing complex and once in, I got within a block of the house. Everyone else was there. I stayed overnight as was the plan, and the next morning the complex had been plowed and I made it to my grandmother’s house later New Years Day with no problem. As I think back on the experience, I realize how foolishly optimistic I was then. I would not do that today.