Ron Cohn (Protected, Pampered Parking Places)

Protected, pampered parking places

By Ron Cohn

In the late fall of 1948, my father got his first new car, a sleek, streamlined Buick Super four-door, replacing the hulking prewar version he had bought used and driven for eight years. We had just moved to Hollywood and Kenmore from Sherwin Avenue in Rogers Park, where the old black Buick had been consigned to parking on the half-empty streets all through the war. That would not be the fate of the gleaming new sedan, which would reside in the pampered protection of the Monarch Garage, two blocks west of our back door.

Many of those century-old parking structures are still here, aging, anonymous one- and two-story buildings, squatting along the west side of the Red Line viaducts on many Edgewater side streets. Now serving a diversity of uses, they were built to answer the need for off-street parking with the attendant services in the newly car-crazed ’20s.

A detailed 1928 map of the area has no fewer than 10 sites designated as garages, each with over 50 parking spaces, east of Broadway between Balmoral and Devon. Eight were still operating in 1956, according to a business directory from that year. You can still find five or six of the buildings as you walk the neighborhood, and indulge in a little exercise of urban archaeology.

Some were strictly utilitarian in design, like the Monarch, today a featureless presence hidden in plain sight between the “L” and the Shell station on the north side of Hollywood. You can be stuck right in front of it if you’re stopped heading west at the Broadway light, yet never see it.

Others, like the faux terra cotta “temple of parking” on the south side of Ardmore at the viaduct, and the repurposed auto repair shop occupying the same coordinates on Catalpa, feature ornamentation and architectural details paying at least faint homage to the automobiles they were built to serve.

Some of the surviving parking garages have been reborn behind contemporized facades, like what is now Euro Collision on Balmoral east of Broadway.

Other neighborhoods with concentrations of large, upscale apartment buildings, like those all along Lake Shore Drive, spawned similar clusters of parking garages on Broadway from Montrose to Diversey and along Clark Street from there all the way downtown. On the South Side, Hyde Park and South Shore had their share, as well.

On a yearly rental agreement, car owners would have, at a minimum, a heated, indoor parking space. Above that, there would typically be a menu of services like weekly washes, regular gas fill-ups, tire and fluid checks, windshield wipes and even valet pickup and drop-off. I have no idea what it cost to garage a car back then, but I do know that the monthly rent on our good-sized three-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a sunroom, separate dining room and two pantries was around $160, so the Monarch was likely a fairly reasonable luxury.

For my father, who eschewed the pickup option except in the most extreme weather, the daily visits to the garage also became an enjoyable part of his social life. The Monarch was owned by two men in his age range and with similar backgrounds, Irv Matheson and “Fitz” Fishman. Both had other business interests, which they ran out of their office at the garage, and they were usually on hand there, having a cup of coffee with him in the morning and something stronger when he returned in the early evening. He’d spend a half-hour with them a few times a week and enjoy a lively conversation and regular weekly bets on televised Wednesday and Friday night boxing from New York, which went on for 15 years.

The Monarch provided a facility for adolescent me, as well. A regulation-height basketball backboard and hoop complete with net had been mounted on one of the rafters on the second floor. In the winters when I was 12 and 13, I would sharpen my skills up there for hours on end, usually all alone. Occasionally I would have a one-on-one game with a friend, or with Dave, the sole employee of the garage, who at six feet towered over me. The one problem with the venue was that the concrete floor was ingrained with grease, oil and rubber tire residue that tuned my brown leather basketball black and did the same for my hands. My mother made me scrub them with a brush to pass her inspection before dinner. My friend Mike Libman’s mother forbid him to ever go back after an afternoon of H-O-R-S-E and 21 up there with me.

Thinking of Dave dredged up a final memory of the Monarch’s place in my boyhood. My morning routine through most of high school was to cover the half mile or so to Senn at a fast jog, lugging my books. On nice days in the spring and fall, Dave would be sitting in front of the garage, reading the paper as I chugged by. He’d look at his watch and call out, “Here comes the 8:05 express … a little late (or early) today.”

The garage, a place to park the car, became a much larger part of the lives of my father and me. It makes me reflect on the roughly 2,000 parking spaces enclosed by our neighborhood garages in the 50 years they existed … multiplied by all the other parts of the city in which they arose. How many stories, how many memories, did they create? How many lives were enriched by a place to park the car?

Originally published in the Malibu East Dialogue.