Chicago Trip – Final Refections

It’s been a week since we’ve been back. It’s funny how you spend so much time planning a trip and it seems to be over in a heartbeat. The Chicago trip was filled with wonderful experiences but we were also glad to get back home.

Marshall Field Exhibit

No trip to Chicago would be complete for me without going Downtown. To me that is the heart of Chicago and ever since I was a child I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of State Street and Michigan Ave. This trip I didn’t have as much time as I would have wanted to spend Downtown, but I got to see some sights on Michigan Ave. and I also had to go see the old Marshall Fields store now Macy’s. I was told that that building is a landmark and so I was happy to see the bronzed Marshall Field and Co. signs were still on the outside of the building. They have to be kept where they are for landmark status. And I was also glad to see that the Walnut Room is still there and still called the Walnut Room and is still in operation. All of the rest of it was definitely Macy’s and for some reason the store did not seem to be as shiny and full as I remembered it. Now mind you that could very well be selective memory, but the feel was definitely different. Up on the 7th floor there is a wall dedicated to the history of the Marshall Fields Store and State Street. There were also pictures of how Frango mints were once made and a replica of the famous clock on the outside corner of the building. I heard stories of people picketing outside of the building when Macy’s took over and some people still refuse to shop there. I don’t think I would be one of those folks, but I was definitely saddened to learn that Fields was no longer there. But I had to see it for myself.

The Walnut Room

Another highlight of the trip was being able to see my mother’s last surviving sibling, my aunt, Sister Teresita. She is a nun in the order of the Sisters if Saint Casimir and she lives in their Mother House on the South Side in the Marquette Park area. Sister Teresita was such a rock for me when my mother was going through the last months of her life. She is now 91 years old and although a little frail, she is still firing on all burners. I was so happy to see her and judging by how hard she hugged me I think the feeling was mutual. To be able to spend some time with her was a definitely a highlight.

Daley Plaza Picasso

We also got a chance to go out to dinner with some old friends from my Theatre on the Lake Days. Once again it amazed me how we had not seen them in several years and we picked up like no time had passed. The mark of true friendship. We all laughed so hard that our stomachs hurt recalling the “old days and talking about our lives now.  What a great evening. I didn’t want it to end.

But everything must eventually come to an end – and so last Saturday we said goodbye to Chicago and made our way back to Colorado. And as I reflect back on the trip, I realize that going back to Chicago tends to reinforce with me how much time has passed. So many friends, so many experiences, it seems like yesterday and yet so much has changed.

It’s hard to fathom all of this time has passed and equally hard to believe that it has gone by so fast. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I left Hiawatha Park? When did my students become adults? How can my aunt be 91? What happened to Marshall Fields and the Crane Company clock?  How did my childhood home get to look so old? When did Elaine’s Hide and Seek Polka Lounge close?  Changes, changes, changes – life moving on. And so am I. Great trip, wonderful memories. Glad I could share them and now on to the next blog.

View driving in on the expressway

Chicago and The Song of Hiawatha

I have done several posts in the past about working at Hiawatha Park. It was the experience of a lifetime and it amazes me that it is still the gift that keeps on giving. The highlight of this last trip to Chicago was getting together with some of my former students from Hiawatha Park. When I left them they were adolescents. Now they are all very accomplished women with diverse backgrounds and interests.

The wonderful part about this reunion was that the group of women who came to tip a few at Bar Louie (and those who couldn’t but met me for breakfast or lunch) represented the two “generations” of students that I had at Hiawatha Park. I was only there for fourteen years, but the program was very different when I first got there than it was when I left. Initially the program was a traditional theatre program but some time into my tenure I incorporated dance into it and that element took off like gangbusters. Instead of just doing stage productions, we evolved into doing musicals and dance recitals and even developed the Hiawatha Park Dance Company, the “in-crowd” dance troupe into which all students aspired to be.  We went from small appreciative audiences to packing the house for all of our shows. It was a phenomenal experience and one which, at this point in time, I question whether we could ever replicate.

Some of the "girls" and me

There were several very special things about this get together. First of all, just seeing everyone again after so many years was such a joy. I am grateful to a medium such as Facebook which has connected me with former students that I never thought I would ever see or speak to again. I was amazed at how we instantly were comfortable with one another just as if we had seen each other yesterday. For me it was such a joy to be able to relate to them as women and to hear about their lives and interests and to have adult conversations with them. We were no longer teacher and student (although we recognized just how precious those memories were) but now we were friends.  I felt so blessed that that evening gave me a whole new group of women friends who I love and admire.

The second was the bond that was evident by the two generations of students. Some had been involved earlier in the program and others later, but there was a bond of how important that program was to them and how now, as adults, they recognized the extreme value of having day-to-day contact with a caring adult in an after school setting. One of them told me that she had very vivid memories of feeling safe and how important that feeling was to her. Others spoke of sharing personal things with me knowing that I would handle them with sensitivity. Others spoke of the discipline and rigor that I expected from them and how that taught them life lessons. They spoke of the antics that went on backstage and how I would reprimand them (in ways I would never do now). Others spoke of how important it was to have someone who was an adult but not their parent be there to listen to them. And although the program had its value, the message was clear – it was about the relationship of teacher and student and how powerful that relationship can be. And as we talked about that, both generations of students saw that although the medium was different, what they got out of the program was the same. And it was so powerful that the effects of it have lasted a lifetime. Now how can you ever put a dollar value on that? You simply can’t. And although some had only met each other for the first time, they bonded that evening as well. And the new Facebook friendships were forged the very next day. That was fun to see.

Shelly, Janet and Jane

The night flew by, we closed the place. We talked about a myriad of things – we ate, we drank, we laughed. At times I just sat back and watched them as they shared details about their lives today. They were witty, funny and the atmosphere was filled with joy. And as I think about it now I wonder how the heck I got so lucky. It dawned on me that this get-together was not about living in the past but moving forward with our relationships. It was about reinforcing that we have a strong group of loving and caring friends who may not get the chance to see each other with the frequency that we’d like but who will always be there for each other for the rest of their lives – we have a special place in each other’s hearts and there we will each stay.

So, to Jenny, Janine, Janet, Gina, Jane, Dee, Shelly, Sandy, Camille, Denise, Amy (had breakfast and lunch with them) Brett and Nick (who bravely made appearances) and to all of the others from Hiawatha Park present or not – I love you, I always will, thank you – and here’s to the future!

We Become Like Our Parents

I remember when I was a kid, my father used to like to drive around the “old neighborhood”. My dad grew up on Hermitage Ave. on the South Side of Chicago and every now and then he would take me for a drive and show me the house where he grew up and talk about those days, what it was like to live in that neighborhood and what had changed since he was a kid. At the time I did not understand why he liked to do that, but I certainly get it now.

The new house on Oakdale

One of the first things my husband and I did when we got to Chicago was to check out the “old neighborhoods”.  As a matter of fact, we went there immediately after we landed. For over 20 years we lived in the Lake View Area near Diversey and Southport streets. We wound up owning three building right in a row on Oakdale Ave. and when I accepted the position of Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Dayton, Ohio, we sold the buildings and moved – never to live in Chicago again.

We sold to a local developer and we knew the buildings would be torn down. Two of the three were. One was just upgraded as the property had a coach house in the back and with new zoning laws the coach house could not be reconstructed if it were torn down. We were amazed at how big the trees in our neighborhood had gotten – so big that they created a huge canopy of shade over the street just like how I remembered side streets looked when I was a little girl. At that time the side streets were lined with tall stately Elm trees that died off tragically when Dutch Elm Disease struck the city.

Years ago, our old neighborhood was an old German stronghold changing to mostly Hispanic and then gentrifying bringing in the urban professionals. The old German Restaurant on the corner is now gone and in its place a parking lot for the church across the street. All of our old neighbors are now gone, some have died and some just moved away. The old “greasy spoon” restaurant was still on the corner and although old George who owns the place no longer works there on a daily basis, his son now runs the place. Nothing much else was left of our 20 years in that neighborhood but memories of they way things used to be.

My husband's childhood home

Then we went to my husband’s old childhood neighborhood on the Northwest Side. He lived on Liano Avenue not to far from St Cornelius Church and School. The little single family housed five children and although small by today’s standards, it represented the American Dream of owning your own home and living in a good neighborhood. As we drove down the street my husband pointed out the houses of all of his old grammar schools buddies and talked about playing baseball on the street and coming home when the street lights came on. He was quick to point out that the dormer that his father had put up on the house was still there and marveled at how small the house looked now. He stopped the car and looked at the house for several minutes before I offered to take a picture of it. Then we drove around his old neighborhood where he was quick to point out the pizza place where he used to work, the tavern (Elaine’s Hide and Seek Polka Lounge) where he tended bar, and we even stopped at old man Paterno’s store – now mostly a bar and pizza joint. Old man Paterno is long gone but his son runs the business and he and my husband gabbed away comfortably as if no time had passed.

I also took a side trip to my old childhood neighborhood. I grew up in an apartment building on the South Side in the Brighton Park neighborhood. We lived on the top floor of the building. Our apartment consisted of a kitchen, 3

My childhood home

bedrooms a bathroom and a living room. Very small by today’s standards and yet I never felt it was small when I was growing up. I remember when my dad bought the house. I was pretty young and the building was relatively new. Now it looked old and in need of some tender loving care. We lived next door to a Catholic School, St. Pancratius. The school is now closed and it was not clear to me how the building was now being used. The other houses on the block looked old, as a matter of fact the whole neighborhood looked old. Years ago there was a small grocery store that was right on the corner of our block. Those small “mom and pop” stores were very popular when I was growing up. They were also very convenient. If you needed a loaf of bread or a gallon a milk it was only a quick walk down the block. I remember my mother quite often sending me for a loaf of Butternut Bread (10 cents) and a half gallon of milk (52 cents). Guess we must have really been going through the milk and bread at that time. The store was being torn down when I went there. It had ceased to be a store many years prior and was converted into some type of residence, but now the actual building was being dismantled. It will be interesting to see what is built in its place.

Crane Company was just down the street from our house. Crane Company was a big trucking company on Kedzie Avenue where my grandfather used to work. It boasted this wonderful clock tower with a huge clock that we could see when we were playing out on our street. My mother would tell us to be home at a certain time on the Crane Clock and I remember watching that clock regularly to make sure I got home at the right time. That clock tower and clock is now gone and in its place is a huge truck yard with warehouses. I loved that clock tower. I thought it would always be there.

And as I visited these old neighborhoods I began to understand why my dad would make trips back to his old neighborhood. These places represent the people and experiences in your life that were foundational. As you get older you begin to wonder whether some of these past experiences really existed or if they were dreams you simply created. To see the bricks and mortar that housed these memories enforces that they were actually real. And although my mom and dad are gone, I could feel their presence when I stood in front of that old house. I could remember the candy store  my parents owned that used to be down in the basement. I remembered the joy of being trusted to walk to the corner store by myself to purchase bread and milk, just like a big girl. I remembered sitting on the front porch and dreaming about the man I would marry. I remembered the blizzard of ’67 and shoveling snow that was up to my waist. Precious, precious memories that took place in that old house.

My married life in the Lake View neighborhood was also a joy. It was a thriving area with great theaters and restaurants. Its where I lived when I had the incredible experiences at Hiawatha Park. It is where I got married. The last of the three homes we lived in had the most fabulous deck and we had huge Fourth of July parties and our famous New Years Day parties. Great memories, precious memories. Visiting these old neighborhoods was like going back to your roots, spending time in the places that shaped you into the person that you are today. Bittersweet in some instances and fabulous in others. It was great to connect with these old places and memories. And although many things have changed, the memories will aways be alive and vivid. But going back to the special places in my life has only served to reinforce that although Colorado is now my home, Chicago will always be my heart!

Reflections on Chicago – Part 1

Last week my husband and I went back to our home town, sweet home Chicago. We had not been back there in over 8 years and at that time it was because of the death of his mother. This time we decided that we would just take a few days and reconnect with the city that has meant so much to us and where we spent most of our lives. Our trip consisted of a variety of planned activities, from going back to the neighborhoods where we grew up to seeing old friends to visiting our relatives that still live there to seeing former students and spending time in the heart of Chicago, Downtown.

Chicago

Over the next few days as I continue to process the events of the past week I will focus this blog on specific aspects of the trip. The trip was a journey of many facets, each one very distinct and yet each one very much connected. It stirred up memories of long ago and emotions not felt for some time. Trying to sort through all of the events and feelings has been a roller coaster ride for me, and I have always loved roller coasters.

I’d like to start with just some general observations. Once we landed at Midway and got our rental car we began our trip with a trek on the expressway systems of Chicago. When I lived there I had driven every one of them several times and knew where each one took you and all the twists and turns. I found out quickly that that had not changed. What had changed is the insanity that now rules the Chicago expressway system. I remember a day when you had specific times that were considered “rush hours”. Now every hour is rush hour. The expressways are always packed and it is not unusual to have an hour trip from downtown Chicago to O’Hare airport. And layered upon that is the fact that everyone fights for every inch of open space they can, making driving on the expressways a series of avoiding the ins and out of cars and trucks. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t believe the number of trucks and the truck drivers drive as insanely as the car drivers. I can never recall being concerned about driving on the expressways. But this time I was. This trip we both decided to use our vast knowledge of the street system in Chicago to insure our safety and sanity and to get to our destinations much faster than if we had chosen to use the expressways.

But it was not only the expressways that had changed, the side streets also provided some drama as well. In our old neighborhood, (the Lake View area near the streets of Diversey and Southport) there is no such thing as a parking space anymore. And if you are lucky enough to find one, chances are you either have to pay for the spot or you cannot park there unless you have a permit. The streets are lined on both sides with cars positioned butt to butt and heaven forbid if you have no skill in parallel parking. You would never survive.

Then there was the newly added dimension of speed bumps. Speed bumps did not exist in these neighborhoods when we left in 1999. But they are there now and appear to have been there for quite some time as the warning stripes on them have not been maintained and can barely be seen. So needless to say, we were often very lucky that we did not bottom out our rental car since they literally came upon us with no frame of reference and no warning.

It became apparent very quickly that Chicago is no longer a driving friendly place. Why anyone would want to own a car in Chicago today is beyond me. With the insane amount of traffic and gas prices over $4 a gallon (here it is $3.43), and no place to put a car unless you have a garage or a permit – and even then you have to be lucky to find a spot – is beyond me. Every day of our trip was punctuated by some sort of interesting driving experience. We were happy to get back to the land of sane traffic.

All that aside, there is one thing that you cannot deny. Regardless whether the traffic is insane or not, there is no picture more beautiful than driving toward Downtown Chicago and seeing the city skyline offset by a deep blue sky. As we drove in from Midway the sky was blue and the skyline breathtaking. I could have looked at it for hours. When I saw what used to be known as the Sears Tower coming into view, I knew that I had come back home. Sweet home, Chicago. And there is nothing to compare with a trek down Lake Shore Drive, the only highway that still has some semblance of not being overly inundated with cars every minute of the day. The experience of taking in the skyline and the unforgettable voyage down Lake Shore Drive is truly an unforgettable experience.  And regardless of the congestion and craziness, Chicago is still a great town!

Lake Shore Drive