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Changing Neighborhoods

Belmont & Elston today

Sometime around 1998, when I was making my first tentative steps toward writing fiction, I began mentally formulating a novel named Sense of Place. The story was set on the northwest side of Chicago, around the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Elston Avenue, just west of the Chicago River. I lived just east of the area for several years, and often drove through the intersection on my way to the expressway and my office in the suburbs. As I drove through, several features of the neighborhood caught my attention – the old Henry Grebe boatyard on the river, the Lutheran church whose sign announced that services were still conducted in German and, most obscurely, a corner tavern whose cupola was topped by a weathervane in the shape of a whale.

Slowly, a story began to materialize in my mind: a young man named Ralph Muller who lives in the neighborhood but rarely ventures outside of it; a brief fling with a young woman at Riverview Park; a meandering life that fortunately leads to a decades-long job at the boatyard; and, unknown to Ralph, a boy born of that fling who will ultimately and unwittingly take away Ralph’s house, the only thing of value that the older man ever possessed. On the plus side, I had a clear image of Ralph and the arc of his life, a good opening and a decent (if mildly melodramatic) conclusion; but, as an even bigger negative, I had relatively little to fill up the middle of the story. Because of that glaring deficiency, and because I really didn’t know how to write back then, the novel was never written, with the only thing salvaged being the first chapter, which was published as the short story “Ralph’s Last Call” in the online journal The Angler, in 2006.

Though I’m a much better writer now, the inspiration, setting and mood of the story have become so distant from the person I have become that the narrative no longer interests me like it once did, and it’s highly doubtful that the novel will ever be revisited. And I’m fine with that – it’s not as if I have any shortage of other fiction concepts to work on.

One key aspect of the narrative was the idea that the neighborhood was forgotten and forlorn, overlooked by real estate developers and not even gaining a catchy name (like “Wrigleyville”) to make it marketable. And Ralph, by his strong identification with the neighborhood, was similarly forgotten and forlorn. Such a premise made sense back in the 1990s, when the area was well past its prime and had not even a hint of the gentrification that had already tranformed so much of the city’s north and northwest sides. In telling Ralph’s story, I hoped to shine something of a spotlight on this quiet and overlooked area.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my first public reading as a newly emerging fiction writer, in 2007, took place at a coffeehouse right in the middle of that neighborhood, on Belmont just west of Elston. Though now defunct, it was the sort of self-consciously hip and funky place that never would have existed in Ralph’s world. Nearby there remain both a gourmet bakery and art gallery, two other establishments that would have been foreign to Ralph. The neighborhood, it seems, is slowly on its way to being trendy, something I never would have imagined back in the nineties.

But the biggest surprise of all was that the corner tavern where I imagined the middle-aged Ralph doing his nightly drinking – nicknamed “the Whale” for that weathervane, a no-frills, old-man’s bar with Roger Miller and George Jones on the jukebox, a mangy dog, a menu limited to Tombstone pizza and snack-sized bags of Jay’s potato chips, and no more than six or seven regulars on a good night – is now the real-life site of Kuma’s Corner, a hipster joint with heavy metal played at deafening levels, gourmet burgers and often an hours-long waiting line that trails out the door and down the sidewalk.

I can only imagine what Ralph would have thought about what became of his old hangout. He would have been bewildered and distraught, losing one of the last familiar places that made him feel safe and secure, and making the later loss of his house even more devastating. In my conception of the story Ralph passes away at the ending, which would have been several years before Kuma’s arrived. Had I ever finished writing that novel, I would have been greatly relieved that Ralph didn’t live to see what his beloved Whale had become.

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  • Jeff McMahon April 4, 2012, 12:23 pm

    Building, breaking, rebuilding…

    There’s something important to our literary appreciation of Chicago that has to do with the way this city is constantly changing, destroying and rebuilding itself. It’s why we can be strolling through a gentrified neighborhood and suddenly come upon a remnant of an earlier culture—a Bohemian name etched on a building in Pilsen, a rusty old iron railing in Lincoln Park, a deteriorating staircase leading down to the old street level in Bridgeport—and be flooded with nostalgia for stories lived and lost untold.

    Pete, have your Chicago literature studies ever brought you to Leonard Dubkin? He wrote a book called “The White Lady” set at the same intersection—Belmont, Elston, California Ave—in 1952. It’s not a novel but a natural history—his observations of an albino bat who lives in a vacant lot there—but it captures the neighborhood in that particularly vital moment. The same year our friend Nelson Algren was writing “City on the Make.”

  • Pete April 4, 2012, 1:44 pm

    No, I’ve never heard of Dubkin before. I’ll definitely have to hunt that book down.

  • Jeff McMahon April 4, 2012, 1:49 pm

    Dubkin also wrote “Wolf Point” a natural history of the curve where the river forks near the Merchandise Mart, where he worked in, I believe, insurance. He would spend his lunch hours at Wolf Point, and he discovered a thriving ecosystem there.

    He also wrote a natural history column for the Tribune.

  • Paul April 4, 2012, 7:57 pm

    On a recent trip to western Kentucky, I managed to find the time to visit the little town of Benton. I had spent many Saturdays there as a boy when visiting my grandparents’ farm nearby. I remember walking the square, visiting all of the shops, even getting my hair cut in the old-fashioned barber shop.

    I shouldn’t have returned. All of my memories of the place are now erased and replaced with new images, images of a different time. It’s a thriving little burg now rather than the sleepy county seat it once was. Along with all of the franchise food outlets and spiffy new banks are traffic and bustle. The only thing I saw there that I still recognized was the barber shop, which, blessedly, has remained unchanged in the decades that have passed.

  • David Alm April 5, 2012, 5:04 am

    I enjoyed this piece; thanks Pete. It made me miss Chicago, but it also made me think about all the neighborhoods I’ve known that have been immortalized in literature that no longer bear any resemblance to their literary treatments. The East Village and the Lower East Side, in particular, but also much of Brooklyn, where I live now.

    This seems to be a bourgeoning trend in the literary world: revisiting the literary pasts of some of these neighborhoods, and considering what they were like when now-famous books were written about them. There’s a new audio literary tour of the East Village you can download, and a book just came out last year called Literary Brooklyn, which is itself a kind of tour of that borough and its writers, the novels its inspired, etc.

    Thanks for the post.