Sunday, June 6, 2010

Getting To Know You – Immersing Ourselves In The Neighborhood

My boyfriend Mat and I met, as many new love-stories go, on the Internet in a text-based RPG. He was an elf-eating Orc and I was a half-bird half-human druidic priestess and we fell in love. Then we met in real life and fell even more in love, and I decided to leave New York City for Chicago to be with him.

We have been here even since, starting in a cramped two bedroom garden apartment near Ashland and Augusta with three friends. Then, we moved to the top floor of a now defunct three-flat on Ashland and North with even more roommates and couch surfers. The dwelling was home to three floors full of college-aged folk and became notorious for late-night parties, mysterious fires and loud jam sessions.

In 2008 the building changed hands and the new owners, a developing firm with plans to change the structure to a high-end condo, had everyone evicted . This was perhaps an untimely decision, as the real estate market was crashing harder than a kid on a sugar rush, and the building is still gutted and vacant.

After moving from the three flat, we decided it was time to settle down per-say, and find a place for just the two of us – no more dudes, no more floor-quaking jam sessions (though this was before we purchased Rock Band and were angering our neighbors once again). We found a sub-letted condo on the corner of Paulina and Wabansia in a beautiful old red brick building that I found out was once a glove-factory, right next to the old Felt & Tarrant Comptometer building, now known as the PAC lofts. It was during this time that we decided we wanted to stay in this area for the rest of our lives and began looking for a home around Wicker Park or Bucktown.

It is now two years later, and I am sitting in our home near St. Paul and Hoyne, a place I hope to be for a very long time. Both Mat and I feel the need to immerse ourselves in this neighborhood, get to know everything about the people, the buildings, the trees. When we walk down the streets we will smile and look you in the eye and say “hello” even if you have your sun-glassed eyes locked on your phone, or head buried behind a coffee cup.

Last week, we started what will be a weekly historic walk using Elaine A. Coorens wonderful book, “Wicker Park: From 1673 Thru 1929 and Walking Tour Guide.” On today's walk, we began on Leavitt, where an older gentleman, perhaps in his late 70s, took notice of us surveying the intricate wooden detail on the house at 1630 N. Leavitt. “Did you know the el used to run right through here?” he said, pointing at a large fenced-in yard across the street. We did know, thanks to Coorens informative book, which we held up for him to see as we nodded. He said, “Oh, Elaine's book!” and told us that he had gone to see hear read the book and went on a historical walk with her. We chatted a bit more about some of the houses on the street before parting ways, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside about such a chance encounter with a Wicker Park old-timer.

We continued south and stopped to look at the fine Dutch Colonial cornice at 1542 N. Leavitt, where a gentleman and his canine companion smiled at us from the stoop. “Going on a historical walk?” he said, grinning. “I've been here for over 50 years! I moved here when I was 8, and my brother was 6! We came right off the boat from England and went right to Wicked Park.” We laughed at his joke and he looked at the book in our hands. “Is that the book by Elaine Coorens? Wow!” He told us that back the day, Elaine was a photographer for the Simmons furniture company and would take pictures of furniture for ads. His first job ever was working for her as an assistant, carrying equipment. At that moment his brother came out of the house and also greeted us kindly. They both recalled stories of growing up at that very location and seeing so many things change.

They had nicknamed empty lots, some of which they say sat for 30 years, for the names of the people who demolished the original structures. One such spot was “Sharp Park,” located on the southwest corner of Leavitt and North, named after the Sharp brothers who had torn down a tenement and left a lot full of rubble that became something of an urban-playground for the two brothers. Now there is a giant condo.

We walked east on Pierce, a street lined with giant mansion-like homes with yards two city lots wide, going slowly, taking in the fine details and aromatic front gardens. Briskly walking down the street was the same elderly gentleman we had met earlier in the day. “Hello again!” he said, and informed us that we was on his way to the store. Again we chatted, even longer this time, and he pointed us to a towering sycamore tree in the yard of 2138 W. Pierce. It was quite majestic and he told us that it reminded him of Handel's Largo from Xerxes, which he said is usually used as funeral music but he didn't like that. “It should be played on Earth Day, in my opinion. It is about Xerxes enjoying the shade of a magnificent sycamore tree, and that is what this is.” The three of us stood, listening to the wind and smiling and we stared up into the swaying canopy of leaves above the old houses. We parted ways again, though I hope we see him on our next walk.

We took Hoyne south, and before rain ended our excursions early, we met another friendly fellow who yelled at us from behind some bushes. “Do you like those blue flowers? I grew them myself! I'm 89 years old!” He reminded me a little of Molly Shannon's proud 50 year old SNL character. He popped up and approached us and explained he was a gardener and, just like the other neighbors we had met earlier, he unleashed a lifetime's worth of Wicker Park knowledge, free of charge. How fortuitous it was to have met all these wonderful people today!

We wish to emulate the kind neighbors we have met on our walks, who can tell us the histories of old houses, empty lots and of growing up in the area. Hopefully, in 50 years we can be that guy. We may be starting our lives in Wicker Park a little late in its history, but we're here to stay. We're going to see things change but hope some things will stay the same. If you see us, stop and say “hi.” Get to know your neighbors and learn about what has made this one of Chicago's greatest neighborhoods.