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L.A. Edition: Downtown Noir

October 4, 2011

Everything looks eerily familiar in Downtown L.A.: the alleys, the fire escapes, the rooftops. I’ve seen all this before, I kept thinking as I walked around with my pal David Blum, a location scout who knows every inch of L.A.’s old urban core—which, since the dawn of Hollywood, has been a convenient stand-in for the gritty metropoles of the East, when it wasn’t playing itself. These are the streets that launched a thousand car chases. They are also a fantastic repository of fading 20th-century urban grit and glamour. David and I spent a few hours seeking curiosities in the shadow of Bunker Hill’s gleaming, Die Hard–era skyscapers. We saw gorgeous relics like the old KRKD radio tower on Spring Street:

You can almost see the little cartoon radio waves emanating from it, and hear the announcer’s tinny voice, “Broadcasting to you live from the top of the Arcade Building …”

And we saw dozens of old hotels. My God, the hotels. Rising on every corner were grand symbols of Depression-era transience, heralded by huge cantilevered vertical signs:

And towering scaffolds:

In the wake of the adaptive reuse ordinance of 1999, many of those old hotels and flophouses have been converted to lofts. Others, to my amazement, still catered to a Skid Row clientele and accommodated Section 8 housing:

A few, like the King Edward Hotel, had streetfront bars attached. Just before noon, David and I ducked into the King Eddy Saloon (“Where nobody gives a shit about your name”), an unreconstructed steam-table dive and a cool, dark sanctum where we could watch people walk by on the sun-blasted street outside:

All over Downtown, the remnants of an earlier retail and dining culture could be seen. Here was the ersatz-Northwoods splendor of Clifton’s Cafeteria—that bastion of Midwestern probity in the heart of Lalaland—where a jovial server named Buck let us wander around for a while:

And here were ornate movie palaces, their neon extinct, their auditoriums repurposed for worship or other pursuits:

And popping out here and there were the rusting shingles of long-departed garment-district shops like Sunland Menswear:

Elsewhere, the streets still hummed with cottage industry. In old St. Vincent’s Court, above a barbershop and café, a jeweler could just barely be seen toiling away behind the steel bars of his workshop window:

Everywhere we walked, the architecture spoke to me of the hubris and classical aspirations of a past epoch, writ in terra cotta and soaring brick and masonry:

Buildings beckoned the eye with bold, sweeping angles, but also rewarded the attentive looker with whimsical touches:

Finally, after a French dip sandwich at Cole’s—the ancient Downtown speakeasy that’s been revived, quite beautifully I must say, for hipsters and cocktail geeks—David and I ended our walk at Casey’s, a sawdusty, basement-level Irish-American pub of the old order, where a few middle-aged men in suits had taken refuge to watch soccer and a lone, kilt-clad hostess waited out her shift in the fading, reflected light of the blazing California sun …


Pole Position

August 26, 2011

First: forgive the long hiatus, dear readers. Paying work and parenthood frequently conspire against the seeker of the Unseen. Second: I’ve got a thing for barber poles. I actually can’t believe how many of them are still around. From good old traditional twirlers like this one, near my place in Ravenswood:

And this one in Hegewisch:

To static ones like this sad-looking specimen in Uptown:

Or this sadder one, on the Far South Side:

Apparently the red-white-and-blue striped motif dates to the Middle Ages, when barbers also practiced surgery—the red symbolizing blood, the white symbolizing bandages, and the blue symbolizing I don’t know what. Barbasol, maybe. Barber poles aren’t produced on a large scale anymore—there’s only one manufacturer of them left in the United States—a fact that leaves some barbers no choice but to resort to artist’s renderings:

I feel fortunate to live in such an enlightened age of specialization that I don’t have to see the same guy for a haircut and an apendectomy. Today, the barber has a narrower mission. The inscription on this pole in South Chicago pretty much sums it up:



February 17, 2011

The streets of Chicago’s Chinatown move to their own rhythm, a fluid sort of hustle and bustle that feels at once rushed and relaxed: a worker with a cigarette dangling from his lips unloads damp cardboard boxes of bok choy and bitter melon from a van; behind a steam-fogged window a wiry man in cook’s whites methodically chops a duck carcass with a cleaver; a tiny woman in a gray padded coat whisks her smartly uniformed grandchildren into the St. Therese School, which looks for all the world as if it’s been transported directly from Mao-era Beijing:

I visit Chinatown a lot—usually for dim sum, xiaolongbao, three-chili chicken, or some other edible pleasure—but until recently, I realized, I’d never really seen the place. Striding hungrily along Wentworth Avenue, the gritty main drag, I’d never bothered to notice the regal terra cotta peacock adorning the entrance to the Pui Tak Center:

Or the winsome moth inviting visitors into the Emperor’s Choice Restaurant, just down the street:

Or the odd little doggy-door mailbox punched through the entrance of a storefront where Wentworth meets Cermak Road:

Somehow I’d missed all these hand-wrought touches on the doorways and lintels of Chinatown’s shabby-looking brick buildings. Somehow I’d failed to appreciate the faded letters in English and Chinese spelling the name of a mutual-aid society …

… or an old Cantonese restaurant:

These signs and shop windows have a sooty, age-worn look that harks back to city life during an earlier wave of immigration. Won Kow, above, served its first customer in 1928, not long after a group of Chinese merchants moved down from the South Loop and starting taking out leases along Wentworth Avenue. The restaurant occupies a building meant to at least partly evoke the forms of a pagoda, though in recent decades garish signs have metastasized across its facade:

Won Kow, the Emperor’s Choice Restaurant, and the resplendent Pui Tak Center …

…were all designed in the 1920s by two decidedly non-Chinese architects named Michaelson and Rognstad, who had befriended members of the local tong, or benevolent association, and had to study books on Chinese architectural motifs before executing their commissions.

I have a deep fondness for the outmoded, hybrid character of old, Cantonese-dominated Chinatowns like Chicago’s. I love the straightforward names of the businesses—Tasty Place, Hong Kong Noodle Company, May Flower, Go 4 Food, Woks n’ Things—and the kitschy “brush-stroke” typeface on the signs of many businesses, an age-old shorthand for all things “Oriental”:

And yet, despite such eye-catching displays, much of what’s alluring to me in Chinatown is hidden away—small curiosities and pleasures tucked almost out of sight, like these vitrines, displaying an old Quaker saying in English and Chinese, that I noticed near the entrance to the Bowman Funeral Home:

Or the Starlight Market, a cramped Chinese grocery residing inconspicuously in the basement of 211 West 22nd Place:

This store was a marvelous surprise. Though drastically smaller than the suburban Asian mega-markets popping up around many American cities—and a mere speck compared to the great open-air markets of China—the Starlight harbors an incredible variety of goods on its spartan premises: whole butterflied smoked ducks, air-cured sausages, dirt-flecked daikon and lotus roots, rock candy, prawn chips, fresh tripe, and all manner of dried fish (weakfish, threadfin fish, tilapia, croaker), plus a fair few live ones. The whole fluorescent-lit place is infused with the pungent, earthy, briny smell I’ve always associated with produce markets and fishmongers in big-city Chinatowns. It’s a bittersweet aroma, one that reminds me of how down-at-the-heels many inner-city immigrant enclaves have become, and yet it is one of the most life-affirming scents I know.

Corner Culture

January 19, 2011

I can think of few cities that have more appealing street corners—and corner buildings—than Chicago. I especially love the curiously wedge-shaped edifices sprouting from narrow lots, carved out by the city’s diagonal avenues as they slice across the street grid. Some of those buildings exude an elegant grandeur, like the landmark building on Lincoln Avenue housing the Chicago Photography Center:

Others are boxy and almost quaint-looking, like this taqueria in South Chicago:

But my affection for the corner buildings of Chicago’s neighborhoods is about more than visual appeal. I like how these structures anchor their block, how they serve as natural meeting spots and waypoints. In many neighborhoods, the seemingly bygone practice of “walking to the corner” for a beer, or a quart of milk, or a pack of smokes, is alive and well, as evidenced by corner delis like this one on the far west side:

In an era when foot traffic dominated, corner businesses had pride of place: their front door, often recessed invitingly into the contours of the facade (as at the housewares shop on West Fullerton that’s pictured below), was visible to passersby from three directions.

And I’ve always been amused by the ways that the draftsmen and builders of yore sought to impart to corner buildings a special hauteur—fanciful touches like the turret on this house on the South Side, which gives the occupants a panoptic view of their urban domain:

In parts of town where commercial life has waned, only the shells of such buildings remain, but their graceful lines are still intact:

Sometimes, on clear, bright days, even the most utilitarian corner buildings can take on a stark, geometric beauty:

Like so much of the unseen city, these unprepossessing buildings are woven into the fabric of the streets, as easy to overlook as a fire hydrant or a traffic light. But once you take notice, they seem to call out to you, and suddenly you’re glad for them, for the dignity they bring to their particular patch of pavement.

One for the Road

November 5, 2010

I love bars. Sorry, Mom, but there you have it.

I love the dark, quiet ones, the ones with old framed photos behind the counter, hanging right above the dusty bottle of DeKuyper’s Butterscotch Schnapps and next to the yellowing sign that reads “No Credit” or “Free Beer Tomorrow.” I love corner taverns, like this one on Cicero and McClean Avenues, on Chicago’s west side  …

… with its cheery paint job, its rustic Polish Highlands motif, and its quaint window treatment:

I love old bars by any appellation, whether they call themselves tap rooms, like this saloon on West Lawrence Avenue  …

… or cocktail lounges, like this place in Bridgeport …

… or even “kocktail” lounges, like Lil’s on Cottage Grove Avenue in Chatham:

Back in the day, the owners of such places, once as essential to Chicago neighborhoods as dry cleaners and newsstands, saw little need to advertise loudly, and so they hung out an Old Style sign, or maybe put a little martini glass next to the establishment’s name, like they did at the Kildare in Mayfair:

Or sometimes it’s a champagne coupe, with bubbles effervescing from the glass, alongside a jaunty musical note or two, like at this South Chicago joint:

These universally recognized symbols for boozy good times wink at me coyly as I walk by. Come in from the cold, they say. Clock out for a while. Have a nip of courage, or maybe—as when I happened upon this place in Belmont-Central—just a foamy mug and a slab of free happy-hour cheese:

But I seldom stop nowadays. Time is less elastic than before, and my drinking chops aren’t what they used to be. Still, once in a while I’ll pop into an unfamiliar bar and nurse a beer. Finding myself with an hour to kill downtown on a recent afternoon, I claimed a barstool at this place, on Van Buren:

I ordered a High Life and eavesdropped on the bartender—a heavy-set woman with dyed-blond hair, a smoker’s rasp, and an improbably huge bosom—as she yelled into a cell phone at someone I presumed to be her daughter about eating too much sugar. A few men trickled in and took up their places at the bar. A couple of them had ID badges from the Metropolitan Correctional Center across the street. I didn’t hear a single one of them put in an order, but the bartender placed a drink before them as soon as they sat down. She finally clicked her phone shut as I was taking the last swig of my beer. “Sorry about that, Doll,” she said, as if the phone call had interrupted a conversation we’d been having. She snatched my empty bottle and feigned a step toward the fridge. “How about another?”

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Ghost Town

November 3, 2010

The occupants had long since moved on, leaving behind plywood, peeling paint, and small mysteries. Everywhere I looked in Austin and its adjacent neighborhoods on Chicago’s far west side, I’d see them: abandoned storefronts, corner shops, and, sometimes, whole buildings, like this boarded-up hulk on North Avenue:

Looking like some forsaken Soviet-era People’s Hall, it gave few clues as to what it had once been. Other derelict sites hinted at histories of rapid succession or decline. The erstwhile owners of a Chinese restaurant on West Fullerton Avenue, its awning still fresh and new, hadn’t even managed to remove the neon sign in the window advertising “Seguros de Auto” before they, too, had thrown in the towel:

Like so many older storefronts in Austin and its adjacent neighborhoods, this one had a recessed entryway and display windows that, in their day, had invited passersby to step in off the sidewalk to gaze at the merchandise—whatever that merchandise had been before auto insurance and lo mein were sold here. Eventually, when a place had sat vacant for long enough, the plywood went up like armor cladding. This once-graceful storefront on West North Avenue had been empty since at least 2005, to judge from the “Hustle & Flow” poster still clinging to the door:

Some of these ghost shops had been abandoned more recently, and a few hinted at a quick or haphazard departure. Through the window of what had been a mom-and-pop hardware store in Cragin I could see half-empty display shelves and teetering stacks of paint cans:

With no one eager to move in, the owners had apparently said “To hell with it” and left it all to molder. What was the last thing they sold before locking the door for the last time? A can of paint thinner, maybe, or a roll of contact paper?

On long stretches of the main drag in Austin, there were few signs of commercial life, and what little there was transpired behind protective steel grating:

Around the 5200 block of West North Avenue, I walked past a cluster of barber shops and hair and nail salons, four or five right next to each other, that were thriving. And then, after that, nothing again for several blocks—just row after row of low-rise buildings marching off in ragged formation toward the horizon. That is, until I stumbled on this crisply painted facade, free of grates or bars and adorned with a cheerful, patriotic-looking sign that read “United Board-Up Disaster Relief”:

Below the sign was a single, small panel of plywood. In this case, I realized, the plywood was the merchandise. And by all appearances, business was good.

Beauty and the Beholder

October 21, 2010

“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” —Elwyn Brooks White

The essayist E.B. White wrote those words about New York, but they hold true for any big city. “Poetry” is a word that comes to mind frequently when I wander the streets, when I encounter sights that establish a curious rhythm, that break up the uniformity of the landscape, that express ingenuity or or even madness. Chicago, though it doesn’t offer the density of E.B. White’s New York, provides no shortage of such things.

Sometimes it’s a splash of color amid the drabness. On a weedy corner in South Chicago that I walked by recently, someone had used empty soda crates to create a tiny public garden:

At the center of it stood a strange doll-like figure—a voodoo head, coiffed with tiny flowers, resting atop the legs and pelvis of a ceramic little-girl figurine:

This piece of street art, or garden design, or whatever it was, set me to thinking about the person who’d put it there. Someone had staked out a swath of pavement and dolloped a bit of her soul onto it.

The occupant of this Bronzeville rowhouse, evidently a fancier of roses, did the same:

While I was taking that photograph, an ancient-looking woman with white hairs on her chin drew up next to me. “Them roses is all fake,” she said. “But child, that lady keeps a clean house.”

I’ve found unexpected beauty in the purely functional as well. Strolling along a residential block in Bridgeport not long ago, I came upon this unusually small traffic light:

Barely taller than me, painted the same drab green as an old street sign, it struck me as a quaint ancestor of the bright yellow stacks suspended over busy, photo-enforced intersections. I watched it cycle through its duties for a while, half-expecting to see “stop” and “go” placards flip up. A few cars came and went, obeying this silent sentinel, setting the sleepy cadence of a weekday afternoon as the rest of the city toiled in office towers.

On that same walk, as I was crossing a gentrifying commercial thoroughfare, this shuttered news kiosk caught my eye:

It, too, seemed to have been beamed down from another era, a plywood cube clinging to a patch of sidewalk amid cell-phone stores, ATMs, and other heralds of late-Capitalist existence. Inert as it was, it evoked a certain rhythm as well, that of daily working life during a bygone age when buying a newspaper was a ritual as frequent as brushing your teeth.

The poetic moments I encounter aren’t always particularly artful. I took unexpected pleasure in this streetside retail display on the edge of Gage Park:

Five half-mannequins, arrayed ass-side-out for inspection. I ventured to guess that the store owner had seen enough girls try on jeans to know which side of a mannequin sold the most merchandise.

One afternoon, I found myself edging my way through a bombed-out stretch of Back of the Yards: block after block of tear-downs, board-ups, pit-bulls, and more than a few violent-sounding scenes of domestic strife. At 48th Street and Throop Avenue, I spied a railroad viaduct, framed by locust trees, that had been painted with a single-word inscription:

The widely spaced letters—”L O V E”—looked as if they belonged on an eye-exam chart. In their starkness, they read almost as a command, posted for the public good, like “Wash Your Hands” or “Turn off the Lights.” The inscription was prosaic in its way, but a bit of poetry nonetheless.

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