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Chicago’s Deep South

August 27, 2010

Hegewisch. Just saying the neighborhood’s name made me want to go there. And so I did, on a blazing-hot summer weekday, and it was a bit like a waking dream. The neighborhood—as far south and east as you can go in Chicago and still be in Chicago—felt like a ghost world when I stepped off the South Shore Line train at 9:19 a.m. and watched it pull away, headed for South Bend, Indiana. I followed the tracks for a while along a frontage road, turned onto Brandon Avenue, and walked north through a nearly silent, sun-blasted streetscape of one- and two-story frame and brick buildings. The roar of the city was a distant memory. A car door slammed; a train whistle blew; the power lines overhead crackled. By all signs, I’d alighted in a Midwestern farm town. Around 136th Street I paused in front of a dilapidated storefront. Arrayed along a narrow ledge inside the wide display window was a convoy of toy cars, their colors faded by the sun, some of them dating to the ’40s and ’50s. I could see dozens more on a crepe-covered table behind that. A sign over the window read “Hegewisch Cycle & Hobby Shop”:

Or at least it had before the wooden letters started falling off. A handwritten notice on the door said, “Open Saturdays Only.” I stood there for a while, adrift in memories of Lionel train sets, Corgi cars, Revel model-airplane kits. Did kids even have hobbies anymore?

Here and there on my walk I’d come across a tavern holding down the corner of a sleepy residential block, each one seemingly as stuck in time as that hobby shop—dark redoubts fronted by glass bricks and slit-like windows. One was called the Beacon Bar:

It was open for business at 11 a.m. The sound of conversation emanated from the front door, which was open to the street and, in the stark midday light, looked like a portal to the netherworld.

There was hardly a soul on the sidewalks, but everywhere I turned I saw evidence of what must have been: a now-disused movie theater on Baltimore Avenue bearing the neighborhood’s name;

an out-of-business restaurant in a stately corner brick building with pretty mullioned windows dressed with lace curtains;

an imposing bank with a columned façade that, judging from the Old Style sign on the front door, had been converted into a bar, which, in turn, had closed too. I later learned that the corner restaurant had been a fancy place called Moll’s, and that the bar had been named Blondie’s; its owner, apparently, offered patrons the use of “sleeping rooms” in the bank’s offices upstairs.

Jenny McGrath told me all that. She is a bartender at the Club 81 Too, a tavern on the eastern fringe of Hegewisch—in a district known as “The Avenues”—where I had lunch that day.

Jenny’s mother used to work at Moll’s and used to run Blondie’s. Jenny also told me that there used to be nothing but Polish and Irish living in Hegewisch, a former railroad company town named after its German-born founder, and that the neighborhood once was home to 27 bars. Jenny placed a very cold glass of Old Style in front of me. She was pretty and 37 years old; she’d moved away from Hegewisch, to Indiana, then got divorced and moved back. She was seeing a guy who worked at the Wolf Lake Rod and Gun Club, a couple of blocks up the street. “There’s never been a fight in this bar in 30 years,” she said.

Talking to her, and gazing at the layers of the past inscribed in the buildings of Hegewisch, was like decoding the postwar history of urban America: the shifting of ethnic boundaries, the decline of factory jobs, the ebb of main-street life.

Soon Jenny walked away to take care of another customer, and I waited for my fried chicken and drank my beer. I’d forgotten: really cold Old Style tastes really good.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kurt Keller permalink
    September 26, 2010 11:42 pm

    Just north of Wrigley Field there was a place called Micky Cleaners and it had a real cool sign. I left Chicago in 2006, so I am not sure if it is still around. Might be worth checking it out.

  2. dmcaninch permalink*
    September 27, 2010 9:17 am

    Will do so! Thx for the tip. And if you’re ever on Higgins Avenue on the NW side during a return visit, check out Trim N’ Tidy Cleaners, another crazy Googie-style gem. —DM

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