Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.
We were ready to move. My parents had rented the one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood just before I was born. By 1955 I was in seventh grade, my brother was in fourth and the apartment was too small for the four of us. The folks had been saving for a house for years and an inheritance from my grandfather finally made a down payment possible.
It wasn’t just about a bigger place: We were ready to move up. Maypole Avenue was an okay neighborhood but my parents were aspirational. Although my father had a blue-collar job, most of their friends were professionals. We went to symphony concerts and plays, and my mother would save for months to buy something nice from Marshall Field’s rather than settle for something cheaper.
My folks also noticed early signs of the neighborhood going downhill: houses broken up into small apartments, lax zoning enforcement and declining city services. Twenty years later much of Austin would be a high-crime ghetto.
And then there were the schools. My parents had not gone to college but were determined that my brother and I would – and would earn scholarships to do so. My brother and I were doing well in school, but our neighborhood school had 40 kids to a classroom. So my parents chose the nearby suburb of Oak Park, which had a highly regarded school system.
Our new neighborhood was only three miles from the old one but was a step up: mostly single-family homes rather than apartments on quiet, tree-lined streets. Our modest, three-bedroom house at 921 S. Humphrey Ave. was a palace compared to the old apartment. My brother and I had our own rooms and our very own backyard.
We were on our best behavior to make a good impression on our new neighbors. Until Uncle Frank dropped by unannounced a few days after we moved in. My mom’s uncle was a good-hearted old guy with a loud voice and colorful vocabulary. He stepped out of his jalopy, looked up at the house and shouted: “Well, Goddam!” My parents were not amused but the neighbors probably were.
We had to work a little harder in school. There were only 16 kids in my eighth-grade classroom. To my mother’s delight (though not ours), the school offered free music lessons: violin for my brother and cello for me.
We quickly realized that pleased as we were with our new house and neighborhood, it was modest compared with some parts of Oak Park: a gracious community that included Victorian homes, impressive mansions and Frank Lloyd Wright landmarks. I thought of our house and neighborhood as the first rung on the ladder. When I walked home from high school I used to admire the nice homes I passed and would visualize owning one of them – which I did, years later.
Living on the wrong side of the tracks was rarely an issue in high school, at least not for me. Wealth and social status may have been important in some circles, but the school was too large for any one clique to dominate. I hung out with the brainy nerds and edited the school newspaper. It didn’t occur to me that some of my friends were wealthy until I visited their homes, and it didn’t much matter.
Oak Park was a good fit for us, as it turned out. After my hitch in the Navy I gravitated back to Oak Park and raised my own family there.