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.
I’m a city kid. My childhood home was a three-room, third-floor apartment at 5025 Maypole Ave. in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. My brother and I slept on bunk beds in the bedroom, and our folks used a fold-out sofa bed in a living room that also housed a pull-down desk and an upright piano. The four of us could just fit around the kitchen table.
The location was ideal for a family without a car. Spencer School was across the street. A store at the end of the block sold milk, bread and penny candy. My father walked to work at the Dowst Manufacturing plant a half-mile away. There was a movie theater five blocks away on Cicero Avenue, and we hauled groceries home from a nearby A&P supermarket in a little red wagon.
Public transportation took us everywhere, even after my folks bought a car in the early 1950s. The Laramie Avenue station on the Lake Street elevated line was four blocks away, with a 20-minute ride downtown to the Loop. A bus on Washington Boulevard two blocks away took me to Cub Scout meetings. The Madison Street “green hornet” streetcar three blocks away took us to Goldblatt’s department store at Madison and Crawford. I rode a “red rattler” streetcar on Lake Street to the library and the YMCA.
The neighborhood was a working-class mix of apartment buildings and two-flats with a few single-family homes. Our playground was the sidewalk in front or the alley in back. The front lawn of our apartment building was off limits: If we stepped over the low chain fence to play on the grass the janitor would yell at us. The nearest actual playground was blocks away, across two busy streets, and generally wasn’t worth the trek. The alley was more interesting than swings and monkey bars on bare gravel.
There were spontaneous games of baseball in the alley or, more often, bouncing a ball against a garage door. Girls played hopscotch and jump-rope. And there were things to explore: discarded furniture in an alley, nearby industrial goings-on and the occasional construction site. Our mothers taught us to always look both ways when crossing streets, and we developed the knack of judging traffic before dashing across. Kids grew up agile and smart and no one I knew was ever hit by a car.
Our immediate neighborhood was mostly Irish-Catholic, and most of the neighbor kids went to St. Thomas Aquinas School a few blocks away. (We envied them a little because saints’ days were school holidays and they seemed to have lots of saints.) Many of my classmates at Spencer School were Jewish kids who lived in slightly nicer apartment buildings on Washington Boulevard, and I attended Cub Scout meetings in a synagogue.
Spencer School was a massive, red-brick edifice with stout doors and dim hallways. It’s still there and the exterior looks pretty much the same. Chicago schools were on a semester system that graduated two classes a year and enabled bright kids to skip half a grade at a time. I skipped the first half of fourth grade (after being reprimanded for reading two chapters ahead of the class) and the first half of sixth. Because two half-grades shared a classroom, skipping a grade was merely a move from one side of the room to the other. All the kids walked to school and went home for lunch. After school I had a paper route, delivering the Chicago Daily News from a pushcart.
Free-range kids were the norm in those days. Our neighborhood had its share of tough kids but I don’t recall feeling particularly unsafe. My folks turned us loose but set limits. They were displeased one Halloween when one of my friends suggested trick-or-treating in the taverns along Cicero Avenue and I came home with a pocketful of change. Parents generally didn’t drive kids around: I walked or took public transportation to Boy Scout meetings and activities at the Y.
In my middle-school years my parents let me ride the El to the Loop alone to wander around State Street and Marshall Field’s. When we moved to a suburb a few years later, I was appalled to learn that one of my high school friends was not allowed to go downtown by himself because his mother thought it was unsafe.