By Larry Teren
I’m no Charles Dickens, but I, too, have a Tale of Two Cities. My cities also have experienced the best of times as well as the worst of times. Now, if I can only get my stories serialized in a magazine like good old Charlie boy.
A Baby Boomer and a fan of live recorded (an oxymoron?) music performances on television knows about Austin City Limits. It is the name of a show that has been on PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, since the early 1970s. Each year them Texans have a music festival yonder in the state capitol – Austin, Texas. I’m not sure if wearing spurs while swaying to the music is permissible or carrying sidewinders and shooting them off are mandatory.
Them Texans also talk in code. They have an annual music and film festival called SXSW which I’m told stands for South By South West.. Whatever happened to easy-to-the-ear expressions like “howdy, ma’am” and “you varmints better git outa town”?
Regardless, Austin City Limits means something else to me. In fact, when that aforementioned show went on the air in 1972, I thought it was a documentary on where I grew up. You see, Austin also happens to be the name of a large geographical area on Chicago’s Far West Side. I’ve been told that it currently houses over 50,000 residents. Most of the citizens living there are younger rather than older. Depending on which part of the ‘hood you live in, you can be surrounded by single story ‘A’ frame ranch style homes, two-flats, bungalows and some multi-unit apartment buildings.
The area called South Austin is narrow, maybe half a mile wide- at least the South Austin I remember of my youth. It is bordered by the Eisenhower Expressway on the north, Roosevelt Road on the south, Cicero Avenue on the east (I think) and Austin Blvd on the west. Only the north Expressway border keeps you in the city. You cross over the street on the other three borders and you have stepped into a suburb.
The city officials- those scoundrels- changed the name of the expressway from Congress after we moved away. I guess they knew that most of the inhabitants would have put up a stink. They had to wait until an almost entirely new population uprooted the locals in the transitional year of 1969. Oh, and another thing- we called them highways back in the day. Expressway was an expression used by the highfalutin snobs on the North Side. The same ones that would order a sarsaparilla or root beer at the local tavern
I lived between the area north of the highway- excuse me, expressway- and Lake Street where the elevated rapid transit trains ran all the way into the Loop seven miles east of us. This area we called Austin. Ignorant folk called it Central Austin. North Austin was from Lake Street until North Avenue. In other words, outsiders grouped us together collectively as Austin. The rest of us who paid rent or mortgages knew we were three distinct cultures.
We moved to Austin in 1959 from West Garfield Park which was the neighborhood just to the east.
We lived on the 5500 block of West Quincy near the tennis courts on the east end of beautiful Columbus Park. Growing up, I thought all city parks should be like Columbus. It was an immense sprawl of a half square city mile. I vaguely recall that in West Garfield Park, as a tyke, Ma would take the then four of us a couple of blocks west from where we lived on the 4400 block of Jackson Blvd to a very small, concrete park called Clark Playground. It had a teeter-tauter (or do you say see saw?) a set of monkey bars and swings you needed to be barred into as well as those where you could fly as high as you wanted if your feet were long enough to touch the ground. I wonder more than fifty years later if Clark is still there right next to the old Belt Line Railroad underpass.
Columbus Park, though, was different. It was large enough to have a field house, swimming pool, golf course, lagoon, two tennis courts (the other was at Austin Blvd at the west end of the park), several baseball playing fields and two playgrounds. What a life for a kid because in those days we could go discovering on our own without our parents worrying.
There were two local community newspapers in the neighborhood.- the Austin News and the Austinite. It seems to me the Austinite had more advertising in it than “copy”. I remember one time looking at the Austin News and seeing an article about a young girl about twelve years old being found dead in a garbage can. She had also been raped, according to the story. It was a shocker. Such a thing had never happened before and seemed to send a chill and ominous note that times were changing. I asked Ma what ‘rape’ meant and she didn’t answer or mumbled something like “I’ll tell you later” while my sister, who was only a year older than me- just gave a stare.
Until the mid 1960’s we could walk on our own in the evening to the State Theater, the local movie house on Madison Street, a block or so east of Austin Boulevard. Of course, our own did not mean alone but with a friend. We would ride our bikes several blocks west deep into Oak Park and take two buses and trains daily in each direction to school into the Lake View area on the North Side. There were no cell phones back then. Our parents didn’t wonder where we were. Ma had supper ready when we came home.
Austin has been in a downward spiral after the makeup of the population changed for good by the early 1970’s. There are websites devoted to the daily crime rate statistics. But times obviously are different for all city neighborhoods. Today, even in the best of areas, parents don’t let their children go exploring as we did.
Whenever I pass by anywhere on the West Side of the city, I feel a yearning for bringing back what was, for wishing that my family and friends still lived there and I could go to the corner grocery store and buy baseball cards packaged with stale gum for a nickel. Reality sucks, huh?