By Larry Teren
In late August 1968, our family finally got out of the far west side of Chicago and moved to the far north side. Rather, we were pushed out of the west side- but that’s another story. Now we were in a location that was as if living in the suburbs. There were half built roads and plenty of empty lots along with the serenity that comes with living in an isolated area.
We moved into a townhouse development with its own private off-street parking which made Dad quite happy. Each unit was entitled to two car spots in front of their house. Dad was the only driver in the family at this point. Ma never learned to get behind a wheel. Made her too nervous. Somehow that never affected her whacking us when it was appropriate.
Our townhouse anchored the north end of the development. Next to us was a gigantic open field and next to that a fancy small city park. The park had an enclosed tennis court designed for two concurrent matches, an open basketball court with four rims so that there could either be four half-court games going on simultaneously or two semi-full-court ones. This didn’t impress me because we had all that and more ten times the size at Columbus Park, the sculpted greenery that was down the block from our two-flat on the west side. What did get this fifteen year old kid going was that he could look out his bedroom window and see if there were any baseball games going on at the two large diamonds in the ball field next to the basketball and tennis courts. Not only that, but with the unobstructed view, he could take a quick survey and see if there was a shortage of players and therefore worth it to lace up his gym shoes and run over to the park.
That changed at some point in the 1980s when a wealthy guy with nothing else to do decided to buy up the empty lot next door and put up a senior citizen assisted living facility. Nothing wrong with the facility. It is still there and kept up very nicely. But gone went the unobstructed view to the park. Now one had to walk more than a block to the park to see what was going on. Of course by then, the once-fifteen year old boy was a so-called adult living away from the house and trying to jump-start a career in computer consulting.
Other pieces of the open-look serenity started to crumble much sooner. Until the early 1970’s the street that abutted the south end of the townhouse development was quite narrow. If cars were parked on both curb sides, there was room for only one vehicle to pass along the street. If two cars converged from opposite directions, one driver would have to find an open parking spot on his curb and pull into it to permit the other vehicle to pass. What made this somewhat foolish and self-defeating was that all the homes on this two block disaster had front lawns that were as long as the house lots. It was as if all abodes were to a manor born.
Compounding this irritating setup was that the corner intersection of our road and the thin street had only one set of stop signs- for the cars traveling north and south. The thin street traffic did not have to stop. The drivers took advantage of this and never slowed down seemingly determined to show that they had the right of way. Worse, cars coming from the north heading south could not keep going across the interchange after they came to a stop. They either had to turn left or right. The other side of our two lane road was a one way street for traffic moving northward.
North of our house, the paved road came to a quick end a half block away. From that point on until two full blocks away at the beginning of the park, it was an unpaved gravel mess of stones and glass. Our townhouse was first occupied in 1963. Apparently for more than five years, the city of Chicago did not feel it was of any value to connect the frontier to the rest of society. Finally, in the Spring of 1969, the road was completed and we were given passports to get to the shopping district that lay four full city blocks to the north.
Came the early 1970’s and the owners of the properties that faced the thin street were rudely reminded that they were not feudal estate holders and woke up one morning to find that the city had taken away their humongous front lawns. The road was repaved and two cars could easily go up and down the street . Part of the deal, though, to make the local citizenry happy was to finally put in a full four way stop at the corner near our townhouses. Otherwise, the locals were afraid that given an easier pass through, drivers would zoom down the street.
The city engineers forgot to put up warnings to drivers that the intersection was now a four way stop. One afternoon, I walked two blocks east to a drug store to pick up the Chicago Today, an afternoon paper. (Yes, in 1970 or so we still had four papers, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.) On the way back home, I held the paper in a reading stance while every once in a while glancing at what lay in front. As I approached the aforementioned corner, I decided to take a slight shortcut away from the cross walk and instead veer to the right in diagonal to save some steps back to the house. As I made it safely across to our sidewalk, I heard a loud tire screeching and crash noise. I turned to see a car slowly rolling onto the sidewalk corner I had moments earlier vacated. It continued unabated up the lawn of the northeast corner house finally coming to rest as it destroyed a bush or two and touched upon the bricks of the building.
I later found out that an elderly gentleman driver was confused about the stop signs and thought he had the right of way. Unfortunately, it was the last thing he thought. That was when the city decided in the interest of progress, the corner should now have a real honest-to-goodness stop light.
The interests of progress was not yet complete. The previously thin street continued only for another two blocks west of us, cut off by a river channel. The suburb on the other side of the channel had refused- and still does- to permit a bridge over the channel. They plainly don’t want the extra traffic.
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, once a driver got to the end of the road, they had only one choice to make- turn right onto a partially paved road that had on its east side a slew of condominium buildings and on its west, the riverbank. Apparently, the city still felt like treating those of us who loved serenity as if we really meant it.
One could not turn left because there was no road for two blocks to the south but a closed-off field instead. If a person wanted to leave Serenity and go south to civilization he had to traverse down a narrow side street. This, of course, did not make the residents of the side street very happy as they were constantly ducking the speedsters.
Then one fine day a decision was made to clear the field, open the two block stretch of road to the south and fully pave the road on the left. Hallelujah! Our little isolated community was further brought in touch more quickly to a vibrant, outside world. Except that now all the speedsters from the south found that they had a new shortcut to the north by using the extended road up to the previous thin street and raced eastwards.
More than forty years later, Ma still resides in the townhouse engulfed by the retirement house hoping never to need its assisted living. I visit frequently, now living in the suburb that refuses to allow a bridge. No one plays baseball at that park anymore but something called soccer. The tennis courts are used by immigrants who practice their cricket. A few weeks ago, Ma and I were standing at that famous corner on the southwest side of the street waiting at a red light to cross back towards the house. Impatient that I am, I stepped about a foot or so onto the street. Ma admonished me to be careful because there was very little room for cars who were heading east to maneuver around the car trying to make a left and go north onto our road. She advised me to move back onto the sidewalk or risk having my shoe tips run over.
Last week, my older sister took Ma out shopping. She chose to come back to the house in such a way that she was attempting to make a left turn at that corner when all of a sudden, a guy going just a little too fast in the rain didn’t maneuver his vehicle around hers. Instead, he crashed into her trunk. His vehicle got the worst of it. Her auto did not roll into the corner house nor did an oncoming car accordionize hers. Her car was reparable and the other driver had insurance. And I’m the guy who had to change his schedule so he could take Ma for her pre-arranged visit to the doctor the following day.