by Judy Alter
Recently, my four kids and I headed out to tour the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. We turned off the Outer Drive at 47th Street where a huge sign welcome us to the Kenwood-Hyde Park Neighborhood.
Down Dorchester Avenue, past Farmer’s Field (an open field in my day, now a community park), past St. Paul Episcopal Church where the Judy who lived next door to me met and married her husband fifty-some years ago. And then we turned into Madison Park.
I grew up in a small, three-block enclave between 50th and 51st streets. The park is ringed by houses on the north side and apartments on the south, with a narrow one-way drive all the way around. 1340 is about a block into the park, a skinny tall red brick-and-stone structure. The kids were enchanted and got out to explore. Eventually the next-door neighbor came out to see what was going on–his house sits on my dad’s garden and was designed to match 1340. He obligingly took a picture of the kids on the steps of the house, and that picture is forever emblazoned on my mind. That was the magic moment for me.
As best I could I recalled who lived where. Finally, we drove a few blocks to see the Obama family’s home. I didn’t expect to drive right by it but neither did I expect the whole block to be off-limits to foot or vehicle traffic. Trees around the house have been allowed to grow up to the point you can barely tell there’s a house there.
We drove around the immediate neighborhood, dodging one-way narrow streets. Couldn’t recognize the hospital where Dad worked–it’s now condos but I couldn’t see the structure of the original building. We drove by and photographed friends’ houses, we drove down 53rd, the main drag which took us past the YMCA where I spent much of my teen years and past the church around which my social life revolved. The kids wanted to see Cunag’s, an ice cream parlor that made the best thick, old-fashioned milkshakes–alas it is gone.
Then on to the University of Chicago campus where the Gothic buildings transport you back in time. Particular favorites were the impressive Rockefeller Chapel where I graduated, Robie House, a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and the Unitarian Church where my parents married–my kids are sentimentalists and insisted on pictures.
I had forgotten the grace of Madison Park. Today those wooden front porches everyone had are gone, revealing the beauty of the original houses, and property is landscaped in a way never dreamed of in my day. I was delighted with how beautiful everything was–the kids expected a neighborhood that had seen better days and were surprised. The tour gave them a new view of me, and gave me a whole new appreciation for my parents, the atmosphere in which they raised me, and their taste in neighborhoods and houses.
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West and now has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. She blogs at http://judys-stew.blogspot.ca/