Looking Backward Chicago – American Travel

THE Chicago Club is the rich, substantial club of the city, an organization which may perhaps be compared with the Union Club of New York, although the inner atmosphere of the Chicago Club seems somehow less formal than that of its New York prototype. However, that is true in general where Chicago clubs and New York clubs are compared.

The University Club of Chicago has a very large and handsome building in the Gothic style, with a dining room said to be the handsomest club dining room in the world : a Gothic hall with fine stained-glass windows. Between this club-house and the great Gothic piles of the Chicago University there exists an agreeable, though perhaps quite accidental, architectural harmony.

Excepting Washington University, in St. Louis, Chicago University is the one great American college I have seen which seems fully to have anticipated its own vastness, and prepared for it with comprehensive plans for the grouping of its buildings. Architecturally it is already exceedingly harmonious and effective, for its great halls, all of gray Bedford stone, are beginning to be toned by the Chicago smoke into what will some day be Oxonian mellowness.. Even now, by virtue of its ancient architecture, its great size and massiveness, it is not without an effect of age—an effect which is, however, violently disputed by the young trees of the campus. Though these trees have grown as fast as they could, they have not been able to keep up with the growth of the great institution of learning, fertilized, as it has been, by Mr. Rockefeller’s millions. Instead of shading the university, the campus trees are shaded by it.

The South Shore Country Club is an astonishing resort: a huge pavilion, by the lake, on the site of the old World’s Fair grounds. It is a pleasant place to which to motor for meals, and is much used, especially for dining, in the summer time. The building of this club made me think of Atlantic City; I felt that I was not in a club at all, but in the rotunda of some vast hotel by the sea.

I had no opportunity to visit The Little Room, a small club reported to be Chicago’s artistic holy of holies, but I did have luncheon at the Cliff Dwellers, which is the larger and, I believe, more active organization. The Cliff Dwellers is a fine club, made up of writers and artists and their friends and allies. I know of no single club in New York where one may meet at luncheon a group of men more alive, more interesting, or of more varied pursuits, and I may add that I absorbed while there a very definite impression that between men following the arts, and those following business, the line is not so sharply drawn in Chicago as in New York.

At the Cliff Dwellers I met a gentleman, a librarian, who gave me some interesting information about the management of libraries in Chicago.

“Chicago is a business city, dominated by business men,” he said. “We have three large public libraries, one the Chicago Public Library, belonging to the city, and two others, the Newberry and the Crerar, established by rich men who left money for the purpose.

“The system of interlocking directorates, elsewhere pronounced pernicious, has worked very beautifully in affecting cooperation instead of competition between these institutions.

“About twenty years ago, at the time of the Crerar foundation, the boards of the three libraries met and formed a gentleman’s agreement, dividing the field of knowledge. It was then arranged that the Chicago Public Library should take care of the majority of the people, and that the Newberry and the Crerar should specialize, the former in what is called the `Humanities’ —philosophy, religion, history, literature, and the fine arts; the latter in science, pure and applied. At that time the Newberry Library turned over to the Crerar, at cost, all books it possessed which properly belonged in the scientific category. And since that time there has been practically no duplication among Chicago libraries. That is what comes of having public-spirited business men on library boards. They run these public institutions as they would run their own commercial enterprises. The Harvester Company, for ex-ample, would n’t duplicate its own plant right in the same territory. That would be waste. But in many cities possessing more than one library, duplication of an exactly parallel kind goes on, because the libraries do not work together.. Boston affords a good example. Between the Boston Public Library, the Atheneum, and the library of Harvard University, there is much duplication. Of course a university library is obliged to stand more or less alone, but it is possible even for such a library to cooperate to some extent with others, and, wherever it is possible to do so, the library of the University of Chicago does work with others in Chicago. Even the Art Institute is in the combination.”

I do not quote this information because the arrangement between the libraries of Chicago strikes me as a thing particularly startling, but for precisely the opposite reason: it is one of those unstartling examples of uncommon common sense which one might easily over-look in considering the Plan of Chicago, in gazing at great buildings wreathed in whirling smoke, or in contemplating that allegory of infinity which confronts one who looks eastward from the bold front of Michigan Avenue along Grant Park.

The automobile, which has been such an agency for the promotion of suburban and country life, seems to have the habit. of invading, for its own commercial purposes, those former residence districts, in cities, which it has been the means of depopulating. I noticed that in Cleveland. There the automobile offered the residents of Euclid Avenue a swift and agreeable means of transportation to a pleasanter environment. Then, having lured them away, it proceeded to seize upon their former lands for showrooms, garages, and auto-mobile accessory shops. The same thing has happened in Chicago on Michigan Avenue, where an “automobile row” extends for blocks beyond the uptown extremity of Grant Park, through a region which but a few years since was one of fashionable residences.

I do not like to make the admission, because of loyal memories of the old South Side, but—there is no denying it—the South Side has run down. In its struggle with the North Side, for leadership, it has come off a sorry second. In point of social prestige, as in the matter of beauty, it is unqualifiedly whipped. Cottage Grove Avenue, never a pleasant street, has deteriorated now into something which, along certain reaches, has a painful resemblance to a slum.

It hurt me to see that, for I remember when the little dummy line ran out from Thirty-ninth Street to Hyde Park, most of the way between fields and woods and little farms. I had forgotten the dummy line until I saw the place from which it used to start. Then, back through twenty-eight or thirty years, I heard again its shrill whistle and saw the conductor, little “Mister Dodge,” as he used to come around for fares, when we were going out to Fifty-fifth Street to pick violets. There are no violets now at Fifty-fifth Street. I saw nothing there but rows of sordid-looking buildings, jammed against the street.

Everywhere, as I journeyed about the city how many memories assailed me. When I lived in Chicago the Masonic Temple was the great show building of the town : the highest building in the world, it was, then. The Art Institute was in the brown stone pile now occupied by the Chicago Club. The turreted stone house of Potter Palmer, on the Lake Shore Drive was the city’s most admired residence—a would-be baronial structure which, standing there to-day, is a humorous thing: a grandiose attempt, falling far short of being a good castle, and going far beyond the architectural bounds of a good house. Then there was the old Palmer House hotel, with its great billiard and poolroom, and its once-famous barbershop, with a silver dollar set at the corner of each marble tile in its floor, to amaze the rural visitor. The Palmer House is still there, looking no older than it used to look. And most familiar of all, the toy suburban trains of the Illinois Centrail Railroad continue to puff, importantly, along the lake front, their locomotives issuing great clouds of steam and smoke, which are snatched by the lake wind, and hurled like giant snowballs—dirty snowballs, full of cinders—at the imperturbable stone front of Michigan Avenue.

Chicago has talked, for years, of causing the Illinois Central Railroad to run its trains by electricity. No doubt they should be run in that way. No doubt the decline of the South Side and the ascendancy of the North Side has been caused largely by the fact that the South Side lakefront is taken up with tracks and trains, while the North Side lakefront is taken up with parks and boulevards. Still, I love the Chicago smoke. In some other city I should not love it, but in Chicago it is part of the old picture, and for sentimental reasons, I had rather pay the larger laundry bills, than see it go.

One day I went down to the station at Van Buren Street, and took the funny little train to Oakland, where I used to live. One after the other, I passed the old, dilapidated stations, looking more run down than ever. Even the Oakland Station was unchanged, and its surroundings were as I remembered them, except for signs of a sad, indefinite decay.

Strange sensations, those which come to a man when he visits, after a long lapse of years, the places he knew best in childhood. The changes. The things which are unchanged. The familiar unfamiliarity. The vivid recollections which loom suddenly, like silent ships, from out the fog of things forgotten. In that house over there lived a boy named Ben Ford, who moved away—to where? And Gertie Hoyt, his cousin, lived next door. She had a great thick braid of golden hair. But where is Guy Hardy’s house? Where is the Lonergans’—the Lonergans who used to have the goat and wagon? How can those houses be so completely gone? Were they not built of timber? And what is memory built of, that it should outlast them? Mr. Rand’s house—there it is, with its high porch! But where are the cherry trees? Where is the round flower bed? And what on earth have they been doing to the neighborhood? Why have they moved all the houses closer to the street and spoiled the old front yards? Then the heartshaking realization that they had n’t moved the houses ; that the yards were the same; that they had always been small and cramped; that the only change was in the eye of him who had come back.

No; not the only change, but the great one. Almost all the linden trees that formed a line beside my grandfather’s house are gone. The four which remain are n’t large trees, after all.

The vacant lot next door is blotted out by a row of cheap apartment houses. But there is the Borden house standing stanch, solid, austere as ever, behind its iron fence. How afraid we used to be of Mr. Borden! Can he be living still? And has he mellowed in old age?—for the spite fence is torn down! Next door, there, is the house in which I went to my first party —in a velveteen suit and wide lace collar. There was a lady at that party; she wore a velvet dress and was the most beautiful lady that I ever saw. She is several times a grandmother now—still beautiful.

The gentleman who owns the house in which I used to live had heard I was in town, and was so kind as to think that it would interest me to see the place again.

I never was more grateful to a man !

The house was not so large as I had thought it. The majestic “parlor” had shrunk from an enormous to a normal room. But there was the wide hardwood banister rail, down which I used to slide, and there was the alcove, off the big front bedroom, where they put me when I had the accident; and there was the place where my crib stood. I had forgotten all about that crib, but suddenly I saw it, with its inclosing sides of walnut slats. However, it was not until I mounted to the attic that the strangest memories besieged me. The instant I entered the attic I knew the smell. In all the world there is no smell exactly like the smell which haunts the attic of that house. With it there came to me the picture of old Ellen and the recollection of a rainy day, when she set me to work in the attic, driving tacks into cakes of laundry soap. That was the day I fell downstairs and broke my collarbone.

Leaving the house I went out to the alley. Ah ! those beloved back fences and the barns in which we used to play. Where were the old colored coachmen who were so good to us? Where was little Ed, ex-jockey, and ex-slave? Where was Artis? Where was William? William must be getting old.

At the door of his barn I paused and, not without some faint feeling of fear, knocked. The door opened. A young colored man stood within. He wore a chauffeur’s cap. So the old surrey was gone! There was a motor now.

“Where’s William?” I asked.

“William ain’t here no more,” he said.

“But where is he?”

“Oh, he ‘s most generally around the alley, some place, or in some of the houses. He does odd jobs.”

“Thanks,” I said and, turning, walked up the alley, fearing lest I should not be able to find the old colored man who, perhaps more than any one outside my family, was the true friend of my boyhood.

Then, as I moved along, I saw him far away and recognized him by the familiar, slouching step. And as I walked to meet him, and as we drew near to each other in that long narrow alley, it seemed to me that here was another allegory in which the alley somehow represented life.

How glad we were to meet ! William looked older, his close-cropped wool was whiter, he stooped a little more, but he had the same old solemn drawl, the same lustrous dark eye with the twinkle in it, even the same old corncob pipe—or another like it, burned down at the edge.

We stood there for a long time, exchanging news. Ed had gone down South with the Bakers when they moved away. Artis was on “the force.”

“The neighborhood ‘s changed a good bit since you was here. Lots of the old families have gone. I ‘m almost a stranger around the alley myself now. I must be a pretty tough old nut, the way I keep hangin’ on.” He smiled as he said that.

“Of course I’ll see you when I come out to Chicago again,” I said as we shook hands at parting.

William looked up at the sky, much as a man will look for signs of rain. Then with another smile he let his eyes drift slowly downward from the heavens.

“Well,” he said in his nasal drawl, “I guess I’ll see you again some time—some place.”

I turned and moved away.

Then, of a sudden, a back gate swung open. with a violent bang against the fence, and four or five boys in short trousers leaped out and ran, yelling, helter-skelter up the alley.

I had the curious feeling that among them was the boy I used to be.