May 9, 2009

Next Stop: Wilson Avenue! From "The Breath of Scandal"

This excerpt from the 1922 novel The Breath of Scandal by Edwin Balmer is a bit lengthy, but it provides an excellent description of the Uptown area as it once was, when Wilson Avenue was "a country road with patches of woods and wide, meadowy vacant lots." It is told from the perspective of a "privileged" girl and, it seems, even then, people were bemoaning the changes to the neighborhood, when the area surrounding Wilson Avenue was "being ruined."

From Chapter XVI:

MARJORIE set out for Clearedge Street before nine the next morning and, determined to make this expedition wholly as a free agent, she left home on foot and took the elevated train cityward from Evanston. For five or six miles she gazed from the car window down upon pleasant, rectangular back yards with fresh, green grass and occasional spots of yellow crocus and with budding lilac and bridal wreath bushes set against the rear and sides of seven and eight and nine-room houses of brick and frame and stucco, with garages associated; and now and then there came into sight larger, and usually older, dwellings of ten or twelve rooms, with wider lawns and gardens.

Red and yellow and dun flat buildings loomed here and there; even in Evanston were blocks of apartments, but the flat did not prevail. Most of the Evanston apartments, and most of those in the northern fringe of Chicago, were of six rooms or larger, and they offered sufficient space physically to permit, if they could not be said to foster, an approximation of the "home" life which Marjorie considered normal. But soon, not only the green back yards and the lilac-girt houses disappeared, but also the six-room, six-flat semidetached structures ran into solid blocks of smaller, residential suites side by side in uniform strata. What back yards these buildings boasted were preempted by newly washed sheets, pillow cases and underwear and stockings flapping in the April breeze; for though the day was Thursday, these people honored the tradition of Monday wash day more in the breach than in the observance; and necessarily, as they were obliged to take turns — or paid persons for them took their turns — at the washtubs in the basements above which, seriatim, they dwelt.

"Wilson Avenue!" the guard called when the train next slowed and, in a minute, Marjorie was down on the street in the midst of the most ultra-modern and challenging, the most ominous or the most hopeful — according to your point of view — but at any rate, by far the most prophetic section of Chicago, and that one with which Marjorie Hale, by her birth and upbringing, was least equipped to cope.

Almost within her own memory — and well within the clear recollection of her mother — Wilson Avenue was a country road with patches of woods and wide, meadowy vacant lots, swampy in wet weather, where violets and strawberries, "cat-tails" and black-eyed Susans grew wild on the edges of the grass lawns surrounding the first, suburban homes of Sheridan Park. The old steam branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad — a twelve-mile spur from the Chicago Union Station to Evanston — had small occasion to halt its commutation trains there. Neighboring to the south, and cityward, was the little suburban settlement of Buena Park, where the children of Eugene Field's verse were growing up and girding themselves for their redoubtable defense of the Waller lot. Old American families lived here, and where the trains stopped at Argyle Park and Edgewater, a few miles further out from the city and where Corinna Winfield had lived before she married Charles Hale, were other families of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State upbringing and tradition and, particularly, from such old Puritan towns as Salem. The impulse of the pioneer as well as the blood of the Puritan descended to them who built their separated, independent homes and preferred few neighbors and feared not the coming of children. In one house the caller would see the sword of a Sheridan cavalryman in its sheath on the wall; in the next, where the father had been too young to have ridden in the Shenandoah, the Harvard oar which he had pulled against Yale hung over the hall mantel. These people thought in terms of American families of English descent in Chicago and Boston and New York; it was the age when Mrs. Potter Palmer reigned in Chicago society and when to be received at the castellated Palmer mansion on Lake Shore Drive was the proof of position; when the Chicago newspapers boasted of triumphant marriages of Chicago girls to English noblemen and heralded that the leader of Chicago society was received at the English court and was entertained at English castles. This all supplied to girls like Corinna Winfield, on the fringe of Chicago "society," a perfectly definite and orderly scheme of social advancement, starting from where you were and progressing through acquaintanceship with older and more established families here, through older families in Newport and New York and on to England. She was simply following this scheme when she married Charles Hale, a young man not of superior social position but certain to be more successful than her own father and certain to be able, with her, to win higher place; and this was the scheme of life which consciously, or subconsciously, underlay every effort in Marjorie's upbringing and in accordance with which Corinna Hale had moved the family to Evanston. For, from her point of view, which she also made Marjorie's, the old section of suburban homes north and south of Wilson Avenue was being "ruined."

The trouble was that the immigrants crowding Chicago — the Italians, Bohemians, Swedes and Danes, Germans, Ruthenians, Croatians, Poles, Magyar, Irish, French, Jews — the vigorous, vital, enterprising peoples who a generation ago supplied you with servants, laborers, bootblacks and tradesmen and who kept themselves conveniently and picturesquely in foreign colonies, "slums" and ghettos, were forgetting their proper "place." For their children were growing up; and these new Americans felt small need for the old-world associations to which their fathers, feeling themselves at a disadvantage in a strange land, had clung, comforted by the sound of their native speech and encouraged by papers printed in the old language. These were the children who had learned American in the public schools and, for the most part, refused to speak their fathers' tongue; eagerly they fitted themselves for and boldly entered trades, businesses and professions never aspired to by their fathers; they succeeded, mixed again and met and married outside their own race and struck out for the American community which lay along the lake north of the city.

To accommodate them, an elevated railroad, with electric trains running at intervals of minutes, paralleled the rusty rails of the old suburban spur and, instead of slighting Wilson Avenue, it made a terminal in a meadow there; and upon the old American families, each in its separate home at intervals along the oak-wooded shore, the Chicago melting-pot began to pour. To the end of those elevated rails also traveled boys and girls and husbands and wives come to Chicago from Frankfort, Manistee and a hundred other little towns up the Michigan shore; from Lafayette, De Kalb, Ottumwa, Lincoln and LaCrosse and the thousand other little cities and villages of the surrounding States. These may actually predominate in the present population of Wilson Avenue but, in so far as their tradition is that of the American pioneer in his isolated, independent home, dark and quiet at an early hour of night, they have exchanged it for the more delightful customs of the new Americans, bred in the city, whose inherited instinct is a composite not of Anglo-Saxon frontier rigors but of continental reflexes brought from centuries lived in European walled towns. They built up the modern Wilson Avenue, — and by "Wilson Avenue" the Chicagoan means a wide district north and south, which the actual avenue bisects from the lake west, — making it the exaltation, not of the kitchen and the sitting room, but of the inn and the street; not of the sewing room and the meetinghouse, but of the shop and the theater.

Marjorie Hale could thrill to the gayness, the lilt and elan of such life when she met it in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard des Italiens, in Brussels on Boulevard Adolph Max and when she found it in Milan, in Prague and Rome, The "continental" abroad pleased and exhilarated her; but here in Chicago, where people were so aptly learning the art of living in a city, it offended her; for her Chicago should be a sort of transplanted New England and these people, seizing on a section which satisfactorily had been progressing before, were transforming it into new almost-anything-else. They disregarded all her conceptions of social advancement; they not only failed to understand the scheme to which she had been born, but they seemed even to be unaware of its existence in their absorption in ends and aims of their own toward which they were striving by rules they were making for themselves.

Of course, Marjorie did not think this out; it reached her through feelings as she responded, in spite of herself, to the allure and exuberance of the smart display in the shop windows, to the enlivenment of a splendid theater front and the luxuriance of a tea room which would have been the envy of her Rumpelmeyer's of the Rue de Rivoli. They all were new as, in that neighborhood where twenty-five years have heaped values of millions upon the meadows of violets and black-eyed Susans, everything is to-day's and to-morrow's creation. Nothing which was conspicuous either obviously possessed a past or — by imitation of old architecture — brooded on the past of other places. The people apparently brooded not at all on their pasts, whatever they might have been.

It was morning, and though these streets are not at their best early in the day, Marjorie was sensitive to the animation of the people passing her; and she was particularly unwilling to feel energized by them, especially by the girls and the women from nowhere that she knew and headed to nothing that she could discern. But too undeniably they possessed something which she and her own friends, who fitted into her scheme of things, had not; they displayed positive qualities which — to their minds, at least — not only compensated for whatever lacks she might find but which endowed them with a sensation of a certain advantage of her, as they noticed her. It irritated Marjorie that they recognized her instantly as different from themselves and, by a glance, could set her apart from them, — and not above them; not obviously below them, either. They seemed to Marjorie — these girls, living in flats and hotels and rented rooms, in restaurants and cafeterias, many of whom were on their way to work — to strike a sort of balance in their valuations of Marjorie and themselves, conceding to her traits they had not and conscious of their possession of an attribute she wanted...

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