By Urban Djin
If you look at a map of Chicago from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the neighborhood was labeled “The Ghetto.” No, not the ghetto of late Elvis fame. At the turn of the century there was no Black ghetto in Chicago, only the Jewish ghetto. By the time I lived there, starting in 1983, everyone just called it Jew Town. Everyone, that is, on the South Side. As soon as you crossed Madison Avenue heading north, people tended to assume that there was a slur implied by the local moniker. But back in the ghetto, even the last remnants of the once dominant Jewish presence just called it Jew Town. They didn’t live there anymore. They lived in the affluent suburbs on the North Shore. They maintained family businesses there, not because that’s how they made their living, but because they loved the old sod. There was still a lot to love.
There was a blind man selling pencils on the corner by Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage stand. Small crowds clustered around a sharp dressed man with a small table as he engaged some sucker in a game of Three Card. “Find the Lady!” There were guys selling fake gold chains who used their disposable lighters to do a quick street assay. I guess that did prove that they weren’t plastic! A neighbor of mine had collected them for years, just to see how long it would take for them to turn green. She had dozens, each with a little tag attached noting the date of purchase. And there was Cookie, the toothless prostitute, famous for…oh, use your imagination. The air was thick with the alluring aroma of grilled onions.
The guy selling The Sun Times on the corner just below my window had full blown Tourette’s Syndrome. I would wake up in the morning to the sound of his bellowing. “You motherf&@#ing coc$&[email protected]#%ker…..” And then a car would pull over and roll down the window. He’d trot over and sell them a Times before returning to his rant. Everyone had a handle. There was Hatman, always shambling up and down the street with his hands in his pockets wearing a shabby fedora, and Sissyboy, the crackhead bicycle thief, and on and on.
If you stood in the right place you could hear five or six different things going at once. It was like a Charles Ives symphony, only set in the ghetto rather than a New England town square.
And there was music. Lord was there ever music. Music blared from a cheap horn in front of every fourth or fifth store. If you stood in the right place you could hear five or six different things going at once. It was like a Charles Ives symphony, only set in the ghetto rather than a New England town square. Blues, soul, jazz. Even gospel. There was a church a couple of blocks away that just ROCKED for hours on Sunday. Occasionally, there would be a group of four or five very proper church ladies, standing out on Halsted St. wearing flower print rayon dresses and extravagant hats, preaching and singing hymns into bullhorns, each in her own key. I was in heaven.