Back to Back of the Yards
(Photo: The more things change, the more they remain the same in Chicago.)
The following is a Chicagoans Project guest post from Richard Murray, scribe of the blog, Pilgrim Path. For the genesis of this project, please see here. To tell your story on CHICAGO CARLESS, email me at mike (at) chicagocarless (dot) com.
My earliest memory (or so I have been told) is being two years old year old and not so ceremoniously introduced to my new Lithuanian toddler neighbor in a sandbox. She began yammering at me in baby Lithuanian. I responded in baby English. We seemed to understand each other just fine. That’s life for you, on the southwest side of Chicago.
My parents and two older brothers emigrated for this town from Paisley, Scotland, after World War II. My mother wanted to be reunited with her siblings who had previously moved here, so they all came over and lived with my Uncle Don, Aunt Christine, and their three children above Ma & Pa, the grocery they owned at the corner of 38th and Kedzie.
But I was born in Back of the Yards. Dad moved mom into a brick two-flat near 45th and Rockwell once he saved up enough money to get out of Uncle Don’s packed house. It wasn’t a perfect solution. The apartment wasn’t exactly next to the Stockyards, but it was close enough that, depending on the direction of the prevailing winds, one could easily distinguish the aroma of the area’s primary industry.
That’s where I came into this world as the first full-bloodied American in the family. However, being raised in Back of the Yards has never been a stereotypical Midwestern upbringing. Even for the 1950′s, a pretty good title for an autobiography of my childhood might have been “Stranger in a Strange Land”.
During my school days, each Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. my Roman Catholic classmates were liberated from public school and marched (seriously, I mean marched) over to the local parish’s Catechism class. We “publics” always assumed this was where they pledged allegiance to the Pope.
As a WASP, ethnicity was always a curiosity to me. One year, as we began preparations for a school assembly celebrating the music of Americana, I was jarred by the sudden shift from singing about “Jimmy Crack Corn” to “Who stole the Kiszka?”
WASP or not, in Back of the Yards, home was no refuge from the world of differences. During the pre-air conditioned summer months, semi-permanently opened windows allowed in the smells and sounds of what was then a heavily Eastern European neighborhood. Foreign odors of boiled cabbage and polish sausage wafted in with the breeze all summer. For a week or two every year, warm evenings were played out against the soundtrack of raucous polka music from the church carnival a few blocks away, the melody punctuated only by the occasional yell of “BINGO!”
I still live on the southwest side, but it’s five decades later. Recently, I had it in mind to revisit the old neighborhood. I was visually struck by a magnificently rendered painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the side of a carniceria where the old Walgreens once stood. Street vendors still hawk all manner of exotic foods and treats, but chorizo has replaced the kiszka now, and the softer sounds of “Cielito Lindo” stand in for the “I-Don’t-Want-Her-You-Can-Have-Her, She’s-Too-Fat-For-Me” Polka.
While the experience of the place is vastly different many years later, I’m still moved by the human warmth of a neighborhood that remains a vibrant portal for those entering this city–and country–for the first time. The languages may be different, but at night we dream the same dreams. We are, after all, all Chicagoans.
Richard Murray was born and bred on the southwest side of Chicago, where he remains today. A programmer by profession, RIchard is also a poet and spiritual seeker. He spends his spare time sharing his writing on his blog, Pilgrim Path, and trying to devise a way to meet CTA President Ron Huberman.