What can you say about Chicago? “An October sort of city even in spring,” wrote famed mid-century Nelson Algren. Algren, who wrote The Man with the Golden Arm and was sought out by feminist Simone de Beauvior, saw the world divided between hustlers and squares, with those who ran the scam often misidentified as upstanding leaders of society. Born Nelson Algren Abraham, he changed his name legally around the time he had to register for the draft. His petition for legal change of name is preserved by the Archives of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County; his draft card is preserved by the National Archives in Chicago.
A hint of Nelson Algren’s Chicago can be experienced just across Michigan Avenue from the Tribune Tower and just north of the Wrigley Building, when you walk down the stairs to the lower level of Michigan Avenue at Hubbard Street.
On the lower level at 430 North Michigan, stop in for a cheeseburger – “No Pepsi, Coke!” – or enjoy a beer at the Billy Goat Tavern, which relocated here in 1964 after 30 years on the West Side near the old Chicago Stadium. Be prepared to pay cash only, but if you come at the right time, only the radio and newspaper company regulars will be hanging out. Be sure to read the newspaper clippings by the late, lamented Algren inheritor, Mike Royko.
If you’d like to enjoy finer dining with colleagues, walk just a few feet west on lower Hubbard Street to the corner of Rush Street. There you’ll find Stefani’s 437 restaurant, a Chicago steakhouse run in the joint that used to be the hangout of Algren, Louis “Studs” Terkel, and the other Chicago Renaissance writers and artists of 1936: Riccardo’s. Thursday night, August 25, is the 16th anniversary of Riccardo’s closing. The National Archives in Chicago preserves famed proprietor Riccardo Novaretti’s naturalization records, as well as records about Studs Terkel’s lawsuits against the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1970s. While waiting for a table or your steak at Stefani’s, pull out a copy of Algren’s prose-poem Chicago: City on the Make (1951), with the intro by Studs Terkel, and
Algren’s fellow writer Richard Wright, who lived in Chicago from 1927 through 1937, worked as a dishwasher in the Hotel Patricia on Fullerton Avenue on the North Side, as a youth club supervisor on the South Side, and in many other laboring jobs. Wright’s life in Chicago left him “depressed and dismayed,” but he drew upon his experiences to write the 1940 novel Native Son. Wright donated books to the Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, where librarian Vivian Harsh had begun the largest collection of archival records and manuscripts about African-American history and literature only a few years earlier, in 1932. The Vivian Harsh Collection of the Chicago Public Library, based at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library at 95th and Halsted, is a must-visit repository for archivists, this week or in the future. Call (312) 747-6900 to confirm hours and availability; details can be found at http://www.chipublib.org/branch/details/library/woodson-regional/p/FeatHarsh/.
Ride the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line L trains southward to the end of the line at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, then take a number 95W (“W” for “West”) bus one mile west to the corner of Halsted Street and 95th. The Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, CTA bus and train maps and schedules can be viewed at http://www.transitchicago.com. As Wright’s friend Algren wrote, “By its padlocked poolrooms and its nightshade neon, by its carbarn Christs punching transfers all night long; by its nuns studying gin-fizz ads in the Englewood Local, you shall know Chicago.”
Richard Wright and Vivian Harsh (ca. 1936). Photo courtesy Vivian Harsh Collection, Chicago Public Library.