What Would Nelson Algren Think About The Old Neighborhood Today

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

On Tuesday, Susan and I attended a screening  of “Algrren,” a compelling new documentary film about the late Chicago writer Nelson Algren, best known for chronicling stories about the seedy, down-and-out side of the city in the decades before and after World War II.

AlgrenFor much of his adult life as a writer of fiction, Algren lived in and around the Wicker Park neighborhood, not far from West Town, the neighborhood where I was born and raised.  Given the dramatic cultural and economic changes that have taken place, one has to wonder whether Algren would appreciate or even recognize his Chicago today.

As depicted in black and white footage, still images and commentary from people who knew the writer and others, the film reveals that Algren frequented dive bars, gambling dens, brothels, police stations, boxing rings and other places far outside polite society.  It was an ugly, dirty and depressing corner of the city; yet Algren often found beauty, truth and passion in Chicago’s downtrodden and the shadowy places they inhabited.algren-logo

The film does not reveal much new about Algren, his life and loves (he had a four-year affair with French feminist writer Simone de Beauvior) and his writings.  But there’s plenty of interest for true scholars as well as more casual fans of Algren, like myself.

(An aside: One short story from Algren’s great “Neon Wilderness” collection, “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” sets a strong-arm murder a few houses away from the home I lived in the first  19 years of my life.)

But if Algren strolled along North Milwaukee Avenue today and hung out with the current residents of Wicker Park, Bucktown or other gentrified North Side neighborhoods, I doubt he’d find the inspiration to write “The Man With the Golden Arm.”

Yes, the street grid is pretty much the same, and most of the same store fronts and two-flats are still standing.  There might even be an operating tavern or two Algren frequented back in the day.

What’s gone from much of Chicago is the character — and characters — that drew the writer to live with and portray life from the perspective of those people hanging from the fringes.  Algren’s Chicago was black and white, but man was it colorful in its own way.

There’s nothing wrong with change, and in today’s world change happens a lot faster and with more profound impact than in generations ago.

Perhaps that’s why, as noted in “Algren,” in 1975 the writer boarded a train East and eventually settled in a small rented home in Sag Harbor on Long Island in 1980.  His Chicago was a place he could never find again.






Will an Increasingly Homogenized Chicago Support True Characters?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

On Tuesday, as I was heading to help facilitate a work group for local professionals planning to earn the Accredited in Public Relations credential, I came across a man known to many in Chicago for two things: His wardrobe and his personality.  Our brief encounter inspired this post — the subject of which will follow shortly.

Vincent P. Falk in one of his many, many, many colorful outfits. I'll bet he doesn't own a pair of blue jeans.

Vincent P. Falk in one of his many, many, many colorful outfits. I’ll bet he doesn’t own a pair of blue jeans.

The gentleman in question, Vincent Falk, is pretty easy to spot because he wears what I believe are “zoot suits” of every color in the rainbow — and then some.

I chatted with Mr. Falk at one place where he often holds court: In front of the WLS-TV Channel 7 newsroom on-air studio, which abuts State Street near Lake Street.  Like many passersby, he hopes to get some screen time during the closing newscast credits. After asking if I could take his photo, Mr. Falk agreed, complimented me on the red golf jacket I was wearing and offered me the opportunity to don his jacket.  I politely declined: The jacket didn’t go with my trousers.

(This excellent post by the late, legendary Roger Ebert provides more on Mr. Falk, and the images are better.  My trusty BlackBerry Curve has a crummy camera, but I still love it.)

I told Mr. Falk I would like his image for my blog, but I wasn’t sure what I’dwhats-the-point-of-being-afraid-of-the-zombie-apocalypse write about. After a conversation punctuated by pun after pun uttered by this amiable, unconventional man, this became pretty clear to me:  Will people like Vinnie Falk — a true character if there ever was one –continue to find a home in a Chicago that I maintain is losing its character to conformity?

If this popular image above (probably not taken in Chicago) is any indication of the potential for future “characters,” I don’t think so.

The Chicago I was raised in was, indeed, a city of neighborhoods, most boasting people who were iconoclastic in their own humble ways, like Mr. Falk.  These were neighborhoods of two-flats, corner taverns and mom-and-pop groceries, neighborhoods where people lived for generations.  A person could be decidedly left-of-center, okay weird,  and still be accepted, still fit in.

These places hardly exist anymore, as communities like Lakeview, Wicker Park/Bucktown and increasingly Logan Square have evolved into urban theme parks, the price of admission being a $3 doughnut, $9 beer and two-hour wait for brunch. Conformists — not characters — come from these places. The thought of hanging around for generations is remote at best to many new Chicagoans.

In June, I’ll head back downtown after work to co-facilitate the APR prep class. I’ll pass the Channel 7 studios on State Street and hope Mr. Falk is there, waiting for the 5:00 p.m. newscast to end.

This time, if he offers, I’ll gladly try on his jacket.


One More Thing About the Pending Closing of Hot Doug’s

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

The news yesterday was stupefying for Chicago aficionados of “encased meats” and those who enjoy long waits to get something to eat: Hot Doug’s, the so-called “sausage superstore,” will serve its last dog this fall.

The legendary Doug Sohn, behind the counter of his soon-to-be-shuttered hot dog "superstore."

The legendary Doug Sohn, behind the counter of his soon-to-be-shuttered hot dog “superstore.”

A collective wail spread through the food-loving community, a demographic that never ceases to amaze me with their quest for edible products that are unabashedly hip, generally expensive and usually requiring a lengthy wait to purchase.    This aptly-named Chicago online source even reports on the “reaction” by Chicago’s food community to the closing on what basically is an upscale hot dog stand.

I pray those who will crave a Hot Doug’s rattlesnake dog topped with fois gras will find a suitable alternative when the establishment shuts for good. (In the full disclosure department: I dined at Hot Doug’s once and recall the dog and fries were pretty good, but not worth the 45-minute wait.)

But back to the purpose of this post: Hot Doug’s is located in Avondale, and fortunately, media reports on the story — from both traditional and digital outlets — identify the establishment as being in Avondale.

This is Avondale!

This is Avondale!

Where’s Avondale?

It’s where I’ve lived the past 14 years, a neighborhood often overshadowed by its sister neighborhood to the south, Logan Square.  Avondale is what  Brooklyn is to Manhattan, what St. Paul is to Minneapolis: Grittier, edgier and perhaps to some, less cultured and less expensive.  Many never heard of Avondale, or just lumped the neighborhood in with its wealthier neighbor.

But perceptions — like real estate values — change over time, and Avondale is now hip. Read this Chicago Sun-Times piece for details.

Not to knock Logan Square: Susan and I lived in a wonderful apartment in a greystone on Logan Boulevard for eight years and were very content.  But it wasn’t ours, and when time came to purchase, we found a wonderful home  in Avondale — just a block north of the formal boundary between the two  neighborhoods.

In fact, we’ve been in our Avondale home a little longer than owner Doug Sohn has held down counter duties as Hot Doug’s.  So, we were pioneers of living in a neighborhood on the cusp of cool even before Mr. Sohn.

So, thanks Mr. Sohn for helping to build awareness for Avondale as the next bastion of hipness.  But remember, we were here first.