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I grew up in Chicago. In Chicago. Not in a bordering suburb, not in the “Greater Chicagoland Area.” I was born and raised with an address in the “606” (the Chicago zip code) and a phone number in the “312” (which is now the “773” but still within city limits). My Dad was a Chicago Police officer, and Chicago has long clung to its residency requirements for first responders, so my parents did like all cops and firemen and bought a house as close to the edge of the city as possible, but still within legal city limits. For that reason, I grew up on the Northwest Side, in the “L” streets of a neighborhood known as Jefferson Park, right next to the Lawrence exit of the Kennedy Expressway, just past the Junction. Jefferson Park has a bus terminal and a stop on both the Metra and the Blue Line. For many years, Jeff Park was the last Blue Line stop, the end of the line, until the City extended “el” service out to O’Hare Airport. There’s an actual park called Jefferson Park in my neighborhood, and when I was a kid, it housed the newest public pool – much closer than the one at Portage Park, more than a mile away. But we tended to spend most of our time at Wilson Park, which didn’t have a pool but which was across from Pete’s candy store (now the fire station) and wasn’t surrounded by busy streets.
Where I grew up might seem unusual to some in that a large number of my neighbors were cop and fireman and city employee families. (At one point, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police lived on the corner, and half a dozen other police officers’ called our “L” street home.) But, really, such a makeup was pretty typical for Jeff Park and other Northwest-Side neighborhoods. No, what made my block – my childhood – special was the people who lived there, the unique mix of personalities that somehow found themselves living side by side in houses built so close together, you could hand a cup of flour through an open window.
Our neighborhood teemed with kids, more than a dozen with ages within four years of mine. But I? Was the only girl. Six years separated me from my older sister, and her peers on the block had a more even mix of male and female. But not mine. In my age range, it was me and twelve boys. Me and Jimmy and Michael and John John and Danny and Marty and Myles and Timmy and Andy and Tommy and Johnny and Eric and Todd. I was the adopted little sister of an entire team of brothers, like it or not. For the most part, we all liked it. Once they realized I wouldn’t break, they let me play football; once they realized I could pitch, I was welcome to join any softball game (16-inch, of course). We spent every summer day riding bikes and playing basketball or Frisbee and every summer evening playing Ghosts in the Graveyard or Catch One, Catch All. When we wore out, we’d sit on someone’s porch and talk, always careful to choose the house of someone whose dad was not “on midnights” at the police department (and, thus, forced to sleep during the day).
During the school year, we attended different schools. Most of us went to Our Lady of Victory, the closest Catholic school, but Eric and Todd and Andy walked a little further over to St. John’s, the Lutheran school that bordered Portage Park. I was in the same grade as Michael and Johnny, which means we sometimes shared homerooms, but in school, our relationships shifted. Michael joined with the cool kids and Johnny moved around from group to group, but back home, we forgot all that. We just hung out, a dozen kids connected by their addresses.
We shared hundreds of good days growing up on our “L” street, many incredible memories that we keep to this day: our marathon Kick the Can games, the day Jimmy fell out of his tree and broke his arm, the band Eric started in Kemp’s garage, the time Todd forgot his dad had removed the front steps from his porch and he went right down with a little “Oops” and a big oomph. I can still hear Timmy’s sister calling him in for dinner (“Tim-o-thy MI-chael!”), and I will always remember the sound of Eric and Todd’s dad’s sharp reverse wolf whistle, a sign to drop the bat and ball and run home. But if we had to pick one thing we all loved, one event we wouldn’t ever give up, I think we’d all choose the annual block party. It started as a one-off Bicentennial celebration and somehow grew to an annual affair; indeed, in the many decades since its inception, the Block Party skipped only one year, for reasons none of us can recall. Our “L” street holds the record for the longest-running block party in Chicago, having pulled a permit more times than any other block in the entire city. We close off the ends of the street with yellow horses and pull patio tables onto our lawns while the little kids ride their bikes up and down the usually forbidden asphalt. There’s a raffle – and, yes, I voluntarily put on a bright orange Sun-Times smock and sell tickets (fifty cents each, twelve for a dollar), walking up and down the block, saying hello to people I’ve known so long that I don’t remember not knowing them. We play games usually reserved for small towns: the egg toss, the water balloon toss, Bingo. We sit at long tables assembled in the middle of the street, generations of families mixed together, my kids playing alongside the kids of my own childhood friends; the boy I babysat, Shay, calling the numbers and reminding me that the little kid I once watched is now a father of three.
Most of us no longer live in Jefferson Park, but some do. Todd (whose now a police detective) bought a house across the street from his family home, and Andy and Johnny still live in their parents’ houses. Tommy (who now prefers to be called “Thomas” . . . but I refuse) bought a place across the street from the Jefferson Park pool. The rest of us live in nearby neighborhoods or in one of the suburbs. Only Michael and Eric moved out of state, to Missouri and Florida, respectively. I left briefly for Los Angeles when I was in my early twenties, the first on the block to move across the country (though Eric had already been to England thanks to the Air Force). On one of my visits home, I went with Todd to meet up with some of the guys at a neighborhood bar. Jimmy came in and gave me a hug and asked me how I liked California. I liked it. He looked at me and said, “You’ve got balls, Dee Dee,” and I took that for the compliment I knew it was meant to be. I’d grown up with him, one of the guys, and even at 24, I didn’t expect him to change how he treated me. And I didn’t want him to.
We’ve lost some of our neighbors over the years; most have moved but some have died. Eric and Todd’s family has taken the biggest hit. They lost their mom when we were still kids, and their dad followed years later. They also lost a brother, Rick. Even though he was almost ten years older than us, he was one of us just the same, and his wake looked like a neighborhood reunion. As he requested, his ashes were scattered across Wilson Park, where they belonged, where he belonged, where he had felt happiest. New people have moved onto the block, too, and, for the most part, the more recent residents are as friendly and community-minded as those who have left. My parents still live in the house they bought when I was just a year old, and my Dad has long said that he will remain there until he dies. I hope he gets that luxury.
The surrounding neighborhood has changed, and not for the better. Gone are the stores we walked to in our youth: the department stores, Ann’s and Weiboldt’s; Ideal Bakery (home of the best potato bread ever); Sub Tender; Woolworth’s and Jupiter. They’re all gone, replaced by rotating storefronts hawking Polish phone cards and cheap electronics. I wouldn’t walk to Wilson Park alone at night on a bet, no matter how many times I’d done so as a child. Yet, almost magically, our little “L” street has largely remained unchanged. Perhaps more impressive, though, is how those of us who grew up there remain connected, how we remain friends. We of course don’t see each other every day (though what I wouldn’t give for another round of Kick the Can), but we call and text and catch up on Facebook – and there’s always the block party. So much has changed, but so much has also stayed the same.
When my husband and I were dating, we were at a neighborhood fest in a nearby neighborhood, just walking around. “Hold on,” I said, and I ran over to a police officer and gave him a big hug. It was Timmy, who’d followed in his dad’s footsteps to become a CPD officer. Years later, my husband admitted that it took him some time to get used to seeing me greeted with a hug and kiss by guys he saw as strangers, but who I saw as brothers. But what won him over was the respect he was shown by the dozen boys-turned-men I’d literally known forever. They all shook his hand, patted him on the back, welcomed him to the neighborhood, into the family.