The Terrorists are Clearly Winning

WHEREAS, The City has determined that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire for fair market value those four certain parcels of real property located in the vicinity of Midway Airport [including] Midway Parcel 150, commonly known as 5600 – 5608 West 63rd Street…The Parcels are being acquired by the City for public purpose and use, namely, as a Runway Protection Zone or a Runway Safety Area, or both, as recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”)…It is hereby determined and declared that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire the Parcels for public purpose and use in furtherance of the City’s ownership and operation of Midway Airport…If the Corporation Counsel is unable to agree with the owner(s) of a Parcel on the purchase price…then the Corporation Counsel may institute and prosecute condemnation proceedings in the name of and on behalf of the City for the purpose of acquiring fee simple title to the Parcel under the City’s power of eminent domain.

Did you get all that?

Let me reparse it: the city wants to buy up this building and tear it down.

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As first reported by Blair Kamin, this is in the name of creating/expanding a “runway buffer zone” around the south side’s Midway Airport.

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I am, by my nature, a conservative person, in the purest sense of the word: I believe in conserving things. I believe in using what you have, instead of throwing it out. I believe in adapting, repairing, restoring, re-using. I abhor the waste of physical resources.

When charged with the awesome responsibility of managing a resource as vast as Midway Airport, however, people have an unfortunate tendency to think in grandiose terms. Plans are made by drawing on maps, made from a God’s-eye perspective, rather than from the point of view of persons on the ground. If the plan’s not big enough, just move some lines, gobble up a little more land. In the so-called City of Big Shoulders, virtually any scheme can be superficially justified by trotting out Daniel Burnham’s threadbare aphorism about how one should “make no little plans”.

Or maybe I’m looking at it backwards; perhaps this is petty bureaucracy run amuck, an old-fashioned case of government CYA – following the letter of FAA standards, no matter what, because if you don’t, someone could come around pointing a finger at you.

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Regardless, here is a plan that has certainly stirred my soul, though not for the better.

Midway Airport, like it or not, is located in the city. Not even in the suburbs, but in the city – right in the middle of it. It is landlocked. And like all such institutions, it has a civic responsibility to be a good citizen, to work with what it’s got and work with its neighborhood, rather than tossing it out or grabbing up more.

Midway Airport by night

Unleashing the threat of eminent domain upon one’s neighbors, regardless of what the FAA recommends, is not being a good neighbor.

The author of the original letter also mentions a fear that a terror attack could be unleashed on the nearby National Guard station from the building’s upper windows. I am unable to source this comment; however, if it is true, it is absolutely the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Even if these hypothetical terrorists actually gave a crap about Midway Airport (hint: they don’t, especially not with internationally famous O’Hare right up the road), why on earth would they try to attack an obscure National Guard post that nobody can even knows is there? These would have to be the most ineffectual terrorists ever. Even if somebody did want to blow the place up, what’s to stop them from just lobbing some grenades over the fence instead?

This is the kind of panic-stricken “thinking” that prevailed in the days after 9/11, when people talked about making skyscrapers airplane-proof. You don’t make buildings airplane-proof; you prevent planes from flying into buildings. And you don’t tear down the neighborhood to protect it; you adapt your behavior to avoid endangering it.

Two little theaters

Two of Chicago’s earliest surviving movie theaters – the Park Manor Theater and the New Devon Theater – were built in a similar material palette, a common scheme of white glazed brick with dark green glazed brick trim. It’s an often-seen style from the years just before World War I. I will cover it more expansively in a later post; however, in the process of researching these two, I came across so much info that it seemed fair to give them their own separate writeup.

Both were relatively small houses, running what the Tribune referred to as “photo plays”. They were built at the declining end of the nickelodeon era, when features were short, admission was five cents, and “talkies” were still over a decade away. These smaller theaters often could not compete against the much larger movie palaces which began appearing only a few years later, though some stayed in business into the 1950s or later.

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In Rogers Park, the short-lived New Devon Theater, 1618 W. Devon Avenue, was built in 1912 (previously covered in this post.) Among its earliest listings were the photoplay The Diamond from the Sky, a drama hyped with a full-page ad in the Tribune. The New Devon only lasted a few years as a theater, and housed a series of businesses in the following decades. The first was a Ford auto dealership in the 1920s, the Hughey Motor Company.

The former theater included a residence during the Depression (one tenant died in 1940; another was busted in 1948 for operating gambling equipment in Northbrook), and served as a meeting hall for the 50th Ward Republican Party (where a 1939 speaker histrionically declared that the “New Deal-communist alignment [has] made the Democratic party the party of dept, depression, disorder, and destruction. For many years the democrats have been destroying the country.”)

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In 1941 it housed the Rogers Park chapter of America First, an anti-war group which had trouble finding lodgings in the area due to landlords’ fear of being seen as pro-peace while war raged in Europe. The group had been summarily kicked out of another meeting space after only a few weeks of occupancy, no reasons given.

By 1952, it appears to have been home to Devon-Clark Radio, which changed to Devon-Clark Television by 1954, an electronics store selling Westinghouse electronics, air conditioners (“Sleep in an ice cube on hot muggy nights”, only $2.66 a week!) and other goods – though some ads list the address as 1612 Devon, a different building entirely. Want to give them a call to check? The number is Ambassador 2-3081.

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The former New Devon Theatre has been the Assyrian American Association since 1963. The one-time competitor that put it out of business, the Ellantee Theater, is visible just down the street and today houses Clark-Devon Hardware.


On the south side, the old Park Manor Theater, 321 E. 69th Street, opened in early 1914 and lasted till 1950 as a theater.
321 E. 69th Street
Its early screenings in 1914 included serials such as The Adventures of Kathlyn (also showing at the New Devon). A Tribune listing notes the theater among contributors to relief funds in the wake of the Eastland disaster on the Chicago River in 1915; the theater commonly ran the Selig-Tribune newsreel (“The World’s Greatest News-Film”, according to their ads; again, also showing at the New Devon). A 1970 column and response letter sees old residents of the neighborhood reminiscing about their childhoods, with the Park Manor’s nickel-a-show serials and Punch and Judy shows figuring prominently.

In 1937, it was involved in a discrimination suit for refusing to sell tickets to a black couple. In November 1950, the theater was listed for sale and described thus:

378 seats, fully equipped, including $800 popcorn machine; lobby and front need painting, a few seats need repair, otherwise in first class condition. Oil heat, washed air heating and cooling system, double Western Electric sound, new projector head, new strong low intensity arc lamps, rectifiers and Martin converter, new screen…rent $150 per month…a real opportunity for the right party.

Alas, the $800 popcorn machine would not see service here again; the building was home to the Philadelpha Church by 1961, followed by the Grace Eden Church – both African-American congregations, ironically (or perhaps fittingly) enough. At some point during this era, it gained a low-budget but funky Midcentury colored window across its entrance.

In 1961 it served as a back-up site for a “mixed revival” – a racially integrated prayer rally – which was disrupted by mob violence and broken up by police at its original location at the Ogden Theater, ostensibly on grounds of the building being unsafe. Threatened by demolition in 1967, it nonetheless has survived to the present, currently housing the First Born General Assembly Church.

Broadway Bank

Broadway Bank

Along the Edgewater stretch of Broadway stands a landmark building. This delightful Gothic revival structure was built for Riviera-Burnstine Motor Sales in 1925 (R. Bernard Kurzon, architect.) By 1951, the building held a furniture company, M.P. Masser, Inc; in 1966, Chicago Art Galleries Inc. was holding annual art sales and occasional estate auctions there. Today, the car dealer is long gone, but the magnificent showroom remains, artfully repurposed as the home of Chicago’s Broadway Bank in 1979.

Broadway Bank interior

The interior is hard to miss in the early evening; with its grand plate glass windows, the building positively glows after dark, revealing an ornate ceiling and original chandeliers.

Broadway Bank

The exterior is one of Broadway’s most grandly ornamented buildings, with rows of Gothic arch caps arranged in a Venetian style.

Broadway Bank

It’s a wonderful architectural gift to a stretch of Broadway that’s often desolate (across the street is the blank side wall of a big box grocery store.)

Broadway Bank

Three south side commercial streets

Years ago, I made one of my first trips to Chicago to pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio out in Oak Park. With that mission accomplished, my friend and I decided to see if we could make it down to the Robie House on the south side as well. I was driving, and elected to take a long, leisurely route through the city streets rather than jumping on a highway. It was on this trip that I discovered W. 18th Street.

W. 18th Street

I was sufficiently blown away by its endless ranks of 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, all seeming to date from the post-Fire years, that I made another trip down to Chicago just a week later, for the express purpose of paying a lengthy visit to this remarkable street.

Years later, the Pilsen neighborhood usually figures into my plans at least every few months. As a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, it’s home to scads of restaurants, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

W. 18th Street

It’s also just a comfortable and friendly place to wander and photograph. The street is rich with details – signs, graffiti, ad hoc renovations, store displays, half-completed projects, murals, rusting fire escapes, and of course block after block of ornate vintage architecture.

Sacred and secular

Thalia Hall

In light of this commercially and aesthetically rich strip, I was surprised to find not one but two additional commercial streets nearby, both equal to W. 18th Street in architecture and culture.

The first one I encountered only this weekend. I was a bit tired and hungry, but the major buildings on this stretch of Cermak Road were just too amazing to pass up. I stopped the car and walked for an hour or so. The strip is west and a bit south from 18th Street.

Cermak Road

The prize find, and the building that compelled me to stop, was the old Marshall Square Theater, now called Apollo’s 2000.

"Apollo's 2000"

The building was, after a fashion, familiar to me from a striking photograph in Camilo Jose Vergara’s wonderful Unexpected Chicagoland, but not till I was standing in front of it did I have the “ah hah!” moment of recognition, when I saw the remorselessly vandalized goddess figure on the front facade, her face obliterated by a box beam ramming through it.

They punched that chick RIGHT IN THE FACE!!

A second theater, last operated as the West Theatre, stands a few blocks east. It’s not as ornate, but still lovely.

West Theatre

The neighborhood’s official names include South Lawndale and Little Village; demographically speaking, today it’s a westward extension of Pilsen, with a heavily Mexican-American population.

Cermak Road

Further west and south again from Cermak, W. 26th Street forms the core of the Little Village neighborhood. Founded and first settled by Eastern European immigrants, the area’s current name originated in the 1970s from its more recent Mexican immigrant population.

26th Street, Little Village

Pepe's Locksmith & Hardware

The street’s centerpiece is the former Atlantic Theater building, now converted to mundane commercial use.

Former Atlantic Theater

Mother Mary

Any one of these streets would be a marvel by itself; finding them all in such close conjunction is simply amazing.