Saturday, February 02, 2008

Happy 100th birthday, Leon Despres!

Today is the 100th birthday of one of my heroes (and I don’t just throw that word around), Leon Despres, who served Chicago as alderman of the 5th ward from 1955-1975. A timespan that, you might note, corresponds pretty neatly with the Richard Daley I era. And as you can learn from his 2005 memoir (which I confess I haven't read yet!), Challenging the Daley Machine, often he was the council member who didn't just rubber-stamp Daley's policies, the 1 in 49-1 votes.

As someone who believes Richard J. Daley tended to be on the wrong side of most things and handled any number of tricky situations in the wrong ways, it's thrilling to know someone challenged the racism of the way Chicago built its expressways and public housing and undertook urban renewal. (For a thoroughly researched biography of Daley I (and I HAVE read all 500+ pages of it!), see American Pharoah; for the faster, more entertaining read, see Mike Royko's classic Boss.) A New York Times article from 2005 noted, "Though he is white, Mr. Despres was known for years as 'the lone Negro on the City Council,' leading the push for housing desegregation while the African-American aldermen allied with the mayor were denounced as the Silent Six." (Of course, there were black activists working on these issues outside of city council...)

I went to Depres' recent appearance with Kenan Heise (they've collaborated on a second book) at the Harold Washington Library a couple weeks ago; you don’t pass up a chance to see someone who’s 99. Also, I wanted to finally learn how how to pronounce his name after stumbling over it so many times; say it Leon (some call him “Len”) "Duh-prey." They discussed all these big issues, of course, and told a fascinating anecdote of when Despres and his wife Marian visited Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico; Leon took Frida to a movie while Diego painted a portrait of Marian! I was intrigued to learn Despres had something to do with getting the CTA to finally allow female bus drivers. Imagine, a time when you had only ONE gender of surly, gum-chewing bus drivers who pretend not to see you as you run through traffic waving madly in a futile attempt to not have to wait another 20 minutes...Anyway, I researched this online to little avail. (Googling "CTA bus drivers" quickly turned up “CTA bus driver sued after fatal accident,” “Drug felon recruited bus drivers for CTA,” “CTA bus shooting,” “CTA bus drivers behind wheel without licenses.”) But apparently the first female bus driver here, Mary Wallace, retired in 2007 at age 55 after 33 years.

It wasn't until after the event, hearing a piece on WBEZ and seeing this photo, that I knew Despres also helped found the Hyde Park Co-op. It recently closed (to be turned into a Treasure Island, so at least the neighborhood still will have a grocery). On Gapers Block, Lindsay Muscato and David Schalliol detailed the jazz-style "funeral" for the store; see the accompanying photoessay (with music!). Recent stories on Despres also include this "848" piece on WBEZ and a "Sidewalks" column by Rick Kogan.

Leon's wife, Marian Alschuler Despres, passed away last year; they were married for 75 years. She's considered one of the founders of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (I had trouble finding specifics about its founding, but I know it got started in the successful effort to save the Glessner House.) They were both quite active in historic preservation efforts in Chicago.

Marian's father was architect Alfred Alschuler, about whom I was shockingly ignorant, though I'm certainly familiar with some of his buildings, like the London Guarantee & Accident Building (1922-23) at Michigan & Wacker, the Austin branch of the Chicago Public Library, and the Florsheim Shoe company building at Belmont & Pulaski, now The Shoemaker Lofts. Also, the K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Temple (1924), built in Hyde Park after K.A.M. moved from the Pilgrim Baptist Church. [NOTE: there's a correction to this in the comments.] Of course, we've lost some of his buildings, including the 1927 Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building, torn down in 2002-03; Preservation Chicago has the enraging story here. And another will be gone before long...the former Brach's candy factory. I know I'll be spending some quality time with this wonderful map of his known Chicagoland buildings and their current status.

In other news, that isn't actually news but self-indulgent detailing of my life, yesterday I had my second visit to the Lake Breeze restarant, right next to the Thorndale Red Line station. I had an inkling, now turning into a full-fledged theory, that the smaller/cozier a "family restaurant"/diner is, the less service you'll get. Unless you grew up on the same block with the owners/servers or something. But that was okay, it's a cheap convenient place much like Standee's at the Granville stop, except they don't have a cool neon sign so no one knows about them; I didn't know what they were until a Chicago Reader section on diners. I'm also a bit cranky about this place because I'm sure it's where last winter I lost my beloved feminist winter hat. What's a feminist winter hat? Well, it was hand-knitted, lavender with the female symbol in pink, and I got it at a feminist activist conference in Asheville, N.C. in 2003. I didn't notice right away that it was gone, then I thought it might be too late to go back for it...

So I finally made it back to the Chicago-Main Newsstand (now on my blogroll) in Evanston. It was a tough trip because I finally had to acknowledge the huge old building across the street (photos here) I saw last summer had been completely demolished. So I guess everyone ran out to get The Next American City after my mention; only 2 copies were left. It's got shocking articles on--are you sitting down?--a rust belt industrial city facing continuing population loss and decline, and a trendy West coast city where racial minorities and artists are being pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods they helped popularize. Okay, snark. It really is a great magazine.

I picked up glossy magazines on a couple cities I'd like to visit this winter/spring, St. Louis (their website is missing right now) and Phoenix. I've got to study up on the matchmakers, lawyers, and cosmetic surgeons I'll need to visit when I'm there...well, that's most of the ads...I've got Arizona links now, there are some historical buildings there, even in Tempe. The Detroit magazines were weird, just a big fashion/rich-people one and one put out by the tourist bureau, so I skipped those.

I got Vegetarian Journal, put out by the reputable vegan organization The Vegetarian Resource Group; I've got nearly all their cookbooks and I'm intrigued by the new one called Vegan Seafood. Musician Ted Leo (a friend of a friend of mine from long ago; I remember him from his days in Chisel!) is interviewed, and there's a cover story on vegan cheesecakes. That's a food where I definitely prefer the vegan version, the “regular” kind is so rich and heavy. And I got Atomic Ranch, "a quarterly magazine devoted to"...well, mid-century modern things I can’t possibly afford, except for the books about them. There's a story on Russel Wright; I saw the show "Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle" at the Cooper-Hewitt design museum in NYC in 2001. And a fabulous article on transistor radios; on my second Flickr account I've got a contact, TRANSISTOR RADIOS, who's really, really into them.

I thought I'd grab a few groceries at Wild Oats; I never made it there when that place was still called The People's Market or whatever. I'd forgotten they were taken over by Whole Foods and the store is a strange mix of both stores' signage and store brands right now. Didn't have much cash so I limited myself to my boring Whole Foods staples, probably the top 5 things I buy there: soymilk (the store brand or whatever’s on sale), plain firm tofu, organic carrots (I have no trouble going through a 5 pound bag but I just got 2 this time), hummus if it's on sale, and tortillas (I was unduly excited to buy something that's still the Wild Oats brand). And I asked for a plastic bag instead of paper, because Whole Foods has pledged to eliminate plastic bags by Earth Day 2008.

Taking a slow, scenic way home, I noticed there's a huge condo going up in the spot where half an old terra-cotta detailed building (including its center ornament, boo) was demolished last year. Why just half? Is that common? And if anyone knows what that huge newly vacant lot visible from the Loyola Red Line is, let me know. I have the troubled feeling it might be that weird restaurant-esque building (reminds me of HoJo or IHOP, but not really like either...hard to explain) that I think was an arts building at Loyola. The internet was no help with this one. [NOTE: See comments, yes, it's gone, aww.] Random fun fact: the pink sprinkles you see in the bakery supply photo above are the ones I used on the cupcakes in my previous post!


reallyboring said...

I need to read Despres' book. I loved both "American Pharaoh" and "Boss", both of which I had academic excuses to read. I probably should have read "Challenging the Daley Machine" for my thesis, too, but oh well. Despres was an interesting alderman, and he and his wife did a lot for this city (and for the South Side particularly).

A minor correction: the current K.A.M. Isaiah Israel was built as the home of the Isaiah Israel congregation first. When K.A.M. moved out of what eventually became Pilgrim Baptist, they landed first at 50th and Drexel, in the building that now houses Operation PUSH. K.A.M. moved in and merged with Isaiah Israel in 1971.

The large vacant lot west of the Loyola Red Line station is, in fact, where that restaurant-looking building used to stand. (I had pegged it as a former Chinese restaurant because of the steeply-pitched green tile roof, but who knows.) The building, as far back as I can remember (which would be 2003, when I moved here), bore the sign "Arts Annex", so I'm guessing that there's a new Loyola building going up there.

Katherine said...

thanks for the info--I made a couple modifications in the post. and now I know about your blog, too!

Drew said...

Great blog! I used to live a block away from that newsstand and I was thrilled to see the photo of the familiar neon sign at the top of the page. Next time you're in that area you should try the Lucky Platter...

Anonymous said...

I had no idea this blog even existed until today. I love it! I especially love the photo of the Standees sign.