Three generations and the Jewish South Side

By David Caplan, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Taking his time, my grandfather pulled the heavy, quiet ’57 Buick, 10 years old but perfectly maintained, into the gravel lot and with his usual flourish of the accelerator shut off the engine. Not many cars were parked here, but there was still a man in the white booth in the center of the lot waiting to hand out tickets and collect the 25-cent fee.

Although the shopping district had seen better days, the sleepy stores at 79th and Halsted on Chicago’s South Side somehow remained—the men’s clothier my grandfather and I passed as we walked north on Halsted, the army surplus next to it, and then the shoe store in the building my grandfather owned. Adding to the sense of decline was the shuttered Capitol Theater across the street. The round-shouldered buses that ran along Halsted connected to electric lines overhead also contributed to the impression that time had passed the area by.

Shoe stores such as Lewin’s no longer exist. Nowadays merchandise is stored only in back, interiors are brightly lit, and the pungent smell of leather doesn’t permeate the air. And shoe men such as Mr. Lewin are no longer found. He had a jowly face and an authoritative voice and had been known to say that arches needed support the way his portly wife needed a girdle.

Rushing forward to greet us, Lewin acted as if the landlord and his grandson were distinguished guests. “Well, this is a surprise,” he said. Lewin himself had once owned the building, before he sold it to my grandfather.

While I was testing out a new pair of penny loafers, my grandfather and Lewin stepped aside for a brief conference. Retired from the business of making ladies’ coats, my grandfather still dressed well, in good clothes that were out of date. He wore dark pleated suit pants of heavy fabric, white-on-white shirts with a subtle diamond pattern, and size 7 black lace shoes. Although he was only five-feet-four, he didn’t seem short because of his incredible posture. The words I had always heard used to describe him were strong-willed and successful. I liked the confident way my grandfather moved through the world and felt proud to be in his company.

My grandfather asked Lewin how business was and, as usual, he delivered an upbeat report. According to my father, although the neighborhood had changed, people still came to Lewin from all over because he was a good shoe man who specialized in comfort. Even so, Lewin wouldn’t remain at 79th and Halsted forever. I didn’t realize it, but this visit to Lewin, to buy shoes for eighth-grade graduation, would be my last. In the fall we would be moving and not long after that Lewin would open a sunny little store in south-suburban Evergreen Park and spend his remaining years in the shoe business there.

My grandparents lived half a mile from us, at 8751 S. Blackstone. It was ironic that the most famous gang in Chicago, the Blackstone Rangers, took its name from my grandparents’ street because gang activity seemed so remote from their quiet neighborhood. South of 87th Street, where my grandparents lived, the sunlight filtered by the trees created a pleasant watercolor effect. The deep shade and dark brick of the older South Side neighborhoods gave way to younger trees and the lighter brick that was used in the 1940s, when my grandparents had moved here from Lawndale, the old Jewish West Side. They had one of the two identical two-flats that stood like sentries on their block.

The racial change that had taken place in our neighborhood throughout my grammar school years was slow compared to what happened in my grandparents’ neighborhood, just four blocks away. The South Side was like a checkerboard, full of dividing lines, and for a time 87th Street was one of them. I had little historical perspective—I didn’t know that Chicago had been a destination for blacks from the South for decades already and that at first blacks were crowded into certain areas of the South and West sides. Eventually the racial boundaries on the checkerboard would all be broken. Integration then turned into resegregation. My grandparents’ neighborhood began to change around the time we moved north to Skokie and now, just two years later, the transformation was almost complete.

All the neighborhoods in which Jewish people had settled in the ’40s and ’50s, particularly along Jeffery Boulevard, from 71st Street in South Shore to Jeffery Manor south of 95th Street, were changing as well. The year after we moved, my father’s sister and her husband sold their bungalow in South Shore and moved far north to affluent Highland Park. That left just my grandparents on the South Side.

My grandfather didn’t want to move. For one thing, it didn’t make sense financially. He derived income both from the building on Halsted and the other apartment in the two-flat. In their frequent discussions on the phone, he told my father the blacks moving into the neighborhood were decent, and he had a reliable black tenant downstairs. He said he went about his business and no one bothered him. My father told him he wasn’t going to stay.

My grandfather was sitting in his chair with his sore leg stretched out on the ottoman when my father and I walked in on a summer day in 1969. “David, David,” he said. I asked him how his leg was, and he wagged his finger at the naughty limb. “I told it to behave. I told it and that’s all.”

My grandparents’ apartment on the second floor of their two-flat was like a museum, rich in artifacts from other periods. Their living room had the comfort of a Victorian parlor. The only television they’d ever owned was one from the ’50s with big round knobs. A fringed tapestry was draped over the top of the upright piano my grandmother played. The sheet music that filled the piano bench went as far back as Al Jolson and Irving Berlin. Beside my grandfather’s chair was an antique wooden magazine stand filled with Hadassah magazines and the day’s Sun-Times. By the front window there were two long-legged tables with wood inlays upon which sat a pair of dainty lamps with cut-glass dangles in which you could see colorful refractions of light.

The two-flat was on the market. While my father spoke to my grandfather about a prospective buyer, my grandmother complained to me about being stuck in the house since Daddy, as she called my grandfather, hadn’t been feeling well. I asked her why she didn’t go out for a walk, and she said she couldn’t. I asked why not, and she said she didn’t know her way around the neighborhood and wouldn’t go out without holding on to Daddy’s arm. She said this as if it was perfectly normal not to know your way around a neighborhood you’d lived in for 25 years.

My grandmother had a long history of mental illness that included hospitalizations and electric shock treatments. She was somewhat better now but had never been completely cured.

Having come from Russia when she was only two years old, my grandmother didn’t speak with a Yiddish accent like my grandfather. She spoke English correctly and with the clear, almost formal, enunciation of an actress from the old movies. Her father had pulled her out of school after eighth grade so she could work, but despite this, she’d always been an avid reader and without a lot of formal training she had become an accomplished pianist.

My grandparents were sustained by their routines—trips to the grocery store on Stony Island, weekly services at Chicago Sinai Congregation in Hyde Park, daily walks around the neighborhood. In the summer they regularly attended the symphony concerts in Grant Park. My grandfather did what he knew how to do, which was to be there for her.

The next time I went with my father to the South Side to look in on my grandparents, I asked my grandfather why he left his family to come to America. I’d heard bits and pieces about his life but never directly from him. I was nearly 15 now, old enough to ask a question.

“The gentile boys threw rocks,” he said. One had struck him on the head. He indicated the bump on the side of his forehead that was a life-long reminder. “No, that was not a country,” he said, referring to his native Poland/Belarus. “This is a country.”

Another reason he came to America was that he couldn’t stand to sit all day in Jewish school. He said he wasn’t a scholar like his younger brothers. He would look out the window and daydream. He was 16 when his uncle, who had a garment workshop in Chicago, brought him over and took him in. His uncle taught him everything about making ladies’ coats, and one day he would open his own business.

I once caught a glimpse back in time when I visited a workshop in the West Loop owned by my friend’s grandfather, a furrier. You stepped off the elevator, and there before you was a room humming with the activity of intent men at sewing machines and work tables.

On the next visit I asked my grandfather about his connection to the Goldblatts. My father had mentioned something about it—the Goldblatts used to come to their home when he was a boy. In Chicago parlance, the Goldblatt name was synonymous with bargain shopping. My father said that years ago in Goldblatt’s stores they would deliberately soil merchandise to make it seem like a better bargain. Despite such questionable practices, the downtown store was a fine example of Chicago mercantile architecture and had stood proudly among the retail giants on State Street—Marshall Field’s, Carson’s, Wieboldt’s, and Sears.

My grandfather’s face came alive and he sat forward in his chair when I asked him about the Goldblatts. “Did he bother me,” my grandfather said, referring to his friend Maurice Goldblatt. “He wanted to open up a dry goods store on Chicago Avenue and Ashland. I thought, dry goods. What do I need with dry goods? He wouldn’t leave me alone. But I remembered when we were boys in school together,” and here my grandfather held his hand a few feet from the floor to show how diminutive Maurice Goldblatt was in his memory. “I said to him, ‘Why should I risk my money on you?’”

“No, I didn’t believe in him,” my grandfather said with an impish smile that suggested he really didn’t have any regrets. “Not for one minute did I believe in him.”

Although my grandparents lived nearby, we hadn’t seen them particularly often when I was growing up. Until I was four years old, we had all been together in their two-flat, my grandparents upstairs and our family downstairs. Judging from my father’s photographs, it was a wonderful time for the generations to be together. Above my grandfather’s desk hung an enlargement of my grandfather holding my sister. The picture has a natural quality—my grandfather is wearing a sleeveless undershirt and looking proudly at my sister while she looks at the camera. My father’s skill as a photographer and love for his family are reflected in the picture.

As I grew older, I began to see the outlines of a divide between my father and grandfather. I heard he had disapproved of the way my father ran his camera store—this I learned from my mother—and he had lost money my grandfather had lent him.

When a visit to my grandparents was overdue, my father would suddenly say, “Let’s go over and see the folks.” He’d call ahead, and in a few minutes we were there.

After my grandmother offered us various treats, my grandfather would ask her to read something aloud—an article from the paper or the most recent letter from the relatives in Israel. Then, with a little urging (“I hardly play anymore,” she protested), my grandmother sat at the piano. This was always the centerpiece of the visit. After a few songs my sister sat next to her on the piano bench. My grandmother had placed my sister’s fingers on the keyboard and started teaching her when she was five years old. Later my sister had taken years of classical lessons, but she still loved the popular music my grandmother played in a lush, chordal style.

My father’s pride on these visits was evident. He may have failed in the camera business, he may have had a job managing a liquor store that wasn’t so great, but he had his family.

The last time my father and I visited my grandparents on the South Side in the summer of 1969, we brought along a U-Haul. My grandfather’s friend across the street, a middle-aged black man, came over and helped. In anticipation of my grandparents’ upcoming move to a Skokie apartment, we were spreading some of their things around the family.

After my grandparents moved, my father started receiving anxious calls from my grandmother. She reported that my grandfather had done it again, had gone back to the South Side to visit his building on Halsted.

My father had warned him against doing this, but my grandfather was undeterred. In fact, I believe he took pleasure in roaming the city he’d lived in his entire life since coming from the old country. As he no longer drove, his journey involved taking the bus to the Skokie Swift train, the Swift to the Howard L, the L downtown, and then two buses to his building.

The defunct Capitol Theater across the street from the building had opened its doors for Saturday-morning meetings of Operation Breadbasket, the organization run by Jesse Jackson. This spark of life was mostly symbolic, though, as property values around 79th and Halsted had declined to the point where the building had little value.

When Lewin vacated the two retail spaces on the ground floor, my father assumed my grandfather would never be able to rent them out again, but my grandfather proved him wrong. He somehow found a good commercial tenant, Commonwealth Edison.

I asked my father what my grandfather did when he went to the building, and he said my grandfather swept the sidewalk in front and checked in with the people from the electric company to show them he was watching over the property. My father expressed grudging respect for my grandfather’s stubborn determination. He said my grandfather had always loved property. At one time he had owned 10 buildings in Humboldt Park and Lawndale. He was phasing out his garment business and turning to real estate, but during the Depression he lost all of his properties. Years later, after he retired, he turned to property once again, although in a smaller way, and bought the building on Halsted. Now my father could not keep my grandfather from it.

Everything about my father was gray on this cold, bright spring morning, from his tweed hat to his winter coat to his mood. My grandfather was beside him in the front seat of our Dodge Coronet. He no longer wore good dress clothes—his attire now was strictly functional. He was wearing khaki work pants, a utilitarian jacket, and a dark knit cap over his bald head. From the back seat, I could see that the involuntary tremor of his head had worsened.

My father had made my grandfather a deal. If my grandfather would refrain from going to the building by himself, my father would take him one day a week. In the past two years they had each kept their part of the bargain. When my father couldn’t make it, he’d call my grandfather and say he’d been tied up down at work but they had a date the following Tuesday for sure. My father seemed to enjoy taking a responsible role in my grandfather’s life. The building had brought them together again.

Tuesday mornings I caught a ride with them to Circle Campus, as the University of Illinois at Chicago was known then. Today my father was saying that no matter how he felt, he always put on a smile for his customers. He seemed to be implying something about my mother, although he didn’t mention her directly. At one point he looked in the rearview mirror as if speaking directly to me. I didn’t understand what exactly he was trying to say. My mother’s reaction to chemotherapy the past winter had been severe, but throughout the spring she had been regaining her strength.

My father pulled up to the curb on Harrison at the north end of campus, and my grandfather leaned forward to let me out of our two-door car. He had hardly said a word the entire ride, but as I was climbing out, he grabbed my forearm and held it for a moment while giving it a firm squeeze.

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