Monday, January 01, 2007


Over the past year Chicago has lost many beloved institutions.

The city as a whole bemoans the loss of Marshall Field's -- the nation’s first modern department store. My mother used to model there. Marshall Field's on State Street (that great street) is also where my grandmother took me on my first real trip to Chicago, when I was 12. It was the only such trip, ever. We ate fillet mignon at the Walnut Room (the first in-store restaurant in America created just for ladies) and visited the art department -- which carried original paintings by my grandmother's brother, Cydney. The paintings were expensive and I was impressed, since we all had Cydney's impressionistic images on our walls and took them for granted.

During the same trip my grandmother had her hair done at Brady C'est Bon -- by Bill Brady, who'd done my mother's hair and "was always trying out new styles on her." While I waited, I did my first real people-watching and experienced another first -- that queer sensation of not being able to make out a person's gender.

But now the Marshall Field's of the famous Christmas windows is just another soul-less Macy's.

Also gone is the long-running Berghoff Restaurant. Although I stepped foot into the old-fashioned German restaurant only once, I did, in fact, go to college with Pete Berghoff.

We also lost The City News Service (nee the City News Bureau), where everyone from Kurt Vonnegut to Seymour Hersh to Claes Oldenburg (!) honed their chops. During a visit in 1992, head honcho Paul Zimbrakos told my j-class that we’d never get jobs in journalism and might as well quit school right now. The films The Front Page and Call Northside 777 are both based on doings at the CNB, where playwright Charles MacArthur also did time. The Chicago Tribune is the entity that finally shut it down. They also own the Chicago Cubs. Losers.

These changes are significant. But in many ways it's the smaller losses that make one feel like a stranger in one's own city.

They just finished tearing down Bert Weinman Ford, which is quite close to my house. BWF is where my friend Wickey used to vote (yes, Bert was politically connected), and where I test-drove a used Ford Focus in '05 (it was too fancy and too expensive).

A TV commercial pioneer, BWF also served as entertainment for me whenever I’d hit a red light at Ashland and Addison. I'd sit and watch the balding salesmen in their white shirts, ties and Chicago Bears jackets slouch in the flourescent light or spin around in their chairs, waiting for customers that never came. I wonder what they're doing now. Developers are building 69 condos on the site. Because god knows the city needs more stunning new units. Who wants to bet they'll be purchased by people who drive foreign cars?

My favorite health food store, Sherwyn’s, also closed shop. They did it very quietly; one day it was going strong, and the next day it was closed and being “remodeled.” I always bought as much as I could there -- especially expensive vitamins -- since it was one of the only local stores to survive the invasion of Whole Foods and Fresh Fields. Also, there really was a guy named Sherwyn. But apparently they’re gone for good. Now I’ll have to drive to 75th street to get vegan soul food. Global warming wins again.

I’ve been going to Jim’s Grill since at least 1990. That’s when it was owned by Dave and Sue, who turned the greasy spoon into an affordable vegetarian paradise where customers such as Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Kahn and Caca Herself enjoyed Bi Bim Bop, Soybean Pancakes, Flu Soup and Energy Tea. I once met Ira Glass there for lunch, but it was closed and we went to Sparky's #2 (which is now a Domino's Pizza). Jim's was the one place where you could hang out with your hard-living rock friends and your yoga buddies. The only time I lost my appetite there was when my live-in ex told me he was seeing a woman I’d introduced him to (another marriage facilitated by Caca). Dave and Sue later opened the Korean vegan Amitabul and sold Jim’s to relatives Chris and Moon -- who kept the place the same. About a year ago they sold it to another couple, who raised the prices and added every type of meat imaginable to the menu. Since September, it’s been closed and there’s been scaffolding out in front. The convenient store next door is also boarded up. The building permit on the door says the “improvement” work would end in November. Two months ago. Jim's is located on a main artery, where zoning laws allow for taller buildings. Methinks more condos are coming.

They also tore down the tiny flower shop around the corner from The Empty Shala. I was always curious about the seemingly vacant shop, and finally did a story on it for the Backwards R in 2001. There was nothing happening at A. Wall Florist. But in back, near the greenhouse, it was a beehive. Each morning 95-year-old owner Pearl Wall and her niece, Dorothy, shared coffee and donuts with a parade of locals who would come by with stories and neighborhood news. I knew that Pearl had recently died, and that it was only a matter of time before her flower shop and adjacent six-flat became Yuppie housing. They tore down the shop a few weeks ago, and are gutting the apartments and installing rooftop decks and fancy rear porches. Because god knows the North Side could use more unaffordable housing. The building permit does not mention what they will do with the flower shop property. Ironic side note: Dorothy is the aunt of former Village Voice "Shelter" columnist Toni Schlesinger.

While writing this post I learnt that The Jazz Showcase is shutting down. After the Village Vanguard, it's the second oldest jazz venue in the nation. It was also one of the first clubs in the city to ban smoking, and Caca saw Ray Brown there before he died.

Poor Joe Segel (the owner).

Poor Caca, who feels betrayed and confused.

Time to get out, I think.