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Walking Chicago With Robert Loerzel

A new book offers guides to 35 urban trails around the city. We walked the author’s hometown route.

The timing of Robert Loerzel’s Walking Chicago his revamp of Ryan Ver Berkmoes’s 2008 book of the same name — couldn’t be better. Long before shelter-in-place made boulevardiers of us all, the writer, Tribune and Chicago copyeditor, and man-about-town regularly documented his jaunts around the city on Twitter. His eagle-eyed observations and zest for local wildlife has charmed thousands of followers, many of whom replicate his itineraries. Loerzel recalls once live-tweeting his stroll around Big Marsh Park on the city’s southeast side; as he exited the trail, he saw an editor at the Tribune entering. “I saw your tweets and wanted to check it out myself,” the editor said.

On Monday, the day before Walking Chicago hit bookshelves, Loerzel and I followed an abbreviated version of a route close to his heart: through Andersonville to Uptown, where Loerzel has lived for the last 14 years. We walked south down Clark from Bryn Mawr, cutting through St. Boniface Cemetery, then east on Argyle to Broadway. We ended at Lawrence, in front of the Green Mill. The following is an edited account of our conversation.

Photos: Hannah Edgar

You’ve been documenting your walks online for a while now. When did that start, and why?

About four or five years ago, I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, and my doctor’s advice was to keep my weight down and get a little more exercise. I’ve always hated going to fitness clubs and that sort of thing, but I enjoy walking. I made a commitment to walk an hour every day, at least. My weight did come down and my numbers improved. But at the same time, I was enjoying taking photos of things I noticed — architectural details and such — and putting them on Twitter.

Some people on Twitter seem to think I’m constantly walking, like, across the entire city. Which is a gross exaggeration. In fact, I feel like I don’t get around the city enough, especially because of the COVID pandemic. I haven’t been using the CTA, and that was my main way of getting around the city. I do have a car, but I drive so little I sometimes wonder why I even bother. So lately, my walks have been a bit limited.

This is a pretty notable block, Clark and Balmoral.

Yeah, I was just about to say that. People know the Calo Restaurant, but it used to be in this building across the street, which was the Calo Theater. That’s what it gets its name from. It’s a great example of Andersonville’s old, beautifully ornamented terracotta buildings. Even if you’re not going into Calo because of the pandemic [or the theater, now a Brown Elephant resale shop], it’s a cool place to walk around.

Built in 1915, the Calo Theater began as a movie house. It later became a venue for stage plays in the 1990s.

You mention the general trajectory of Andersonville in your book, which is that it started as a Swedish enclave that eventually became another epicenter for gay Chicagoans. 

Of course, these trends happen gradually over time. And of course, now there’s this controversy over whether to rename Boystown.

An old supervisor of mine had a quip that I think of often: “Boystown is for boys, and Mandersonville is for men.” But it always felt off to me, because I think of Andersonville as having been more specifically a lesbian neighborhood, before getting gentrified anew by gay men.

That’s the impression I get, too. Another question for researchers now is whether contemporary gay neighborhoods now have more of a mix [of genders].

We reach the Gus Giordano Studio at Clark and Farragut.

This isn’t in my book, but I noticed recently, looking at these buildings on either side of the Giordano dance studio, that they were kind of weird. It turns out when you look at old maps, there used to be alleys running on either side here. I’m not sure how zoning allowed this strange little building — it looks like it’s being squeezed.

From across Clark Street, you can clearly see that the storefronts which are now Transit Tees and Tilly were later additions.

We continue walking south and enter the northernmost entrance of St. Boniface Cemetery, near Ainslie Street.

There were so many cemetery walks I wanted to include in my book and couldn’t fit — I wanted to do whole chapters about Graceland and Oak Woods alone. But this is an interesting one. Here’s a monument to Civil War soldiers who were German immigrants. I often wonder if there’s anywhere else in the U.S. where you can find a monument to soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War that’s written in German!

It’s also pretty amazing when you think about these people coming from another country to make the United States their new home, and in a relatively short time they’re being asked to fight for their country against other states that are seceding. Is your loyalty to this new place really strong enough that you’re going to put your life on the line for it? Maybe they didn’t have any choice about it, if they were being drafted.

The inscription at the bottom of the monument, erected in 1887, reads: “In memory of the heroic participation of the Germans who defended their new fatherland during the American Civil War.”

We just walked through Andersonville, a historically Swedish neighborhood. But all the names on the tombstones I can see are German. I’d expect to see this in, I dunno, Lincoln Square.

This cemetery was founded by German Catholics, and a lot of the North Side was German, including Lake View, at one point. So, this was a Swedish and German area.

I did this recent story for Curious City on WBEZ about music venues in Uptown. There’s a spot along here that’s just condo buildings now, but it used to be the Rainbo Roller Rink, and going way back into the history, there was a saloon there for people coming to the cemetery. So, people would come to the cemetery in the 1800s, then they would wanna drink after they buried their loved ones or visited their graves and visit the saloon across the street.

Kind of a morbid postgame.

There was actually this bartender who also worked as a gravedigger who complained he wasn’t getting paid enough for the two jobs, ’cause he had to rush back and forth digging graves and tending bar.

We turn around. A few paces behind the Union soldier memorial is an obelisk topped by a lyre — a monument to the Ambrosius Männerchor, a German men’s choir.

Loerzel, holding Walking Chicago, next to the Männerchor obelisk

Are all these men really buried here?

Some of them might be. And some of them here just look like add-ons.

Do you know where they sang?

No, but I have a guess. There used to be this place called Sunnyside, which was where the Japanese American Service Center is now [at Sunnyside and Clark]. That was another saloon that served people visiting cemeteries, but in the 1890s it became this sort of German American mini-Ravinia. It had thousands of people showing up for outdoor concerts, including ones by German men’s choirs. I don’t know for sure if that group sang there, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

So that was more undeveloped at that time — enough parkland where people could congregate?

Yeah, exactly. Speaking of which, there’s a buck that lives around here that I’ve been seeing lately. Someone pointed out that during mating season it must be lonely. I just worry it’s going to run off into traffic.

One day, I was walking by the Green Mill on Broadway, and I was looking down, as I do sometimes. But I look up, and there’s a deer running right up Broadway, just a few feet away from me! Everyone all around stared; the guys at the muffler shop stopped what they were doing. It ran up a block, then turned west near the Fat Cat bar. My guess is it was heading for the cemetery. I tried to get a video of it, but it ran so fast you can just barely catch a few frames of it.

We walk out of the cemetery to Argyle Street before coming upon a brick building surrounded by two- and three-flats.

This used to be the Essanay movie studio, where Charlie Chaplin briefly worked. But he was only here for a couple of weeks. We sort of grossly exaggerate his importance here in Chicago.

What’s the building now?

It’s part of St. Augustine College. But you can see here the old entryway with the American Indian logo on it. Gloria Swanson was also someone in the neighborhood who lived nearby and started her career here.

That was the very first thing I wrote for Chicago magazine, actually — about the 100th anniversary of Essanay Studios. That era was before Hollywood became dominant in the film industry. New York, New Jersey, and Chicago were some of the places that were making most silent films, and this was one of the big hotspots. Inside were soundstages, props… They filmed in the area, too, but it’s hard to recognize filming locations now. I remember seeing one filmed at the beach, but the lakeshore then isn’t even where it was now, and it’s not like you’re seeing a bunch of recognizable buildings, either. They might have even filmed here — who knows, if you find the right reel, maybe you’d see Gloria Swanson walking in front of that apartment building or something.

    Built in 1908, the Essanay Studio on Argyle served as an active production studio for the company until 1917.

 

Around that time, Uptown became one of the first neighborhoods where apartment living became a thing. A lot of people owned or boarded in homes, but for the first time you saw young people who had a job as a clerk in the Loop who got an apartment by themselves, or with a roommate. Here, you had small apartments that were geared towards hotel living, almost. Those would later turn into SROs when the economy declined. After World War II, people from Appalachia, American Indians, and African Americans moved here for the cheap rent.

One of the things I found interesting is that [during the postwar period] white flight was happening, and yet Uptown remained predominantly white through the 1960s and ’70s. It was becoming a poorer neighborhood, but it tended to be low-income white people who were moving in, plus immigrants from around the world. Through the years, it always remained an interesting mix of people.

The Uptown Post Office, built in 1939

We turn south onto Broadway and approach the Uptown Post Office.

Here’s another building you talk about in the book.

Yes. And the murals inside are great — it’s a WPA-era mural with Louis Sullivan in it, as well as Carl Sandburg playing a guitar.

    The WPA commissioned painter and ceramicist Henry Varnum Poor to create these murals in 1943.

 

It’s art deco, but the eagles out front are a little… I don’t know about you, but there’s a certain look to some American eagle sculptures and pictures that I don’t like. I hate to say it’s, like, fascist, but it does have this fierce warlike look to it. I’d rather have a nice-looking eagle.

Detail of one of the eagles outside the post office on Broadway

We pass the Uptown Theater, shuttered since 1981.

Of course, everyone in Uptown wonders when the Uptown Theater is going to reopen. I’ve never been inside. I’ve heard from people who saw concerts there in the 1970s. It’s stunning to think that, at the peak of the silent era, they’d have more than 4,000 seats [4,381] for movies. You had that many people coming out to see films several times a day.

To handle the crowds, they built a lobby here, which alone is about the size of the Aragon Ballroom. You can fit a few thousand people in the lobby waiting to see the next screening, and the crowd that was leaving that screening would go out the doors to Lawrence Avenue and Magnolia without having to go out through the front entrance. It was a very efficient crowd-flow setup.

If they can just get the lobby up to code, I’d say they should just open that space — turn it into a bar, restaurant, or venue for soirées and social events.

Uptown Theater, with its perpetual scaffolding

We near the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, where a Mexican restaurant, chicken joint, and the Green Mill Lounge now stand.

Many years ago, I was walking past here when the sign for Fiesta Mexicana was taken down for repairs. Turns out that space in the building right behind it has the words “Green Mill Gardens” on it, and if you look above it, you’ll see the Green Mill symbol. That’s because this whole corner was Green Mill Gardens when it opened, and that was one of the main entrances to the place.

Detail of the Green Mill logo inset, above the Fiesta Mexicana sign

When the Green Mill opened in 1914, the Green Mill that we know today was just one small cocktail lounge in this big complex, which basically stretched all the way down to the next corner [Lawrence and Magnolia] and up to where the Uptown Theater is. When the Uptown Theater was built ten years after that, they bought up a lot of that land, which included part of the beer garden that was Green Mill Gardens.

How did Green Mill shrink to the size it is today?

I wasn’t able to find anyone who actually said this, but I think when Prohibition came, though the Mill managed to stay open and serve liquor on the side, that probably killed the beer garden. Once that was gone, the rest of it started to shrink. They had a theater upstairs, too, and huge, actual mill on the roof of the building with lights on it. I wonder what ever happened to that. It probably just got trashed. But it is really cool that at least some of the Green Mill has survived all this time.

I think if there’s anything quarantine has given me, it’s a new appreciation for looking up instead of down when I walk. Before shelter-in-place, most of my memories of Broadway had to do with making sure I didn’t slip on slush or ice.

You know, I actually think that Chicago is good for walking all year round. When you go out in nature, like on the North Branch Trail [also in the book], you can actually see more because there aren’t leaves on the trees. It’s a little less scenic in some ways, but if there’s an animal around, it’s easier to spot it.

Huh. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way. That is a nice silver lining.

It’s the same with architecture. If you’re trying to get a picture of, say, the Newberry Library, and you’re standing across the street in Washington Square Park, the leaves are blocking your view. But in winter, there’s no problem.

Walking Chicago is now out on Wilderness Press, $16.95. Check your local bookstore for variations in pricing.

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