I turned west off Western avenue beneath the railroad bridge that spans 26th Street, drove a few blocks, and then turned right past the Lawndale Gardens row house projects, where shirtless guys were hooping not far from Washtenaw Park. Washtenaw Park is a city playground — there aren’t many trees. Nor is there a garden in Lawndale Gardens, although I remember a time when the pavement outside the doors of each row house was painted green to suggest a lawn.
From the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon through Millennium Park, one measure of a city has always been its green space. Gardens, parks, and boulevards are urban-planned nature. They are curated, to use a word in vogue, as the free-range childhoods of many of the kids growing up around here are not. What drew me back to this block in Little Village is that where nature manages to survive here, it survives unmanaged on its own in hidden pockets — stubborn, resilient, unkempt, untended.
I turned onto Rockwell — a street name like a whoop from a Buddy Holly song — and circled the block a couple of times for research purposes. Not that I didn’t already know that in a city where development rules, this Southwest Side slab of Chicago landscape has so far remained impervious to gentrification. It isn’t residential. This block is industrial strength.
My mother worked as a freight dispatcher here. At night I’d walk her home even though we lived only a couple of streets away. It looks much the same now: a few wholesalers for Productos Mexicanos, truck docks, cyclone fences topped with razor wire, stacked wooden pallets, sprawling gravel lots of semitrailers, diesel tractors, heavy machinery, and then the viaduct, its concrete walls tattooed with devils and alphabets edged in flame, freight cars parked on the tracks above.
Both my mother and my father, who worked on the line for International Harvester’s McCormick Works until the plant shut down, could walk to work. My guess is that a lot of the people employed on this block today can walk to work too. Little Village has been a port of entry since the 19th century, a cast-iron lower rung on the climb to the American dream. Many of the factories that brought earlier immigrants are, like McCormick Works, gone, leaving along the untended back lots, railroad tracks, and riverbanks an unnoticed interface between industry and nature that passes for wilderness in a city. Chicago is no longer “Hog Butcher for the World,” but on this block there are lines from Sandburg’s poem that still apply:
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
I parked and walked down 26th toward the railroad overpass near Western. It was a route I’d walked as a kid with my homemade butterfly net (coat hanger, cheesecloth, duct tape, hollow bamboo fishing pole) until the attention it drew made me stash it in the bushes. Ours wasn’t a hood in which insults aimed at a fledgling lepidopterist ran along the lines of “Yo, Nabokov Jr.!” This is the block where I found the entryway to my own private wilderness, a discovery that would enrich my life as a boy and continue to do so in my adulthood. It began here chasing butterflies.
To reach the tracks, it’s necessary to climb up an embankment and then slip through a corrugated barrier, the rusty look of which prompts you to calculate the time since your last tetanus booster. It’s a secret doorway, and to understand what a secret doorway opens onto, it is essential to understand what it opens from. Not every block has one. Such doorways are border crossings, rabbit holes into another reality. A rabbit hole can be an embankment with waist-high weeds that you climb following the kiting of a tiger swallowtail. A doorway’s magic is its power to change perception, to reveal the presence of another world superimposed on the daily urban world — in this case, on an industrial block between Rockwell and Western.
There’s workaday traffic rumbling down 26th, and yet, once you sneak through the barrier with a hunter-gatherer net in hand, you’re no longer on a Chicago block. Suddenly there’s a horizon. The geometry of the streets is replaced with the scraggly asymmetry of trees, weeds, wildflowers. There’s an unforgettable scent: elderberry, milkweed, creosote. It’s a smell from beyond the confines of the inner city. And your allegiance to your block, your hood, your parish, your City of the Big Shoulders no longer goes unexamined. You’re now a citizen of the Mississippi Flyway, with the other outliers: swallowtails, monarchs, painted ladies, mourning cloaks, wood nymphs, question marks, great spangled fritillaries, orange sulphurs, cabbage whites, red-spotted purples, summer azures …
Many years later, I would read Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson’s book Biophilia. Its thesis is that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction,” Wilson writes. Even in the most paved-over urban setting, if a child can glimpse the strange beauty and diversity of the microworld of insects, he’ll feel a kinship with nature that will never leave him.
The weight of bees made cornflowers bow. There were menacing-looking metallic purple wasps, four kinds of predatory dragonflies, and birds I’d never seen before, whose songs I’d never heard although they’d been only a couple of blocks away: red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, cardinals, jays, hawks. The block felt a little dangerous, beautiful, and — once it taught you how to look — wild. Pheasants exploded up from underfoot in the weed beds. There were rabbits. Snakes. Once, a red fox with a rat in its mouth.
Stuart Dybek is the author of the story collection I Sailed with Magellan and a recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction.