Born in 1943, Neal Samors enjoyed an idyllic Rogers Park youth, playing ball in the alley behind his apartment building and seeing movies at the Granada Theatre. When he married in 1969, he and his wife settled on Farwell Avenue, just blocks from his childhood home. But after their daughter was born in 1975, they moved to Niles in search of a house with a yard, and eventually landed in Buffalo Grove.
His friend Michael Williams, on the other hand, was born in 1965 and endured an isolated suburban upbringing in Arlington Heights and South Barrington, where the nearest grocery store was eight miles away. “We were literally the first family living in our subdivision,” he says. In 1983 he fled to Chicago, and he’s lived on the north side ever since.
Despite their different backgrounds, both men yearn for a simpler, more communal urban existence–a nostalgia that’s evident in their new self-published book The Old Chicago Neighborhood: Remembering Life in the 1940s. Samors and Williams see that decade as the twilight of the era when neighborhoods still functioned like small towns. In that Chicago, people spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood, buying groceries at small independent shops, playing games in local parks, and sleeping on their porches or nearby beaches in hot weather.
The book features interviews with 125 Chicagoans, as well as an introduction by 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, essays by author Andrew Greeley and former alderman Leon Despres, among others, and duotones of everything from burlesque dancers at the Rhumboogie nightclub in Washington Park to children proudly displaying Victory Garden vegetables. Images of the 40s are particularly evocative, says Williams, who did most of the photo research and designed the book. “There was a lot of drama in that decade.”
Many of the interviewees, says Samors, described the 40s as the best years of their lives: “Even the interviews I did on the phone, I could tell their eyes were lighting up.” Hugh Hefner reminisces about the Grand Avenue streetcar that ran to Navy Pier. Dan Rostenkowski remembers his father, an alderman, routinely bailing constituents out of jail. Pitcher Dolores “Champ” Mueller Bajda of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League recalls earning $50 a game: “That was a lot of money back then.” Despite open discrimination in housing and employment, African-American subjects also view the 40s as a special decade, a time of thriving black shopping districts and jazz clubs.
The Old Chicago Neighborhood is Samors and Williams’s third collaboration. Their previous books, Chicago’s Far North Side: An Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge and Neighborhoods Within Neighborhoods: Twentieth Century Life on Chicago’s Far North Side, were published by the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society, the organization that brought the pair together–Williams is president of the board, Samors the former director of resource development. They’ve already started planning their next project, a survey of Chicago-area pop culture from 1948 to 1962. (Hefner has agreed to another, presumably much more salacious interview.)
And after more than a quarter of a century of suburban living, Samors and his wife are considering a move back to Chicago to be nearer their daughter, now 28 and living in Lakeview. “She loves the city. She’s a street kid,” he says. “But I’m so used to the quietness. I like the city, but it’s a very congested kind of feeling.”
Samors will speak and show slides from the book at 7 PM on Tuesday, April 22, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th. He’ll be joined by Despres, who’ll share memories of Hyde Park, where he has lived for 93 of his 95 years. Call 773-684-1300 for more information, or see www.chicagosneighborhoods.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Library of Congress, Chicago Public Library Special Collections.