Saturday, March 17, 2007

What Was Here Before I Got Here

I spent more time than usual in North Center last week. This is one of the things I found: even though Jazz Record Mart has been downtown for over ten years, the sign on their old Lincoln Avenue location is still up, and looks as well as it did when I lived in the neighborhood.

When you have a dog like Emmy, you can't help but wake up early, regardless of when you fell asleep. She's gotten a lot better at not waking me until it's absolutely necessary to (IE. when her bladder's ready to burst) but I haven't slept past 9 a.m. since I adopted her. My neighbor Sue is in Arizona taking in spring training and defying her Irish ancestry under the hot desert sun, so I'm also dog sitting her Pomeranian, Camille. Now, Camille is a bit more high maintenance than Emmy, largely because she's thirteen years old. I treat Camille a lot better than when I did when Sue and I were roommates; I used to feed Camille giardinera relish occasionally because I liked making her sneeze. These days, she has a congenital cough that requires steroids and an inhaler to keep in check if it becomes irritable. So I've been taking her to the park with Emmy and letting her run around the softball fields with the other morning dog walkers. And there are a few of us.

The one I can set my watch to is this older man named Mike. He has two dogs of his own named Hank and Two-Pack. When I first heard him call out Two-Pack's name, I made some joke about naming the dog after Tupac Shakur that only served to highlight the generation gap between us. But the dogs are all sociable, and they make great ice-breakers, so we wound up talking a lot and getting to know each other.

Mike's a lifelong resident of Bridgeport. He's pretty much lived his entire life within blocks of McGuane Park, and often tells stories of how the park used to operate back in his youth. In the winter, the park district used to ice down the softball field and turn it into an ice rink. I can remember them doing that at Hermosa and LaFollette parks on the west side when I was a kid, so the concept isn't so foreign.

Digressing, we've been watching the development of the park extension across the street (I snapped some photos of it that can be found on my Flickr page. When Mike was a kid, it used to be a rock quarry, and I can remember seeing these deep walls of stone when I moved down to Bridgeport over seven years ago. By then, the city was contracting out trucks to haul dirt to the quarry to fill it. I thought it was just a landfill to dump construction site dirt. The other day, while the dogs were running around, Mike was telling stories of the quarry. He was saying that when he was a kid, he and his pals used to sneak into the quarry's tunnels that ran under the neighborhood, that the quarry workers would use dynamite to excavate stone from the walls, and the houses would shake when the dynamite exploded. He also intimated that the quarry was a frequent solution to the Chicago Outfit's, um, stickier problems. "If you needed a someone to disappear, it came in pretty handy," Mike said.

I've long looked at the quarry/landfill as it's slowly progressed to the park it's supposed to become. We've heard it would be open this summer if the weather - and maybe the contracts - hold up. I've become fascinated at what it might look like if I wind up becoming a lifelong resident of this neighborhood. It still looks like a giant mound of dirt, but walking around the edge I can make out the cascading fish ponds along 27th Street, witness the slow grading of what's supposed to become a sled hill, and see the final touches placed on the western edge of the park at 29th and Poplar. But it still largely looks like a giant mound of dirt. It's been a long time in coming, and I'll believe it when I see the sod being laid and trees planted. I'm certain the residents of the Senior Suites of Bridgeport will appreciate having something so spacious across the street from them. The Senior Suites is also another neighborhood addition. It sits on the site of the old Glass Dome Hickory Pit restaurant. I used to daydream that it would make one hell of a music venue. It serves a better purpose with the Senior Suites; in a city that's increasingly expensive to live in, it's nice to see some urban planning that considers older citizens and residents with fixed incomes.

Mike and I were looking at the giant mound of earth, wondering how long it would really take to settle and how much of the earth used to fill the quarry is contaminated. It might need testing every year for the next quarter-century. As I leashed Emmy and Camille for the walk back home, I wondered if the stories I'll tell in my middle age, should I stay in the neighborhood, will be as colorful as the ones Mike tells me.

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