Saturday, February 4, 2012

Oldest Chicago by David Witter reviewed

High-school teacher and freelance writer David Anthony Witter has just published Oldest Chicago (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2011). You may have seen the sad, beautiful book Lost Chicago, commemorating many buildings destroyed over the years. Witter's book could be called Not Lost Yet Chicago.

This is not a book of genealogy, and its historical assertions aren't sourced, but it's a great place for either a visitor or an oblivious native to catch the bug of learning about the past by visiting seemingly ordinary places and institutions that carry it on.

The book has a simple premise -- 66 short takes on Chicago's oldest church, oldest house, oldest business, oldest park, and so forth, including the suburbs -- and it's easily read in short bites as we often do these days. Each oldest place also gets a sidebar about its neighborhood. This is a back-pocket book, not a coffee-table book. If you're around Chicago researching and the repositories are closed, you'll want it handy.

You can get technical with some of the entries. The city's supposedly oldest restaurant -- Daley's Restaurant at 893 East 63rd Street -- was founded in 1892, but it turns out to have been shut down and had no building for five years during the Great Depression (p. 83). The book's aesthetics are time-bound: Witter waxes sentimental about dated commercialism (the giant dancing hot dogs at Superdawg up at 6363 North Milwaukee, from 1948), but doesn't care for current versions (pp. 196, xiv).

When I was growing up, everything in Chicago seemed ancient (nothing much had gone up during the Depression and World War II). Now, at least parts of the city are thriving, and it's interesting to see that Witter found a diner, bar, ice-cream place, and movie house in the suburbs -- each one older than its counterpart within the Chicago city limits.

Witter is also good on chronicling the ironies of history: Chicago's oldest cemetery, Oak Woods at 1065 E. 67th, houses a mass grave of 6,000 Confederate soldiers and sailors who died at the "crowded hell hole" of Camp Douglas. Also prominent in the same cemetery are many distinguished African Americans, including Harold Washington and Jesse Owens, who might have been born into slavery if those Confederates had had their way (p. 20-21).

Many stories follow a familiar pattern of twentieth-century decline followed by revival of the lucky few. Chicago's oldest church building houses St. Patrick's, center of a once-busy immigrant parish that bottomed out at 4 members in 1983 (p. 25).

Similarly, Merz Apothecary at 4716 North Lincoln was founded by a German family in 1875, and seemed destined for oblivion when the last member of the third generation prepared to retire in 1972. "The store was ready to close when pharmacist Abdul Qaiyum walked in after hearing about it from his German in-laws" (p. 66). Sometimes the preservation of the old depends on a city's being open to groups of people who are new.


Debbie V. said...

What a great review - and what a great idea for a book! Every city should have one. I live near Louisville, KY - is the author coming my way :)

Debbie V. said...

Hey Harold - if you haven't already - you might consider joining the Illinois Genealogy Community facebook page. I'd love to see your Illinois blog posts on there. There are other states as well...Ok I just sent you an invite...maybe you're already a member!

Marianne Luban said...

Follow me at my new "Mississippi River Pioneers" blog

There'll be genealogy and the odder facets of history along the river.

Sharon Woodhouse said...

Hi Harold--Thanks for the thoughtful review.

To Debbie and others: Feel free to pitch Lake Claremont Press your book proposal for "Oldest XXX" for your city. We'd love to get a multi-city series going...

Sharon Woodhouse
Lake Claremont Press
Everything Goes Media, LLC

Debbie V. said...

Sharon - do you have a link for the Lake Claremont Press so I can ask them about Louisville?

Sharon Woodhouse said...