Friday, April 29, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part IIIa

What follows is a setting of a scene--something that contributes to the understanding of the grand sweep and narrative context that found me walking up Fulton Market Street on an almost impossibly warm day in early May 2010, on my way to an interview with Paul Kahan at Publican.  Of course, not everyone agrees about the importance of historical flows and contingencies, and so this is an interlude, a prelude to that interview itself.  Skippable, sure.  After all, there are those that refuse to acknowledge that we are all bound up in contexts and stories and narratives.  That we are more than the mere technologies that record these contexts and stories and narratives.  That we contain each other.  That the remediation of loneliness and apartness comes, in part, from reminders of this togetherness across time.  Remember this Mr. Achatz, if you think that you are some kind of context-less newcomer with your fancy cocktails and your seasonal menu.  Remember your history. Remember as you sell tickets to the opening of your latest concern.  Because we may seem like our own most important moment, but even as we hurtle toward whatever we perceive as the future, the tentacles of our collective pasts tug at our tendons, our tissues and weave themselves into something that we might call, in our more contemplative or hopeful or fearful moments, a soul.

A Brief but Important History of the Blommer Chocolate Company and the West Loop, Vitally Necessary to an Understanding of what One Might Think About on the Way to an Interview with Paul Kahan, Restaurateur

The Blommer Chocolate Company was founded in 1939 in Chicago.  The Blommer family--Henry Blommer and his two sons Al and Ben--built a handsome modern headquarters and factory in the Near West Side at the intersection of Kinzie and Desplaines, a few steps from the western bank of the putrid stench of the Chicago River.  The city still had no solution for the dumping of industrial waste into the River, and its flow had long before been reversed to reduce pollution of the city's blue jewel, Lake Michigan.  The factory was close to the cheap and desperate muscle of a Depression-ravaged immigrant populations, and yet within shouting distance of the Loop--long the city's commercial aorta.

Chicago's population in 1939 was 3.4 million, almost 1 million more than today, despite the expansion of the city's territory over the past decades.  The overcrowding was murderous.  I found some maps from 1937 of public housing projects and the city's plans for new ones in the Newberry Library (above).  Within two miles of the Blommer factory (which you can see on the map right where the "H" in "Hudson" is), there are four low-income housing projects.  A neighborhood of factories and warehouses had grown up west of the River and growing local industries drew from the poor Hungarians, Poles, and Russian workforce in the immediate surround that had settled down on the West Side.  The newly-arrived joined the offspring of  200,000 Chicagoans that had fled the 1871 fire across the sludgy River to the West Side.  This first wave was responsible for the majority the neighborhood's population, and their children had grown up with the hard labor of rebuilding a city, their grandchildren the brutal humiliation of persistent unemployment.  These obscure children spoke English with Chicago accents and dreamed of New York and no longer understood when their grandparents said that the low Midwestern sky reminded them of Minsk in November.

The neighborhood became known as "Jew Town" and by 1939 the pockets of Eastern Europeans had hardened into blocs of delis, tailor-shops, and smokehouses.  But they were still poor.  There were only three movie theaters where West Siders could attend showings of some of the greatest movies ever made that year--all of which came out in '39: The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, and Stagecoach.  So that, even if families could have afforded to see the sudden introduction of color into American cinema, and experience the shock of the fantasy world on the screen seeming so much more like their own world so immediately, they probably couldn't have.

Later, a growing number of blacks (there were roughly 26,000 in the Near West Side by 1939) began arriving, and the Near West Side would eventually become one of the chief landing places for Great Migrators, arriving from Alabama and Tennessee and Georgia in the hard winters of the 1940's, and moving further west and south into the Garfield and Austin sections of the city.  Still later, the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination would explode along Madison Street, mostly West of the Blommer factory.  Clips of footage can distract for hours.  The violence was explosive.  And despite the relative distance from the worst of the damage, industry largely abandoned the Near West Side.  A 1988 Reader article written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the riots mentions the thriving machine factories on Lake Street just west of the Loop:
Many of the firms there closed their doors and fled to places like Elk Grove Village, where an opportunistic developer established a new machine-tool center in the safety of the suburbs.
In the interim, the neighborhood itself had been split by the construction of the Kennedy Expressway, and residential communities moved away too, fleeing violent city streets in the Seventies and Eighties.  Paul Kahan's father opened several small businesses, and closed all of them on the Near West Side during the same period.  And right around the turn of the Millennium, his son teamed up with Donnie Madia, took a big risk, and opened two restaurants on Jefferson, right next to one another, launching what would eventually become a "renaissance" for the neighborhood.

The Blommer Chocolate Company is still where it was in 1939.  It never moved.  Today it has a tasting room and a small gift shop.  Tours are offered for a fee.  And you can find it easily enough on Google Earth.  There's no need anymore to learn about cities in archives or static maps.  We navigate the world at our leisure, and go where we want in the virtual space.

View Larger Map

I love Streetview.  It's the audacity of the project that gets me, and I imagine, a lot of people, more than anything else.  It's the idea--or maybe just the illusion--that you could ever capture the entirety of a city in a single moment: stitching together images from around the entirety of Chicago or New York or Mumbai.  But more than anything else, it's reassuring to know that Blommer is right where it's supposed to be.  We get what seems to be guaranteed visual confirmation of the factory's existence, in the same position it's occupied for 80 years.  The photos are updated--a general sense of history is established.  We trust in the continuity created on the Internet.  The starkness of the ordinary laid out in images of loading docks and parking lots, and we can scroll up and see the same blue Blommer lettering.

With a flick of our fingers, I can look at Blommer from outer space, and everything is put into visual context.

Alternative Perspective on History: Speculating on a Morning of Avram Jakobsen, May 1939

We don't experience ordinary life like this, do we?  That is, we don't always feel the weight of history.  It would be paralyzing if we did.  History is a sleight of hand; but so too is fiction.  And when we feel impacted by either we are being tricked into having faith in narrative as a means of connection.  This is we do when we write.  And when we write fiction, we color history with a deep desire for connectedness.  We salve our absolute apartness with a narrative illusion.  Can the history of the Near West Side be told around Blommer?  Very usefully, yes.  We can reduce it to a single day and say that the entirety of the neighborhood's history revolves around it.  Specifically: the day when Henry Blommer and his two sons started up the machinery and set workers to their work at the Blommer Family Chocolate Factory, producing sweets and candies for Marshall Field's Department Store.

And what if we thought about a singular moment on Roosevelt Street on that May 1939 morning, when eight-year-old Avram Jakobsen (Abe to his Chicago-born friends), while on his way to school near Jane Addams House, stops and sniffs the mysteriously warm air, which on a spring morning is--as usual--overhung with the soot and grime from machine tooling factories?   Can we imagine, for a second, the strange alchemy of confusion and innocent arousal that builds within his tiny frame when, amid the crush of poverty and bodies yearning for Chicago spring, with the whistles of steam locomotives around him and the almost-stagnant river emptying inland from Lake Michigan, and everything slowly coming back to life, he turns his nose upward to catch the SW breeze?  The noise and the din of the city, and the exigencies of history that Avram hasn't even begun to consider yet all fall away in that instant.  Everything collapses into complete conscious sensation of the world: the upturned nose and a smile that builds on Avram's face as he puts down his small bag, his fingers unclenching, and--could it be imagination?  Certainly not--Avram considers the possibility of his own body fooling him because in that moment something magnificent and other-worldly, and altogether unexpected happens.  Things like this defy the logic of context and history and narratives, because, as it turns out, sometimes things are literally just in the air.  And there's nothing for Avram to do but trust that what he suddenly senses must be something like what his parents talk about when they talk about love or hope or God, because some part of him thinks that if he ever loses what this so-sudden sensation feels like, he would die.  Think about how much or little it matters that the fire forced his grandparents to the Near West Side; that his father has been losing sleep over an unexpected and persistent pain in his abdomen; that his mother yelled at him for spending three cents that he found in the street at the movies.  Because right in this instant, the miraculous--think in terms of childhood expectations for miracles here--happens and Avram becomes the first person ever on the Near West Side of hundreds of thousands to follow him to feel a particular sensation course through his body, connecting him to every one of them: a single moment of almost impossible joy in the rich air that anyone who comes to the Near West Side knows.

Because Avram smells chocolate.

1 comment:

  1. "Because we may seem like our own most important moment, but even as we hurtle toward whatever we perceive as the future, the tentacles of our collective pasts tug at our tendons, our tissues and weave themselves into something that we might call, in our more contemplative or hopeful or fearful moments, a soul." -- LOVE LOVE LOVE this sentence!!especially the imagery of the tentacled past and the culmination of the possibility of a soul.