Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hill Street Blues

Many of you my age probably remember that cop show from the mid-80's. In our house it held a special meaning because my father grew up on the real Hill Street in Chicago. FYI, there is actually no police station on the street. The street is only two blocks long including the house he grew up in along with the elementary school he attended. The building he grew up in has since been replaced by the appropriately named the Walter Payton College Prep. Although Hill Street Station was a fictional place, it was still kinda cool to think we were in some way connected to a popular TV show.

The street is in a very pivotal location. At one end of the street is the foot of the highrises that make up the Gold Coast of Chicago. One of the most affluent areas of the city. On the other end is (or was) Cabrini Green. The projects. A collection of highrises of very similar design, but due to a different record of maintenance and a different median income became a difficult and later dangerous place to live. The street itself was populated with low to medium income families. Occasionally those from the projects tried to take from those more fortunate in such close proximity. There were a couple instances in my life where this happened to me in this in-between area.

I was reminded of all this recently by the passing of Jack Palance. Not specifically because of Jack, but through a chain of thought. You may remember that he was the host of Ripley's Believe it or Not. Well, just north of Hill Street in Chicago there was a Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum. Well the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club (which was only boys back then), which I was a member, organized a trip to see the museum along with a hot dog lunch afterward in the park. Well, while we were at the museum, somebody broke into the bus and stole all the food. The older boys in charge did well at taking it in stride (although pissed off) and getting some more food. But it did open my eyes a bit.

The second instance was when we went to pick up a new bicycle that my sister was getting. The bike shop was a few blocks north of Hill Street. At the time, I was in my late teens and had use of the family van. I would be getting her old bike since she was getting a new one. So I parked the van and helped her get her new bike. When we got back, the drivers window as busted and the bike, a pair of roller blades, and a small boom box radio were gone. You see, the van had windows all around and none of the items were covered. Yet another lesson on life in the city. Cover all valuables or put them out of sight. It wasn't the first time a car I was using was broken into and it was not the last.
The area is now very much gentrified. So much so that the almighty dollar is pushing people out of the projects in order to tear them down and rebuild condos and townhomes. The land is just too close and convenient to downtown. The poor are being pushed out into the surrounding neighborhoods or even as far out as the suburbs. The reverse of white flight is happening. Those with money and without kids are pushing the poor farther out. I'm not saying whether it is good or bad, but more it is interesting how the inverse is now happening.


Unknown said...

You'll also remember that Cabrini Green (or Cabrini O. Green as we used to call it) was the featured site of the 70s sitcom Good Times. Here's a shot of the projects.

I found this - isn't it interesting? "The pilot script said the show took place in an unnamed Midwestern city. Throughout the show's seven year run, the exact name of the city was never mentioned." Of course, we all knew it was Chicago.

I do remember the bicycle incident well. We came back to the van and the driver's door was wide open and the window busted. The large rock was even sitting in the chair. That bike they stole was a Huffy. The heaviest bike I'd ever seen and bright yellow. Hope they had fun with it.

Anonymous said...

Having been connected to a sort of fictionalized Hill Street, which may or may not have been featured prominently in a well-known cop show from the 80s, well, you're near famous.

Anonymous said...

Hill Street has many memories for Frank Da Elder. When to show first came out, I was still in touch with many of the old Hill St residents from those early days. We all laughed at the thought that the name reminded a lot of the neighborhood characters and environment. It was an interesting neighborhood as you said, two blocks west some of the most dangerous gang infested areas in Chicago, then two blocks east the most affluent area of the city. Stuck in the middle was me. I had exposure to both sides, my school, Old St. Josephs to the west was nearly 100% black by graduation. Made some great friends there. Lost touch with them however. Spent time east too, at a friends home on Clark street, his mother owned a costume shop, it was fun looking at all of the odd costumers she had there. Also spent a lot of time up in Lincoln Park ( after I got a bicycle), at Chicago Historical Society, the lagoon, zoo, etc. Those fomative taught me that it was not the material things you were given by your parents that made you happy it was the friendships you made.

I think it was for that reason that I intentionaly did not lavish my children with money or material things. The 25 cents a week allowance, needed to be earned and instilled the value that you need to earn you way in this world. The harsh environment of the city ( Hill Street Blues) hardened and made the kids street smart. Sure we lost a bicycle, roller blades etc along the way but it prepared everyone for the real world.

My bicycle was also stolen from me then too as a child. It angered me but also taught me to be more cautious and aware of my surroundings.

I saw too may of my 'suburban' friends , having been given large sums of money and material things in lieu of love, succumb to drugs and had difficult times just earning minimum wage jobs since it was all given to them when they were younger.

The difficult thing for me now is to refrain from lavishing my grandchildren with those things that make them happy. My goal is to lavish them with caring, guidance and love.

Frank Da Elder

Anonymous said...

Ahhh! Hill Street. Living there as a teen-ager in the 50's, I had the privilege of living in a true rainbow of humanity. I moved there at the age of 13 from the much more safe but much duller Far North Side of Chicago.

Our Hill Street "gang" of about 40 teenagers hung around the two front entrances to my and Frank da Elder's apartment building. Most kids belonged to a "gang" in those days but what was meant by a gang at that time was: a group of friends. Our gang was made up of Italians, Japanese, Filipinos, Blacks, Germans, Puerto Ricans, Assyrians, Mexicans, Native Americans, Poles, and more, with endless permutations among us.

Hill Street expanded my vocabuly tremendously; it's where I learned to pronounce correctly, the names of people from many foreign countries. I thought that I had come into contact with a really cool bunch, with names like "Cagey" and "Spooky" and "Chach".

The true case was, one of the Japanese/American kids had a name that sounded to my ears as "cagey", was really Keiji.

Yep,we walked a half block to what seemed to be a magic alley, turned into that alley, and came out on to the Gold Coast. Usually we contined east to Lake Michigan. How far away was that, Frank? A half mile maybe. If it was hot, we would jump into the lake, clothes and all.

Hill Street was a wonderful time for me. A brief respite in a racial utopia.