Title: Chicago’s Left Bank by Alson J. Smith
Location: Google Books Date: 1953
This is one of my favorite books on the subject of literary Chicago. Smith has a witty style that matches his topic and, I believe, will grab you from the get go. Tracing the history of Chicago’s literati we get a glimpse of the bohemians in their native environment – Towertown. You’ll love it.
Out In Chicago, the only genuinely civilized city in the New World, they take the fine arts seriously and get into such frets and excitements about them as are raised nowhere else save by baseball, murder, political treachery, -foreign wars, and romantic loves . . . almost one fancies the world bumped by a flying asteroid, and the Chicago River suddenly turned into the Seine.—Henry L. Mencken in the Smart Set.
Montmartre in the Midwest
EVERYTHING in Chicago dates from the Year of the Fire, 1871. Post anno incendii, the chief structure left standing on the north bank of the Chicago River was the waterworks building on East Chicago Avenue. The tall stone tower of this inelegant edifice looked out over the fire-blackened ruins of what had been one of the city’s better residential sections, the Near North Side.
It was only natural that when the rebuilding began, the area in the immediate vicinity of the old water tower should be dubbed “Towertown.” And, like the arch in New York’s Washington Square and the golden dome of Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, that tower was destined to cast a long shadow over the world of arts and letters. In the years between 1912 and 1924, it was the geographical center of what was perhaps the most vital literary and artistic upsurge in the history of the country. At least Papa Mencken thought so; in 1920 he went to England to startle the dilettantes of Fleet Street with the information that the Germans had really won the war and that Chicago, Illinois, was the literary capital of the universe.
The part about Chicago was approximately true, although book critic Harry Hansen, speaking for the city’s better classes, angrily denied the accusation. In those years corn-fed hopefuls from all over the Midwest flowed into the free-and-easy bohemia of the gigantic abattoir by Lake Michigan. They came to read their poems to Harriet Monroe in the studio at 543 Cass Street, to study under Lorado Taft at the Art Institute, and to chase fire-engines for Henry Justin Smith and the Chicago Daily News in return for the privilege of rubbing shoulders in the city room with Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht.
Towertown was the center of this renaissance. It was happily situated between the palaces of a rich residential area, the Lake Shore Drive “Gold Coast,” and the miasmal slums of Little Hell. Little Hell, like the deteriorated areas around New York’s Greenwich Village, was largely Italian, and the cheap spaghetti parlors of the neighborhood had atmosphere to fit the temperament and price to fit the pocketbook of the impoverished artists and writers in the batik-curtained coach houses, studios, and stables of Towertown. North Avenue, main artery of the old German “Nort’ Seit’,” bounded bohemia on the north, and the river, with its many bridges into the Loop, was on the south. Bisecting the whole area was the bright gut of the North Clark Street rialto, traditional main drag of hobohemia and the demi-world, with its saloons, night clubs, gambling joints and “hotels.” Rents were cheap, the Loop was within easy walking distance, and the finest beach in the city was at the foot of Oak Street. All this and Ireland’s, too—for one of the world’s best sea food restaurants was on North Clark Street, and still is.