#884: The Other Loop

February 2nd, 2018

It seems obscene to have curved roads in Chicago.

Chicago’s a place for The Grid, with streets so regimented and designed “The Grid” gets capitalized. We can tell where people live by how many hundred their address is north or south. Our city looks like Tron when you fly into Midway at night.

Sure, something might bend a tad, but those are blotches of history, curves of road to avoid since-filled creeks or railroad lines that dissolved into bankruptcy 60 years ago. The streets snap back into shape as soon as they are physically able to realign with our urban skeleton’s obsession with 90 degrees.

A circle of houses swirling like a suburban subdivision around a central kids’ park seems obscene in Chicago. But Chrysler Village isn’t obscene. It took something more than obscenity to create this. It took a war.

Chrysler Village, located in Clearing abutting the southern edge of Midway Airport, is the remains of an old factory town, homes for the workers building enough B-29 “Superfortress” engines to defeat the Axis powers.

It was a planned community swarming around the Dodge Chicago Aircraft Engine Plant, built by the war department in 1942 at a cost that today would be more than $2.5 billion. In 1948, war won, a man named Preston Tucker bought the plant to build a new car company that would demolish the “Big Three” automakers. He lasted a year before he was dragged through the courts on fraud charges he was completely acquitted of. Only 51 Tucker 48s were ever produced.

Gossip and a Jeff Bridges film allege they were sham trials forged by the Big Three, but I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

Ford bought the wreckage of Tucker and lasted for a bit. The factory that constructed a neighborhood is now the city of a shopping mall. Ford City.

I didn’t see malls or factories as I navigated the rental cars through this loop of curved residential roads. I just saw houses that looked like my grandfather’s. They looked like small-town homes.

Lenny Jennings also noticed the architecture.

Jennings, a U.S. Marine and jazz dancer interviewed by a Loyola University Chicago oral history project in 2015, moved there with his family in 1946, a year after a B-29 Superfortress ended the war by carrying a heretofore unseen type of bomb to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He also noticed the architecture being different — not the two-flats or brownstones that define the Chicago he came from — and meeting for the first time kids from different neighborhoods, “from Canaryville, from Chinatown, you name it, Roselyn, from everywhere.” The war was over, but factory jobs with Tucker or Ford, and G.I. Bill funding for returning veterans, lured people to this weird loop of houses. Jennings had a friend who moved from New York. The boy was upset there were no cowboys and Indians “out west.”

Jennings got in three fights on his first day from kids testing him out. He and his new friends would soon spend afternoons hunting snakes in the fields that once surrounded Clearing for miles.

Of course, the proximity to Midway airport played. Jennings recalled 21-gun salutes for the prime minister of Israel disrupting his class and once shining the shoes of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles without knowing it.

“Shined his shoes and the next thing you know two men grab me, walk me into a room behind one of the counters and say, ‘What did you say to that man?’ I said, ‘I asked  him if he wanted a shine.’ He said, ‘What did he say to you?’ [I said,] ‘He said yes.’ He said, ‘That’s all? He didn’t say anything else at all?’ I said, ‘No, no.’ And he asked me, ‘Hoe much money did he give you?’ I said, ‘A nickel.’ And the agent, secret service, whatever it was, he said, ‘A nickel? Jesus Christ.’ And he gave me a quarter and said, ‘Alright get out of here.’”

The neighborhood was white. Legally binding and enforceably white, a product and victim of the racially restrictive covenants the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t find unconstitutional until 1948.

The decades passed. The neighborhood’s ethnic makeup changed. The factories closed and malls popped up. Now, Chrysler Village is a blip of curve on the city’s South Side, a wiggly @ sign among the city’s right-angle grid. The houses have toys on the lawn and a few pieces of bad kids’ art prominently displayed out of windows. The center of the squiggle is a plastic playground shining bright primary colors through the snow.

At least from the outside on a cold winter’s day, Chrysler Village is a happy, sleepy, family-laden community where at random intervals jumbo jets from Midway tear open the sky.

Meet another South Side neighborhood with a small-town feel

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