The Man Who Put Division Street On Map Of The World
On the sunny Saturday of December 5, 1998, Chicago’s literati that included the legendry oral historian, television personality and journalist, Nelson Algren’s close friend and perhaps one of his biggest fans, Studs Terkel, the poet, playwright and the founder of Algren Committee, Stu McCarrell, mayor Richard M. Daley, the alderman Jesse Granato and the Polish leader Zygmund “Ziggy” Dyrkscz and a large group of the writer’s fans and friends got together on the Polish Triangle at the intersection of Ashland-Milwaukee and Division Streets. They had gathered for the dedication ceremony of the newly erected fountain named after the neighborhood’s rogue writer Nelson Algren, who had lived in the neighborhood for thirty five years and in his writing put the Division Street and its neighborhoods on map of the world.
This after the long battle and prolonged negotiations between the members of Nelson Algren Committee and the Polish Roman Catholic Union. Why?
Because as much as he had become an integral part of the neighborhood, the residents and the keepers of the local flame never really accepted him as their own. In what was then pre-dominantly poor blue collar Polish neighborhood, he was an outsider. And he wrote about downtrodden and desperate drug addicts, drunks, criminals, prostitutes and gamblers who also happened to be Polish and poor. Most of them of Jewish origin. Even though Algren himself was part Jewish on his mother’s side, and his first wife Amanda Kontowicz was Polish – the community felt that what he wrote was anti-Semitic and that his stories denigrated the local population in general.
So much so that the Polish Roman Catholic Union took the issue to then Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly and had his novel Never Come Morning banished from Chicago’s Public Libraries soon after it was published in 1942. And so it remained for more than twenty years. The animosity lingered even after two generations had turned over and most of the Poles had moved away from the neighborhood, leaving behind only a couple of remnants of its Polish identity. The Nelson Algren Committee faced a very strong and emotional resistance when it proposed and worked on memorializing their beloved author by naming after him what was and still is commonly known as the Polish Tringle. They hope to maybe someday even have his statue erected on the site, because that was the universe in which his characters from three of his books, The Man With The Golden Arm, Never Come Morning and Neon Wilderness inhabited. This had the Polish community up in the arms – totally horrified. They felt that would erase their history in the city. Thus ensued the struggle between two forces. Represented by Zygmund “Ziggy” Dyrkscz – the owner of Chopin Theatre, they argued that it was “their” territory and their identity in the city which is still often defined as containing of the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.
Finally a compromise was reached and it was decided that the little plaza was to remain known as it always had been – the Polish Triangle which was considered and would remain the gate to the long stretch of Division Street aka Polish Broadway that extended all the way to Humboldt Boulevard. The fountain would be named after Nelson Algren. So the gathering of who’s who of Chicago. After the dedication ceremony everyone probably went to a nearby bar that Algren frequented or not, feeling stoked.
The irony is: though it was never officially named Polish Triangle with a street sign indicating as such. Whereas even though at the base of the fountain is engraved NELSON ALGREN FOUNTAIN in brass and it is also surrounded by a quote from his book Chicago: City on the Make, that reads: For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart. And yet, no one I know knows of the significance of the fountain or has ever looked down at the inscription on the ground beneath it. For that matter, no one I know or lives around here has known or heard of Nelson Algren.
For that matter, up until about six months ago, even I had no idea who Nelson Algren was – other than he may have appeared as a blimp on the radar of my general knowledge of the world literature. And now I see him everywhere. Especially his presence is felt on, around and within the twelve blocks of Chicago’s Division Street.
The third floor of 1958 West Evergreen Avenue was home for Algren’s final eighteen years living in Chicago spanning from 1958 to 1976. It is marked as a building of distinction by Chicago Tribune. This stretch of Evergreen is granted honorary Nelson Algren Avenue sign. Earlier he lived on 1523 Wabansia and 1815 West Division in an apartment above Millers Lumber Store, the place I used to frequent up until it was demolished some years ago to make room for modern condos, never realizing that it used to be a home to the man of a certain literary distinction. What’s more, Frankie and Sophie Machine of The Man With The Golden Arm lived diagonally opposite, on 1860 West Division, the fictitious address that doesn’t exist, except in Algren’s imagination.
The writer’s writer, Earnest Hemingway proclaimed Nelson Algren to be the best American writer in the same breath along with William Faulkner. Algren won the National Book Award in 1950, a year before Faulkner won his, for considered to be his best novel, The Man With The Golden Arm. The book was made into the movie by Otto Preminger staring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, and for which Sinatra was Oscar nominated for best actor. There are at least two coffee table photography books by Art Shay – his friend, fan and the photographer of Life magazine, filled with Algren himself traipsing around his nocturnal turf, as if following in the footsteps of the characters he had created.
And there is enough written about the man and his work, someone you would think is on a revival track, and yet other than a handful of hard core aficionados and the new converts like myself, he seems to have totally disappeared from the literary shelves. While you would have no problem finding titles of the books of his contemporaries – such as Faulkner, Hemingway and Studs Terkel, and most of all his French paramour Simone de Beauvoir, you would be hard pressed to find any of his titles on the shelves – except in used bookstores.
Algren had a love/hate relationship with Chicago, to whom he writes: I never pretended to love for something you were not, I never told you you smelled of anything but cheap cologne. I never told you you were anything but a loud old bag. Yet you’re still the doll of the world and I’m proud to have slept in your tireless arms. But eventually he must have felt disoriented with his love for the city that he couldn’t help but feel: No writer ever gave more to a city and got back less.
So when he got a magazine assignment in New York, he moved to New Jersey and then heartbroken never coming back to Chicago, he went on to live in Sag Harbor, Long Island, which is where he died of heart attack all alone, without a widow or descendants, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Chicago, Illinois, which had given him to the world and with whose underbelly he had been so long identified, mourned Kurt Vonnegut – one of his literary friends and a fan.
But that’s not the end of the story of Nelson Algren I want to tell. So far I have successfully avoided telling you about his most tempestuous and long lasting trans-Atlantic relationship with the French writer, existential philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. The one that has intrigued me and rest of the world the most. For that, stay tuned for the part two of Nelson Algren.
© 2019 Haresh Shah
AN IMPROBABLE LOVE STORY SIMONE & NELSON No two people can be more different than the “Frenchie”, the sophisticated feminist, the writer and the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and the toughie who not only wrote of the underworld but himself lived the life in the seediness under the neon lights, Nelson Algren.
My special thanks to Dana Jarmer for kindly passing on to me the letter size manila envelope stuffed with a major article and other relevant information on Nelson Algren which then lead me to other sources. (www.blastfortune.com www.literateape.com)
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