Riding the Red Rocket Through the Cottage Grove Ghetto


Three times a week after school, I hobbled out to Cottage Grove from Mendel on crutches.  I always got a seat on the streetcar  at 111th Street. The Red Rocket went without a transfer all the way to 29th Street.  The ride was long, but I had to continue with physical therapy at Michael Reese.  All the way up to 63rd Street things were familiar because Mom had taken us shopping to the Sears and Hillman’s at 63rd & Halsted.  North of 63rd Street, however, Cottage Grove Avenue became interesting.  The neighborhoods progressed from poor  to more poor. The store fronts told the story.  In the better sections there were a variety of businesses; TV shops, cleaners, butchers, bakeries, flower shops, you name it and you could find it on Cottage Grove in each neighborhood along the way.  By 43rd Street the buildings were older, dirtier, the businesses were fewer and those that were there were different.  Night clubs, taverns, storefront churches, groceries and drugstores.  What impressed me most was the up-keep on the buildings – there was none.  Some of the old frame buildings had boards missing or they were loose and hanging.  The paint wore away  years ago, and the wood was grey from weather.  Many windows had boards nailed on, others had metal guards.  There were people everywhere, just hanging around.  The further north I traveled, the people on the car changed from white to black.  By the time I got off at 29th  I was the only white left.

I never felt unsafe at any point of those trips.  The neck brace and crutches gave me a pathetic look and kept me safe.  That section of Cottage Grove was truly what I call a ghetto.  So many poor people all living in very crowded spaces with landlords that didn’t care to spend money on upkeep of the buildings.

The three block walk to the hospital after the long ride was a welcome relief.  I arrived at the Physical Therapy Department at 3:45 p.m. for my 4:00 appointment.  Once in the PT area, I stuffed my duffel bag, crutches, and brace into a locker and donned an Indian style loin cloth for the session.

Each treatment was the same.  Walk the parallel bars without crutches, do leg exercises, then follow-up with neck stretches and neck exercise. The therapist always took over my neck. At times, it felt like she twisted my head backwards..  The drill lasted 30-45 minutes and then it was time to go.

On the trip home, I pulled on the handhold and pushed against my crutches to hike up the high steps into a crowded rush-hour Rocket.  I learned quickly to take any seat that was available.  Many times I stood all the way to 79th Street before a seat became free.

One day I stepped into a very crowded car and squeezed my self away from the entrance to give room for more people to get on.  A little white-haired black lady looked up at me and offered me her seat. She looked exhausted and tired. I thanked her but refused.  At age fifteen I wasn’t about to take a seat from a senior citizen.  That incident repeated itself many times over the course of eight months that I commuted on the Rocket.

The therapy continued throughout the spring and the summer.  By the time of my release from Michael Reese  Physical Therapy, I was very glad.  During that summer I began to lift weights at home to build up my arms and legs.  My gym was the back yard. I dressed in swim trunks and looked like the guy who got sand kicked in his face in the Charles Atlas adds. I lifted weights.

By the time school started in the fall, I talked my way into using just one crutch.  The therapist didn’t think my hip was strong enough to get off the crutch completely. After only a few steps my hip swung out to the side and I fell into a limp. Eventually, I got rid of the collar, wearing it only when I felt tired.

My physical condition was 1000% better by the time school started at the end of August.  The summer of PT and weight lifting did wonders for my muscles. At the same time I was still growing in height.

A feeble smile returned to my face.

NEW BEGINNINGS-Part A

Yesterday, I posted a story about the gang of kids with whom I went to grammar school. Today, I am beginning a series of stories related to my adventure in high school. The time is September, 1952, the school is in the Roseland community of Chicago. My story is not different from the story of all kids who were born just before and during World War Two. The activities we enjoyed were the same. We all employed the same form of communication; letters and face to face speech. Phones were still scarce within the home, with a few public phone booths scattered about in businesses. Radio was the strongest media format. Television was still a rarity within homes, but catching on quickly. Not every family owned an automobile and public transportation was abundant with trolleys that ran frequently. Kids bought single 78 rpm records to play on their hi-fi players. Portable radios were the size of a large box of Cheerios, and used four to six “D” size batteries.  It was a time of my life that I would not trade for anything.

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NEW BEGINNINGS

The long summer ended and the big day arrived.  Mom packed a lunch for me, and I set off to ninety-third and Woodlawn to catch the street car.  I was excited; I didn’t have a buddy with me.  I was on my own.  The few minutes waiting for the car to arrive made me more anxious.  Should I take a chance and walk to the next stop?  Just then I spotted the red trolley making the turn onto 93rd Street from it’s journey around the Nickel Plate round-house at Kenwood.

The ride to Cottage Grove lasted all of five minutes.  I got off to wait for my transfer onto the Cottage Grove South car. Another wait to make me anxious but there was more traffic to watch on Cottage and it relieved the anxiety a bit.  The trolley stopped near the corner and I stepped off the curb to cross the lane to where the long red trolley stood in the center of the four lane street.  The pavement was all cobblestone and rough.  Once I was on the Cottage Grove line and headed south, I breathed a short sigh of relief.

The Cottage trolley went two blocks before it made a left turn onto 95th street to cut through the via-duct under the Illinois Central (IC) tracks to where Cottage Grove continued south on the east side of the railroad tracks.  The IC tracks are elevated from the south suburbs all the way to 47th street.  The viaducts passing under the tracks are long, dark and noisy.  As soon as the trolley broke out of the viaduct it swung right to head south again.  At this point the trolley tracks were between the street and the raised Illinois Central tracks. Because of the separation the motorman could make time between stop signs and cross streets.  The electric motors accelerated smoothly, and since the tracks were off the street and there was no traffic in the way, the trolley sped along at 40 miles per hour and more.

At 103rd we had to slow down for the stop light.  After that, we slowed down once more for the viaduct at 107th.  The 103rd and 107th cross streets were a lot lower than the track bed, so the trolley dipped as it approached these intersections.  There was always the chance that a car or truck would break out from the viaduct into the path of the trolley.  For this reason, the motorman slowed the trolley considerably to cross the intersections.

I started to get nervous again because my stop at 111th was nearing.  The conductor called it out and the car stopped.  Many boys of my age got off.  Some were on the car when I got on; others joined us at stops along the way.

Again, I crossed over the street to catch the trolley going west.  It was waiting there, and I had to run to catch it.  I jumped up the stairs with my transfer ticket in one hand and my lunch bag in the other.  The trolley took off, and before I could get settled into a seat, we were at South Park Avenue.  I got off at the rear door next to Pullman Bank.  There, across the street was the gate that opened onto the drive that led to Mendel Catholic High School for boys.

The walk up the drive was pretty because the forty acre school campus was large and well landscaped.  At this point there was a crowd of boys all headed in the same direction to the tall, stately building in the center overlooking the pond and 111th street.  I ran up the front steps and opened the door to a new world and a whole new segment of life.

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