Route 66 in the News

Route 66 May Revive North Lawndale

2009-01-21 20:06:32

As castles go, the building isn't much, with its crumbling turret and boarded windows on a forgotten stretch of Ogden Avenue in North Lawndale.

But neighborhood leaders see the former gas station and carwash as a palace from a past when their struggling West Side community thrummed with music and industry along the famed Route 66 connecting Chicago to California.

A year after the castle-shaped structure was built in 1925, Ogden Avenue became part of the nation's first interstate highway, befitting a neighborhood that was home to Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s headquarters, a blossoming jazz scene and the heart of Jewish Chicago.

Today the musty brick building stands as the sole reminder in the city of Route 66. Like hundreds of other historical gems in Lawndale, it serves as a backdrop to the violence and despair that have dominated the neighborhood since rioters set fire to it after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination.

Now community leaders see the tiny castle and Route 66 lore as a way to get residents and outsiders to think about Lawndale as more than another place beset by crime and poverty.

"This is an amazing asset," said Charles Leeks, a local director for the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services, a citywide group that is considering joining with others to buy the Castle Car Wash property and convert it to a tourist center or something similar. Efforts are under way to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places, which would protect it from demolition.

"We've got a narrative here that we can continue to build upon," Leeks said, citing the 2,000 greystone buildings in Lawndale that are at the center of a citywide restoration project. "We've got to change how people perceive this neighborhood."

Consider some characters in that narrative.

Amid the century-old greystones and scores of Jewish synagogue buildings still standing, a young Benny Goodman launched his career with rooftop garden gigs at the Jewish People's Institute, now the Lawndale Community Academy on Douglas Boulevard.

Later, Golda Meir lived in the neighborhood, attending Zionist meetings that led to her role as prime minister of Israel.

And King lived on Hamlin Avenue in the mid-1960s, overseeing a new urban civil rights movement in Chicago. Near where his run-down apartment once stood, clubs wailed with a tinny new "West Side sound" of blues generated by the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy.

"Those were some times," said veteran blues guitarist Jimmy Dawkins, 72, a pioneer of the West Side sound. "Roosevelt Road was full of life."

Meanwhile, the castle building quietly operated as a Route 66 filling station until it closed in the mid-1970s.

Its quirky architecture was probably a gimmick to compete against other gas stations on a thoroughfare lit up by car dealerships and scores of other auto-related businesses, said historian Dave Clark, who is part of the building's preservation efforts.

"It seemed to work; he was in business for over 45 years," Clark said.

After the riots, the gas station shut down, joining Sears and other large employers in a mass exodus worsened by the closing of Route 66 in the early 1970s.

For a few years, the building was a carwash. Then it, too, went under.

Now owned by a Bridgeport tow-truck operator, the castle sits idle amid a patchwork of vacant buildings and new development, in a neighborhood where luxury town homes are built across from crumbling apartments and foreclosed houses.

As with any respectable castle, this one is still in proximity to local royalty.

For instance, a few Ogden Avenue clinics pay homage to Belle Whaley, known as "the first lady of Lawndale" for the decades she spent feeding the neighborhood's poor and elderly before she died in 1990.

Dawkins lives a few blocks away. He's happy to share stories about such characters as Big Bill Hill or Left-Hand Frank who helped make Lawndale a blues mecca.

"That's all gone now," he said recently, staring out a McDonald's window at subsidized apartments that stand where a 12th Street blues hall once packed in large crowds.

Like many in Lawndale, Dawkins said he grew tired of the constant crime and left after nearly 50 years. But he said something about the neighborhood's character lured him back.

The same happened to Sherita Harris, who has managed to find her own form of the castle even while the ailing economy has forced others to lose theirs to foreclosure.

As a girl, Harris fell in love with the single-family greystone across 15th Place from her family's home.

Eventually, she left, married and began shopping for her first house. She remembered the greystone and—$216,000 later—now lives in the rehabbed house with her second husband, Shayon, and daughter Katlin, 9.

A vacant lot is what's left of her childhood home, which deteriorated and was demolished.

Harris, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Lincoln Park, says she often smiles to herself when friends express wariness about visiting her in Lawndale.

"They say, 'Oh, you live over there?' " Harris said. "When they come over, they ask, 'Do they have any more of these buildings?' "

~Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune

 

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