Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Steel Spikes: Chicago South Sider in Exile…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 5:37 am on Wednesday, March 24, 2021

by Robert M. Katzman © March 11, 2021

When I come south to visit Downtown Chicago, it strikes me as a forest of tall, boxy glass buildings, indistinguishable from each other. To this South Sider now in exile, they seem like angry steel spikes piercing the sky, an assault on architecture. A forest I’ve been lost in.

The Downtown I knew intimately when I owned (1977-1984) the once essential/now obliterated, famously illegal, 24-foot wide, 8-foot deep wooden newsstand at Randolph and Michigan at the entrance to the steps of the underground Illinois Central Train Station, today is to me unrecognizable. Beautiful buildings like the old Library were once quite visible. The regal 1852 Marshall Field’s Department Store, a magnificent landmark was still open, then. 

On Sundays when I worked that newsstand, the streets were empty and silent. 

No one lived Downtown in 1977. 

Grant Park was not yet Millennium Park, but when Pope John Paul II came to visit in November 1979, I was there all that frozen day and everywhere the wide streets were filled with long yellow school buses from all the surrounding states. Cops everywhere, but not a peep of trouble, perhaps due to the strict Army of Nuns watching everyone. Fearsome and foreign to my dark Mediterranean eyes.

I moved to a small town in Wisconsin a few years ago, not yet realizing that I was entering a sort of Twilight Zone existence where the Main Street is lined with 1880’s storefronts, near a former Andrew Carnegie Library, and the original massive Post Office with its six fluted Greek Corinthian Columns, open just a few hours a day and never ever busy.

Seeing that building from my new/old town’s past sometimes rockets my consciousness back even further, about 2,000 years, because when I was in the once Lost City of Petra (Greek for rock) in Jordan, fluted Corinthian Columns were scattered around everywhere like random Roman pick-up sticks.  The ghosts of that extinct Nabatean civilization on the ancient but abandoned Silk Road somehow returned with me, back to Wisconsin, and sometimes haunt me still.

There is a tall and solitary stone Civil War monument, a single Union soldier on guard, on top.

Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848, raised 91,000 men to fight in the Civil War. More than 12,000 died. Children play on and around it today, perhaps unaware that even serene rural places can be shrouded with carnage from 150 years ago. The past swiftly becomes past-er.

There are farms, farms with horses, some with collapsing barns a few miles away, a mostly open Lakefront with an historic area of magnificent Victorian and other styles of homes clustered together, seemingly to keep warm on original streets still composed of worn red paving bricks.

Tho’ born in 1950, I am in a strange environment that is always quiet, never a rush hour. It has lush bulging-with-produce grocery stores where the food is frequently supplied by the surrounding farms. Where Frank Lloyd Wright is a local patron saint. Like I’m falling through Time, Past is Present, here.

I grow older, yet my country seems younger. I was born 150 years after George Washington died, the ages of only two old men. The life spans of less than three of our American eagles. He seems more contemporary to me now, than when I first read about him as a child. Time bending in upon itself. He died at 67; I am 70; I have eclipsed him in years. How can I be older than George Washington?

Though Jewish in a state where we are one tenth of one percent of five million people, I have never in my life had warmer relationships, people who are helpful in often difficult weather-related situations. They automatically assume I am the same as them. Kindness is common. I am still surprised, I guess, five years later.

Born in Hyde Park, raised ‘til age fourteen near CVS High School at 87thand Jeffery Avenue, near the Chicago Skyway, near Rodfei Sholom or Chodesh, once the South Side’s largest Synagogue perched atop Pill Hill, I fled north in the night and spent my next twenty years in Hyde Park when it was an island of many preserved Victorian homes and the massive University of Chicago’s tonnage of Gothic-ness, in a part of Chicago then otherwise very poor and filled with blocks of crumbling houses and scattered bricks. Then, it reminded me of a castle surrounded by aspiring serfs.

Thirty-five years ago when I left Hyde Park, it was becoming too dangerous to walk alone at night. Today when I visit my old neighborhood, my forgotten Bob’s Newsstand at 51stand Lake Park is beneath a massive Whole Foods building. Erased. Once one of America’s premiere sources of 3,000 international magazines and newspapers, buried like it never existed at all. Vanished.

Both disoriented and curious, I asked a young clerk working inside of the Whole Foods how many Sunday New York Times they sold, generally. The person paused and thought about it, then replied, “Oh, maybe five or ten.”

On a site where my army of young neighborhood news-kids sold a thousand of them, five pounds each, on the average Sunday, year-round. My soul was starting to hurt. I had to leave, not even my shadow comfortable lingering there. Like a once beautiful mound of Autumn leaves, now scattered to places unknown. I was becoming numb. A year later in February, 2022, I asked again, and a clerk told me they didn’t sell newspapers anymore.

Back at my original Chicago home on 8616 S. Bennett Avenue, while the side street still looked the same, 87thSt, once a beehive of commercial activity and an easy friendly atmosphere, even for children, is now seemingly a prison of steel gates protecting glass windows. I am the Alien here now.

My children and grandchildren all live near each other in Northwest Chicago and seem quite happy. But a bungalow there costs the same as a Victorian mansion in Downtown Racine. 

If someone asks me where I’m from or where I am now, my first (inner) response is, “Where I’m from no longer exists, and where I live now seems a fragile bubble from the past”. 

In reality, I feel like some ancient wooden wind chime, twisting and turning in the wind, no longer certain what “now” means. 

All my older relatives, the immigrants from terrible places of slaughter, gone now. My parents, sister and wife of four decades dead, and now increasingly like a Boulder of Death rolling downhill, faster and faster, even some friends from my childhood and high school also disappearing.

I feel inside like one of the antique newspapers from the Spanish-American War, that I used to attempt to sell in my old Magazine Museum, north of Chicago to indifferent young browsers: 

Dusty, yellowing, unread and crumbling, my past life seems rapidly disappearing, catching up to me.

Where in Time am I now?

Before I, too, am a mere blink in Time.


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

Shipping by air to most of Europe, due to the weight of my books is $99.00

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.


Comment by brad dechter

March 24, 2021 @ 8:12 am

To respond: You are alive and healthy and happy in Racine! And let’s keep hope that it stays that way for a while!
At this point in our life’s journey, it’s time to be hopeful and have faith that our remaining years are/will be good! If you choose to think about the past, sure you can be nostalgic, but look at it to learn for the future.
The prayer says “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Your writings leave us with more- for all posterity.
Nice work of art and history Bob!

Comment by Bob

March 24, 2021 @ 9:21 am

Don’t know where the time and globe traveling images and ideas came from, but they came in a rush, like a dream and I had to attempt to write as much as possible of them down before the Chicago Rocket ship of Random Thoughts left the station, taking its cargo of imagination with it.

Comment by Jim Payne

March 24, 2021 @ 11:11 am

From those distant recesses of our past come haunting revisits echoing the parts of the present that are still vacant that reflect what we haven’t become. Like then we now still want to do more, be more, try again. Our vision so exceeds our grasp. You tell it in your story. I love your word imagery that captured the spikes of downtown skyscrapers. This is a story I’m saving to read again.

Comment by Donald Larson

March 24, 2021 @ 11:50 am


You remain ever-present no matter the location.


Comment by Jean Rudy

March 26, 2021 @ 9:15 am

My original home was also on Bennett, 84th! Neighbor! Moved to 90th and Dante in 1956, went to St Ailbes when we moved, wen to Caldwell before that. Wud take the Stony
Island bus to High school at U-High.I agree with so much you have to say.Guess us old folks like the youth we experienced in the Old Chicago, Marshall Fields at Christmas! Remember when there were some of the WW2 airplanes at CVS! not worrying about being out at night, told to be home when the street lights came on1 Those were the days!

Comment by Dave Cohen

January 22, 2023 @ 10:28 pm

I greatly enjoy your writing with the incredible descriptions of Chicago neighborhoods
during the 50s though the 80s. I remember Pill Hill from AZA mixers during the mid 60s.In fact, I recall one party on Bennet in the blocks south of 87. It is definitely strange that our paths have not crossed as I have at one time lived near to all of you north side stores
I currently live in the north suburbs
Please feel free to drop me al line— I meant DM at your convenience ad I would certainly enjoy kibitzing about the old days.
Best regards,


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