‘Memories of Growing up in Chicago’

Neal Samors’ new book goes on a nostalgia trip

Neal Samors  image
Maxwell Street Market, located on the Near West Side, was established by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century.

The Chicago civic leader Josephine Baskin Minow--known as Jo--grew up in the city's North Side Lakeview neighborhood. She didn't have much pocket money as an adolescent, but she- like her father, autodidact and bibliophile Salem Baskin, of advertising and men's clothing fame--did have savvy.

One day, in the late 1930s, she said, "I spied a pair of pink satin pajamas with navy blue trim at Carson's. They were on sale, and I just had to have them. So, I carefully selected a pair my size and then charged them to my parents' account… but not before having them monogrammed for free, making them non-returnable. It was that 'for free' that got me. Talk about chutzpah . I was twelve years old."

Minow shared this nugget with Chicago booster Neal Samors, author, co--author, and publisher of 30-plus books about the Windy City. His latest is Memories of Growing Up in Chicago: Recalling Life During the 20th Century . His reminiscences, along with those of 50-some other Chicagoans, make up this Studs Terkel-like, first-person paean to the city's distinct neighborhoods.

Samors worked on this book with Thomas O'Gorman and Christopher Lynch. He said he wanted to make sure every quadrant of the city, and each adjacent suburb, was covered. He also strove for as rich a representation of personages as possible.

Readers will relish the recollections of public officials (Hillary Rodham Clinton, Neil Hartigan, and Governor James Thompson), entertainers (Shelley Berman, Gary Sinise, and Joe Mantegna), and journalists (Walter Jacobson, Georgie Anne Geyer, and Rick Kogan). These sit alongside the words of ordinary, yet eloquent, Chicagoans who pay homage to their neighborhoods--Rogers Park (East and West), Old Town, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Lawndale, Skokie, Park Ridge, and beyond.

It was important, Samors said, to include people of the broadest swath of religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Still, he acknowledged that, given his status as a nice Jewish boy from East Rogers Park, at least one-third of the voices in Memories  belong to Jews.

In addition to Minow, Berman, and Jacobson, Jewish contributors include: Richard Elrod, once Cook County Sheriff, who remembered his bar mitzvah at Kehilath Jacob Synagogue in Lawndale; Estelle Gordon Baron, who waxed nostalgic about the Jewish South Shore during the early the 20th century; Harriet Wilson Ellis, who experienced "a great deal of antisemitism" in Avondale in the 1940s and '50s; and Robert Feder, who grew up in Skokie in the 1960s.

While it was always thought to be a predominantly Jewish suburb, Feder said, Skokie was "never more than 40% Jewish."

Samors, whose introductory essay is chockful of rich details of an idyllic 1950s childhood, said a few strands ran throughout the book. One was the "importance of family and education"--particularly among the Jewish contributors. 

Another was the insularity and autonomy of the city's neighborhoods during the middle of the 20th century. While you might go downtown for work or a concert or an exhibit at the Art Institute, mostly "you stayed within your neighborhood," he said. Why go elsewhere? Everything you needed was close: family, friends, shopping, school, and houses of worship.

Samors has been collecting contributions for the book for 25 years; many included in Memories , such as Minow, Geyer, Thompson, and Elrod, have died in the last decade or two.

That's why, he suggested, it's so important to preserve their stories. "I have a granddaughter who is 12, and she loves history," he said. The stories he collected continue to live on for her, and future generations.

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in New York.






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