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On The Street Where I Lived by Jean Swoboda

I lived on Belle Plaine, in the North Center neighborhood. The block we lived on when I was growing up had apartment buildings at the west end, single family homes lined both sides of the street and small factories were on the east ends of the street. The block was dissected two thirds of the way down by the “L” then called the Ravenswood Line. At the end of the street was the Northwestern R.R. embankment.

Our family had a large rented house two doors west of the elevated track. We moved there when I was ten years old and we stayed eight years. There were children in almost every house, from teens to pre-school and several, like ours had very large families. All the kids knew one another and all the adults knew all the children; everybody seemed to look out for each other. In the 1930’s and 1940’s people didn’t move much. Thinking back on those days, it seems to me that when families found a place they could afford, they stayed to raise their families in a very middle class way.

There was no through traffic on our street and very few cars so we played in the street. The girls jumped rope, my favorite was double dutch. We also played hopscotch and the boys played softball and kick the can. There were lots of other games; we were never in want of things to do. We all rode bicycles and roller-skated. After supper all ages mixed and we played hide and seek or just sat on front porches telling stories and made plans for the next day. In the summer we made peanut butter sandwiches for our lunch, packed them up and walked about 2 ½ miles to Montrose beach and spent the day. In winter we walked in the opposite direction for about a mile to ice skate. Some winters my parents would let us flood the back yard to make our own skating rink. Back then the city didn’t plow the streets; there was no need, few people owned automobiles. The boys would shovel the sidewalks and throw that snow into the street, pack it down hard and that made a good slippery surface for sledding. Doesn’t it seem that there was more snow back then?

We didn’t seem to notice the noise the two car elevated trains made. The only one we noticed was the one we called the “pay train.” It was one car with all the shades pulled down. Back then street and elevated cars had shades that were pulled down to shut out the sun on hot days. Around 8:30 every evening this one car train traveled north and returned southbound almost 25-30 minutes later. The older boys soon found out what that closed up train was all about. It would slow down at the station that was about a block away, a man hopped off, ran down the stairs grabbed a canvas bag from the station agent and ran back up the opposite stairway. The train never stopped; just slowed down enough for the man to jump off at one end of the platform and be picked up at the other end. The whole thing only took about a minute and a half at each station as it made its way to the end of the line. On the return trip it came rushing back making no stops. The canvas bag held the fares paid to the agent by the passengers boarding the trains.

On the embankment at the end of the street were the Northwestern R.R. tracks. Trains traveled back and forth all day. Morning and evening rush hours had the most frequently scheduled trains taking people from their North Shore towns to downtown Chicago for work. Before the 1950’s most people traveled by train to visit out of town relatives, friends and to get to their vacation destinations. The trains that traveled on this branch of the R.R. were bound for Milwaukee, up through Wisconsin to Minnesota and some went all the way to Seattle. Just about 1939 the stream liner trains came into use. The Burlington R.R. train was called the Denver Zephyr, the Milwaukee R.R. train was the Hiawatha and it went across Iowa to South Dakota and another went up to Minneapolis.

The Northwestern upgraded some of their locomotives so that they could travel a mile a minute. This train traveled from Chicago to Minneapolis at an average speed of 60 miles in 60 minutes. They called it the “400.” Every evening at 9:10 it came roaring down the tracks that ran along the end of our street. All the kids and some adults would walk down to see it go racing by. We waved to all the engineers and they usually waved back. Sometimes we would get permission to walk the block and a half to go up and stand on the station platform. We wanted to be closer and feel the rush of the train streaming by. We were warned to stand back on the platform so that the speed of the train would not suck us in. We were forbidden to climb up on the train embankment. I was never bold enough to go there. Occasionally you would hear about someone being killed while walking on the tracks, probably thinking they had more time than they actually did to get out of the way. I can only remember it happening once near where we lived but it was enough to keep the prohibition.

I have always had romantic notions about trains, thinking of all the places that they could take you. I never tired seeing them go by….local, long distance or just freight.

We had to walk five blocks to the Ravenswood School. My mother insisted that we always take the same route. I believe she felt this was for safety reasons and it was a way of always knowing where we were.

From 1926 to 1942 there was always a Kehoe (my family name) child sitting in a classroom in the Ravenswood School. The teachers never changed so that they knew all of us and we knew them even before we sat in their class. When we are together, we reminisce about those ladies and the fun we had. In addition to teaching us the 3 R’s, they taught us good citizenship and the values that helped us to grow up to be good people. My parents were strict and always backed up the teachers. So while there was some mischief, it was not very much.

We moved away, my brothers went into the service and when they returned we were living in a different house. We’ve kept in touch, all the kids of Belle Plaine have been life long friends. Some have died and those of us who are left may no longer be able to jump rope or run around bases but we still remember and talk about those happy innocent days and of the fun we had.

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)

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