Saturday, June 25, 2016

Steps to Lake

This is the second installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

Looking for an apartment in a big city is an adventure, especially when you're young, with limited resources. You soon abandon the idea of landing a place built within the last few years and hope that you can at least find something built since the advent of electricity. Depending on supply and demand, the pickings can be slim, but sometimes, the sales pitch alone is worth a visit.

The Four Towers apartment building (now known as
Shoreline Condominiums), our first city home
When my wife Karen and I got married, we knew we wanted to move to Chicago. This was a calculated decision based on the idea that since Karen was from Boston and I was from Memphis, moving to either of those places would have provided one or the other of us a certain "hometown advantage." Not that this would have been a problem, but we really wanted to launch our lives in our own place, and since we had many friends from college who still lived in the Chicago area, or "Chicagoland," as it is sometimes called by the locals, we made the decision to move to the city. We had both attended Northwestern, which is located in the leafy North Shore suburb of Evanston, but being in our early twenties, we longed to be more in the heart of things. And so, on one weekend in the spring, we began looking for an affordable apartment down in the city, south of the Evanston-Chicago border.

Even though Evanston is officially termed a suburb, it does not look at all like one. The three and four story residential buildings and storefront businesses flow seamlessly as you head south along Lake Michigan into the north side of Chicago at Howard Street, where a large elevated train or "El" station marks the dividing line. Immediately south of Howard sits the venerable Rogers Park neighborhood, which for many years was home to kosher delis and lots of mom and pop businesses. In those days, Rogers Park was a relatively quiet, established neighborhood, and we looked at a few places there, but ultimately, we ended up heading a bit farther south, to the Edgewater neighborhood, which was part of Uptown. There were many Edgewater apartment buildings in our price range, which at the time was less than $250 a month. These days, that would be unattainable, but in 1978, you could actually find a number of apartments renting in that range. We scoured the newspaper listings and came up with several attractive options.

One of the first places we visited sat directly on Sheridan Road, a major north-south thoroughfare paralleling the lake shore several blocks to the east. This apartment was memorable for its liberal use of red velvet flocked wallpaper. I'm sure there were other wall colors represented in the unit, but after seeing the red, nothing else mattered. Given that, and the fact that the apartment sat above a busy street and had absolutely no character, we opted to continue looking.

Another apartment caught our attention with its tagline, which read, "Steps to Lake." We stopped by and found that indeed, the place was only a short walk from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, but that was really its only redeeming value. The front door opened into a lobby which was probably stylish in the 1940's but was seriously showing its age. Many buildings in Chicago open onto a center courtyard, and the leasing agent told us that this one did as well. We poked around looking for said courtyard and finally found what he was referring to: an open-air architectural aberration in the rear of the building which effectively provided a chute from the top floors to the bottom, where discarded cans of paint lay abandoned and rusting.

The agent took us to the apartment, and it was a sight to behold. The walls contained built-in cabinets with drawers which did not slide in and out as intended, but rather sat in the cabinets at angles. The windows looked out on other buildings, and the floors needed refinishing. The place just looked tired. At one point, the agent pointed out a small alcove and said, "This would make a nice sewing room for the ladies." But sewing room notwithstanding, we just weren't interested. We said thanks to the agent and continued looking.

Funny thing, but the perfect apartment turned out to be just around the corner. When we finally stopped in to look at it, we realized it was exactly what we had hoped to find. It was a little one bedroom unit with a Pullman kitchen built into a side wall of the living room, and it had a quiet, comfortable bedroom with a functional little bathroom that must have had about ten colors of tile on the wall. But it was clean and it was livable, not to mention that it was on the eleventh floor of a building called Four Towers, on North Marine Drive, and it sat directly across the street from Lincoln Park. We signed the lease.

We settled into city life quickly. We learned how to walk groceries home from the supermarket, how to entertain on a shoestring, and how to find our way around using only public transportation. In the evenings after work, or on the weekends, we would take our ten speed bikes down the freight elevator and ride them across the street into Lincoln Park and onto trails which led directly over to the lake shore. From our living room windows, we looked out over the north side of Chicago, and at night, we would turn off the lights and let the city illuminate the room. Many evenings, we would sip glasses of Valpolicella wine with friends and just gaze out at the seemingly endless metropolis.

And so, in the end, we had a place to call home, a place without red velvet flocked wallpaper, and with drawers that actually slid in and out of the cabinets. It was clean, quiet, comfortable and, for being on a tight budget, actually rather stylish. We felt like we had arrived, and all for $185 a month (plus electricity). But perhaps best of all, we were still literally only "Steps to Lake."