THE BLOG
12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Style Like The Old Style

There was a time not so long ago, before Craigslist (and the entire Internet), that the simplest way to find an apartment in Chicago was to walk the streets of a neighborhood scouting 'For Rent' signs. That's how I found my first place, so close to Wrigley Field that I would open the back door during night games to hear Harry Caray gargle his way through Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

After spotting a sign on the door of that old building, I scribbled down a phone number and set out to find a pay phone (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous). I walked a few blocks until I came to a nondescript building where, between a plumbing supply company with a selection of dusty toilets in the window and a fast food place selling 'Burritos As Big Your Head,' hung a plastic sign lit from inside by a bulb.

It bore two words: Old Style. There was no other identifying language.

A narrow window set into the façade revealed nothing; a diamond of glass on the door was not much cleaner but by squinting I saw a pay phone on the wall.

Frankly, until I tried the door, I thought the joint was closed or deserted. But no, there at the bar, enveloped in cigarette gloom like a pair of torpid goldfish in a dirty bowl, sat two old men sipping beers. The bartender was as old or older than her patrons, with a pile of cotton candy on her head held fast by pins and combs. Her eye shadow was blue and her mouth was smeared red, with a cigarette in place for contrast. All murmuring ceased as they turned and stared at me.

The best I could come up with was, "The phone?" The bartender said, "Knock yourself out," and one of the codgers chuckled.

I made the call and left. No one told me to have a nice day or to come back soon. The unspoken message was don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-ass, which I anticipated once I was inside and had looked around. The simplest way to describe the décor is that it was brown. Decorative flourishes were restricted to ancient Cubs pennants pinned to a wall, a Chicago policeman's hat behind the bar, and two tiny Polish flags stuck in the neck of a beer bottle. There was no juke box, pool table, or television. Packs of cigarettes for sale spilled from the mouth of a carton and a radio tuned to WGN crackled on a shelf. It was a genuine Old Style bar all right, but in the context of days gone by rather than as a brand of beer. It hearkened to a time in Chicago when every ward and almost every block in that ward had its own personal joint, shaped and fashioned to reflect its clientele.

In other words, it was of the neighborhood, for the neighborhood, and everyone else could take a goddamn hike.

. . .

It has been said (ad nauseum) that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, which sounds pretty cozy and quilt-like until you examine what that means.

The demarcations that created those neighborhoods a hundred and more years ago were based on ethnic and religious segregation, sometimes self-imposed and organic, sometimes not. People created enclaves seeking homogeneity; it was an easier transition to American society to enter one toe at a time, speaking a native language as one learned English.

At the same time, there were certain residents of certain neighborhoods who never made the transition at all. They remained securely within the confines of Little Italy and Little Village, Chinatown and Greektown, Bronzeville and Andersonville and the multitudinous Jewish, Polish, Bohemian, Slavic, Irish, and German zones, recreating a village vibe on the blocks they occupied. That meant that the synagogues, churches, and mosques, butchers, bakers, grocers, and restaurants played back the languages, tastes, and cultures of the local residents, so that if a person ventured several blocks in any direction he could easily find himself in a neighborhood that diverged starkly from his own. For example, while Italians and Polish were primarily Roman-Catholic, a mass spoken in a southern Italian dialect versus Silesian Polish would naturally separate the two peoples, and the neighborhoods, as well.

Religious institutions anchored communities, uniting residents in their ethnicities while serving as portals to American society in the form of education and charity. And of course, in Chicago as elsewhere, there existed a strong political element to religion; from the pulpits of all denominations came both moral guidance and guidance at the polls, complete with the name of candidates and the boxes to check. But in general immigrants were wholly unfamiliar with the dual forces which now governed their lives, democracy and bureaucracy, each of which were practiced uniquely in Chicago (see Sean Connery in The Untouchables instructing Kevin Costner on the "Chicago Way").

When it came to sorting out the problems of day-to-day life, immigrants required the guidance of countrymen who had come before them and a clearinghouse for information. For that, many turned to another institution: the neighborhood tavern.

The importance of a local joint could not be overstated. It was the place where the issues of employment and income, marriage and family, gambling and debt were discussed and resolved. The tavern was where immigrants mixed a cocktail of old country tradition with new world order and then shook in a healthy jigger of that "Chicago Way." Culture was parsed, laws were explained, and bureaucratic secrets were revealed, and then all of that information passed through an ethnic sieve until context was provided to immigrants' new lives. It was no accident that many proprietors of such joints went on to become ward bosses and precinct captains, trading the voting power of their neighborhoods to the Machine for favors that made integration that much easier.

At the same time, neighborhood joints were enclaves within enclaves where patrons could shuck their newly-assumed identities for awhile and be more who they really were. Languages were spoken without self-consciousness and societal value judgments were boldly expressed without fear of being branded "un-American." Many of those places had at one time been Tied Houses, where a brewer like Schlitz built the tavern and provided it exclusively with its product. A remnant of that tradition endured, with brewers making distribution deals with bars in exchange for, among other things, signage. As the years passed and integration continued apace, old languages faded and neighborhoods diluted, it was usually the taverns that remained as vestiges.

The signs remained, too. Many read Old Style, lit from behind by a bulb. Sometimes it came down to just a couple of old guys left behind, sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, and murmuring in a language they'd been taught by their parents.

. . .

I lived in that apartment next to Wrigley Field long enough to see the neighborhood change in a way that would eventually smooth out its rough edges for good. It started most noticeably with Southport Avenue between Irving Park Road and Addison, which, besides the Music Box Theatre, was ghostly and deserted. First it was restaurants, and then a boutique or two, and then mixed-use construction with storefronts on the bottom and condos on top. And then those new brick boxes with tiny balconies and "luxury amenities" (stainless steel is a luxury?) were sprouting like mushrooms. Some were designed with purpose and a sense of style, others as faceless and without vision as their developers, but all of them changed the face of the North Side. I wouldn't say the real estate boom of the late 1990's and early 2000's suburbanized parts of Chicago, but it definitely de-urbanized it by a notch or two. All of those new residences, most of which were in stark contrast to the homes and buildings that existed around them, couldn't help but water down the character of the neighborhoods.

Eventually, this lessened-identity extended to the local taverns. Bars that had been notable for nothing more than an Old Style sign began to disappear along with their patrons. Many such places were sold-- along with their invaluable liquor licenses-- and replaced by spiffy new watering holes that would be hard-pressed to refer to themselves as 'joints' under any circumstances.

For some reason, a significant number of those new locales took on Irish themes. I've often wondered if it was because Irish genealogy is so pervasive in Chicago that, much like swinging a dead cat, it was almost certain that something Celtic would apply to large amount of people. Suddenly every other corner seemed to have its own Slappy McCorkle's Pub.

Each time I found myself in one of those places, the bartender would inevitably knock on the mahogany bar and explain how it had been built in Ireland and shipped to Chicago piece-by-piece, as if to confer authenticity on a place that had opened two months earlier. Maybe it's because my Macedonian-immigrant grandfather owned a genuine joint for forty years, but themed-bars, whether Irish or anything else, always seem to me like amusement parks with alcohol. They could exist in Chicago or Tampa or New Jersey; they are for the most part, places without a sense of place.

This came home to me one afternoon as I passed by the Old Style bar where I had used the pay phone to inquire about my old apartment. I had since moved from Wrigleyville and had not been down that street in many months, and was momentarily disoriented at spotting a small, sleek cocktail lounge where the tavern had been. The sign was gone, of course, replaced by something hand-lettered and vague. French doors had been set into the façade allowing sunlight to penetrate the formerly cave-like environs, a bowl of water for dogs sat near the entrance, and U2 undulated inside.

It didn't seem like a bad place, but in its quest to be something in particular, it seemed like nowhere at all. It had achieved a similar anonymity to an Old Style bar, but with a crucial difference; whereas this place, with its calculated blandness, was designed to welcome any and everyone, the classic Old Style bar, as the last, shrunken remnant of once ethnic neighborhoods, was intended as a refuge for its own. They used to be so much a part of the Chicago landscape that they were nearly unnoticeable, like trees in a forest. But as neighborhoods changed, the joints became out of place and suddenly noticeable. Some were transformed. Others, absent their longtime patrons, closed for good.

Now they're like four-leaf clovers: look too hard and you won't find them. If one does appear, walk inside, sit at the bar, and order an Old Style. It may be your last chance to soak up that uniquely Chicago feeling of not being wanted.