Blog post written by Josh Ruddy, ELI Language Pedagogy Specialist

The weather for first weekend in April is always unpredictable, but the grey, rainy, cold day that we decided to wander around the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood somehow seemed appropriate.


For the winter quarter, the ELI reading group chose a famous novel about mid-twentieth century Chicago.  Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm tells the harrowing story of a Polish-American World War II veteran trying to make a living as a card dealer in an illegal casino while trying to overcome a drug addiction.  While the novel is fictional, much of the action takes place along a stretch of Division Ave. west of Milwaukee Ave. and Ashland Ave. in what was once the heart of Chicago’s Polish community.  After we completed the extremely challenging novel, we decided it would be nice to take a walk around the area to see the apartments where Algren lived while writing the novel and in the years after and to see if we could find any evidence of the community that he described seventy years ago.  The language in the novel is difficult and the story line is often depressing, so the weather we had for our walk seemed to be a perfect match.


We met at the intersection of Milwaukee Ave., Division Ave. and Ashland Ave. in a small park now referred to as the Polish Triangle.  This intersection is the central point of the novel: a major car accident happened nearby that changed several of the characters’ lives; the illegal casino where the main character works is just to the south of the park; the local bar where much of the action in the novel takes place is right on the other side of Ashland Ave.  Now, the intersection is surrounded by high-rise condos and there is little evidence of the once vibrant community described in the novel.


To build up our energy for the walk, we went a few blocks north on Milwaukee Ave. to a restaurant that reflects a community that has made a home in the area in the years since The Man with the Golden Arm was published.  Antique Taco is a recent but famous arrival in the neighborhood, and it was nice to enjoy a warm meal together on a cold day.


After lunch, we walked north along the elevated Blue Line tracks, listening to the roar of the trains that often appears in the background of the novel.  While the trains have changed, the tracks have not and the sound of the rumbling probably sounds today nearly the same as it would have sounded in Algren’s time.  As we walked along Milwaukee Ave., the storefronts and apartment buildings began to change from buildings that had been constructed in this century to facades that would have been familiar during the time that the novel took place.  While the businesses themselves were new, you could see evidence of the tenants from nearly a century ago.


To get a bird’s eye view of the area, we climbed up the ramp to another recent addition to the neighborhood, the 606 Trail.  The 606 Trail was once an elevated freight train track that connected the main railroad lines to the factories and steel mills that would have provided work for the people who lived in this area when Algren was writing.  In the last decade, the train tracks have been removed and replaced by a pedestrian trail and a park.  We walked along the 606 Trail and through the nearby neighborhood to the spot on Wabansia Ave. near Damen Ave. where the apartment where Algren lived while writing The Man with the Golden Arm.  While there were many new houses in the area, we enjoyed picking out the sturdy old houses that were built in the late 19th century that would have been standing when Algren lived there and during the time that the novel takes place.


After a few of us stopped for coffee beneath the Damen Blue Line Station we walked down Damen Ave. to Evergreen Ave.  Here, we stopped to read the only real sign of Nelson Algren’s existence in the neighborhood: a marker in front of the apartment where he lived from the late 1950s until the early 1970s.  From this marker, it was a quick, three-block walk to the fictitious residence of the main characters in The Man with the Golden Arm at Wolcott Ave. and DivisionAve.  While the address for the apartment that Algren mentions in the book does not exist, it is just a few blocks east of two bars that could easily have been the inspiration for the establishments where much of the action in the novel takes place.  On the north side of Division stands Phyllis’ Musical Inn which easily could have been the inspiration for The Tug and Maul in the novel and to the south stands the Gold Star Bar which may have been the inspiration for the novel’s Safari Club.  Both were in business under different ownership when Algren lived in the neighborhood and both claim that he was a frequent customer.  Standing in the cold drizzle at the intersection between these two bars on a grey afternoon, it was easy to picture the main character from the novel, Frankie Machine, pulling up the collar of his worn field jacket and walking home to his apartment a few blocks west.


We walked a few blocks to the east, passing both buildings with 150-year-old facades as well asnew, unfinished construction to the park at the Polish Triangle where we all tried to pretend that we were not cold and damp while we took a group photo.  While a warm, sunny day would have been nice, it would not have felt like Algren’s neighborhood.  And while the day was cold, the warmth of the friendships and pleasant conversation was wonderful.  We departed to return to our homes to dry off and warm up with a new understanding of an amazing and challenging novel and its equally complex author.