Canaryville Blues

Our sixteen inch softball game had just ended at Pilsen’s Harrison Park and a bunch of us from our team crossed the street to Bishop’s to enjoy some chili and wash it down with cold Filbert’s root beer. My team, the Englewood District Office caseworkers, was crushed by the caseworkers from the Oakland District Office, by a lopsided score of 15-6.

The Oakland team not only had better athletic talent, but also approached the game in a more focused manner. Perhaps this resulted from the influence of a strong Progressive Labor Party cadre that played on the team. Our Englewood team seemed as dispirited on the field as during the work week in our office.

Over the last month or so in the summer of 1972, there seemed to be several bomb threats called into the Englewood Public Aid office on Halsted and 61st Street each week. The police didn’t know why these threats were occurring, but each one frayed our nerves. As we waited across the street for the police to give us an all clear to return to the building, one couldn’t help but notice the empty lots and boarded up stores in what had once been a bustling commercial area.

My best friend at Englewood was Steve Kowalski, a Polish kid from the Northwest Side with a blonde ponytail and a fondness for tie dye shirts.  He graduated from Forman High School and UIC, and like me took one of the seemingly plentiful caseworker jobs available at the Cook County Department of Public Aid. In those days if you had a college degree and were able to pass a fairly easy civil service examination, you were hired by the county and assigned to one of the district offices located mainly on the South and West Sides.

As usual, our chili at Bishop’s was excellent, but the root beer didn’t quite do the trick in quenching our thirsts.  Steve asked me and another one of our Englewood co-workers, a black guy named Greg, if we would like to go back to his place in Canaryville where there were two six packs of cold Old Style in ther refrigerator waiting for us. We thought that it was a splendid suggestion.

We got into Steve’s Volkswagen bus for the trip to Canaryville, located just three miles southeast from Pilsen. Canaryville was a white ethnic enclave, mostly Irish with a smattering of Poles and Lithuanians, adjacent to the recently shuttered Union Stockyards. In fact, the last pen and killing floor closed the year before. The stench of dried blood still wafted in the air.

No one seemed to know for sure the origin of the community’s name. Although a legend had it that birds use to swoop down into the Stockyards picking at whatever animal remains they could find, finally resting themselves with their lucre in the shade of the nearby trees before flying away. One thing that we did know was that Canaryville had a history of racial intolerance. Steve mentioned that one of his elderly neighbors proudly recalled bashing the skulls of Blacks during the Race Riot of 1919. Although he added that most of his neighbors had been warm and kind since he moved to Canaryville about a year ago.

Steve never even gave it a second thought to have a black friend over to his apartment. He knew that some of the old timers poked fun at his ponytail and thought that he was some type of hippie but he never had problems at all with anyone in the neighborhood. Greg and I spent a pleasant few hours at Steve’s that evening enjoying our beers while listening to music and discussing office politics.  Steve then drove us to the el station at 35th Street where Greg and I took trains getting us back home.

The next morning at the office Steve approached me looking agitated. His windshield had been smashed overnight by a rock with a nasty note attached to it. He felt betrayed by the people that had taken him into their community as a neighbor. Steve wondered if this incident was an anomaly or did racial hatred still run deep in this community. He now had a lot to think about regarding his own future living in neighborhood, referring to the situation as his “Canaryville Blues.”

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