Chicago history

Interview: In Olde Chicago: A Talk with David Anthony Witter about His Book Oldest Chicago

David Anthony Witter was born in Miller, Indiana—“across the lagoon from Nelson Algren’s summer home,” as he puts it—but has spent most of his life in Chicago. Growing up in 1970s Lincoln Park, before it switched from being an enclave of Puerto Rican and Appalachian families to its current affluent incarnation, he remembers a richer, more variegated place filled with old-school businesses.

Times change. When the ’80s arrived, Witter saw his favorite hangouts disappear, from pizza parlors to hardware stores, replaced by tonier versions of the same. In a familiar and despicable pattern for the city, Witter’s former classmates and their families were financially chased out of their neighborhoods, taking some of the older city with them. Later attending Columbia College, Witter started writing for local publications like the Chicago Reader and New City. One assignment involved covering the Berghoff’s closing in 2006. The article sparked the idea for the first edition of his book, Oldest Chicago.

“Every night,” Witter remembers, “there were lines around the block and people lamenting the loss of the Berghoff. I did an article saying, ‘Okay, here’s five other old bars that are kind of similar to the Berghoff.’ One of them was Schaller’s Pump in Bridgeport. As I remember, there’s another one, Shinnick’s (Pub) in Bridgeport. Then there’s The Green Tree, that’s the first bar ever in Chicago.”

The article proved popular. Witter receive multiple letters asking for follow-up pieces about other elderly institutions in Chicago. He floated the idea of a book to Lake Claremont Press, which released the first edition of Oldest Chicago in 2011. The book did well, but the same can’t be said for several places profiled in it. He also experienced the researcher’s dilemma of turning up new info on old Chicago stuff.

“In the first edition there were things that I missed…four or five places…that I wanted to include in the book. And then some places closed.” Witter made several updates for the next book (now published by Reedy Press). Schaller’s Pump closed in 2017, and was replaced by Marge’s Still (1758 N. Sedgwick St. in Old Town, 1885). The 400 Theatre (6746 N. Sheridan Rd. in Rogers Park, 1913) wasn’t open when the first edition came out, but assumed the crown of oldest operating movie theater after a remodeling in 2009.

Sometimes debates emerge about which place or institution truly deserves the “oldest” title. When asked to name his favorite oldest Chicago thing, Witter says it’s can’t pick one, but “oldest house” ranks high, especially since there’s a bit of a battle there.

“The oldest house in my first book was the Henry B. Clarke House (1827 S. Indiana Ave., in the Prairie Avenue District, built in 1836),” says Witter. “It’s been moved several times and was owned by Bishop Ford, who the expressway is named after. But they found out the NobleSeymourCrippen House (5624 N. Newark Ave.) in Norwood Park was actually the oldest house.”

The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House is considered the oldest, but quibblers argue that only the southern branch of the home was built in 1833, while the Italianate style section to the north was erected in 1868. Showing the irritating Chicago proclivity to say who is and isn’t a “real” Chicagoan, some Windy City denizens say that since the area wasn’t part of Chicago proper at the time, it’s not a “real” Chicago house. Witter respectfully disagrees.

“I say half of the city wasn’t part of the city in 1837, or maybe even three quarters. Lakeview was a township…Hyde Park…all these areas were annexed after 1837. So that wasn’t a great argument as to why it wasn’t the oldest house,” he argues, adding, “I think the people at the Norwood Park Historical Society did a great job of getting enough proof to prove it was the oldest house.”

While some things are technically eternal in Chicago and likely to be preserved as landmarks a hundred years hence—the Old Chicago Water Tower, Washington Square Park (aka Bughouse Square), and pioneer John Kinzie’s grave in Graceland Cemetery have all made it through three centuries—businesses are somewhat more impressive in their staying power. Witter names sundry restaurants, stores, and other merchants and service providers in the book that hang on to the present day. What keeps them going strong, or at least existing in 2021?

“As far as businesses goes, generally, there’s a family that keeps it going… Jaeger Funeral Home (1858), the Iwan Ries & Co. tobacco shop (1857), Superdawg (1948)…up until recently the photo place, Central Camera Co. (1899)….Magic Inc. (1926), which is the oldest magic shop, that’s two to three generations. The families keep it going, just out of a sense of loyalty. …That would probably be the biggest reason, besides being designated a landmark.”

Customer loyalty, whether through ethnic identity or simply adjusting to meet the tastes and needs of the local populace, also acts as an life-sustaining elixir. Witter seems most thrilled to share these types of stories.

“Daley’s Restaurant (6257 S. Cottage Grove Ave.) was started in 1892…the same year as the Columbian Exposition. The restaurant started when this guy Daley was working on the “L” stop, right where the restaurant is. So, he was swinging a pick and he decided, ‘You know what? It’s a lot easier to sell corned beef sandwiches and coffee and whatever else these guys want.”

Daley (no relation to the mayoral dynasty) started selling food out of a push cart/stand and followed construction up to where the Columbian Exposition’s White City was being raised. Daley wisely calculated there’d be many mouths to feed in the coming years and ran his namesake restaurant until 1918 when he sold it to the Zarouchliotis family. They’ve managed the place ever since. The restaurant updated its menu over the years even as the Woodlawn neighborhood changed.

“When the Daley family started it was Irish, and they sold corned beef and things like that. And now it’s African Americans. So they have a lot of soul-type food… And they keep the old standbys. So, a lot of it is just adapting.”

Sometimes location, location, location applies, especially if the location is unobtrusive.

“Marge’s (Still, built in 1885) is a bar that survived because it’s really hard to find. It’s in the Old Town Triangle. I grew up in Lincoln Park, and I can’t find it. What happened, probably, during Prohibition is that they kept serving alcohol because nobody knew it was there. And they were able to keep it a neighborhood business all these years.” Witter suggests. “So, being very prominent can be good, but being very hidden could also be good for business because nobody bothers you. Nobody wants to buy you out.”

The city’s natural state is to be constantly in flux, with buildings torn down and replaced with new ones, businesses succeeding and failing, and new Chicagoans displacing the old every day. The outlook seems grim even for the places that carry on, and those that do, philosophically speaking are they really the same places? Chicago is home to several ships of Theseus.

Gepperth’s Meat Market, for example, opened at Halsted and Armitage in 1906, and endures by evolving. The original German population bought their bratwurst, blutwurst, and other sausages there for a very long time. In the mid-20th century the neighborhood was populated by Puerto Ricans who bought ground beef and other cuts. Come the ’90s the money moved in and started purchasing steak at, per Witter, 24 bucks a pound

“A lot of times it’s just a matter of hanging in,” says Witter. “When your team is losing, you keep throwing the ball downfield, and eventually you’re gonna break through.”

But to achieve that breakthrough, oldest Chicago needs your support, or else it’ll turn into extinct Chicago. Witter stresses the importance of supporting local merchants to ensure they persevere.

“Support your local neighborhood institutions, your neighborhood clubs, your old-school restaurants, your family businesses, your libraries, and your local tavern.”

He continues: “Enjoy city life. This is what the city is all about. It’s about businesses. It’s about being around other people. You know, it’s not about just pulling into your driveway and turning on Netflix.”

Oldest Chicago is available through the Reedy Press website and David Anthony Witter’s website.

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