Thursday, May 29, 2003

Vanishing Chicago: The Gym

If you've ever ridden the El north on the Brown, Red or Purple Lines, you've seen it--a long, narrow, slab gray building squatting just east of the train tracks, with which it has coexisted peacefully for more than 70 years. It's sturdy-looking, this building. Imposing. Impressive. Gothic.

And oh so doomed.

The building in question is the Hayes-Healy Gymnasium, owned and maintained by DePaul University since it opened in 1929. Recently, though, the University agreed to tear the gymnasium down as part of the Chicago Transit Authority's plan to expand the Fullerton El station. The expansion itself isn't a bad idea--as one of the busiest hubs in the CTA system, the Fullerton station could certainly use renovation and amenities like escalators, elevators and improved lighting, all of which are on tap for the new station.

Unfortunately, in order to build, CTA must first tear down.

Demon Dogs, tucked under the north end of the Fullerton platform, is being razed as well, despite protests from the owner and from longtime patrons, who maintain that the little hot dog stand under the tracks is a neighborhood institution. Of course, Demon Dogs has the option of moving to another location somewhere along Fullerton, Lincoln or Halsted. Unlikely, given the steep rents in the neighborhood, but an option.

Meanwhile, to the immediate south on the other side of Fullerton, the Hayes-Healy Gymnasium has no such option.

A walk across the street and up a tree-lined driveway for a closer look at the gym reveals that it's not merely a big gray stone box covered by a slate roof, but an intricately decorated facade as well. Numerous figures line the eastern face, from male and female discus throwers (both very naked) to more primitive and fanciful details displaying different sporting events, like baseball games, hurdlers and boxers.

There are other, odder carvings--like pineapples and rams' horns--but all seem themed to the building beneath them, where college students drove to the hoop and swung on balance beams, or on the field before the building, where women softball players still spend afternoons throwing 12" softballs harder underhand than I ever could overhand.

I'm sure some of those details will be preserved in some way. Maybe they'll be put on display at the University. Maybe they'll be displayed somewhere in the new station. Maybe they'll even mount the baseball players, boxers and skaters on the facade of that new station. Wouldn't be unheard of. When Nordstrom wanted to open a store with a Michigan Avenue address, the Rand-McNally building was torn down, but its facade, with its intricate Zodiac figures, was carefully preserved and remounted onto the face of the new building (though, by my count, four astrological signs--Scorpio, Cancer, Pisces and Aquarius--didn't make it back onto the building; wonder where those went?).

That's not the same as having the original structure to marvel at, though. Buildings like this are works of art. Knocking them down is city-sanctioned vandalism. It's a shame that more creative though couldn't have been incorporated into this project. Couldn't the building have been worked into the plans, maybe as part of the platform itself? How cool and unique would that have been? Or maybe it could have converted into an adjacent shopping area--other buildings thus threatened (like Medinah Temple) have been thus preserved.

Unfortunately, the plans for the new Fullerton Station appear to be set in stone--unlike the Hayes-Healy Gym, which soon will be unset in a most permanent way.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Vanishing Chicago: The Hub

Back in the days when I could better tolerate going to movies alone--unlike now, when catch the likes of Identity or X2: More Pretty People in Form-Fitting Leather, I'm pretty much on my own (makes the after-movie discussions over pints of cider rather one-sided, it does)--the theater I spent the most time haunting was the Hub.

The Hub was conveniently within walking distance of home--"home" then being in Ukrainian Village--on Chicago Avenue just east of Wood. It showed Spanish-language versions of first-run movies for a while (I still regret having skipped the experience of Return of the Living Dead en espanol) before becoming a second-run venue. And, best of all, it was incredibly cheap--on Tuesday nights, you could catch a double feature for two dollars. Less than it would have cost to rent the damn movies at Blockbuster.

It wasn't a great theater. It was small. The screen had holes in it. The seats were hard and uncomfortable, and one whole section of seats was blocked off because they were unsafe to sit in. The place smelled like a popcorn-scented sweatsock. And I always expected to see a rat come scurrying up the aisle, but never did. (Oddly enough, the only time I saw any rodent activity in a Chicago movie house was in one of the more expensive downtown venues, where they charged three times as much for seats just as hard.)

But the Hub was a throwback to a time when nearly every Chicago neighborhood had at least one --and usually several--movie houses. The popcorn was cheap. The service was friendly. And the price allowed me to catch movies I might otherwise have skipped altogether. Like Delta Force 2 with Billy Drago as--surprise!--an evil drug lord. Or Exorcist 3, which wasn't a bad idea for a movie (a serial killer capable of carrying out his crimes by possessing others) and had one of the best "jump" moments in any horror film ever, but it would have been better off not being touted as a sequel to one of the classics of the genre when it had, at best, peripheral ties to the original and opaque, leaden direction by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. Or Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer as a blind Vietnam vet/martial arts master (aren't they all?). Not all movies have to be great or even good to be fun. And I had plenty of fun at the Hub.

The four year old with
the black crewcut does
laps around the theater
while the teenage girl
up the aisle from me
points out the narcs in
the audience to her friend
who nods attentively and
eases down in her red
vinyl seat not nearly as
gum-crusted or cracked
as you would expect at
a dollar double-feature.
The Roger Rabbit short,
whose print is so grainy
that it almost looks like
the Forties cartoon it
strains to imitate, pops
onto the taped-together
screen before the house
lights are flipped off,
before the man with his
next three changes of
clothes in the shopping
bag under his arm and
the pastel-flowered fishing
cap screwed on tightly
over sharp and darting
eyes can settle and wrestle
down the seats he needs.
Finally, the lights fade
to black, the fishing cap
stops bobbing from row to
row, and the first show
booms Danny Elfman licks
out of buzzing overhead
speakers and spills primary
colors onto the cobalt
ceiling as Warren Beatty
yanks on his comic-strip
yellow trenchcoat and
fedora and huge matte
skyline paintings answer
the question: "What if
the Tribune Tower and
the Merchandise Mart got
together and had lots
and lots of children?"

All good things must end, it's said, and so it was with the Hub. It closed as a theater about ten years ago and was converted into some kind of storage space for Catholic Charities. At least they didn't tear the porr thing down--you can still go there and dig on the primitive faces carved into the facade (for now, anyway), even if the marquee, hard seats and cheap popcorn are long gone.

Bet it still smells like a sweatsock, though.