WONDER YEARS IN THE BYRNE (BURNS) BUILDING

By: James F. O’Neil

“Home is where one starts from.”  –T. S. Eliot

I used to fly in my dreams.  Drs. Freud and Jung were not worried that I crashed, got up, ran up four flights of stairs, and flew again.  My favorite crash-site was the dirt and dirty non-grassy courtyard behind the Byrne’s Building.  This magnificent brownstone of four floors and some seventy-five apartments faced the beautiful grass-center of a divided Garfield Boulevard on the South Side of Chicago. 

garfield blvd & halsted chicagopc.info garfield blvd 50 chucksViews of Garfield and Halsted 

The apartment had its beauty and elegant layout, well planned by architects to house the growing middle-class of Germans and Irish whose ancestors slaved in The Back of the Yards (the stockyards), but who could not yet afford their own houses.

This structure was part of the South Side I knew best, bordered by Garfield-55th, Halsted, and Green streets. 

The building has disappeared from Google maps, having been demolished some time in the late 1970s.  Yet it remains an important place where my memories reside and continue to live–and a place to which I return often.

We moved from South Marshfield to Green Street.  Our new home in the Byrne’s Building gave us…four flights of stairs, little privacy (with its eight apartments to an entrance), noisy back porches seen by all other back porches, and less room. 

And the Byrne’s Building had bed bugs.  Soon after we moved in, I can remember my dad with his bar of soap, trying to catch the buggers, in the front bedroom off the living room, which my baby brother shared with my parents.  Whomp!  Whomp!  Whomp!  went the bar of soap against the mattress–and the tearing sound as my mom pulled down the wallpaper.   

The Wonder Years for me began there, the early adolescent years, the new high school years, my growing years–years that provided me with countless memories.  The wonders that were part of my life there included illnesses and happinesses, graduations and birthdays, family celebrations and holidays, freezing Chicago winters and street-softening summers.  And a place where dreaming, I fell to the ground, or flew to the dirt center, crash-landed–then being resurrected, then awakened.

I was comfortable, I recall, in the larger bedroom with one brother and the bunk beds.  Its window opened into the void between the walls of the building, that emptiness adjacent to eight sets of bathroom windows, the stale air–and sky–and the laughter and crying and more.  Closed, the window provided some relief from neighbors in summer. 

My desk for high school subjects faced the window my mom tried to decorate.  The beds for us were next to the wall and the ornate sliding door, once dividing the living room (the parlor) from the sitting room in the brownstone elegance of a time gone past.  Now the door was squeezed open for air–and for eavesdropping.

And then another summer on the fourth floor, staring down into our back yard: at clothes lines on pulleys, like a maze of crossed telephone wires, attached to the Power House; at children playing marbles in the dirt, or pushing baby buggies through the moonscape called a playground, without any grass, and maybe some few weeds; at the dirt devils, twisting their way around and through neatly-hung clothes, and clothes lines, those clouds of dust from Windy Nowhere; at the center of the yard, my crash site of dreams, with no fear of flying….

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Laundry and Clothes Lines Pic: Columbia U.

 © James F. O’Neil   2013

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6 comments
  1. Phyllis said:

    James, you have a wonderful gift for bringing us (the interlopers, the readers) into your world. Thank you for letting the walls down and taking us there. Flying is my transport of choice – my early life dreams lived in swooping and floating. I navigate much better from above the ground, getting totally lost in streets and highways below.

  2. dan miles said:

    Flying, I did this here also, thank you for your thoughts and dreams!

    • love to fly…and remember it so well in the building…

    • Did I ever thank you for the comment? Did you fly in your dreams? or in the Byrne’s Building? Either is good for me–or both. Please continue to read my stuff. I appreciate it.

  3. mcwoman said:

    Such vivid, wonderful descriptions. Thanks, James.

    • I appreciate your willingness to read my stuff. I am enjoying retirement after 48 years of teaching.

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