November is National Novel Writers Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s to get you to stop thinking about writing and write. I took part in 2005. I am taking part this year. The building I live in, Burnham Park Plaza, used to the main YMCA Hotel in Chicago and the second largest hotel in Chicago. It was built in 1915, opened in 1916 and closed in 1979. I am having a ball researching this. The original building was 19 stories with 1850 rooms. By 1926 they were turning people away, so they enlarged the building and added another story, increasing to 2600 rooms. I live in addition they added to the front of the building at that time. My kitchen wall is beautiful exposed brick that was the original outer wall. Originally the hotel was for men only. Dearborn, a couple of blocks away, was one the major railroad stations in Chicago and a massive amount of people poured into the South Loop from there, many of them looking to make their way in the world in Chicago. The Y was built at 826 S. Wabash Ave. to be a safe and moral place for young men to stay among the flophouses, brothels, and bars in the South Loop. In 1933 the YWCA at 830 S. Michigan Ave. closed its doors, and the top four floors were open for women to stay. These were normally single woman who were working in Chicago.
In January I found out a lady I go to church with, Jean, stayed here when it was the Y. She moved to Chicago in 1945 with a friend from college and they roomed together in a corner room that had three windows, bunk beds, a dresser, and a closet. When her friend married, she moved to a single room that was 6’x8′. Jean remembers standing in the middle of the room and spreading out her arms she could almost touch both walls. There was one window, a twin bed, a metal dresser, and a metal closet. She paid $30 a month for the room. The 20th floor was the lounge for the women. There was a piano, and Jean would play it. There was also the roof garden with a wonderful view of the city. Most of the men who stayed at the hotel at this time were soldiers going to or coming from the fronts in WW2.
There wasn’t a whole lot in this area. South of 9th St. were warehouses. Jean never went south of 8th St because further south were the bordellos and slums. Though some of that was still in the area. She remembers there being several bottle stores (liquor stores) in the area and flophouses. She also remembers walking past drunks and the homeless living on the street when she went to work. The retail section didn’t start until Jackson or Adams in the Loop, although there was a fresh vegetable market at Congress and Dearborn. There were a lot candy stores like Fannie Farmer and Emmetts. When the hoisery stores got in a shipment, women lined up for blocks around the stores to try to snag nylons. The first restaurant you came to was Berghoff’s at Adams. Most people went to the restaurants in hotels to eat: The Drake, The Blackstone, The Palmer House, Ambassador East and West, and The Stephens Hotel. For six months Jean worked at The Stephens Hotel (now The Hilton Towers) as a reservation girl in The Boulevard Club. It was one of the swankiest clubs in town, women came in their furs, and the top bands, singers, and comedians performed there. That was also back in the days when the Italian and Sicilian mobs controlled the restaurants. She saw the Mafia come in and out, and thought the maitre’d was probably part of the mob. She laughed as she recounted that the mob guys would dote on her; years later she realized it was probably because she was such a “greenhorn.”
During the 40s the South Loop was the shady transition area between the proper people and the red light district further south (though earlier in the century it had been the nototorious red light Levee district). It was still a shady place but the YMCA Hotel was the one reputable place in the area, and you could stay there without worrying. Jean said she felt safe there because it was the Y.
I’m going to break away from the setting now to describe my main character. She popped into my head not long after I decided I was going to set the novel in this building during its days as the Y. Miss Madie is a widowed Irish Catholic who moved to the Y after her husband died. My first and most consistient image of Miss Madie is sitting and praying the rosary. After she prays, her rosary beads are placed under her pillow. At that time there was a Catholic church right across the street at 901 S. Wabash, St. Mary’s Catholic Church (now a parking lot). It was a smaller church for the working class. Miss Madie loves just walking across the street to go to Mass. Miss Madie sees images out of the corner of her eyes and senses other presences. She thinks they are the saints, and she can feel them because she is close to death. But what Miss Madie doesn’t know is that there are more residents at the hotel than the mortal eye can see. The tentative title is Miss Madie’s Lost Lost Saints.
I am just loving learning about the South Loop and my building, and I can’t wait to find out more about Miss Madie. She’s being a little tight lipped with her past right now, but she’ll tell it. And I’ll be there when she does.
I have 1,712 words. Yes, I know I have some catching up to do. Here’s to writing 48,000 more words in the next 25 days!
I am ShawnaAtteberry at the NaNo site if you want buddy up.
Added on Friday: Company Girl Coffee