The Rose Keeper, Day 8: Cermak Road
Cermak Road, also known as 22nd Street, is a 19-mile-long, major street that runs east and west from Chicago through the city’s western suburbs. The portion that concerns us runs through Cicero, Clara Janacek’s town in THE ROSE KEEPER, whose border smacks right up against Chicago’s western boundary. It’s where Clara and her neighbors do all their shopping, banking, and other errands. On a trip to downtown Chicago, she reflects, “She didn’t travel to the Loop often. Even though it wasn’t far from Cicero, it felt exotic and strange, like she imagined a foreign capital must feel, having never actually traveled to one. She preferred doing business at the friendly, family-owned shops of Cermak Road to State Street’s elegant department stores and boutiques, where she felt frumpy and out of place.”
Cermak Road was named after Democratic politician Anton Cermak, a Czech citizen who served as Mayor of Chicago from 1931 until his untimely death in 1933. On February 15, 1933, Cermak was shot dead by an assassin who was aiming for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The portion of 22nd Street than runs through the Chicago neighborhoods of Pilsen and Lawndale and the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn was renamed Cermak Road in his honor, because they were heavily Czech-American at the time. In THE ROSE KEEPER some of the old-timers are still in the habit of calling it 22nd Street. Old habits die hard.
Author Norbert Blei, who grew up in Cicero, described Cermak Road this way in his book Neighborhood: “a river of restaurants, savings and loan companies, bakeries, butcher shops and bargain stores … engulfing everything and everybody. Other nationalities continue to thrive here, but the temper is Bohemian.” He went on to say, “When the old babickas [grandmas] in paisley babushkas, carrying brown paper and black cloth shopping bags, went to the stores on Cermak, they came from the basements, bungalows, two-flats, and small houses north and south of Cermak Road … the meat markets, milk stores, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stands, building and loans, banks, small department stores, shoemakers, many with names they could relate to: Pavlicek’s Drug Store, Ruzicka Kobzina, Sekera, and others for furniture. Sebesta, Shotola, Verners, and many more for meat. Pancner for Bohemian books, Bohemian greeting cards, stationery, Czech crystal, and funeral homes like Clasen, Cermak, Chrastka, Marik, and Svec.”
During Prohibition, notoriety came to Cermak Road in the form of Al Capone, who headquartered his gangster activity at the Hawthorne Inn in 1924. According to an article on moon.com, “During the 1924 municipal elections, Capone turned the town of Cicero into a war zone: he bullied voters, kidnapped pollsters, and threatened news reports into voting for the people who supported his criminal behavior.” An altercation ensued with the cops that killed Al’s brother, Frank. Capone also warred with the North Side gang run by Dion O’Banion. According to Wikipedia, “On September 20, 1926, the North Side Gang used a ploy outside the Capone headquarters at the Hawthorne Inn, aimed at drawing him to the windows. Gunmen in several cars then opened fire with Thompson submachine guns and shotguns at the windows of the first-floor restaurant. Capone was unhurt and called for a truce, but the negotiations fell through.” More years of gang warfare ensued, culminating in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on February 14, 1929.
By World War II, the main time period of THE ROSE KEEPER, Capone was long gone from the neighborhood. After serving a prison sentence for tax evasion in the 1930s, he was released in poor health, suffering complications from syphilis. He died in 1947 at his Florida mansion.
Nonetheless, his reputation lingered, as did Cicero’s reputation as a rough-and-tumble town. In THE ROSE KEEPER, our heroine awakens to a loud bang. “Clara shot straight up in bed, disoriented, jerked out of a sound sleep by the sharp retort of a pistol. Land sakes, was the Capone bang back in town, trading gunfire in the middle of Cermak Road?”
But for most peaceful citizens of Cicero, Cermak Road was just a bustling, thriving neighborhood thoroughfare of butchers, bakers, banks, and babushkas. Clara and Jerry enjoy hot pancakes on a cold winter day at Seneca Restaurant. For a special occasion, she buys a dress at DeMar’s Dress Shop, which was one of my grandmother’s favorites as well.
Tune in again tomorrow when I’ll share another behind-the-scenes story or fact as we count down to THE ROSE KEEPER!