Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Lincoln Statue, West Englewood And A Look Beyond the Politics and Headlines




If your regularly consume the news, whether online or across the airwaves, you couldn’t be faulted for believing that Americans are so divided that there are times when we can barely speak with one another.  It’s tragic, really.  As someone whose family emigrated from the Soviet Union in the late 1970’s, I not only understand and embrace both the desire to become an American, but also hold a deep appreciation of those things that should bind us together as Americans.

Recently, in the midst of the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia, a news story caught my eye. The headlines suggested that an Abraham Lincoln statue, located at the corner of 69th and Wolcott, had been defaced in response to the angst in Charlottesville and President Trump’s response. The Chicago Tribune and Sun Times stories quoted the Alderman for the neighborhood suggesting that it was President Trump’s tepid response to Charlottesville that incited violence against the Lincoln bust. In response, pundits on the right claimed that the defacing of the Lincoln bust was evidence that those on the far left wouldn’t stop with the removal of Civil War statues, that even icons like Lincoln would be brought down.

From outside of Chicago I’m sure the sniping on the left and right made for great theater as the fate of the Lincoln bust was twisted to suit everyone’s political agenda.  But, for those of us who love Chicago and its history, it was maddening to watch this small, hidden, Chicago icon exploited into a symbol of something wrong with America.

Indeed, after researching the Lincoln statue, I see the worn, discolored and chipped – but still standing – concrete edifice as a testament to the history and struggles of the neighborhood in the past and hope for what might be in the future.

Phil Bloomquist and his Lincoln Street Gas Station

According to City of Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, the Lincoln bust was commissioned in 1926 by Phil Bloomquist, a local resident who owned the Lincoln Gas Station on the corner of 69th and Wolcott. (Prior to the 1930’s, today’s Wolcott was known as Lincoln Street, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the larger Lincoln Avenue.)

Most research suggests that Bloomquist commissioned the Lincoln statue as a marketing tool designed to catch motorists’ attention as they drove down Lincoln Street. It wasn’t uncommon in the 1920’s for gas stations to have icons reflecting their corporate brands out front. Examples include Dino the dinosaur at Sinclair gas stations and White Eagle statues that stood in front of gas stations of the same name. While we don’t have an actual photo of the Lincoln Gas Station back in the day, we can imagine what it must have looked like. (Photo)


When Bloomquist built his gas station in the 1920’s, West Englewood was a neighborhood in transition.  After World War I, the earliest German, Swedish and Irish immigrants, who had often worked in the stock yards, became neighbors with a new wave of Italian immigrants who settled in the relatively open spaces of West Englewood. Not surprisingly, the influx of Italians, many of whom were from Salerno, encouraged businesses to open that could cater to both their native language, culinary and cultural desires.  By 1930, West Englewood had nearly 64,000 residents, with fully 23% of them foreign born, most of Italian descent.  The racial mix of the community was 97% white and 3% African-American.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, West Englewood prospered, participating in the economic boom that followed the war and the men who returned from the military looking towards civilian life and growing families. The neighborhood was anchored by St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church located two blocks North and East of the Lincoln Gas Station and its unique, little statue. 

Tidy brick bungalows and two and three story wooden structures, often shared by multiple generations, made West Englewood an attractive place to live. Wonderfully memorable mom-and-pop businesses thrived along 69th Street, with legendary names like Sarli’s Meat Market, Ambrosino’s, Casio’s, Naples Bakery and the restaurant Louis Georges attracting a generation of devoted clientele.

One especially beloved West Englewood resident, Rudy (Valentino Anthony) Sarli, who passed away in 2010, is fondly remembered for being a loving family man, devoted father and a master at making Italian sausage!

Rudy and Vincenza Sarli, Owners of Sarli's Meat Market
His son, Vincenza Sarli, commented that his dad’s Italian butcher shop would make over a thousand pounds of sausage on any given holiday and that it was customary for Rudy to give a shot of Crown Royal to his best customers when they visited. The Sarli family and their business moved from West Englewood in the 1970’s to 61st and Kedzie, at a time when the neighborhood is colloquially described as having, “changed”.

The Great Migration and Turbulent Times

As with the German, Swedish, Irish and Italian immigrants before them, African-American families who sought leave the poverty, segregation and racial hostility of the 1940’s and 1950’s South turned their eyes towards Chicago. Mirroring the path of European immigrants, Black men would often precede their families, gladly accepting the lowest jobs in the Stock Yards, railroads, or any other opportunity that would help to sustain life.

Even in its earliest days neighboring Englewood had a tiny African-American population and perhaps because of the small numbers, racial tensions were subdued. However, the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to Chicago, racism, fear-mongering and the worst impulses of fallible men bubbled to the surface.

Integrated Englewood High School Football Team of 1908
The influx of African-Americans working families increased the West Englewood non-white population to nearly 12% by 1960. Like immigrants from Europe before them, they congregated in small, tight-knit enclaves, self-segregated as the Irish had done before them on the south side of the tracks at 75th, or the southern Italians who huddled around 69th. It was a natural inclination to be with people who understood who you were and where you came from.

Much has been written about the racial tensions in Chicago during the 1960’s, the racism and red-lining that kept Black families from buying homes, the block-busting and white flight that took hold, and the decimation of communities like West Englewood that have never recovered. Some of the research seems substantive and well-reasoned.  Much of it, however, is poorly researched and with only the thinnest veneer of fairness and objective inquisitiveness.

It’s well beyond the scope of this blog post to delve into the turbulent times that witnessed the flight of long-time white residents from West Englewood to the suburbs, the decline of the population by nearly 40%, and the resulting change in racial composition to 98% Black and 2% White by the 1990 Census.  What is clear, however, is that a once vibrant neighborhood is on life support and what remains has been neglected by all Chicagoan’s for nearly 50 years.

Fifty Years of Neglect and Exploitation

On the corner of 69th and Wolcott, where the Lincoln bust has stood for over 90 years, empty lots, boarded structures and the smell of despair hangs heavy in the air.  Unless you live in the neighborhood, there is little reason to venture down 69th and to be pleasantly surprised by Phil Bloomquist’s statue.

69th and Emerald Avenue, 2014 J. R. Schmidt Photo
And yet, despite the troubled conditions in West Englewood, those who live in the area remember the care that was often afforded the Lincoln statue. As reported by Wendell Hutson writing for DNAInfo in 2013, 
Horace Williams, a resident of the block for 30 years, said … “I am not sure why that stopped, but people around here would wash the statue and paint it. They took care of it as if it was their property."
Fortunately for those who love Chicago, photographer and artist, Camilo Jose Vergara, “found” the Lincoln bust in 1999 and was drawn to the ironically placed statue standing sentinel in West Englewood. 

Photo Taken By Camilo Jose Vergara – By Night in Chicagoland
In a 2009 Slate article, Vergara chronicles the decaying state and changing patina of the Lincoln Bust. 
When I first encountered the bust in 1997, I was surprised to see it had been painted black. Perhaps someone had decided to make Lincoln symbolically part of the community in the same way churches with black congregations sometimes repaint white statues of Jesus Christ. I asked one young man how he felt about the black Lincoln, and he told me, "They should clean it up. White, that was his real color." 
When I visited the corner a year later, the Lincoln statue was white. I asked another local what he thought of the change. "I liked him black," he replied. Over the years, Lincoln was worn by the weather. By 2004, he was no longer black or white, but dappled like a Dalmatian.
Fast forward to August of this year when the Lincoln statue, largely ignored for decades, was thrust into the news. The local Alderman accused President Trump of “emboldening vandals to set fire to a bust of Abraham Lincoln…”


Locals, as reported in the Sun Times, suggested that the burn marks and general disrepair of the statue predated recent events. Indeed, the general abuse deterioration of the statue over the course of a decade, chronicled by Vergara in his photos, suggest that the Alderman’s claims of damage might have been more about encouraging press coverage than heart-felt concern. 

In a similarly exploitative fashion, right-leaning pundits grabbed hold of the Alderman’s headlines and twisted the story in the other direction. Characterizing the Lincoln bust on the abandoned corner as an artistic masterpiece and cultural icon, pundits used the inflammatory photos of the forlorn bust to incite outrage at Chicago and the residents of West Englewood. 

What is particularly galling is the notion that in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden areas in the country, where unemployment is well over 50% and three generations of families have been lost to an endless cycle of poverty, that these fellow Chicagoans would somehow channel their anger at a gas station bust of Lincoln that has stood in their neighborhood for 90 years. It’s absurd.

In good times and bad, with the arrival of each new ethnic and racial group in search of a better life, Bloomquist’s Lincoln statue endured. Through the influx of Italian immigrants in the 20’s and 30’s, race riots and white flight in the 60’s, and bitter poverty for the past three decades, Bloomquist’s Lincoln remained an enduring fixture in West Englewood.

With the drive-by reporters and pundits now gone, the Lincoln statue has been removed by the City at the Alderman's behest who for two years prior to his news conference, showed little interest in the concrete bust. The corner where Lincoln stood firmly for 90 years is now empty. There’s talk of rehabilitating the bust and putting it next to a nearby library where it will be “safe”.

If that’s what residents in the area want, God bless them.  I wonder, however, if it wouldn’t be a more fitting testament to return Lincoln to its rightful spot at the corner of 69th and Wolcott.  Tens of thousands have fled West Englewood, moving to the suburbs and beyond. Thousands more live there because they can’t find a way out.  

Let the Lincoln statue serve as a touchstone between West Englewood’s vibrant past and its hopeful future. Let this one thing in the neighborhood endure, standing tall and unyielding.  Let the Lincoln statue remind us that West Englewood is not a throwaway neighborhood, that if its safe for people, it's safe for a concrete statue.  Let Lincoln remind us that the place and people deserve attention and respect, and that politicians and pundits shouldn’t be allowed to exploit what little the neighborhood has for personal gain.

Let Bloomquist’s statue stand for something good and unifying for all Chicagoans.




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Never Had a Bad Day Foundation - 365 Days of 365 Smiles | Arthur Holmer


Most people, when given the choice, will try to do good in their lives. If you’re walking down the street and someone stumbles in front of you, I like to think that virtually everyone would lend that fellow a hand.

I’ve often wondered how an act of caring affects those who have witnessed a good deed. Much like the Liberty Mutual “Pay if Forward” commercial, does a kind word or small gesture somehow transfer and expand to those around us?



My friend, Erik Baylis, is a multiplier.  He’s one of those who can embrace small acts of kindness towards him with waves of good will towards others.  Though Erik is reluctant to share his back story, the loving husband, father and business leader he is today is the product not only to his indomitable spirit and hard work, but also the kindness shown to him by others.

Erik’s booming voice and physical presence sometimes hides a spiritual side that’s perfectly represented in his catch phrase, “I’ve never had a bad day!”



In 1994, while visiting a family member in hospice, Erik met an elderly man in a wheel chair whose spirit and outlook resonated deeply with him. Greeting the gentleman, who was nearing the end of his life, Erik matter-of-factly asked, “Hello sir, how are you doing?”  Expecting a similarly perfunctory reply, the man energetically responded, “I have never had a bad day in my life!” The effusiveness of the response took Erik surprise and he asked reflexively how that could be. The gentleman’s response was simple - maintaining a positive outlook will shape how you perceive life’s situations, even the most difficult ones.

Several years later, upon learning that he had been afflicted by a form of throat cancer, Erik was prepared to face this personal challenge surrounded by those he loved and a deep, positive spirit.  Erik was the embodiment and spirit of, “Never had a bad day!”

Through the grace of God and the skilled, caring hands of doctors at Northwestern, Erik has fully recovered from his bout with cancer. Never one to let a good deed end with him, Erik worked over several years on a plan to start a foundation that might help other cancer patients find support and a smile as they journeyed through treatments and challenges.

Erik had had a dream of building a charitable foundation and collectively we did just that. I’m privileged to have played an integral role in creating the Never Had a Bad Day Foundation.



The Never Had a Bad Day Foundation (NHBD) was founded last year with the purpose of
spreading 365 Days of 365 Smiles to pediatric cancer patients and their families in the greater Chicago area. We believe in the power of an optimistic attitude, and sharing the philosophy that where there is life, there’s the opportunity to have a great day.

Arthur Holmer & Robin Holmer at an NHBD Fundraiser in 2016


The NHBD goal is to inspire more reasons for children and their supporting families to smile. Our donations are directed at relieving the financial, material and emotional strains on a family, allowing them to focus on the treatment of the child.

The foundation works with local hospitals to connect with families who may benefit from a smile and a bit of help. Our goal is to touch 365 individuals and families each year through small gifts that include hospital parking fees, gasoline gift cards, a supply of groceries, and more! With one less thing to worry about, we hope to give families more reasons to smile. Each year we will continue furthering our mission to encourage positivity so others can say they have never had a bad day.

Of course, a foundation like Never Had a Bad Day survives and thrives on the donations of time, expertise and money from giving souls who support our endeavors.  Next month we are having our first official event, which will be a casino night held at The Lakewood on July 29th. There will be an open bar, plenty of food, and live entertainment. Lou Canellis from Fox 32 sports will be the host and guest speaker for the event.  If you are able to join us, please purchase your tickets here. If you are unable to attend but would like to donate, we have an open donation option on our ticket site.


Please visit our NHBD Website to learn more about the charity. You can follow our social media accounts to keep up with the progress from the onset of our newly formed foundation.