Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pilsen, Chicago

Last night, after surviving a hot day, I took a nice and paced bike ride around the neighborhood. It was past midnight and still very warm, but there was a comforting breeze. Almost no one was outside anymore. I passed by several landmarks built by the Czechs, when they were the majority in the 'hood, and that inspired me to blog again. Since there are many such landmarks, and I'm aware of five, this won't be an extremely brief entry.

Thalia Hall on 18th and Allport used to be a theater with apartments upstairs. Now the downstairs is empty, no one is using it, but there are apartments or condos above. The building really stands out, I believe it's Neo-Classicist, but it doesn't look like the severe American Neo-Classicism (like in DC) to me, it's more flowery than that. Architecturally illiterate as I am, I'll refrain from any other remarks.

Dvorak park (roughly Cullerton and May) was named after the Czech classical hit-maker Antonin Dvorak. It's a beautiful little park, it even has two swimming pools, one for adults, one for kids, but no lifeguard, so the pools are not open to the public. So, basically, both of these landmarks--Dvorak Park and Thalia Hall--are half-languishing. Couldn't the well-to-do people moving into the 'hood, along with the local community leaders etc., do something to finance the full revival of these public facilities? I'll keep dreaming.

St. Procopuis church, Allport and 18th, now has service in Spanish and English, while their web site says: "Welcome! - ¡Bienvenidos! - Dobro došli!" I'm guessing they believe that the latter greeting is in Czech (they talk about the Czechs building and initially congregating in the church), but of course it should be vitame vas! Dobro dosli is in Bosnian/Croatia/Montengrin/Serbian. Anyway, St. Procopius also runs a nearby elementary school on Allport, another old building that has a stone plaque in Czech: Nechte maličkých přijít ke mně, or Let the little ones come to me. Google says it's a quote from Jesus.

Another elementary school, only public, Perez School (19th and Allport) used to be Komensky School, which is what the stone plaque still says. Jan Komensky was a Czech and European renaissance education reformer. If I remember correctly from my undergrad studies, the guy wrote the first ever illustrated Latin textbook, aimed at teaching Latin not through endless memorization, dictation, and physical punishment, but through gradual acquisition of vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, etc. He did for education what Gelilei did for science, or Descartes for philosophy.

All of those landmarks can be found in a rectangle of four by three blocks. Czechs have never been a numerous population anywhere, but from the late 18th century all the way to the end of WWI, when they finally got their nation-state (together with the Slovaks, of course) they went through a huge national revival that obviously had strong ripple effects in the diaspora. And the Midwest was a favorite destination. Voila Pilsen.