Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lost Communities of Chicago - Mopetown

Mopetown was a tiny neighborhood tucked in-between the Bridgeport and McKinley Park neighborhoods. Mopetown's borders were from Ashland to Hoyne Avenues and from 31st Street to 33rd Street.
Mopetown grew up as a collection of cottages inside a triangle surrounded by the tracks of the Santa Fe and the Chicago and Alton railroad lines.

The residents were a mix of Irish, German, Italian, Polish, English and Bohemian. The name Mopetown came from a German family name that somehow was translated to "Mope." 

Mopetown was one of the last places in the city to get paved streets and sidewalks. The neighborhood was impossible to find. Pizza delivery? Forget it! Mopetown was isolated. Wolcott was the only street that gained access into the neighborhood.
No one ever worried about their electric bill because they never got one.
Just about everyone had a 'jumper,' an illegal tap to the utility pole.
The death blow to Mopetown came from the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) which wiped out much of it. The City of Chicago condemned the houses, the families moved away, they tore the houses down, leveled the neighborhood and built the expressway. After the expressway was built, there were six houses left. Then there were four. Then there were two.

"I remember Mopetown with good memories, oh, yes, I do," said Edith Vitalo, a South Sider who lived there on 31st Place as a child. "It was a desolate area out there, past Archer by the tracks, with all prairie around it. We were all as poor as church mice and everyone knew everybody else. Nobody had nothing, so there were no jealousies. We all shared what we had."

"During the tough times, during the Depression and Prohibition, a lot of them made ends meet by making booze -- white lightning," said Hopkins' wife, Janet. Her uncle, Dennis Starr, a local Republican organizer, held political meetings in the back of Funk's Pool Hall and was called 'The Mayor of Mopetown.' 

"My family was quite poor then, when we'd go down to Mopetown to see Uncle Dennis and Aunt Ellie Starr," Janet Hopkins said. "You could always get something to eat down there. I remember my Aunt Ellie would be standing in the kitchen of her small cottage over a black fire-burning stove. She'd be wearing her apron and Uncle Dennis' shoes, and there'd be two big pots cooking on the stove. One was homemade soup and one was homemade white lightning. The houses that sold the hooch down there were called 'blind pigs.' Uncle Dennis ran one, and you never knew who'd you meet in Uncle Dennis' house down in Mopetown."

"It was an easy place to raise kids and a great little place to live," said Mary Wilkens, whose tidy house belies the expressway traffic that rumbles past her front door. "My windows were always open, my door was always open and the kids could sleep outside on the porch. Everyone had big families, everyone was poor and everyone watched out for each other."
"No one in Mopetown went hungry or went cold during the tough times," Mary Wilkens said. "We all walked track," she said, referring to Mopetowners' habit of going over to the railroad tracks and getting coal from the railroad cars [to heat their homes]. They also would go over to the railroad yard where the train employees habitually threw out sacks of fruit and vegetables because there would be some spoilage.

Russell Wilkens and his wife, Mary --- the last family --- in the last house, in Mopetown has finally moved out in 1990. The Wilken's family had to. One side of their simple wood-frame home at 1845 West 31st Place simply crumbled and collapsed. The old place couldn't remain standing any longer.

Understandably, Mary Wilkens, 71, the last housewife remaining in Mopetown, left with tears in her eyes. "We've lived here in Mopetown for 60 years," she said. "I loved it down there. We had all sorts of privacy. We were the hidden neighborhood. The kids could run free, you could move and breathe and never lock a door. It was paradise even though nobody was rich. But it's over now. Mopetown has disappeared into a dream and I'm still alive. I'm lost not living down here anymore."

So that's it for Mopetown. It doesn't exist anymore... except in historical stories like this one.