BLUE STAR AUTO PARTS
Lat: 41°51'18.30"N Lon: 87°37'46.70"W
It’s always nice and easy to be among my native language after spending weeks and months abroad. There’s certain comfort in the unconverted dollar, the donut hole foods, the bottomless cups of coffee. Things that seem so common aren’t actually common at all—unless you’re here, amidst America.
And especially in Chicago--it’s a big, bold, brash city, no doubt about it. Every time I pass through, I suddenly remember the great impression left the last time. Geographically, it’s somewhere between New York and San Francisco, but spiritually, all by its lonesome. Hometown and highbrow all at once with sophistication in abundance; certainly found down at Millennium Park, along the historic skyline, at the Field, and you name it. Buckingham Fountain beside the lake? Spectacular.
But down in the old Levee District of Southside Chicago there’s a 19th century building of a whole different nature. Since 1942, it’s been Blue Star Auto Parts—and that’s vintage enough, far as I’m concerned (check out the great sign) but before that it was the old Cullerton Hotel, a once-polished establishment catering to a high-end, east coast clientele. As the last century turned, though, the hotel’s luck turned with it. It wasn’t long before the hotel’s doors were opening for a much rowdier crowd. The ”Levee” nickname adopted by most towns in America during this time indicated a rough part of town, down by the river, where the steamboats and such would stop, demanding a more particular form of entertainment. Chicago’s Levee was no different. It was the red light district, a place to drink, gamble, and make good friends.
The Blue Star was up for sale a while back and for all I know it could have come down by now, clearing the lot for expensive condos. But last I checked online, it was still there. When it eventually does go, as surely it must, so will the last vestige of a rich neighborhood full of Chicago history. This district, where so much crime occurred, was also a draw for musicians and artists. The Levee was the birthplace of Chicago jazz, where Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and the best of the rest would travel to perform.
It would have been enough just to explore the floors of this decrepit hotel (an ideal set for a student horror film, but try not to fall through the floorboards) but remember that it has been used for sixty-plus years, upstairs and down, as auto parts storage. Stacks of vintage car parts piled up on shelves gather dust. Rare replacement items for Hudsons and Elcars are a flea-marketer’s dream. Downstairs, in the dirt-floored basement, we found the perfect underground needed for the show. The whole neighborhood was, apparently, once laced with connecting tunnels that ran beneath the streets, providing occupants of dubious reputation with convenient, covert escape-routes. These tunnel entrances, dug by hired hands as part of an underground crime-complex, are clearly evident in the basement. Over time, they’ve been sealed off. But back in the day, hired hands dug them as part of an underground crime complex—a way of keeping illegal business out of sight of the police while keeping their precious clientele out of the papers. So goes local lore, anyway, lore that will fade away when the Cullerton comes down for good.