There’s nothing more exciting than meeting someone that possesses a shared passion in something that you do or something that you find interesting – especially when that said topic is the history of a culture’s drinking habits.
I first met Bill Savage at a lecture I was hosting. After a chat, I quickly learned of his knowledge and enthusiasm for Prohibition, literature, and booze (history of it, to be fair!). Over time, Bill and I collaborated on a few projects, and with time, I believe we became friends because we were bonded by this quirky belief that history, liquor, writing, and taverns have the ability to create an amazing learning space. It’s no surprise, then, that he is an expert on the great writer and Chicagoan, Nelson Algren. Talk about a guy that liked to spend time in bars!
I liked Bill right off the bat. He’s a smart and fun guy. He’ll never let on that he got his Pd.D. at Northwestern or that he teaches literature there. You won’t hear about any of that while you’re sharing a beer and chewing the fat. What you will learn about are stories of his cop family history, his everyday experiences, his favorite biking routes, and the fact that he’s been a bartender at Cunneen’s in Edgewater for the past 22 years. That’s what makes him a quality individual. And while I respect Bill for his educational accomplishments, what I like about Bill is one main thing: he’s a true Chicagoan.
This month, Bill Savage guest blogs for History On Tap. A treat indeed.
1424 W. Devon
By Bill Savage
Once, in order to make clear how to pronounce “Cunneen’s,” the men’s softball team had the bar’s name written phonetically on its jerseys: “Kah-neens.”
Open since May of 1972 at 1424 W. Devon, the corner of Devon and Newgard (a street no one outside of the immediate neighborhood ever heard of, since it only runs for half a mile, between Devon and Pratt), the next most frequent question after “How do you pronounce this place’s name?” is “Is there a Cunneen?”
Indeed there is. Steve Cunneen, along with several friends who met while getting Masters degrees in Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, decided it would be fun to own a bar, and bought the place. It had been a bar for a couple of years; before that, it was a candy store, and before that, who knows? The storefront’s design, with raised platforms on either side of the inset front door (now occupied by houseplants and prime tables with a view of the endlessly entertaining goings-on of Devon Avenue), could have been used for any sort of retail operation that had goods to display. The building is typical of early-20th Century Chicago structures on arterial streets, with storefronts on the ground level and apartments above.
Cunneen’s opened during the twilight of Chicago’s neighborhood tavern culture, when the city would give liquor licenses without requiring that food also be served. Shots and beers sufficed. Devon Avenue teemed with bars: working westward from Broadway/Sheridan, you had Come On Down (COD’s), Potpourri, The Glenway Inn, The Unameit (a four-o’clock joint right next door to Cunneen’s), Connelly’s (across the street and a bit west), and just east of Clark/Ashland two more four-o’clock bars, Jokers and Fiddler’s faced off across from each other. Sheridan, Broadway, and Clark also had many more bars than now remain. Neighborhood connections were made and maintained in these semi-public Third Places.
Business was slow at first, and Cunneen’s buddies gradually decided the bar business was not for them, and he bought them out.
In 1973, Illinois made it legal for 19 and 20 year olds to buy beer and wine (a law that lasted until 1980). Suddenly, the joint was packed with younger men and women from Rogers Park and Edgewater, and college students from Loyola and Mundelein. People played chess and, later, shot pool on what was one of the last quarter pool tables on the North Side. On busy nights, it took three bartenders to keep up with the crowd.
Once, the guy who owned the bar before Cunneen bought it came in to a mob of young people drinking and carrying on, the bartenders working like factory hands. The guy, who’d never made much money on the place and whose wife had pressured him to sell, turned to Cunneen and said “You robbed me!” Cunneen replied that he didn’t recall putting a gun to anyone’s head . . .
That sense of humor characterizes the bar. It’s not a place to go if you cannot take a joke. For years, when there was a public phone where regulars would get calls, the chalkboard beside it was headed “Sign below if you’re not here.”
Transformations in the bar’s culture mirror changes in the larger urban landscape. When Chicago was still a three-shift-a-day industrial city, many neighborhood saloons opened at 7 am, which was the equivalent of 5 pm for guys working the 11-7 shift at the local factory (S&C Electric Company, about a half mile west of the bar, was once such place). As deindustrialization chipped away at the 24 hour work cycle and its morning drinkers, so too the bar moved its opening time back from 7 am to noon, and now could probably move it back to 3 pm were it not for the regulars who still come in for coffee and the crossword puzzle.
But while things change, most things stay the same: the bar has a laid-back, homey look, with wood paneling and framed art on the walls, a bare minimum of liquor or beer advertising, heavy-duty wooden tables, chairs and barstools (Cunneen, an accomplished carpenter and woodworker, did most of the framing, all of the tables and book-cases). The sound system still features a record player, and vinyl can be heard as well as bartender’s-choice music from CDs or ipods (no jukebox). Most nights, the lone TV is usually only on when people ask for a Cubs or White Sox game. Finally, the bar has had a remarkably stable staff for decades. Cunneen consistently hired people whom he trusted and who stuck around; two of the current bartenders have worked there more than 30 years, and the next in seniority has a mere 22 years in.
One remarkable feature of the bar is the bar-time clock over the cash register, which features the visage of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley (“Good for Chicago”). Back in the ‘70s, a bartender found the clock in a resale shop, and whatever anonymous do-it-yourself-artist took a Daley campaign poster and colored it in with felt-tip marker to paste onto the clock face created a unique work of art that has glowered down on generations of Cunneen’s customers. The clock was something of an ironic in-joke, as the bar’s clientele tended towards the liberal/hippy side of Chicago’s political culture (the local precinct captain owned Connelly’s for decades, and that’s where the true Daley loyalists could be found).
Today, in its fortieth year, the bar chugs along. Many of the 19 and 20-year olds from the ‘70s have left town or gone on the wagon (some regulars got married and moved to the ‘burbs; Cunneen says of such pairs, “They met in here. I hope they don’t hold it against me.”). Some of the guys who played 16-inch softball in “Kah-neen’s” jerseys now come in for the Thursday afternoon golf league. A few microbrews have joined Old Style and Miller Hi Life in the coolers, and you’re as likely to hear punk rock as jazz or blues. But the floor is still hardwood, and conversation is valued over staring at Sportscenter. Newcomers to the somewhat-gentrifying neighborhood (the only spot in town, one regular joked before the current housing price meltdown, where you had the Chicago Police Blue Light Cameras and condo prices both going up at the same time) become regulars. The price of a game of pool has gone up to a whopping 50 cents, though. The price of progress.
Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature and history at Northwestern University; he has also tended bar at Cunneen’s for 22 years. All opinions expressed are his own and in no way reflect the official positions of Steve Cunneen, any other bartender, or Major League Baseball.