Mar 1, 2022 - Things to Do

New book explores skeletons of Chicago institutions

Book cover

Mother Chicago tells the story of two Chicago institutions. Courtesy of Feral House.

When Martin Billheimer was growing up in North Albany Park, he saw the skeletons of institutions that once defined the area: The Chicago Parental School and the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.

  • "Institutions of all kinds gird our childhood," Billheimer tells Axios. "We go through them, pass by them, get tossed into them and stare up at them from below while they look down on us."
  • The author explores the two places in a new book called "Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters Over the Gilded Age."

Why it matters: This impressionistic history reveals a lot about how Chicago dealt with "problem people" a century ago — by sending them to the far northwest side.

Flashback: The Chicago Parental School was opened in 1902 by the Board of Education to reform truant boys, whose average age was 11.

  • Boys lived in cottages with a house "mother" and "father" for an average stay of seven months.
  • Billheimer found that some died in custody under mysterious circumstances.
  • The land now hosts Northeastern Illinois University.
Beds outside
Outdoor sleeping (even in winter) was part of the treatment at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Peterson Park. Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

In 1915, the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium was opened to house, quarantine, and treat low-income patients, mainly through fresh air.

  • Some patients stayed there long enough to give birth while others attended school (yes, CPS was there too).
  • By the time the sanitarium closed in 1974, tens of thousands had been treated at no cost to the patients.
  • Today, the land hosts senior housing, the North Park Nature Center, and Peterson Park.

Billheimer's big surprise: "Every single story I'd heard at a bus stop, in the schoolyard, or at the corner of crossed streets was essentially true."

The intrigue: Billheimer's writing alternates between straight nonfiction and impressionistic dreamy imagery.

  • "You have to allow for ornament and color and poetry," Billheimer says. "No one talks straight and no one should. And if people do not seem to remember, time and the city have their own memorial machines."

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