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Monday, November 5, 2012

Cicero, IL: Birthplace of Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway. Where was he born?

If your answer is Oak Park, IL, you'd be wrong. At least according to the town of Cicero, IL.

Check it out:
Picture taken on 11/3/2012

The first time I noticed Cicero, IL claiming ownership of Hemingway was sometime in the 1990s. I was then living in Nebraska or Nevada, but home for a visit and driving around the old neighborhood when I was surprised to see light-pole banners proclaiming Cicero as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. I actually pulled over to make sure I was reading correctly. I was and the banners made me laugh.

Everyone knows that Hemingway was born and raised in Oak Park, IL, right?  Wait.  Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park that I had visited a bunch of times and even volunteered at while in college had gotten something wrong?

Cicero is know for its corruption and racism stretching back to the 1920s when it became the headquarters for Al Capone's business. Then there was the notorious Cicero Race Riot in 1951 and by the 1960s even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was advised to avoid a Civil Rights March in town. More recently Mayor Betty Loren-Maltese has graced the headlines with her conviction and incarceration over an insurance scam.

And now we can add literary corruption as well.

I had done some research back in the 90s after I saw those banners and learned that Oak Park had once been part of what was a much larger Cicero, but over the decades the Town of Cicero was whittled down in size by annexation from Chicago and various neighborhoods splintering off.

When Hemingway was born in 1899 his birth house was technically within the boundaries of what was then Town of Cicero. In 1901, however, Oak Park (and other neighborhoods) ceded from Cicero to became its own village. You can read about it here on the Town of Cicero's website. If you visit the link, you'll notice that the town's website also claims Hemingway as a native son, but says nothing about the more challenging and shameful aspects of its history.

Talk about white washing.

I had thought that the town's claim on Hemingway was a one time thing, something done in the past to help spruce up the image of the town, but due to early voting, I learned this weekend that it was still going on. On Saturday I went to vote in the town of Berwyn, the closest polling place to my house, but the line was out the door. I stood there for about 20 minutes and the line did not move. So I drove on to my old hometown of Cicero, where there were two early voting locations.

As I was driving to the polling place the town sign pictured above stating that Cicero is the birthplace of Hemingway caught my eye. I had to laugh and couldn't resist pulling over to take a picture. I couldn't believe they were still advertising this shady half-truth. The sign is in front of the old town hall building, which was located there from 1903-2008.

Hemingway birth home (source: Yelp)
Technically, I suppose even legally, the Town of Cicero can claim him as one of their own, but it seems, at best, rather desperate. I claimed white washing above, but I think there's also some kind of twisted class issue at work here.

The home in which Hemingway was born is clearly in Oak Park, about five miles away from Cicero. And for those of you unfamiliar with the area, Cicero is traditionally a blue collar kind of town. The houses are primarily modest cottages with some apartment buildings thrown in. Oak Park, on the other hand, is a much wealthier suburb filled with classic Victorian homes and mansions designed by famous architects. Frank Llyod Wright had his studio in Oak Park. 

Gangsters might have done business in Cicero, but they lived in Oak Park and Forest Park. But I digress.

Let's just say that no one who lives in the Chicago area would ever confuse Cicero and Oak Park. I am certainly not saying that a working class town cannot produce a world class writer, but what I am trying to get to is that Cicero is not claiming its own heritage, but rather trying to ride on the coat tails of the real story and, in doing so, is mucking up literary history. I can understand not glorifying the gangster past or the rampant racism, but why not celebrate the earlier Eastern European immigrants who made Cicero their home or the more recent Hispanic immigrants who are building lives for themselves?

The argument for civic pride is pretty weak and, personally, I'd feel rather duped if I were a budding literary enthusiast living in Cicero and took pride in the fact that Hemingway was born there only to find out that it was a really big stretch of the truth.

I called the Hemingway Foundation to get their take on the matter and was told that Oak Park had been an unincorporated part of Cicero, and that even back when it officially ceded people understood the area to be Oak Park. The Town of Cicero was invited to make a donation to the Foundation but never responded to the overture. Apparently Cicero still does not play well with others.

What do you think of this issue of a town claiming an author on such shaky grounds. Does it matter?

1 comment:

  1. Hahahahaha. So if the little section where you were born in, lets call it Oak Park, turned into the Rowandavill you would want the people to consider you from Rowandavill and not Oak Park? You must not have anything else to be proud about Oak Park.

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