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May 6

Chicago, Illinois

Nelson Algren Memorial Fountain

Odd, decrepit fountain honors Chicago author who had mixed feelings about his hometown 

Nelson Algren, an author famous for books set in Chicago about outsiders and failures, didn’t always love his hometown of Chicago. He supposedly observed “No writer ever gave more to a city and got back less”. While that may have been true in his life, since Chicago author Nelson Algren’s death in 1980 on Long Island, Chicago has made at least half-hearted efforts to reclaim his legacy.

These include a rather odd, small fountain located in the triangular intersection of Division Street, Milwaukee Avenue, and Ashland Avenue (alongside an entrance for the Division Street stop of the Blue Line El).  The memorial seems touchingly inscribed with Algren’s credo, as taken from his “prose poem” Chicago: City on the Make: “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”  

Yet the fountain came layered in controversy: Algren made a powerful enemy of Chicago’s Polish community in 1941, infuriating them with his second novel, Never Come Morning, focused on the experiences of a young Polish boxer-thug.  

As long memories are common in Chicago, Polish civic groups fought against the Algren memorial. Compounding the irony in ways that Algren himself might have appreciated, the fountain is both unsightly and decrepit, usually occupied by an assortment of panhandlers and homeless who might’ve stepped straight from the famous Algren story about a late-night police station, “The Captain Has Bad Dreams.”  

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