Explore the Windy City through American author Theodore Dreiser’s classic 19th century novel.

"/> A Tour of Sister Carrie's Chicago — The Airship
By Michelle King

Construction of Chicago’s transit system in 1895 (Credit: Image from Flickr user cta web; used with Creative Commons license)

Early on in Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, annotator Clementine the Hedgehog writes, “Everything I know about Chicago is based on the musical/movie, Chicago. So I’m guessing this book will feature a bunch of flat-chested broads, murder and Queen Latifah.” Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your outlook), there are no Renée Zellweger-Richard Gere duets in Sister Carrie.

The classic American novel does, however, offer a comprehensive look at late 19th century Chicago, where Caroline “Sister Carrie” Meeber moves at the start of the book. These are 10 locations that play a key role in Carrie’s formative journey through the Windy City:

(Credit: Image from Flickr user Jeramey Jannene; used with Creative Commons license)

1. Union Station

Clementine compares the meeting of Carrie and her first love interest, Charles Drouet, to that of Carrie and Mr. Big — yes, as in Carrie Bradshaw, and yes, as in Sex and the City. The two (Carrie and Drouet, not Carrie and Mr. Big) first meet on the train coming into Chicago — a ride which sets the course of the entire novel.

The West Van Buren Street neighborhood today (Credit: Image from Flickr user Richard Hsu; used with Creative Commons license)

2. Minnie and Hanson’s House

Carrie arrives in Chicago with $4, a few paltry belongings and her sister’s address: 354 West Van Buren Street, a residential apartment building. What was then a neighborhood inhabited by families of laborers and clerks is now home to sterile office buildings.

Chicago’s Wholesale District in 1915

3. The Wholesale District

Once it becomes clear that Minnie and her husband Hanson aren’t offering Carrie any favors (i.e. they’re charging her room and board), our protagonist must find a job. Unfortunately, she has no work experience, so she has to resort to working in a shoe factory in Chicago’s Wholesale District — which today is a lot less 20-something women making shoes and a lot more cheap plastic jewelry being sold in bulk.

(Credit: Image from Flickr user pointnshoot; used with Creative Commons license)

4. Rector’s Oyster House

After receiving a letter from Carrie, Drouet chooses to ignore it and head over to Fitzgerald and Moy’s, an upscale saloon described as similar to the real life Rector’s Oyster House. It’s at Fitzgerald and Moy’s that we’re first introduced to George Hurstwood, friend of Drouet and manager of the saloon who eventually engages in a torrid love affair with Carrie.

Rector’s closed in 1911, but it’s noteworthy for being the first restaurant to bring live oysters to Chicago via train. Nowadays, the oyster house’s old home at West Monroe Street and South Clark Street houses a Panera Bread — which is kind of like an upscale saloon, right?

(Credit: Image from Flickr user Boston Public Library; used with Creative Commons license)

5. Garfield Park

Minnie and Hanson take Carrie to Garfield Park one weekend, but “it did not please her.” As Clem points out, the park is named after one of the most badass presidents, James A. Garfield, so Carrie really doesn’t have that much to be sad about. Still, she proceeds to mope around, mostly because that is all she does in the presence of her sister.

Garfield Park “fell into a state of disrepair and became obsolete” in 1890, but currently it’s a beautiful, happening location.

6. Windsor Dining Room

Carrie encounters Drouet on the street, and he takes her out to lunch at the “old Windsor dining-room, which was then a large, comfortable place, with an excellent cuisine and substantial service.” It’s there that the two finally stop playing the “Will they? Won’t they?” game.

Today, the Windsor Dining Room remains in Lawry’s The Prime Rib.

(Credit: Image from Flickr user David Wilson; used with Creative Commons license)

7. Lincoln Park

Hurstwood lives on the North Side of Chicago near Lincoln Park in a fashionable three-storey brick home, with his wife, daughter and son — all of whom he betrays by running away with Carrie.

On a happier note,  Lincoln Park is alive and well today, with its own zoo, historical museum, nature museum and conservatory.

Ogden Avenue, circa 1910

8. Ogden Place

Drouet lives on Ogden Place, named after William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago. After leaving her sister, Carrie goes to live in Drouet’s home — which Clem describes as being “a gaudy mess.”

Nowadays, Ogden’s legacy is honored with The Ogden Sports Bar, because nothing says respect like cheese fries.

9. Chicago Opera House

Hurstwood feels a strong attraction towards Carrie and, like the homewrecker that he is, invites Drouet and Carrie out to the Chicago Opera House for a night of theater and flirtation. There, Hurstwood puts on his most charming behavior, making Drouet seem dull in comparison.

Like the collapse of Carrie and Drouet’s relationship, the Chicago Opera House soon fell to demolition, which began on May 5, 1913. Womp womp womp.

The Elks Veterans Memorial in Chicago; built by the organization in 1926 (Credit: Image from Flickr user Michael Lehet; used with Creative Commons license)

10. Elks Lodge

Carrie begins her acting career with a play at Drouet’s Elks Lodge, and Hurstwood, a member of another Lodge, spreads word about it amongst his own club. But despite Carrie being incredibly enthusiastic, she nearly tanks her career before it even begins by suffering a bout of stage fright, which makes a mess of the show.

You can still visit an Elks Lodge in Chicago today — just so long as you’re a proud member.

Chicago might now be the city of improv, deep dish pizza and, at times, “Chi-raq,” but it was once a city of plucky young women — some continuously complaining about their lives and sleeping with married men. But Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie doesn’t just provide a piercing gaze into the life of a bratty sociopath; it offers an accurate, vivid portrayal of Chicago as it once was.

If you’re itching to learn more about Carrie’s escapades and vicariously explore late 19th century Chicago, check out our excerpt of Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the recently released annotated novel from Black Balloon Publishing. You might come for the descriptions of old Union Station, but you’ll stay for the snarky insights and observations of Clementine the Hedgehog.

Michelle King grew up in South Florida, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.

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