The last time the name Norbert Blei appeared above a story in the Chicago Tribune was June 2, 1985. He wrote about the Clearing, a folk arts school founded in 1935 in Door County, Wis., by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen when he was 75.
“Quite a legacy. Quite a man,” Blei wrote. Jensen “believed it was time for him to establish his ‘school of the soil’ down a woodland road toward the bluffs north of Ellison Bay. Essentially it would be a place for young students of landscape architecture to live close to nature, get a feel for it in their hands, discover its teachings and apply these discoveries to their own life and work — much as Jensen had done. Today, 50 years later, 34 years after his death at the Clearing at 91, the essential teachings of Jensen’s school remain the same: the harmony of man and nature.”
Blei moved to Door County in 1969, and it has been his home ever since, a place where he has lived and loved, painted, raised two kids, written, talked and taught, serving for many decades as one of the most inspirational instructors at the Clearing.
Blei was born here in 1935, an only child growing up on the West Side before moving to Cicero in grade school, and he has ever remained tied to this place. He was a high school English teacher for a bit and later a minion of the City News Bureau, that bygone training ground for journalists.
“I’m out of the newspaper tradition,” Blei once told me. “But the sort of stuff I do doesn’t seem to fit new demographics. There are so few publications reflecting the life of the city’s neighborhoods. They don’t seem to realize that the stories are still out there.”
Still true today, all of that, but for some years Blei was able to find homes in local magazines for his stories about the city. Eventually, though, the pages that once welcomed Blei’s nonfiction began to vanish, and he was increasingly compelled to use material he once would have put into what he charmingly called “pieces of journalism” into his fiction.
I have ever admired Blei and have talked with him many times over the years, when he would venture south to see old friends and re-explore his city.
He was always good for a story, and here is one of them.
“I was entertaining a Chicago editor in Door County not long ago,” he said. ”And after a lengthy evening he looked me in the eye and said, ‘OK, Norb, let’s be straight. The bottom line is money.’… How dead wrong. The bottom line is not to sell. I am a storyteller. I am called to the page.”
He has filled many of them, writing 17 books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and essays. In 1994 he founded Cross+Roads Press, dedicated to the publication of first chapbooks by poets, artists, short story writers and novelists, thus empowering a generation of younger writers.
“Since my first class with Norbert in 1996, he has become a true mentor in my writing life,” says talented Chicago poet Albert DeGenova, who also is the publisher of After Hours Press. “His passion for the literary subjects he chooses to teach, his dedication to the writing life, to the purity of the word, to the flow of feeling to thought to words on the page … his stubborn adherence to ideals and perfection … these are what inspire his students, a special kind of student that only needs to stand near the fire to find personal ignition. And a powerful fire Norb is, though he never burns.
“And though a great teacher, Norb is first and foremost a writer. His books are alive with people, neighborhoods, the sights, sounds, smells of real living.”
If you would like to explore his work — the Internet makes almost all of them available with some digging — I would recommend starting with, in any order, three books that form what I consider his Chicago trilogy.
There is “Neighborhood,” about which the writer/critic Laurie Levy wrote in the Tribune, “There is the soul of a poet as well as a journalist at large in these pages, recalling for the less articulate those lost moments we try so hard to remember.”
There is “Chi Town,” which he called his “love letter to a city that has meant so much to me.” In it one can feel his passion for this place, whether writing about such familiar characters as Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, sportswriter Jerome Holtzman or less famous folks.
He devotes an entire chapter to Van Buren Street, asking, “But who sings of old Van Buren, groveling there like a lost hymn under the El tracks, holding the line of the Loop’s south end?” Well, he does, writing about the business and people and the feel of the street as it was a few decades ago, including a joint called the Rialto Tap, which had an unforgettable window sign that read, “WE SERVE ALCOHOLICS.”
And then there is “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog,” a sort of prose poem in honor of one of his greatest influences. Here he is echoing Sandburg’s affection for painted ladies: “Oh, she was young, oh she was blond, oh she was beautiful and oh, she could dance a Lake Michigan moon out of the water and onto her hair. Swaying in black velvet, she moved out of the river within me. Oh prairie night, oh, dark thunder, oh shimmering woman, I am one of your boys.”
Yes, Blei has written about his adopted home in such books as “Door Steps,” “Door to Door,” and “Door Way.” He used to write a newspaper column for the weekly Door County Reminder.
Since 1976 he has done most of his writing in a converted chicken coop near his Ellison Bay home. But when you read what he writes about Chicago, you’d swear he did it all while riding the “L.” — January 18, 2013|By Rick Kogan
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.