Sunday, March 30, 2008


This morning I ran into my friend Dennis, who's been renovating his coachhouse for the last 15 years from objects scavenged from local alleys. He gives generous tours on request, detailing the beach glass he and his daughters mosaiced into the panes of a discarded French door, or the drawer pulls he's fashioned from the burls of trees on his friends' Mitch and Jacqui's property. He cooks on an industrial stove he found behind a closed restaurant, and he shaves in front of a vanity with doors made of wooden chess boards. I could go on, but I'd never do it justice.

When I saw him this morning he'd been on a salvaging trek, and he was carrying a pair of petite wooden crutches, possibly from before the turn of the century. They'll likely become the balusters of his staircase or a detail over one of the dining room windows, which once resided in the Chicago Historical Society.

Dennis was also carrying a small china gravy boat and two cream pitchers, spied in a box behind the Oddfellows Hall, one of the most strange and coveted buildings in our neighborhood.

When John and I first moved in, the Oddfellows still ran the place, meeting in their long maroon robes or throwing occasional pancake breakfasts. Since then the building has changed hands a few times. For a short time it was home to the Iglesia de los Santos Muertes. The founder drove a repurposed ice-cream truck with a skeleton in a long blond wig in the passenger seat. Their tenure in the building was short.

It's now in the hands of one of our neighbors, who's planning a major green renovation that will preserve the integrity of the front facade but actually make the interior liveable. On Dennis's tip, I now have my own piece of Oddfellows history, the sweet ephemera pictured here. I picked up five more sets for my neighbors, who also prize the building--and Dennis--as neighborhood wonders.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

To call William my favorite kid in the neighborhood would be overlooking some pretty spectacular kids I’ve been lucky enough to get to know. But at least he deserves some kind of rookie award, worming his way into our ventricles like no one in recent memory.

William is a hellion. He knows what all the rough kids on his block are into and until recently was struggling with school. He’s world-weary and street-smart, and it wasn’t too difficult to predict a future of trouble for him.

Enter our friends Mike and Diane. They live on the same block as William and had taken notice of him. Diane and Mike feel the best way to end violence is to get to know the kids on the block and become involved in their lives (with their parents’ blessing, of course).

For the last few months, Mike and Diane have become William’s mentors. His grades are up to B’s and C’s, and he’s taken an interest in music. I first met William when Diane brought him by for our weekly summer ritual: dividing up the vegetables from our shared CSA box. William was fascinated by the cabbage and wanted to know the names of all the fresh herbs in that week’s harvest. He looked you in the eye when he talked to you. And he took in the details of our house like a kid at a museum: he loved the pot rack, the bookshelves and the compost bin, wriggling with worms.

“You have one of those voices like those people on the radio,” he said to me. Keep in mind I’d never met this kid before. He closed his eyes and said, “Ok, now say something.” “What do you want me to say?” I said. “Yeah,” he laughed. “You sound like one of those radio ladies.”

William thinks John's a rock star because he’s in a band. “There’s a rock star in the kitchen,” he told his sister once when we were over for a visit. The sister took one look at John and just shook her head. Mike and Diane bought William his first guitar for Christmas. We’re bracing ourselves.

We recently caught up with William shoveling the sidewalk.

“John! Christy!” he yelled over to us. When I got up close I said it looked like he was working pretty hard.

“Yeah, my back’s killing me,” he said.

“You’ve need to strengthen those core muscles,” I said.

“Corn muscles?”

“No, core,” I said, “like an apple core,” and I pointed to the band of muscles around his stomach. “That’s the center of you,” I said. “Strengthen those, and your back’ll be fine.” I have a feeling, though, that the center of William is something else altogether.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


John and I often joke that the only reason we need to leave neighborhood is for Indian food. That everything else we could possibly need—from ball bearings to fancy cheese—can be procured within a one-mile radius of the house. Last night we did make the trek for Indian food, took a great bike ride about five miles north in the drizzle to Chicago’s fabled Little India. This is one of my favorite rides in the city—passing through the light-industrial district just north of us, on through the sleepy enclave of Old Irving Park, then to Albany Park (the most culturally diverse square mile in the Midwest), past the post-war bungalows toward the city’s outer perimeter, and finally onto Devon Street, where businesses catering to Orthodox Jews give way—just east of California Street—to a rich Indo-Pak commercial strip. As much as I enjoy this sojourn, and for as many family-run restaurants that dot the street, it pains me to say it: the food, at least last night, just wasn’t that good.

It certainly didn’t hold a candle to our brunch of this past Sunday, at a cafe just three minutes by bike, and the first place John and I ever ate as we contemplated buying our first house. We’d been on the fence about which neighborhood to choose: our finances restricted us to just a handful of communities, and we spent a good bit of time weighing the pros and cons. The entire list went out the window, though, the night we ate here:

I still remember what was on the plate: halibut with a blood-orange reduction and local purple potatoes. You had to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom, and the people who worked there were neighborhood people: varied accents, jeans and t-shirts, our orders remembered instead of written down. The whole thing gave us an instantaneous feeling of home, and we made a pact that evening that we’d look no further: we’d found the area where we wanted to live. The painting we sat beneath that night now hangs in our living room.

The restaurant has changed a bit since then. Prices have gone up, they’ve expanded to include what was once an old cigar shop next door, and the chefs fell in love, got married, and recently gave birth to their first child. This American Life’s Ira Glass once called this his favorite neighborhood restaurant in Chicago, and he actually broadcast a show there to test whether tips improve when servers mistreat their customers. Afterward, the culinerati came in droves.

It'd take more than that to spoil this place for me, though. This Sunday I had fresh-caught organic trout from Wisconsin over a warm potato salad. For brunch! We were there with a good friend of the restaurant, so we got a honey and black-walnut scone, still steamy from the oven, compliments of the house.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Walkers: Unite and Hydrate

Spring is, well, springing around here, but we Chicagoans know not to get too excited. Invariably there's a late March/early April snow to kill off all the crocuses, and we can't safely put away the winter coats until June. But these recent glimpses of blue sky and 50-degree temperatures have put us in an Audrey Hepburn kind of mood.

In that spirit, some friends and I instituted a happy hour, the first Thursday of every month, to celebrate walking. Despite our cracked sidewalks and lingering patches of ice here and there, this neighborhood is kind to walkers: our grid system makes it easy to retain a sense of direction, and there's always an unexpected treasure--an occasional community garden or bit of fence-post art--to reward those who stray from their usual paths.

March was our inaugural happy hour, and in honor of the event, our favorite barkeep (also a master shoveler: not once did we slip at the doorway or have to park our bikes in banks of snow) invented a cocktail for the occasion. It was champagne, sloe gin (as in, taking it 'sloe'), sherry, orange liqueur, and a dash of bitters. Whiz bang, it was good! We held a contest for the naming rights, and an animated guy in his early 60s won for his entry, the Footsy. My own nominee--the Navicular--got zero votes, alas. Maybe I should have specified that it's a bone in the foot. I was proud of John, though, whose Barking Dog won second-place, and he went home with the spoils: two tubes of vanilla scented foot cream.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

From Tinseltown to our Street

For the last few weeks, a movie's been filming a block and a half south of us. Word on the street is it's called "Humboldt Park" and stars John Leguizamo and Debra Messing (yes, I join you in a shrug). But the location for all the residential shots is actually the house of one of our block-group members, so it's a jolt to walk down the street and see the giant spotlights and the crew getting ready to film what looks like a Christmas scene. They've put strings of lights in the trees (the large colorful bulbs, as opposed to the small white twinkly
version--their take on local color, I'm sure).
Last weekend, all the parkway areas beyond the sidewalk were covered with white felt, suggestive of snow. The great irony was it was snowing anyway, so there you have it: our own personal version of Hollywood excess.

So far there are zero reported sightings of Leguizamo (who might actually enjoy hanging out in one of the neighborhood bars) or Messing (America's sitcom sweetheart probably races back to her Gold Coast hotel). Friends who run nearby businesses have been frustrated to see no measurable spike in the local economy. You'd think at least the crew might grab a bite after shooting.

At last glance all the white trucks were still in the street, so I guess there's still time for that cast party at the Garden Walk banquet hall around the corner.

Friday, March 7, 2008

On second thought . . .

In looking at yesterday's post, I'm realizing I presented an exaggerated, and pretty darn glib, assessment of multi-unit buildings in the neighborhood. I've decided to call myself on this before someone else can. In truth, I'm a great fan of multi-units, assuming they're affordable and well-maintained (a marriage this city hasn't always been successful in fostering. Affordable housing, for a good long time, was also divested housing. The flip-side was condo conversion--where deteriorated buildings got fancy makeovers with stainless-steel appliances and craptastic Home Depot doors. After a hefty price hike for quick re-sale, developers' pockets were filled to bursting. Their chortles were heard round the city).

The truth of it is this: for every absentee landlord and Section 8 disaster (which is not to say that all Section-8 buildings are disasters, just that the Section 8 program--relying on private property owners as it does--has its frailties) is a functional and affordable complex, run by dedicated nonprofits offering amenities like community gardens and bike-repair classes. For every three-flat overrun by drug dealers is a mission-driven co-op, like the one just down the block from us named for Emma Goldman. And for every broken-windowed building with unreliable heat is a well-managed rental property, providing options for those without the means or desire to own.

I actually find the slowing market to be a friend to rental property. Developers aren't so keen to jump in the conversion waters anymore, and condos are sitting on the market for much longer than they used to. As recently as a year ago, rental units on the north side were so depleted you had to get on a waiting list as a tenant, and after that you better have a good credit rating and references or you didn't have a prayer. One hopes the downturn might have the unexpected fortune of reversing this trend. Gentrification needs its checks and balances, and multi-units seem to be the bellwethers of where the process stands.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Snow . . . men?

For years, most multi-unit buildings on our side of town fell into one of two categories: crack houses or gleaming, antiseptic condo conversions. Things are much less polarized these days. Take, for example, one nearby complex, which recently served as an artist's canvas:

This photo is in honor of the waning snow, which seems poised to make a final exit (fingers crossed) in the coming weeks. By the weatherman's count, we've had 35 significant snowfalls this year, and this sculpture--attached to an entire exterior wall--was the fruit of just one of them.

We locals made our pilgrimages, then placed bets as to what in the heck this was supposed to represent. Two bits if you come up with something more clever than cartoon faces or female anatomy.