Tuesday, April 29, 2008


All this recent biking is making the city seem mighty small—and the boundaries between neighborhoods a whole lot less definitive. We’ve learned we can be downtown in just over 30 minutes, to Bridgeport in about 45, and deep in the heart of Evanston in less than an hour. That’s a whole lot quicker than the train, with better scenery and a built-in excuse for a hearty meal.

For this reason, a trek of just 15 minutes makes it feel we haven’t left the neighborhood at all, so we absorb whatever wonders we may stumble across as a borrowed extension of home. Take, for example, Chicago Hot Glass: a truly bad-ass art studio in an old brick manufacturing building about, say, 15 minutes away by bike. This is an area without a name, a district not yet appropriated by the real-estate industry or Chicago souvenir map-makers. It’s about halfway between us and West Garfield Park. Someone living to the east might call it halfway between them and Oak Park. That’s about as specific as it gets.

But this lack of spatial ‘governance’ sort of fits the glass-blowers, who seem pretty rootless and free-riding themselves. The studio has become a second home, where they make art and throw parties and generally and productively occupy space. Recently they added a metal-works initiative, which may be about the most punk rock thing I’ve ever actually seen in person (apologies to Nonagon, of course).

On a recent ride back from the Garfield Park Conservatory, John and I popped over to the side yard of the studio, where a guy named Marshall was readying the fire cans for a pour later that night. He saw us peering into the fence and came to say hello. His first question: “Are you guys from the neighborhood?”

From the neighborhood . . . This was clearly a guy after my own heart. Because there’s something about that whole idea—neighborhood—that’s familial and empathic in ways sometimes even bloodlines fail to be. It unites people who may have literally nothing in common besides the street they live on. In obsessives like myself, it’s a living, breathing organism: a thing unto itself, much prettier and grander than the sum of its parts. And for those who hold it dear, it’s positively kindred. For that split second, Marshall was our friend. He had our backs and we had his. We trusted each other, as we trusted the circumstances that had brought us together on exactly that same patch of concrete at exactly that moment, to talk about metal. In our own quiet ways, we wanted more.

So it was no surprise when he told us they’d be pouring some bronze later and invited us to come by if we were around. Almost tragically, we already had plans. But it’s not a huge stretch to think there might be a next time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday Potluck with the Block Group

Ok, here’s what you have to imagine: 50 or so people, ranging from a few months old to 75, filling up a Catholic church basement on a balmy Sunday evening. They migrate from table to table, catching up with friends, meeting new neighbors, indulging conversation about everything from the best taqueria in town to the overdue need for speed bumps. At first they’re segregated by language, but in time the Anglos get bold enough to call up what they remember from high-school Spanish, and Guty and Jaime playfully refuse their lapses back into English. Thirteen-year-old Pamela translates like a pro.

Plates are filled with Mike and Cindy’s guacamole, Carmen’s arroz con gandules, Emily and Devin’s corn muffins and chili, Sonja’s fruit salad, and Matt and Jen’s vegan chocolate chip cookies.

Kids run around like dervishes without a single fall, scrape, tear, or argument. One five-year-old, whose nametag reads “Rey, aka Juno,” announces himself a superhero, and when asked about his superpower pulls two small containers of hand sanitizer from his pockets and eagerly disinfects whoever offers a hand.

And the reason you have to imagine all of this is because for all the things I remembered—from the block-group sign-up sheet to important dates to local-police contact information—the one thing I forgot was my camera. So this photo of the last remaining spoonful of couscous with pistachios (my contribution to this fete) is the only tangible evidence that such an event even happened. Trust me that it was raucous fun.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Slippery Slope

Our neighborhood is rarely without its controversies. One of the most longstanding surrounds a building at a six-corner intersection that hums with activity much of the day. This flatiron-style building occupies a corner lot across from "Fireman's Park" and the Gap Outlet store that has long and somewhat problematically been credited for revitalizing economic activity on the strip.

The site in question has been known at various times as the Payless building (for its most recent ground-floor occupant) and the Morris B. Sachs building, its more official and longstanding name. The upper floors, a complicated arrangement of small units deemed unfit--some would say thankfully--for condo conversion, have been vacant for decades, and the city has wrestled for years over What to do about the Sachs building. It looked for a while like a new owner had big plans, but he was later murdered in a bizarre tenant dispute, and any hopes for the building were extinguished in the process.

Scroll ahead a couple of years. The City decided to buy the building and issue a request for proposals. In November of 2006 our alderman held a public meeting to take the community's pulse on what they might like to see there. At the time an idea to convert the building to supportive housing--affordable units to those making just 15-30% of area median income, along with social services to assist those with financial, job training, or substance abuse challenges--had been recommended. We joined with those who supported this vision, recognizing the increasingly prohibitive housing costs in our area and a growing need to accommodate disenfranchised populations. You might imagine that some local folks would feel discomfort with such a plan, and they rightfully showed up to the meeting as well -- some with very legitimate concerns, and others with unmistakeable NIMBYist leanings. This was actually one of the most fair and productive public meetings I've ever attended, and I left feeling that a solid public purpose would be realized for the Sachs building.

Well, two proposals were submitted in response to the rfp: one public development plan for supportive housing, and one private development plan for artists' lofts, with art-friendly retail at street level. I probably don't have to tell you which won the day.

True confession? I don't actually find the winning project that distasteful, on its face. Sure, artists' lofts are a dandy idea, and bringing human density to a vacant building is always a boon to a neighborhood. There's even an affordability component, and bravo for that. I suspect the people who move in will be good neighbors, too: making art, riding bikes or taking public transportation, and (because of course this is the whole idea, right?) putting money into the local economy.

But here's the rub: public moneys, to the tune of $10 million, are going to be invested in this building for a private developer's gain. This kind of investment is only justifiable, by both law and my own sense of ethics, when a public purpose is being served. Some would say the public purpose is revitalizing our economic corridor, but I'm sorry I can't join with those who'd call it a victory to see our community tax dollars entice a Blick's or a Border's to sidle into town.

At a rally last weekend to protest this decision, a young woman stood up and told her story of coming from a broken home, moving to Chicago, and finding her way to supportive housing. She was on her way to becoming another statistic, but with a roof over her head and some increased stability, she ended up graduating first in her university class. It's difficult not to be moved by a story like this, and to see it as a more critical and appropriate use for public funds than a Starbucks (or insert artsy chain store here), and a built-in customer base to support it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Biking to Bridgeport

This weekend John and I started training for an upcoming bike trip through coastal Maine. In Saturday's soaking drizzle, we trekked about 9 miles in each direction to what's considered by some to be our neighborhood's mirror image to the south: Bridgeport. This is where the Daleys grew up, and as a result, it's seen some significant reinvestment in recent years, most notably the renovation, then subsequent renovation, of what is now US Cellular Field (no, nothing is sacred--especially not America's pasttime).

Other Bridgeport draws are the Mies van der Rohe-designed campus of IIT, a heaping plate of lamb with cumin at Ed's Potsticker House, and the ironically (though perhaps not intentionally) dubbed Healthy Food Lithuanian, pictured below, where I had exceptional homemade Lithuanian sausage with generous sides of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. These dishes, as well as John's zaftig potato pancakes, were cheerfully delivered by our vegan Lithuanian waitress.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Ok, fair enough: Most of you can probably buy organic tomatoes, craft beer, or recycled paper goods at your local grocery stores . . . but I'm guessing you can't get tamales or these handsome handmade wrestling masks in the parking lot, like I can. What's your favorite quirky supermarket buy these days?