Thursday, June 2, 2011
Strolling 63rd Street
Walking 63rd offers a taste of Lithuanian, Middle Eastern and African-American culture
By John Greenfield
My project to walk the length of Chicago’s major streets always takes me to tasty grub, interesting sights, cool taverns and friendly people. Having hiked the length of Western, Milwaukee, Halsted, Archer and Grand, it’s time to walk another South Side thoroughfare, so why not 63rd Street?
At 11 miles, 63rd is basically Chicago’s longest continuous east-west street. It definitely is if you add Hayes Drive, its 3/4-mile extension through Jackson Park to the 63rd Street Beach. It’s a little less than halfway down the city’s South Side and it provides a good sampling of some of the different cultures that have helped shape the region.
After puttering around the house and waiting for a friend to drop off my guitar, I don’t wind up leaving Humboldt Park until well into the afternoon on Saturday, September 6. As I’d done on my Archer trek, I take the CTA Forest Park Line to Harlem, then catch the Pace 403 bus south, getting off around 3 pm just a mile further south this time. But this walk would be pretty different, since Archer veers northeast from 55th Street, while 63rd heads due east from the suburb of Summit to Lake Michigan.
63rd and Harlem is a fairly insane intersection of two eight-lane arteries, which doesn’t seem to bode well for the trip. I’d also read in the Tribune about a tragedy that happened two blocks west in Summit’s Robert Allison housing project a few days earlier. A young mother had fallen asleep with a candle lit; she survived the resulting blaze by jumping out of a second-story window but her three young children perished.
At the southeast corner I see a truck with “SHRIMP - CREDIT CARDS WELCOME” painted in big red block letters on the side, parked outside Mr. Shrimp, a seedy seafood shack, 7157 W. 63rd. I choose an alligator nugget dinner from the menu, which also includes fried oysters, lobster and frogs’ legs. An ancient, nearly toothless gentleman in a paper hat is the lone staffer – he says he’s been working there 50 years. While I respect his staying power, the little man seems confused and shuffles slowly around the galley.
But the food appears faster than I’d hoped. I ask for hot sauce and the man seems to ignore me and retreats to the kitchen. “Go ahead and ask again,” says a female customer, “It’s worth it.” I repeat my request and the man angrily yells, “I heard you!” as he returns with the sauce. I take the box to nearby Nottingham Park and find the fries and breading are tasty, but the salty carnivore meat is almost too chewy to chaw. That’s the last time I eat gator.
63rd is soon tamed down to a four-lane, lined with Eisenhower-era, two-story brick homes with stone accents which give way to bungalows. The neighborhood, bordering Midway Airport, is called Clearing, because agricultural products were to be “cleared”(transported) via the airport and railroads.
I pass by Hale Park, 6300 W., where white and Latino kids are playing soccer and baseball. As I’m checking out the Touch of Class Lounge, 6058 W., a young woman with a Muslim headscarf drives by. Across the street, the Record Dugout, 6053 W., has a great selection of baseball memorabilia and vintage vinyl.
A copy of Male magazine, the ‘50s precursor to Men’s Health, features a cover painting of a Hemingway stand-in shooting a tiger who’s mauling a loin-clothed local. A story by a prominent psychologist asks, “Is There a Lesbian in Your Town?” Not wanting to leave empty-handed I randomly pick up a 45 of the song “Ting Ting Tong” by the doo-wap group the Charms, priced at $3. The owner, impressed by my taste, lets me have it for a buck less.
Intrigued by its vintage, hand-painted red door, I stop into Pete & Mary’s, 5908 W. for a beer around 5 pm. As usual in remote neighborhood bars the Polish-accented barmaid scrutinizes my drivers license, but this time she rejects it as expired, then apologizes when I prove her wrong. Sipping on a Highlife, I check out the tiny beer garden, a photo of the Pope John Paul II next to pictures of patrons with pumpkins, and a poster of a woman sitting at a bar with a sign reading “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” She’s wearing a shirt and shoes but she’s not wearing any pants or underwear and the man at the next barstool is staring bug-eyed at her behind.
On the 5600 block, new Wrigleyville-style townhouses seem to be built as housing for flight crews based out of Midway, a stone’s throw away. Crossing Central Ave., I’m at the southeast corner of the one-mile square airport. A Southwest Airlines jumbo jet attempted to land on a snowy runway on December 8, 2005, and slid through a barrier fence, crushing a car on Central near 63rd, killing a six-year-old boy.
Through a stretch of chain-link fence I can see the towers of the Loop on the other side of the empty expanse. I pass by an Illinois National Guard station at 5400 W., then see the Obama campaign’s plane parked on a runway, emblazoned with the candidate’s rising sun logo and the slogan, “Change we can believe in.”
Crossing Cicero Ave., 4800 W., a high-speed 8-lane, I’m in the community of West Lawn. My feet are already getting tired after only three miles; oxford shoes were definitely a bad choice of footwear. Next time I’ll switch back to Sambas.
I come upon Winston’s Sausages, 4701 W., an Irish-style butcher shop topped by a huge fiberglass steer. My friend T. C. O'Rourke buys bangers, soda bread and black and white puddings there each year for brunch before our annual bike ride to the South Side Irish Parade on the far Southwest Side.
By now it’s around 6 pm, rain looks like a possibility and the sun will be setting soon. It would be stupid for me, a not particularly streetwise outsider, to travel alone, on foot, after dark through the Englewood neighborhood a few miles down the road, with the highest crime rate in the city. I decide to bail for the day and take the nearby Orange Line downtown to catch Anna Biller’s “Viva,” a hilarious homage to '70s sexploitation flicks, at the Gene Siskel Center.
But before I hop on the train I stop for another brew at Mr. C’s Midway Bar, 4654 W. It’s probably the only tavern for many miles with Blue Moon and Stella Artois on tap, but that doesn’t mean it’s a highbrow joint. Vintage photos of the airport and a model plane made of Miller Lite cans attest to its proximity to the runways.
A sign behind the bar declares, “Sexual harassment will not be reported but it will be graded.” Accordingly, a short, top-heavy woman is loudly teasing a male friend about the size of his genitals. “Rack ‘em up,” says a pool player. “I got a perfect rack already,” the woman quips.
“I fell asleep on a booty call last night,” reports a man at the bar. “I woke up on the couch holding a beer with the woman’s kids laughing at me. I hadn’t spilled a drop.”
That Tuesday I catch the California / Kedzie bus south to the Orange Line and resume my walk from Mr. C’s at 1 pm in gorgeous weather. Tigress Coiffures, 4352 W., features an adorable cartoon of the eponymous feline on its sign while Midway Banquet Hall and Lounge, 4222 W., has classy vintage neon.
On the 4100 block a paleteria, a panaderia and a botanica (popsicle shop, bakery and herb-and-charm store, respectively) stand side by side. Most of 63rd is peppered with Latino businesses until the street becomes solidly African-American east of California, 2800 W.
At Pulaski, 4000 W., a huge statue of a bespectacled Native American, featured in the movie “Wayne’s World”, tops the Midwest Eye Clinic. Locals will tell you that if you approach from the west the brave’s left thumb appears to be his penis hanging out of his pants. Sadly, someone has broken the eagle feather off his head since the last time I pedaled by.
To the southeast is Marquette Park, a historically Lithuanian neighborhood. I detour south two blocks to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski, which seems to be staffed entirely by attractive, 40s-ish blondes. They invite me to sit alone in a small theater to watch a tourism film about their homeland, which makes Vilnius look like a pretty happening town.
The small museum is chock full of mildly interesting stuff: stone-age axes; crossbows and suits of armor; amber jewelry; dolls and mannequins in traditional costumes; ornate Easter eggs and a collection of vintage canned ham, sausage and luncheon meat. I make a note to return there with my ¼-Lithuanian girlfriend when I have more time.
Back on 63rd, I enter a stretch from Pulaski to Kedzie, 3200 W., where many Arab-owned businesses opened during the late 20th Century. There seem to be fewer today, as large numbers of Muslims have settled in suburbs like Bridgeview and Oak Lawn. A couple of the Middle Eastern restaurants I’d read about in Sharon Woodhouse's A Native’s Guide to Chicago are gone, but the Aladdin Club, 3831 W., is still there.
Although there’s an image of a hookah on the storefront and a real one behind the counter, the owner tells me that the alcohol-free café is simply a place to drink coffee and socialize, now that the city has gone smokeless. “It’s a private club, mostly for Arabian people,” he says politely as three or four older guys look on. There are boxes of Middle Eastern candy on the counter and several video gambling machines at the front of the room.
Olive Mount Imported Food, 3526 W., features a well-organized selection of interesting Middle Eastern groceries like pickled labna cheese and halal meat, including bins of lamb kidneys, hearts and lungs. There are also long-handled metal coffee pots, bins of black tea and a wide variety of fruit-flavored hookah tobacco. A Palestinian flag hangs at the back of the store.
After buying some nuts and candies, I walk a little east for lunch at the hole-in-the-wall Nile Restaurant, 3259 W. I try the kalaya, a hearty, chili-like stew of diced beef, onions and tomatoes served over rice with a side of pickled cucumbers and carrots.
East of Kedzie, 3200 W., two teens on BMX bikes pedal past me on the sidewalk. The first boy smooches at a girl walking westbound; she smiles and swats at the head of the second one. I pass by the offices of 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes, 3045 W., then stop to check out Nate’s Leathers, 2950 W., specializing in gear for police officers like jackets, holsters and body armor.
There’s no one in the shop, which smells strongly of dead cow. The young, cop-like owner soon returns from outside with a German shepherd with a spiked collar, eyeing me suspiciously. After I explain my mission he relaxes and tells me about his business, sewing everything from custom boat covers to bulletproof vests on the premises.
After I cross California into West Englewood, a well-dressed man approaches me as I’m checking out the stonework of St. Rita Parish church, 6243 S. Fairfield. “Excuse me sir, may I have a cigarette?” he asks. “I don’t smoke, sorry,” I apologize.
Soon liquor-food-lottery stores and fast food joints with bulletproof glass dominate the street. As I pass a group of teens outside a hoagie shop one of them spits at the ground near my feet. A man walks by with a shopping cart full of children’s bicycles and car tires.
But there are signs of revitalization in what has long been one of Chicago’s poorest communities. Garifuna Flava, 2516 W. is a spotless new Belizean restaurant with tasty-sounding dishes like conch fritters, cow foot soup and “boil-up”: boiled cassava, sweet potatoes and plantains with stewed fish, pig tails and dumplings.
I drop into a new Chicago Public Library branch at 1745 W. to use the bathroom and find the library to be a spacious, airy, state-of-the-art facility with a nice garden with seating next door. A child and family center next door features bold architecture, including a futuristic ribbon of stainless steel connecting one wing of the building to another.
Mural on an El piller near the Ashland Green Line stop
Long Grove Cleaners, 1146 W., has jacket-length doors in the bulletproof Plexiglas through which patrons pass their clothes. A mural on the side of Neighborhood Food and Liquors, 1122 W., is a crash course in Chicago-style fast food with images of a loaded hotdog, an Italian sausage-beef combo sandwich, gyros and rib tips. When I stop to photo it one of the employees invites me to tour the clean, orderly grocery store and lunch counter. A trained meat-cutter, years ago he slaughtered hogs in the stockyards for the Ampeg Meatpacking Co., and seems proud of his present workplace.
When Kevin Monahan and I walked Halsted, 800 W., last December we saw new Kennedy-King College buildings that had been constructed at 63rd, the former site of the Englewood Shopping Center, but there wasn’t much open yet. Now there is a book store and a copy center; student radio and TV stations; and the Washburne Culinary Institute. Sikia, a student-run restaurant at 740 W. offers dishes from Africa and the black Diaspora, from Moroccan tangine to Jamaican jerked chicken, Ethiopian curries to Louisiana gumbo.
A block east at 63rd and Wallace St., as detailed in The Devil in the White City, Dr. H. H. Homes built his World’s Fair Hotel in anticipation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. The 60-room building was a maze of hidden staircases, trapdoors, dungeons and gas chambers that later became known as the Murder Castle. Homes lured dozens, maybe hundreds of young women to their deaths there, selling their skeletons to medical schools. Nowadays the site is the Englewood Post Office.
At Englewood High, 400 W., “Home of the Mighty Eagles,” the football team practices on a field in front of the school, their purple and white uniforms covered in grass stains. By 6 pm I’m crossing the Dan Ryan Expressway, 200 W., which was recently enlarged to seven lanes in each direction. The southbound rush hour traffic is still moving slowly, proving the urban planning adage, “You can’t build your way out of congestion.”
The land between the interstate and the Green Line stop at King Dr., 400 E., is largely vacant lots. Near the station a flock of seagulls flying under the tracks reminds me I’m getting close to the lake. This area in the Woodlawn neighborhood is dense with businesses. I hear the crack of the pool balls as I pass a pool hall, note the Plexiglas shield in front of the neon sign for a Rothschild’s Liquors, and see the men hard at work at Turner’s Professional Shoeshine, 438 E.
I like the slogan of the sign of the Kozy Korner tavern, 461 E., “Where old friends meet,” so I venture inside. “How can we help you?” asks a dapper gentleman sitting near the door. “Oh, I was going to get a beer,” I say. “Well, alright then, make yourself at home.” I take a seat at the far end of the bar and introduce myself to Niecie the bartender, explaining what I’m up to. Sipping on a Highlife I check out the room. There’s a large, old-fashioned streetlamp in the center and mirrors framed by plastic roses. A photo of Barack Obama hangs on the wall and Smokey Robinson’s on the jukebox. The crowd of well-dressed middle-aged and older professional folks seems to be having a great time, laughing non-stop.
Cliff Pierce, the manager who’d greeted me, soon joins me at the bar and buys me my second beer. He used to write a gossip Column for the Chicago Defender. “You’re a rare bird, but not for long,” he tells me. “It’s only 10 minutes from my house to the Black House [Obama’s home in Kenwood.] We’re talking about where the next president lives. And then there are the Olympics in Washington Park. So in the next ten years this neighborhood is going to become the hub. One day I’m gonna look out this window and see nothing but limousines.”
Buzzed, I continue strolling toward the Cottage Grove stop as the sun is setting. Although it’s only been a few hours since lunch, I’m ready to eat again so I stop for dinner at Daley’s Restaurant, 809 E., a soul food diner highly recommended by the Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula. The menu’s illustrated with photos of the Columbian Exposition and there are photos of local politicians on the walls. My meal of chicken soup, salmon croquettes, mashed potatoes and greens is cheap and excellent. As I return to the counter to leave a tip the waitress takes the bills directly from my hand. “You have a blessed evening,” she says with a smile.
A few years ago, the easternmost Green Line stop at Woodlawn, 1200 E., and four blocks of track were removed to make way for development, but I suspect the idea was to create a buffer zone between the rowdy commercial areas under the tracks and the new upscale townhouses. There’s a half-mile of vacant lots between Cottage Grove and the homes, a few blocks of pleasant, but eerily quiet, residences.
I pass the Apostolic Church of God mega church at 6320 S. Dorchester; the headquarters of the Woodlawn Organization community group at 1508 E. 63rd; and Leon’s on Six Tre restaurant, 1528 E., featuring ribs, tips and chicken. 63rd Street officially ends at Stony Island, 1600 E., the border of Jackson Park, but although it’s getting late and I’m tired I decide to soldier on down Hayes St. to the 63rd Street Beach.
Walking through the park I hear a group of men hanging out by their cars, blasting dancehall reggae, speaking loudly in a Caribbean patois, possibly relaxing after playing soccer in the park. Halfway to Lake Shore I see the Statue of the Republic, AKA the Golden Lady, a 24-foot-tall gilded bronze sculpture of a robed woman holding aloft an eagle and a staff symbolizing national unity. It’s actually a 1/3-scale reproduction of the Daniel Chester French original from the World’s Fair.
As I approach the lake I can see moonlight glinting off Jackson Harbor, smell barbecue wafting up from a party at the boathouse and hear African drumming coming from just south of the beach. I take the recently built underpass below Lake Shore Drive and emerge to see the Romanesque arches of the grand beach house, which was rehabbed a decade ago. I make my way to the wide beach and stroll down the plastic wheelchair track to the edge of the rushing lake. Dipping my fingers in the cool water, my journey is done.