Thursday, June 2, 2011

Walking Lawrence Avenue


A stroll down Chicago’s most international street reveals delicious diversity

By John Greenfield

[This article also runs on the website Gapers Block, www.gapersblock.com.]

I’ve hiked the lengths of many Chicago streets over the years: Milwaukee, Western, Halsted, Archer, Grand, 63rd, Kedzie, Belmont, 79th and King. So it’s surprising that it never occurred to me to hike Lawrence, with its wildly varied strips of shops and restaurants, representing countries from all over the world.

But recently, on my way back from staying in a shack by the Wisconsin border, I took Metra south to the Ravenswood stop and then bicycled west on Lawrence at night. I needed to visit Flo’s Algiers Lounge, a dive at 5436 W. Montrose with a flashing Vegas-style sign and support pillars disguised as palm trees, for a magazine blurb. On the way I was dazzled by the neon along Lawrence in Albany Park, with signs in Spanish, Arabic, Korean and maybe a dozen other languages. The street definitely deserved a closer look.

Lawrence runs 10.5 miles across the city from Lake Michigan to Chevalier Woods, by the Des Plaines River. According to the book Streetwise Chicago by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee, real estate developer Lazarus Silverman was walking with his friend Bradford A. Lawrence through Silverman’s new Montrose subdivision when the developer reportedly said, “Let’s call this Lawrence Avenue.”

I get up painfully early on a Wednesday in early November to catch the 7:26 am sunrise at the lake at Lawrence. As I’m riding the Red Line north to the Lawrence stop the sky is striped cobalt, magenta and gold.


I walk east from the station to the lakefront and dip my fingers in the icy water at Montrose Beach as the fiery ball rises over the horizon. Seagulls, mallard ducks and crows chatter around me. Aside from the dull roar of traffic on Lake Shore Drive and the Hancock faintly visible to the south, this could be Cape Cod.


Heading back west, I come to an odd little house at 915 W. Lawrence with a sign that says “Hana To.” There are wavy, Asian-style shingles on the roof, boulders and a lion statue in front and a Buddha in the window. When I Google the address later it comes up as Hana to Yoko, a florist specializing in ikebana, Japanese flower arrangements.

The day has turned gray and chilly as I approach the Aragon Theater, 1106 W., where I notice architectural details I’ve never noticed before – colorful, mosaic-like designs on the windows and carved heads of maidens and jesters. On the west side of the adjacent el tracks there’s a colorful, surreal mural I’ve also never really looked at. My favorite element of the painting is a guy in a yachting cap with a pipe fishing at the lake.


The intersection of Lawrence and Broadway, 1200 W., filled with neon lights and theater marquees, is one of my favorites in Chicago. It’s surrounded by venues like the Aragon, the Kinetic Playground, the Green Mill, the Riviera and the shuttered Uptown Theater. Back in the 1920s when Charlie Chaplin was making films at nearby Essanay Studios the neighborhood must have been even more exciting.

I stop for a breakfast of potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream at the Golden House, 4744 N. Broadway, a cozy greasy spoon with red vinyl booths and mirrors on the walls with swirls printed on them. Next to me a thirty-something guy with graying hair and a hoodie strikes up a conversation, telling me his name is Binh and he’s from Vietnam.

I can barely understand him but I follow that he’s been in Chicago since 1989 and has also lived in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. He seems to have a mild mental disability. “I don’t eat here,” he says. “I just only drink coffee. “I eat at home – fried steak, noodles and rice. My grandfather says, ‘Eat rice, stay long.’”

A light rain begins as I continue west down Lawrence, past St. Bonifacius Cemetery, stopping to check out St. John’s Assyrian Church, 1421 W., and Manigua Academy of Dance and Music, 1756 W. offering classes in djembe, guiro and talking drum, Brazilian, Puerto Rican and Cuban dance. I stop into Sears, 1900 W., to take a break from the rain.

As I’m looking at boots, a guy with a Spanish accent says, “Oh, so you’re shopping for boots for the winter?” At first I think he’s an employee but then I turn around and see he’s a tall young man in a knit cap wearing Kelly-green running shorts. “Are you Jewish?” he asks. “Uh, why do you want to know?” I reply. “Well, I attended services at a synagogue recently and you look like the Jewish people I saw there,” he says. “Say, my apartment’s right behind the store – do you party?” “No I don’t, but thanks anyway,” I respond, walking away towards the jeans section. “Come on, fifteen minutes,” he calls after me.

The guy follows me to the stacks of Levis and explains, “I walked up to you because I’m gay and you were the handsomest guy in the store.” At 10:15 am I’m pretty much the only other guy in the store. “Look,” I say. “I’m flattered but I’m not interested.” “OK,” he says. “You know, I went to that synagogue because I wanted to learn about Kabala. They believe you can use spirituality to control God. You see, I’m a Satanist. I’ve seen Satan four times.” “OK, well, I think I’m going to shop for jeans now,” I say and he finally walks away.

Next I stop into George’s Deli, 1964 W., a Serbian place that sells roasted lamb and piglets, big jars of pickled peppers and fig jam, thick Bosnian sausages and slabs of dry bacon that look like spareribs. I duck into Farmers Garden Market, 2242 W., hoping to find a functioning farm stand but the shelves are almost bare except for a few seed packets. The old couple speaking to each other in another language at the counter tells me the growing season is over, but I later read that the place has been shut down for code violations.

I pass by the gateway to Lincoln Square’s semi-pedestrianized shopping area on Lincoln south of Lawrence, and stop at Avard Fairbanks’ 1956 statue of Honest Abe standing at Western, 2400 W. He’s standing at a podium with top hat in hand, gazing down his namesake avenue.


Isla Filipino restaurant, 2501 W. Lawrence, features some interesting sounding dishes like Kare-Kare: oxtails, tripe and green beans in peanut sauce with a side of shrimp paste brine; and Inihaw na Pusit: grilled squid stuffed with tomato and onions. Spaghetti Delight - ground beef, pork, hot dog, and Parmesan cheese in tomato sauce over noodles, served with fried chicken – seems to reflect the American influence on the archipelago, a former U.S. territory.

The incredible mix of ethnic eateries and shops has begun. TBS Restaurant, 2541 W. offers a buffet of Nigerian rice dishes and stews, plus American soul food. It’s just after the mid-term elections and the Olympic Club, 2615 W., a café catering to Greek immigrants, still has a sign for failed senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias in the window.

I duck into Nhu Lan, a Vietnamese baker and sandwich shop at 2612 W., and munch a shrimp and pork roll while watching Obama discuss the recent election on TV. The shop also offers a wide selection of Banh Mi, sandwiches on French bread with pickled daikon and carrots, jalapenos and fillings pate and cold cuts, shrimp cake and meatballs. A big, yellow Buddha grins from atop a pastry case.


It’s just after Halloween, and there’s a sign up on the field house of Cross Park, 2700 W., “The supervisor has gone to Peterson Park to take down the Trail of Terror.” I continue past Sarajevo Restaurant, 2701 W., a Bosnian place specializing in Cevapcici, ground beef mini sausages served on fluffy bread with onions and melted cream cheese. Aden Live Poultry, 2731 W., slaughters chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, pigeons and quails in the Zabiha / Halal way, according to Muslim dietary laws.

Just east of the Chicago River, the headquarters of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, 2831 W., features intricate bas-relief designs and images of deities on the façade. Since 1976 the nonprofit has assisted refugees from the Khmer Rouge genocide. The museum is closed at the moment, but two non-Cambodian women filming a documentary outside the building tell me an exhibit about survivors’ journeys from healing to productivity just closed.


As I cross the river I see old, half-sunken boats tied to the banks, and a Brown Line train passes on a bridge a block south. North of Lawrence on the river, the North Branch Sewage Pumping Station is a remarkably nice “Industrial Gothic” structure, when you consider its humble function.


The sun’s out again, lifting my spirits as I head into Albany Park. There’s a nice muffler man sculpture at 3 Stars Auto Body, 3011 W. Huaraches Restaurant, 3021 W., is one of many Michoacan-style Mexican restaurants along this stretch, offering a torta Cubana whose long ingredient list doesn’t have much in common with a traditional Cuban sandwich. Cuscaleco, 3125 W., is a Salvadorian and Guatemalan restaurant specializing in pupusas, thick discs of corn dough stuffed with various combinations of pork skin, beans, cheese and pumpkin.


As I approach Kedzie I start seeing business with signs in Arabic – Kedzie south of Lawrence is one of the areas major Middle Eastern business districts. Iraqi-owned Baghdad Kebab offers a $3.99 chicken shewarma or kefta kebab lunch special.

I duck into Novidades Latinas, a shop selling Ecuadorian products and other Latin American goods: groceries, soccer jerseys, wrestling masks and mini flags of many nations. Andean music plays on the sound system as I check out a DVD of a gangsta flick called “Cholo Americano.”

I come to the Brown Line’s Kimball stop, the end of the line, its awning supported by pillars shaped like giant femurs. Kids are sparring playfully outside the station – a girl picks a boy up by the wrists at spins him around. “Elise, what are you doing?” asks a woman who walks by, possibly their teacher.


Intrigued by a sign advertising Middle Eastern and Mexican baked goods, I drop into the Pita House, 3441 W., but find that so far the shop only stocks the former, although the clerk, a tall, soft-spoken African man with dreads, tells me they’re trying to hire a Mexican baker. I tell him about my project and asks him what he thinks makes Lawrence special. “It’s a melting pot,” he says. “You see the diversity, you see all different nationalities going to the train. On Kedzie it’s more Middle Eastern but here it’s a mixture of every race.” I buy some hand-shaped cookies from him.

A lingerie store at 3546 W. has the charmingly ESL name Sexy Girls of the Hollywood. Across the street Golden Linens, 3601 W., has a giant pink tapestry with the Playboy logo hanging outside. The name of a store at 3647 W., selling toys, handbags and adult DVDs, catches my eye: Chicago John Imports.

I stop into Dok-Il Korean bakery, 3844 W. Lawrence, and pick up a white bean doughnut and a piece of goroke bread, a croquette stuffed with egg, carrot, cabbage, onions and potato. When I ask the Latina clerk what’s inside, she has trouble recalling all the English words for the ingredients, so she tells me in Spanish instead.

The Admiral Theater, 3940 W., which opened in 1927 as a vaudeville venue, has operated as an adult movie house and gentleman’s club since the early ‘70s. It recently hosted a “Night of the Stripping Dead,” with dancers made up to look like zombies. Just a couple storefronts west, El-Jeeb Hajib and gifts, 3944 W., sells the head coverings traditionally worn by Islamic women.


Continuing west past Pulaski, 4000 W., pillars with Prairie-style ornamentation alert me I’m in the Mayfair neighborhood. Ssyal Korean Ginseng House, 4201 W. specializes in ginseng-infused chicken soup that’s supposed to be good for everything from high blood pressure to impotence. I make a note to come back next time I have a cold.

Across the street Kim’s International Music, 4200 W., sells pianos and orchestra instruments and offers lessons. I go inside and chat a bit with a well-dressed young man behind a desk there who tells me he’s been suffering from vertigo lately, dizziness due to inner ear problems. There’s an interesting display of the complex mechanism that leads from a piano key to the hammer that hits the string. An ad on the wall for Yamaha band instruments shows a blonde boy playing clarinet, his eyes aglow.

I stop into the Mayfair Public Library, 4400 W. Lawrence, to use the restroom. School is out by now and there are plenty of people there, including half a dozen girls and women in Muslim headscarves.

The Dog House 2, a trailer at 4501 W., sells Chicago classics like hotdogs, Italian beefs, Polishes, gravy bread and tamales on a bun. There’s a nice folk-art rendition of a Chicago Dog on the side of the trailer.


I’m just north of the 90/94 split at Wilson, so at about 4800 W. I cross the Edens Expressway and then the Kennedy four blocks later. Entering the Jefferson Park neighborhood, I pass by the Copernicus Foundation, 5216 W., a Polish cultural center with an onion-domed clock tower, then come to Sportif Importers, 5225 W., home of the second-grumpiest bike shop owner in Chicago.

Years ago on a cold winter afternoon I dropped in and asked if they stock fleece skullcaps to wear under your helmet. “No,” replied the owner, and proceeded to ignore me, even though there was no one else in the shop. I grew more sympathetic to him in 2004 when the local alderman Patrick Levar tried to seize the property via eminent domain so that one of his developer friends could build condos on it.

Song’s Martial Arts, 4800 N. Milwaukee has a cool logo of a praying mantis superimposed on a yin-yang painted on the window. Inside I see Korean and American flags and lots of shiny armaments: dagger-like sais, spears, battle-axes and nunchucks.


There are a lot of Polish businesses along Lawrence now, and I also notice the headquarters for the Independent Order of Svithiod, 5518 W. Lawrence, a Scandinavian fraternal society founded in 1880.

The street soon becomes largely residential, with occasional businesses popping up like Brigadoon Tavern, 5748 W., with the slogan “A place like this … happens once every hundred years,” a reference to the eponymous Broadway musical in which a magical Scottish village appear only once a century. Muzyka and Sons funeral home, 5776 W., has a nice Grecian statue next to the parking lot.

There’s a cluster of diverse shops and restaurants near Austin Avenue. I stop into Sandy’s, a Serbian bakery and deli at 5857 W., to buy a slice of burek, a chewy, savory cheese pastry. Inside a display case a fried pig’s head grins up at me. A middle-aged guy is talking to the clerk in Serbian. When she invites him to sample some pork cracklings in a bowl by the counter he says, “I don’t eat that stuff,” but I try a chunk and enjoy its salty greasiness.


Sicilia Bakery, 5939 W., specializes in cannoli, Sicilian fried, tube-shaped pastries filled with sweet ricotta cheese. Displayed on the counter there’s a giant cannoli shell the size of a sewer pipe. The shop’s version of the sweet features chunks of dried fruit and it’s absolutely delicious.

At Austin, Lawrence jogs half a block north and is temporarily called Gunnison. The sun is now setting rosily over the simple, postwar two-story houses that line the street. I stop for a quick MGD at the Friendly Tavern, 6124 W. Gunnison, where beefy contractors in work boots and hoodies sit around the horseshoe-shaped bar, debating the merits of doing a paving job in concrete or brick.


Crossing Nagle, 6400 W., I’m in Harwood Height a village that, along with Norridge, is one of two suburbs that are almost completely surrounded by Chicago communities. I’ll have to cross these on my way to Schorsch Forest View, a Chicago neighborhood next to the forest preserve marking the terminus of Lawrence in the city.

By now it’s dark, the street is poorly lit and there’s no retail as I pass by the ½ mile-long Ridgemoor Country Club. The street jogs south again at Harlem where it becomes Lawrence once more. I stop for dinner at Old Warsaw, 4750 N. Harlem, a Polish buffet in a glitzy dining room where schmaltzy oldies like “Moonlight in Vermont” play soothingly on the sound system.

Pleasantly stuffed with pierogi, roast chicken, stuffed cabbage and hunter’s stew, I continue west on the dark suburban street. There’s almost nobody else out on the sidewalk, but when I overtake three middle-aged woman strolling together, they switch their conversation from English to Polish.

It’s a pretty dull walk at this point, enlivened only by the sign for Lazer Knights bar and grill, 8540 W., featuring a guy in a suit of armor firing a ray gun. When I duck my head inside the bar doesn’t look like anything special, so I keep walking.


A couple blocks later I reach the forest preserve at 9200 W. and the end of my walk. After a pit stop in the woods I head east again, then sprint to catch a CTA bus at Cumberland, 8800 W.

As I’m relaxing on the ride back to the Jefferson Park Blue Line stop, I think about all the different cultures represented on my walk along Lawrence: Japanese, Serbian, German, Filipino, Nigerian, Greek, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Cambodian, Mexican, Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Iraqi, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Korean, Polish, Scandinavian, Sicilian and more. It’s a mix that makes our city, and our nation, a great place to be.

7 comments:

Christy said...

This is my favorite walk yet. Makes me want to replicate your odyssey (I'd be sure to start hungry).

K-dub said...

I say this about every one of your walks- best yet! - though i think it would have been even more interesting had you followed the young man back to his place whilst at Sears... You've been talking about doing an article about the "oldest trade" for some time now.

Anonymous said...

so who's the grumpiest bike shop owner?

T.C. O'Rourke said...

"...do you party?”

“No I don’t..."

Eduardo said...

I also find that Uptown is probably the only place in Chicago where I find myself conversing with random strangers along the way.

Matt Maldre said...

I've been living on Lawrence for 12 years now. It's cool to read your experiences walking the street. I've often walked from the Lawrence red line to Western. And taken the Lawrence bus from the red line to Jefferson Park. It's always fun to see all the various shops along the way.

They've also started doing street renovations on Lawrence between Clark and Western to make the street more pedestrian friendly. I'm quite excited.

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