Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Walking Belmont Avenue

Sausage shops and white furniture lounges abound on the iconic North Side street

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs on Gaper's Block,]

Back when I lived on the South Side and hadn’t explored Chicago much, Belmont Avenue was an exotic destination. One night a friend who grew up here had the blues. We caught a bus and and zoomed up Lake Shore Drive to revisit her teenage haunts near Belmont and Clark: the Alley rock and roll gear store; Scenes, a coffee shop that sold theatrical scripts; and the “Punkin’ Donuts” where wild-looking street kids hung out.

Nowadays that strip of trendy shops, clubs and eateries is a nostalgic place for me, but there’s a lot more to see along Belmont. At just under 11 miles it’s the longest east-west street on the North Side. According to Streetwise Chicago by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee, the avenue was named after the Civil War’s Battle of Belmont, in which Ulysses S. Grant took 3,000 Union soldiers down the Mississippi River and unsuccessfully attacked the town of Belmont, MO.

Recently I’ve been walking the length of several of the city’s major streets in order to check out the sites at slower pace than my usual 12 mph cycling speed. My biking buddy Jonathan agrees to meet me at Belmont Harbor on an unusually warm April morning to hike the avenue to the city’s western boundary at the Des Plaines River.

I catch the Green Line from my apartment in Garfield Park and transfer to the Red Line at State and Lake. On the subway platform an old man is playing classical music on a Chinese two-string fiddle. I drop some change in his box and ask him what the instrument’s called. “Erhu,” he says, chuckling.

I exit the train at the Belmont Red, Brown and Purple Line station, one of the few CTA stops outside the Loop where you can transfer between lines. Catching a #77 bus east to the lakefront, I find my friend sitting on the grass by the water, gazing at the point where two peninsulas meet to form the mouth of the harbor. A few cyclists whiz by on the Lakefront Trail, flanked by cliffs of high-rise apartments.

We head west under the Drive, past Sheridan road and a statue of General Philip H. Sheridan, veteran of the Civil and Plains Indian wars, who once infamously said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” After a couple blocks of 3-flats we cross Broadway, 600 W., and pass Mt. Carmel Academy, 708 W., a Gothic building adorned with statues of Columbus, Washington, Marquette and Joliet.

Jonathan suggests go across the street into the Abbot Hotel, 721 W., a seedy-looking residence hotel that seems out of place in toney Lakeview. When he was a social worker he used to meet clients there. In the lobby there’s an artificial cherry tree and copies of The War on the Middle Class by Lou Dobbs and Why Me? by Sammy Davis, Jr., as well as a cage with two white doves. “Doesn’t the cooing get on your nerves?,” I ask the desk clerk. “Nothing bothers me,” he says grimly. “You hear sirens and ambulances all the time here. We’re in the city.”

At Halsted Street, 800 W., the rainbow obelisks of Boystown gay-friendly business district are visible. A block later we reach the Alley, now part of an “alternative shopping” empire that includes a cigar store, hookah lounge, lingerie store and condom shop.

The long block that leads to the El station is packed with boutiques and restaurants: Thai, Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Philadelphian. The Swedish diner Anne Sather’s, 909 W., is owned by Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) the city’s only openly gay alderman. The strip’s a bit blander than when I lived nearby in the early ‘90s. At Sheffield, 1000 W., a bank has replaced Muskie’s hamburger stand. Upstairs the Avalon, a bar where I used perform with rock bands, is now a tanning salon. But Berlin nightclub, 954 W., still draws a mix of straights and gays to dance to disco.

We stop to buy coffee at Bittersweet, 1114 W., a fancy bakery with a colorful spread of sugar cookies decorated with bunnies and chicks for Easter. Timekeepers, 1148 W., is an old repair shop full of dozens of beautiful wooden clocks and, for some reason, a large fiberglass hammerhead shark above the counter. Why? “I’m sorry,” says a staffer, sternly. “You’ll have to ask the owner.”

Jonathan once took a Seido Karate class at Thousand Waves, 1220 W., a not-for-profit martial arts and self-defense center, after someone randomly punched him in the face on a Rogers Park street. The center also offers Kajukenbo (a hybrid of boxing, judo, jujutsu, karate and kung fu,) meditation and Personal Safety and Empowerment classes.

We stop in and talk to P. Marie O’Brien, Director of Violence Prevention Programs, who tells me Thousand Waves partners with other community organizations to educate the public about techniques to defuse aggression. “It’s about learning how to intervene when you see violence happening.”

Uncle Fun, 1338 W., my favorite place to buy useless knickknacks, is closed when we pass by. But the window is full of intriguing junk: Mardi Gras masks; toy robots, a rubber chicken; a cow puppet; and figurines of Archie and Jughead, Sprout (the Green Giant’s sidekick,) Austin Powers, Dennis Miller and Dr. Laura.

Crossing the six-way intersection with Lincoln and Ashland, we’re in an area a friend call the “Charming Crap District,” full of antique stores and curiosity shops. Jazzy Junque, 1648 W., specializes in cookie jars; Antique Resources, 1741 W., features many elegant crystal chandeliers. The storefront of a run-down building at 1900 W. is crammed with random debris: squash racquets, a faded American flag, a pitchfork and an old Roto Broil 400 toaster oven. An orange Notice of Water Service Termination is stuck on the glass.

Jonathan wants to buy a brownie at Bleeding Heart Organic Bakery, 1955 W., where friends of mine once ordered a large, three-dimensional, penis-shaped cake for a bachelorette party. I ask Matthew Reichert, a soft-spoken young man at the counter with tattoos and a fauxhawk, for his impressions of Belmont.

“I love Belmont,” Reichert says. “It’s my favorite street in Chicago. I’d rather shop the mom and pop stores of Belmont then go downtown to Nordstroms. It’s homey and cozy, almost like a small town.”

After passing Skyscraper Heels, 2202 W., which specializes in plus-sized shoes and boots, corsets and accessories for male-to-female transgendered persons, we stop at Andy’s Music, 2300 W., to buy me a harmonica. The store has a bewildering array of instruments from all over the world, including a large selection of accordions, bouzoukis, sitars and charangos - small ten-stringed South American guitars, traditionally made from armadillo shell.

At the five-way intersection with Clybourn and Western, 2400 W., we come to one of the city’s few street overpasses – cars on Western have the option of skipping the stoplight. The bridge was built in response to traffic at Riverview Park, a 74-acre amusement area that operated from 1904 to 1967, featuring attractions like the Bobs and the Jetstream rollercoasters and a beautiful Merry-go-Round with hand-carved horses.

The Circuit Court of Cook County, 2452 W., sits on the former Riverview site. In front of the building, Jerry Peart’s vaguely R-shaped painted aluminum sculpture, named after the park, commemorates the vibrant colors and circular movements of the old carnival rides.

After we cross the Chicago River into Avondale the scenery turns grittier and we start seeing businesses with Spanish signage. There’s a smell of burning coffee in the air, probably from a nearby roasting plant. Near Elston, 2800 W., a couple guys in full face helmets are trying to start a stalled motorcycle. One’s wearing leather pants, a studded belt and a red leather jacket decorated with the image of a “droog” from the film "A Clockwork Orange" and the text “Ultra Violence.”

I want to check out Stadium West / Sue’s Wok On Inn, 3188 N. Elston, an ugly bar that serves greasy Chinese food, according to Chicago’s Best Dive Bars by Jonathan Stockton. But around lunchtime the place is closed and a sign in the window suggests the name has been changed to Dragon Lady Lounge in honor of the hard-boiled owner.

As we walk past Kuma’s Corner, 2900 W. Belmont, someone calls my name. It’s Sappy, an old bike messenger colleague of mine who I haven’t seen in about a decade. He’s now working as a multi-tasking “Swiss army knife” at this tavern known for its many varieties of hamburgers named after metal bands. The “Slayer” is a pile of fries topped with a 10 oz burger plus chili, cherry peppers, andouille sausage, onions, jack cheese, "and anger." On a dare Sappy once ate two of these by himself. “I wasn’t right for three days,” he says.

Standing outside Kuma’s we see several people in suits and skirts arriving for lunch – I assume they’re real estate agents. The manager sticks her head out the door and hisses, “People are waiting,” so we say goodbye to Sappy and continue towards the Kennedy Expressway, 3200 W. In the dank viaduct below the highway there’s a small homeless encampment with mattresses and blankets piled on a low wall next to the street. A guy in a knit cap with a shopping cart stands staring into space.

Several interesting-looking bars don’t appear open yet: Belmont Tavern, 3405 W.; Our Place, 3534 W.; Alice’s Lounge, 3550 W.; and Jagiellonia Sports Bar, 3640 W. Hungry, we duck into Stanley’s Sausage Shop for a snack. With Polish-to-English translation assistance from another customer, the owner talks us into buying a hearty lunch to go from the shop’s steam table – breaded pork chops, beets, sweet peppers, dumplings and hunter’s stew.

We take the feast to tiny, redundantly named Parkview Park, a block north of Belmont on Avers, 3830 W. The playground is packed with kids on spring break and a couple of boys are playing swordfight with a stick and a baseball bat.

As we continue west, around 4100 W. Belmont a tall, slender woman in bellbottoms with pale skin, piercing blue eyes and long, dark hair saunters by. “You can always tell the Polish women,” Jonathan sighs. “They have those fine features.”

The current recession may be to blame for the many shuttered businesses we see. Jimmy’s Hotdogs, 4450 W., is abandoned and the storefront that once housed Diva’s Music and Video, 4758 W. has a for lease sign.

When we stop into the tap room at Foremost Liquors, 3210 N. Cicero, there’s a definite atmosphere of gloom that may be a product of the times. Or maybe it’s the normal mood at this narrow, bare-bones bar that draws customers from a nearby SRO. The stools are full of glum-looking men, some with backwards ball caps and white sneakers.

Our draft beers cost $1.25 each and are incongruously served in slender glasses with gold bands advertising a brand of cognac. They guy next to me offers his copy of Red Eye with subtraction problems written on it. “My accounts,” he explains mysteriously. “Are you guys working in this economy?” After I tell him I work at a bike shop he reminisces about tinkering with Schwinns as a teenager.

Just past Cicero, 4800 W., in a bank parking lot I find a promo CD by a band called Moniker with a track listings written in Sharpie, including a song called “Difficulties of Dining in Space.” Lying on the sidewalk a few blocks later there’s a disc by El Potro de Sinaloa with gang symbols scrawled on it in marker. Perhaps these were submitted to the WXRT station, 4949 W., with its towering radio antenna? When I get them home, both CDs wind up being too scratched to play.

There are more and more Polish businesses as we enter the Belmont Craigin community. Bim Bom Lounge, 5224 W., caters to young Poles with Okocim beer, Eurodisco music and a foosball table. Its futuristic façade of curving sheet metal looks like a poor man’s version of the Millennium Park music pavilion.

We pass several Polish sausage shops and grocery stores. But there are also a couple of Filipino businesses on this strip: Kusina Ni Lola restaurant, 5349 W., and Kapatid Oriental Store next door, offering video rental, travel services and karaoke machine rental. D & Z Dom Ksiazki, 5507 W. offers a wide selection of Polish books and English works in translation like Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, translated as Odwaga Nadzie.

Krokodile, 6004 W., is the first of several Eastern European-owned bars we notice with sleek décor and modular furniture with white upholstery. Nearby Chicago 21 Club, 6020 W., has a wooden façade carved with images of gorillas, orangutans and proboscis monkeys.

I’m starting to get weary as we climb a slight hill as approaching Narragansett, 6400 W. A girl in a school uniform walks by holding her little brother’s hand. She recounts to him, “I said to her, ‘If you have so much money why do you go to this school? Rich people do not go to this school.’”

The Islamic Community Center of Illinois is located at 6435 W. Belmont with a youth center next door. A few block later we come to Bishop’s Engraving, 6706 W., the window full of sports trophies and a plaque featuring the city’s tourist attractions and the text “My Kind of Town: Chicago.”

Café Prague, 6710 W., is another stylish place with white furniture, a bar that also serves hearty food like beef goulash and Moravian style pork with sauerkraut and dumplings. The menu is in English, Czech and Polish.

Crossing Oak Park Ave., we’re walking the border between the Montclare neighborhood to the south and Schorsch Village to the north. The latter, a community of bungalows and tudors, was developed in the 1940s by the Hungarian-American grandfather of a friend of mine with the same last name. Little blue placards above the street signs on the north side of the street say “Schorsch Village” and we pass Schorsch Village Hall, 6940 W., which you can rent out for parties.

We continue past the Paradise Club, 7068 W., a Polynesian-themed bar owned by Polish immigrants. Jonathan and I once stopped there for tropical drinks on the way home from a bike ride to check out abandoned houses in Bensenville, destined to be demolished for the O’Hare Airport expansion.

There’s a cluster of Italian grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops on Harlem, 7200 W., near Belmont since many Italians settled in the area after World War II. We stop at Riviera Italian Foods, 3220 N. Harlem, a family run place that’s stocked with cheese, meats, pasta and intriguing jars of pickled vegetables. Buying some spicy sausage and Sicilian lemon cookies from the daughter I ask if her dad is speaking Italian to a distributor in the back of the store. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “We keep it up.”

A few blocks away Nottoli and Sons, 7652 W., is a sausage shop owned by George Nottoli, who moonlights as a professional wrestler under the stage name Vito “Two Fingers” Fontaine. The homemade giardinera and olive salad look great, as does the frozen raviolli stuffed with butternut squash or lobster. We snack on a couple of arancini, luscious balls of rice, peas, meat and cheese, deep-fried.

At this point the suburb of Elmwood Park is on the south side of Belmont and the street is full of beige brick three-story apartments, many with flat slabs of stone stuck horizontally into the side as ornament.

We stop in briefly at the White Lounge, 7940 W., another swanky place featuring tasteful touches of bamboo, small potted palms and glass tables ringed by small white armchairs. When I ask the owner what’s up with all the white-furniture clubs on Belmont she replies in an Eastern European accent, “I don’t know. I don’t get around that much on Belmont.”

We’re getting excited about ending the walk as we walk through a section of “P” streets like Panama, Paris and Pittsburgh. At Cumberland, 8400 W., St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleums is on our left and the Che-che-pin-qua Woods forest preserve is on our right. It’s rush hour and Belmont is now a busy four-lane with no sidewalks, so we walk on a narrow dirt track next to the dense oak woods.

At Forest Preserve Drive, 8800 W., one of the few North Side streets that angles southwest to northeast, a sign says “We love our kids. Please drive safely.” We hear the pinging sound of golf balls at Indian Boundary Golf Course just before cross the Desplaines River, 9000 W., into River Grove. The multi-laned intersection with Desplaines River Road is extremely pedestrian-unfriendly: there are no sidewalks or crosswalks. “Jonathan says, “We’re definitely in the suburbs now.”

We’re just three blocks from Hala Kahiki, 2834 N. Des Plaines River Road, so we brave the traffic and make our way to this legendary multi-room tiki bar and giftshop. The nearly empty bar is densely decorated with fake Polynesian idols, grass mats, silk flowers, seashells and a working fountain. Outside the window in the courtyard, man-high moai statues are complemented by inflatable rabbits and multi-colored eggs that have been set out for the season: Easter meets Easter Island. As soft ukele music plays we wearily raise our scorpion and mai tai drinks and toast our accomplishment.

Photo courtesy of


T.C. O'Rourke said...

One of your best, Johnny.

Greg said...

John, being a musician yourself, I'm surprised that you didn't mention, historically, the legendary Quiet Knight folk and blues club. 953 west Belmont, in the second floor space that now houses a tanning parlor. I had the opportunity to see Jim Croce there in early 1972 just before his fatal plane crash.
Greg Valent
PS: Also, many other folkies of the early 1970s.

Greg said...

Oops, early 1973.

Alexander said...

Great blog very interesting

Icarus said...

I'm sure space was a concern but you should have mentioned A+G Market in the old Goldblatt's building just past Central Avenue.

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