Thursday, June 2, 2011

A prime walk down 79th

Chicago’s 79th Street offers tastes of the Black Diaspora

By John Greenfield

[This article also appears in Gapers Block,]

Over the years I’ve enjoyed strolling the entire length of major Chicago streets as a way to take in the scenery at a fraction of my usual bicycling speed. In fall of 1994 I walked Milwaukee Avenue, and a few years later I hiked Western, the city’s longest street at 23.5 miles. In recent years I’ve gotten back in the habit, strolling Halsted, Archer, Grand, 63rd, Kedzie and Belmont. The legwork pays off since I always discover good places to eat, interesting sights, cozy dive bars and friendly folks along the way.

Recently my bike buddy and sometime-Reader contributor Kristen Ostberg asked about joining me for the next excursion. After discussing the relative merits of 47th, King and Pulaski we settle on 79th, an east-west street with plenty of retail, running ten miles across the heart of Chicago’s South Side.

Early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, I take the O’Hare Line downtown from my home in Logan Square, transfer to the Orange Line and ride to Midway, catch a Pace bus to Ford City Mall and walk a couple blocks south to meet Kristen at Mabenka Polish restaurant, 7844 S. Cicero, near where 79th crosses the border into the suburb of Burbank.

Mabenka is decorated with carved wooden knickknacks, fake fruit hanging from the ceiling, and an odd assortment of Polish, Mexican and Native American dolls, and stuffed animals. The attractive, middle-aged waitresses are wearing black peasant dresses with red and white embroidery. A sign advertises country singer Cal Starr will be performing here a few days later.

“We be the youngest people to have been here for a long time,” whispers Kristen. We load up on cheap, hearty breakfasts – I get a Polish sausage omelet and potatoes for $1.99. I notice the huge guy at the next table is eating Kugelis, a Lithuanian dish of massive slabs of potato and bacon pudding, fried.

After checking out a “The city of Burbank welcomes you” sign at 79th and Cicero, 4800 W, featuring the town seal with its motto “Beauty, loyalty, honor and pride,” we start our journey at 10:10 am under the cobalt sky. Crossing east we enter the Chicago neighborhood of Scottsdale, and pass by its eponymous shopping mall to the south.

Here 79th is a multi-lane road divided by lushly planted medians with 20-foot-tall trees. At Kostner, 4400 W., we pass by a house where girls are playing on a swing set and 12-foot-high stalks of corn are growing in the garden, then check out long, narrow Rainey Park, with a small man-made sledding hill in the middle.

All of the people we’ve seen so far seem to be Latino, until we pass a stout lady near Pulaski, 4000 W., in a Muslim headscarf, wearing a long black skirt and a red leopard-print top. We pass Bogan High School, 3939 W., with images of the school’s Bengal tiger mascot in bronze relief on a low brick wall on the perimeter of the property. We’re in the Ashburn community now, which got its name because the city used to dump its ashes there.

79th has become more pedestrian-oriented now, with fewer travel lanes and more mom-and-pop businesses like Hyun’s Hapkido, 3792 W. The school’s signage sternly insists the self-defense technique is a “Martial art … not sport.” After we pass diagonal Columbus Avenue and under the viaduct for Metra’s Southwest Service line at Kedzie, 3200 W., the neighborhood becomes solidly African-American.

As we continue past a mile-long industrial area to our left, I hear a string of explicatives when a car rolls by us with the windows rolled down. At first I think the woman in the passenger seat is yelling at us but actually she’s arguing with the driver.

As we stroll we try to identify the street trees. Kristen tells me how she recently chatted with a handsome but drunk man from Streets and San’s Bureau of Forestry at Kaplan’s Liquors in Bridgeport. “It breaks my heart when I have to cut down a beautiful ash,” he said. “How do you feel about sycamores,” Kristen said. “I hate sycamores,” he fired back. “Why?” she asked. “You know why or you wouldn’t have asked,” he snarled.

Soon after California, 2800 W., ped-friendly retail returns on the south side of the street. The Covenant Café, 2749 W., an old diner converted into a white-tablecloth restaurant has a mural inside promising, “All things are possible to them that believe.”

We pass Exotic Trenz hair salon, 2605 W., and a painting of a well-muscled man and woman in the window of Urban Fitness, 2559 W., part of a complex that also includes Element Martial Arts and New Hope Community Service Center, offering domestic violence and substance abuse counseling. Dan’s Soul Food, 2523 W., has an elegant dining room with a crystal chandelier and a mirrored back wall. Across the street is St. Rita High School with its huge football field.

James Porter, an old friend who writes about music and DJs soul music, calls on my cell. He grew up and lives nearby at 83rd and Dorchester, and he offers to meet up with us for the rest of the walk.

At 2459 W., Sir D’s Chicken has folk art-style signage of a chicken in a top hat with pad and pencil ready to take your order. Two wings are $2; one hundred wings are $75. At 7829 N. Western, just north of a CTA bus terminal, Nicky’s Family Restaurant offers salmon croquettes, biscuits and gravy, and ham off the bone. Photos of Marley, the Beatles, King, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and the Rat Pack hang on the walls.

The windows of Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church, 2233 W. 79th feature a huge, mosaic-style mural of Jesus, looking a bit like Snoop Dogg. An archway above the parking lot for Golden Gate Funeral Home, 2036 W., is a complex affair made of lacey-looking wrought iron. Damen, 2000 W., south of 79th is the first street we encounter with bicycle lanes, while Ocho Rios Jerk Hut, 1759 W. 79th, is the first of many Jamaican restaurants we will pass on our trek.

At Paulina, 1700 W., we see James walking towards us, having just gotten off the 79th Street bus. I ask him about his recent doings as we walk past Rothschild’s Liquors, 1615 W. 79th, where a small crowd is hanging out on the sidewalk.

The business strip has recently been streetscaped and placards hanging from old-fashioned lampposts tell us we’re in the Auburn Gresham community. Large West African adinkra symbols are imprinted into sidewalk squares with messages like “Power of Love” and “Humility and Strength.”

We stop into Lagniappe, 1525 W., a New Orleans-style restaurant I’ve heard good things about. The name is a Creole term for “a little something extra,” i.e. a bonus that a merchant gives to a customer, like the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen. The place is decorated with Mardi Gras masks and baubles, and airbrushed murals of an alligator and Billy Holiday.

The jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo and po’ boys sound great but Kristen and I are still pretty full from breakfast, so I just order some beignets to go. As we sit waiting for the fritters, James tells me that an old blues bandleader of mine recently got divorced from his wife who forced him to move out to the suburbs and give up playing music. “I’d have to admit, that’s one divorce I approve of,” James says.

Conversation turns towards James’ own love life and the fact that he just had a birthday. “Will we see you hanging out at the Viagra Triangle?” I kid, referring the fancy nightlife district at Rush, State and Bellevue, where well-heeled older men take their younger dates. But James says he prefers cougar hunting at roots music venues. “The Hideout, the Old Town School and Buddy Guy’s, that’s my Viagra Triangle,” he quips. “I’m into older women who still have it together. As long as you don’t look like Bea Arthur, I’m good.”

It’s been over a half hour and the beignets still aren’t ready. The poor guy who’s staffing the place by himself pulls me aside and confesses that he had to mix up the dough from scratch and the batch didn’t turn out. He insists on giving us a “four wangs and waffle” for free. These turns out to be four fried chicken wings wrapped up with a fluffy, round waffle. The three of us share it outside the restaurant on a bench.

Our next stop is Renaissance Park at 79th and Throop, 1300 W. This new park features the Black History Fountain by Jerzy S. Kenar, which includes a pyramid of large black boulders bearing the names of luminaries like Du Sable, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Mae Jemison.

We head north a bit to check out the looming Gothic tower of St. Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th, led by the fiery Father Michael Pfleger. A Caucasian priest leading a largely African-American congregation, he was censured by Cardinal George after a sermon during the last presidential election. Pfleger had said Hillary Clinton felt she was entitled to the presidency because she was Bill Clinton’s wife and white.

As we return to 79th we pass an old lady with a walker. “Hello,” I say. “How you doin’ young people,” she replies. James, middle-aged like myself, says, “It’s nice to be called a young person,” “Well, I guess anybody under 60 is young to her,” I say.

Nearby is Cookie’s Cocktail Lounge, 1024 W. 79th, with a laminated copy of the post-election cover of the Sun Times with Obama’s portrait in the window next to a neon Miller Lite sign featuring the Chicago Bears mascot. A note on the door says, “You must be at least 30 to be served. Please gentlemen, no do-rags.”

We pass Leo Catholic High School, 7901 S. Sangamon, where a sign says, “Expect to Succeed,” and then the Nation of Islam’s Salaam Bakery and Restaurant, 700 W. 79th, with its golden star-and-crescent sign, now defunct.

After crossing under some Metra tracks we head a bit north to Winneconna Parkway, which parallels Auburn Park, a series of three small lagoons situated in a diagonal line from southwest to northwest, an unusual deviation from the grid. Fountains shoot up from the centers of the lagoons and several fishermen stand on the rock slabs along the edges.

According to the Chicago Park District, real estate developers created this green space in the late 1800s, on what was formerly marshland. When the City of Chicago took control of the park in the early 1900s, the agreement mandated that the land remain a park forever and always be called Auburn Park.

We return to 79th and pass by the sketchy-looking Dew Central Motel, 425 W., and Hair 2001 salon, 422 W., its airbrushed sign adorned with portraits of a stylish man and woman. Feeling parched, we duck into Discount Meat and Produce Market, 337 W., for cold drinks. Fresh-looking produce is on display and a bustling meat and fish counter offers “Mississippi sausage,” catfish, perch, tilapia and chicken gizzards.

As we approach the Dan Ryan and the recently rehabbed 79th Street Red Line Station, a vender is selling icy treats. “How about getting yourself a snowball?” he asks. Nearby kids are drumming on plastic buckets, hoping for tips from train commuters.
Now we’re in Chatham, the middle-class, African-American neighborhood where James lives, also home to Senator Roland Burris. Kids pass by wearing their school uniform of light blue shirts and navy slacks. A daycare center at 305 W. has Wizard of Oz characters painted on the windows.

Fire Sound Records, 307 E., features framed portraits of Michael Jackson, James Brown and Billy Holiday, and Coltrane plays on the sound system. James chats with owner Gregory Pitts about Jame’s recent gig DJ-ing at the Blues Fest. “Does anybody still listen to blues?” Pitts wonders. A large photo hanging on the wall shows an Afro-ed Pitts in the 1980s, grooving to music as he spins records on two turntables. “You probably want to go through all these 45s,” he says to James, indicating a bin of records. “I can see you got pretty good taste.”

I tell Pitts about our walking project and ask him to characterize 79th Street. “It’s the heart of the South Side,” he says. “It goes all the way from east to west and we get a lot of foot traffic. We’ve lost a lot of record stores and lounges over the last 20 years, but a couple of places on 75th still have live jazz." The New Apartment Lounge, nearby at 504 E. 75th, springs to mind.

Pitts says he got started in the record business when he was working as a truck driver and began selling old records at the Maxwell Street Market. “It’s not what it used to be,” he says. He used to DJ at small blues lounges during the ‘70s. “In the ‘80s house music took over and all these DJs came from nowhere.” He still DJs from time to time, playing stepper’s clubs and other venues.

He says the record store is doing reasonably well, and he often gets visitors from Europe and Japan who are experts on blues and R & B. “It’s a little embarrassing, he says. “Foreigners know our music better than we do.”

Ready to eat again, we stop at the famous soul food restaurant Captain’s Hard Time Café, 440 E. 79th. A photo mural on the door shows a plate of chicken and waffles hovering over the city like a UFO. There are photos on the walls of Harold Washington, Cook County Commissioner John Stroger, bluesman Fernando Saunders, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. I order stewed oxtails with greens and sweet potatoes – delicious.

Owner Josephine Wade comes over to say hello, apologizing for moving slowly since she recently had a stroke. She says the restaurant is named after a chain of seafood joints her husband used to run called Captain’s, and a famous restaurant in Acapulco called Hard Times. She plans on retiring soon and passing along the restaurant to her son, but she hopes to start her own cooking show on local TV.

After lunch I stop to snap a photo of Pride Cleaners, 558 E., Chicago’s most famous example of futuristic, postwar “Googie” architecture, with it’s soaring, wing-like roof and Vegas-style sign. As I snap photos some teens pass behind me on the sidewalk. “Are you a tourist?” they ask. “Yep,” I answer.

Thirsty again, we stop at the J & R Cocktail Lounge, 612 E., “Where friends and family meet,” according to the printing on the window. The walls are salmon-colored and there’s a cool Art Deco back bar with a sign that says, “Respect is always available but you must give some to get some.”

Middle-aged women are playing an intense game of darts, which whiz behind our heads as we sit at the bar. “Back That Thing Up” by Ludacris comes on the sounds system and the ladies clap their hands and dance in their seats and on the floor.

Refreshed after the cold drinks, we continue on pass Yassa, 716 W., a Senegalese restaurant I visited on my birthday a few years ago. I got a gigantic whole tilapia that had been marinated and charcoal grilled, served with cabbage and plantains – a memorable meal.

We’re entering a bustling business district with sports clothing stores, a hair braiding shop, a dentist, beauty product stores and the fourth Harold’s Chicken of the day at 806 E. Lotus Chop Suey, 814 E., has a cool old neon sign shaped like a pagoda. “This is definitely the most lively stretch we’ve been on,” Kristen says.

There seems to be a significant Caribbean presence in this part of town – by now we’ve passed a half dozen jerked chicken places. West Indies Bakery, 841 E., offers vegetable and beef pastries, sweet buns, coconut drops and sweet, glutinous Jamaican hard dough bread, which is always served with jerked chicken.

Owner Norma Stevenson says the bakery supplies many of the Caribbean restaurants on the South Side. Her son Ozezua, a reggae singer, helping out at the shop, brags about how hearty the bread is. “You have one slice with coffee and it will last you ‘til lunch. You don’t need no bacon and eggs.”

We pass East of the Ryan, a popular stepper’s spot, then Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts, 1025 E, and the nearby 79th Street Metra stop. Star Drive-in Cleaners, 1311 E., is another retro-cool dry cleaner, with a glamorous atomic-age neon. As we cross Stony Island, 1600 E., a bow-tied Nation of Islam member standing on the pedestrian refuge island offers to sell us a bean pie and a copy of The Final Call.

Crossing under the Chicago Skyway to the six-way intersection of 79th, Jeffrey and South Chicago, we see the wedge-shaped, Moorish John L. Connor Fellowship Hall at the southeast corner.

Then we come upon the New Regal Theater, 1641 E. Opened in 1927, the theater hosted a who’s who of jazz, R & B and comedy acts, many of whom appear in a mural on the west wall of the building: Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Holiday, Gillespie, Wonder and comedienne Moms Mabley. Although the theater sees little use nowadays, it did host a victory party for Obama’s election.

Tough Times Thrift Store, 1939 E. has a sign reading, “A store designed for the times.” “This whole afternoon has been a tribute to mom-and-pop stores,” James says. An airbrushed mural above a storefront at 2034 E. reads “Piece Buys Peace,” with a peace sign.

A few blocks later a full moon becomes visible through the trees. It’s 7:30 pm and congregants are entering the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness, 2833 E. A folk art-style mural on the side of J & J Foods, 2901 E., shows a young man lounging in a hammock, enjoying a cola.

We cross yet another set of Metra tracks and come to South Shore Drive, where a mural outside shuttered Maxwell’s Charcoal Grill, 7901 S. South Shore, features primitive renderings of a Chicago hotdog, gyros, taco, Italian Beef and fried mushrooms. Beside a nearby Gaia Movement clothing donation drop box, photos of a woman modeling underwear are scattered on the pavement.

Moonlight is glinting off the lake and crickets chirp as we make our way up the coast a few blocks to Rainbow Beach. As we pass scraggly lakeside vegetation James says, “It looks like midnight on the bayou.”

The beach house has large, futuristic awnings shaped like Eggo waffles. While my friends gaze at a gorgeous view of the skyline in the twilight, I lie on my back on a long, low wall and relax, listening to waves lapping on the shore. Our walk is complete.


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