Except for Hyde Park, the South and West Sides of Chicago are mostly foreign territory to me. I want to explore them but aren’t sure where it’s safe to venture.
But since a couple I know lives happily in South Shore, and since the Stony Island Arts Bank there has received so much publicity, South Shore beckoned. I went with two fellow Chicago Greeters, Bobbie and Sue.
A predominantly African American, middle-class neighborhood, South Shore is between 67th and 79th south and, as the name suggests, along the lakeshore. Online research shaped our plan: lunch and then the South Shore Cultural Center, the Stony Island Arts Bank, and the Jackson Park Highlands historic district.
At Chef Sara’s Café (7201 South Exchange Street), we were welcomed by a woman wearing a head scarf who turned out to be Sara. Sara was greeter, server, and cook all in one. She sat down to chat with us, her conversation ranging from the ingredients in her top-billed salmon burger to driving for Uber in her off-hours. Sue had the salmon burger and said it lived up to its reputation, and Bobbie and I enjoyed vegetarian panini.
The South Shore Cultural Center (7059 South South Shore Drive), once a playground for the rich, has been restored to its original design. The former South Shore Country Club, the property was abandoned in the 1960s and taken over by the Chicago Park District. Michelle and Barack Obama had their wedding reception there, in the neighborhood where she grew up. The center’s ornate interior has a theater, restaurant, formal dining hall, and public spaces; the lakeshore grounds include a nine-hole golf course, a beach, and walking trails from which we had lovely views of the downtown skyline.
The Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 South Stony Island Avenue) is another abandoned building that’s been turned into a neighborhood treasure. Community activist and artist Theaster Gates acquired the crumbling Stony Island Savings & Loan from the city of Chicago in 2012 for $1 and converted it into “a new kind of cultural amenity” — a hybrid gallery, media archive and library, and community center. It also houses the offices of Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, described as “a platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.”
The Jackson Park Highlands historic district (67th Street to 71st Street, Cregier Avenue to Jeffery Boulevard) is one of the South Side’s upper-middle-to-affluent neighborhoods. It was developed in the early 20th century with innovations such as large front lawns, 50-foot-wide lots, driveways instead of alleys, and underground utilities. The large single-family homes are in a variety of architectural styles and beautifully maintained.
We drove rather than strolled through Jackson Park Highlands because the afternoon was growing late and we wanted to get back on Lake Shore Drive before rush hour. We could easily spend another afternoon there exploring the architecture.
Only after I was back home and wanting to learn more about South Shore did I find out that its violent crime rate ranks 14th highest among Chicago’s 77 community areas, according to the Chicago Tribune. Since I didn’t feel uncomfortable there, I’m not sure where to draw the line between prudence and unreasonable caution.
It’s undeniable that parts of the South and West Sides have the highest crime rates in the city, but to tar the whole as unsafe is wrong. I just haven’t taken the time to learn about the unique communities within those vast areas of the city and their interesting attractions. The Chicago I know, even after living here 26 years, is just the narrow strip from the lakefront to around Ashland and from the Loop north to Howard. That leaves a whole lot to explore.
Being on the South Side had a feeling of freshness for me that I don’t get on the familiar North Side anymore. I love the North Side, but I don’t feel like a traveler there. South Shore seemed like a discovery — it was a discovery. I knew about the mansions of Kenwood but had never heard of Jackson Park Highlands until our outing.
Bonnie, Sue, and I are keeping a list for more excursions. I’ve asked another Chicago Greeter to let me tag along when he gives a tour of Bronzeville and will remind him the next time I see him. If any South or West Siders are reading this, please feel free to offer suggestions.