Happy Birthday Chicago

Sunday March 4th is the City of Chicago’s birthday, so I will talk a little (or a lot), of my long time love affair with my hometown.

I was born at the Lying-In hospital within the University of Chicago Medical Center in Hyde Park and that’s where I’ll start this soliloquy. Few things are sweeter than walking around Hyde Park on a warm day in spring (even better if the 57th Street Art Fair is going on), but even if it’s not, to walk up the Midway Plaisance, go down to 53rd Street and have lunch at Mellow Yellow and then walk back to 57th Street and have some coffee & cake at Medici’s. Even reminisce on the restaurants no longer open, Chances R & Dixie Kitchen (I know Evanston & Lansing locations are still running), as well the old movie theater and Harper’s Court.

You have to walk east up to the point and up to the rocks at the lakefront and I swear the best sunrise you’ll ever see is at 57th Street in the spring time, the sun shimmers over the lake and it’s magical. I used to see it every day as I drove to DePaul, it never gets old.
Of course there’s the Museum of Science & Industry, I literally grew up in there (well not like the person who lives there for 30 days), and still love to go back and learn. Will never forget attending science camp there in the mid 80’s and one science experiment we did was to wrap up an egg in packing material and a box and then the counselors threw them off of the roof of the museum on  the lagoon side and see which ones survived the fall intact. Most of us opened our boxes to see an omelet inside.

And then there is Lake Shore Drive, tell me there is a better driving experience in the Midwest. Whether it’s a nice warm day (or night), or even a chilly afternoon, no better way to drive in (or out), of the heart of the city than Route 41. The curves, the parks, the skyline, if you love to drive it truly is an experience and as my father says “a raggedy ride is better than a beautiful walk” and it is on LSD, the drive not the drug.
As you come closer to downtown there’s the wonderful museum campus, who would have thought 20 years ago that LSD would move? But this was part of Daniel Burnham’s “Make No Small Plans” and its great (even though those of us commuting through that construction traffic 15 years ago didn’t think that), and another wonderful way to spend a sunny warm day.

Grant Park (not to be confused with the small town near Kankakee), is a place all of its own, a true urban oasis, unless it’s Taste of Chicago and then we are eating like there is no tomorrow. But the music fests (Blues & Jazz especially), turn it into a sanctuary of nature and jams. You can lose yourself (or find some meaning), within those walls of trees, rows of bushes and don’t forget Buckingham Fountain and the rose garden. And I’ve gotta mention the summer evening concerts at Millennium Park (a nice development of a old train yard), the jazz series the last few summers has been phenomenal.

And what about south loop? What used to be the stomp down area to now an extension of downtown. Printers Row especially (with its exceptional book fair every spring), to the exquisite independent shops and cafés as well as spacious lofts and the newly refurbished Dearborn Station with my fave Jazz Showcase . It reminds you of the heritage of literacy in this town and that gentrification isn’t all about expensive houses.
Speaking of books, then we see the Harold Washington library, call it what you will but it’s our house of books and best legacy of my favorite former mayor.

Okay now we are downtown and what’s not to like? The skyline is legendary and whether I’m on a Metra train, LSD, the Stevenson, Eisenhower or Dan Ryan, seeing it in the distance is a reminder of why this is a great city.

I really got to know downtown during my DePaul days, actually it was a reminder from my much younger time when my grandparents used to bring me downtown. My grandfather in his retirement years had a part time job at the old Stebbins Hardware (15 W. Van Buren) before they closed in '85, and my grandmother used to bring me downtown on the # 3 King Drive bus to visit with him. That was a thrill for a young child from West Pullman. Then we would go and handle personal banking business at the old Continental Bank.

I often think of them when I’m downtown now, my grandmother just passed last year and got to see the recent changes but granddad has been gone 16 years so he’d be amazed at how things look. They were Marshall Fields’ people (who wasn’t?), and granddad loved Lytton’s store as well.
But not to get caught up in the good ol’ days, State Street is still that great street. Garrett’s Popcorn is still brewing at State & Madison.
And now the west loop has taken on its own identity as a place to eat, live and shop. For me it’s eating, like tasty places such as Wishbone & Flat Top on west Washington. I remember my dad was transferred from the Beverly garage to the CTA garage on Washington in the 80’s and we thought it was on the way to Oregon. Nice to see this area develop as well.

Can’t forget Greektown either nor the Chicago River. Despite its outward appearance (and sometimes odor), there has been so much redevelopment up & down the river. My favorite river real estate is River North. My aunt and late uncle used to live in that high rise building at Elm & Dearborn in the late 70’s to mid 80’s and that was my first taste of the “North side”, it was a like this distant foreign land where people stayed up all night, ate expensive food and didn’t have cars (or least didn’t readily need them), remember I’m from West Pullman, back on the south side it was a different world.

But I got to really know this area again in the last decade as a close friend moved to River North and I got to experience it all over again, as it gentrified and I was now of age to really enjoy it. Though the original Sweetwater, Harry’s Café & Blackhawk restaurants were long gone. There were new spots now though the area still had the atmosphere that this part of town doesn’t sleep, at least not much. There was always a party, a good meal and drink somewhere.

Then there’s North Michigan Ave or as some national media outlets call it erroneously, the Magic Mile. That hasn’t changed too much since my childhood, yeah the stores have changed but the destination is still the same. Water Tower is still a mall that seems a little awkward but the Avenue and side streets is where the action and real shopping is. If you can’t find it, you haven’t looked in this retail emporium, you probably
can’t afford it but that’s okay. In fact this area is best to window shop at night after a great dinner date.

We head north to Lincoln Park, the park itself should be its own zip code, another urban oasis, just asking for you to run, walk, picnic, fish, bike or roller blade. From the lake at Fullerton (my favorite beach), to almost the Kennedy, it’s the ultimate urban area, including my alma mater DePaul University, where people really don’t sleep.

You have the bars, Kelly’s, John Barleycorns, McGees & Glasgows. There is pizza for all, Lou Malnatis, Chicago Pizza & Bacinos. You have some good down home eating at Toast & Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap. But it’s the hole in the wall places that I liked, the Taco & Burrito House at Fullerton & Ashland or Oven Grinders on Clark & just past Armitage. Or my favorite name for a place Wok’s Up at Marcey & Sheffield, food wasn’t bad either.
I miss the old music stores, Tower, Dr. Wax & Gramophone, I was like those snobs in the movie High Fidelity in my college and post college life. Seems silly now but my life revolved around used LPs. And I really miss Demon Dogs, the unofficial food of college students, cheap, fast and under the El.

Let’s move a few red Line stations north to Lakeview & Wrigleyville, yes I am a White Sox fan but day baseball at Wrigley is magical, baseball it its purest form.

There used to be a nasty little hole in the wall called Burritoville under the El on Addison, one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten about 20 years ago. And if you find yourself up that way, you gotta try Philly’s Best on Belmont a few blocks west of Halsted. Real deal cheesesteak sanwhiches (My friends from Philadelphia, authenticate this joint), and good food and their delivery area is huge.

And we go to virtually the end of the Red line north to Rogers Park. Yes the home of Loyola University, my best friend in high school, his father was a Rambler alum, so he used to bring us up there to the gym and that area. I liked it because it was a part of the north side that wasn’t so ritzy (yes that’s a word), and a few years later I had high school classmates who attended Loyola, good school, nice area, there’s a nice place called Hamilton’s Bar & Grille, right on Broadway & Sheridan. Good sandwiches.

Now we come all the way south down the Red Line to what my mother calls “The Mighty South Side”. Yes there is US Cellular Field at 35th, best food of any stadium in the Midwest, the baseball ain’t bad either.

Then down to 79th Street, my grandparents lived in Chatham, outside of Hyde Park & Beverly, no other area south looks more like the north side. When I was small my grandparents walked me all over this area, well initially they were in Park Manor on 71st near King Drive, we lived at Saint Columbanus Parish. I attended school there for preschool & kindergarten. It was old school Catholic, my mother went to school there so did my aunt. I was baptized at the church, my aunt & uncle were married there. We were church folks and everyone knew my grandparents.

Anyway a few years later my grandparents moved further south & west to Chatham & St Dorothy parish. My grandparents loved them some church. And if you couldn’t tell I loved my grandparents. We walked all over Chatham, you can’t tell me this isn’t a walking city, cause I’ve hoofed it all over this city and its all good.

And food, man you had Army & Lou’s back in the day, all of our celebrations were there but also to this day there is Lem’s, Leon’s, BJ’s Market (I know he’s a little east on Stony), and don’t forget Captain Hard Times on 79th.
Let’s not forget south shore, I went to grade school just east of there at Paul Revere on the west side of Stony Island

Lastly we get into my home area the “Wild Hundreds” and West Pullman, yes I have eaten my way through this city and remember the Painted Doll BBQ on Halsted around 105th? Good stuff growing up. What about Home of The Hoagy on 111th? It’s worth the wait and those fries are a food group. And then BBQ places on either side I-57 at 115th? You had Best BBQ & I-57 BBQ, I hear those were family members, though now one of the resutrants is gone.

Closer to my old home was Kingsway on 120th & Halsted, again killer fries all sauced up. My in laws used to eat there back in the day since they were from Roseland. Speaking of Roseland what about Old Fashioned Donuts on Michigan near 112th? Man they could teach Krispy Kreme a thing or too.
When I came up in West Pullman, it was still integrated for a while, and was a nice area growing up, everyone knew each other and there were some good little shops up all Halsted. On a warm spring morning the way the sun comes between the maple trees on 123rd Street is a feeling of home. And then you could walk east a mile or so to West Pullman Park/Metcalf School and something was always going on up there, or you could just chill in the park.

You also had the great Carter G. Woodson regional library at 95th & Halsted, a great place to study, research or just read, lots of good times there. My church when I was in high school was Holy Name of Mary on 112th just east of I-57, some good spiritual masses and really came of age there and my high school was Brother Rice. The Christian Brothers and lay staff made men out of us (whether we wanted to or not), some good memories being the baseball equipment manager my freshmen year. Got to learn my way around Beverly (a spectacular neighborhood of history and architectural significance), and met some good people.

I think we take for granted sometimes how great Chicago drinking water is, if you have traveled you know how bad the water is some places and how good the water is here, as my mother calls it “Lake Michigan Straight”.

Last but not least the best thing about Chicago is the people, family and friends obviously but just how you can go somewhere like the auto show or even you’re in line at Jewel and have a conversation with people.

Forgive me if I have waxed poetically and I know this metropolis is far from perfect but I’ve been around and trust me there is no place like sweet home Chicago.

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    Charles W. Johnson

    I'm a lifelong writer (since I was 8 years old), and have been doing this blog in some form or fashion since 2004. I'm a DePaul University alum (LA&S '99), and know and love Chicago. Writing is my passion, what I write is what I feel, know and have experienced. I simply want to share my thoughts, experiences and opinions. And I appreciate you taking to the time to read what I have to say.

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