I don’t have to tell anyone here about the great divide in Chicago identity: North Side versus South Side. (To any West or East Siders in the room, my apologies for your irrelevance.)
As a lifelong resident of the city’s most northeasterly neighborhood, Rogers Park, I have always identified as a North Sider. Encounters with South Siders—from four years at St. Ignatius College Prep to working with or for various White Sox fans and University of Chicago types—only reinforced my North Side identity. When confronted with your opposite, it’s easy to hunker down into yourself.
My identity as a hardcore North Sider began to change—for me, at least—in the summer of 2006, when my sweetheart decided to stop renting. Economic and personal considerations led her to buy in what, for the sake of pride and privacy, I’ll call Greater Beverly.
OK, Evergreen Park, just over the border from Chicago.
Suddenly, I was living part-time in the vicinity of 95th and Kedzie, much farther south and west than I’d ever regularly ventured on the South Side (where I knew mostly Comiskey and Hyde Park). I rode my bike the 25 miles down and back during good weather, or took the Red Line between 95th Street and Loyola, or caught the Metra out of LaSalle Street.
How much of a North Sider had I been? I hadn’t even known there was a train station at LaSalle Street until I first took the Rock Island District Line. I thought “Rock Island Line” was just a Johnny Cash song. I began to get to know various parts of this alien-to-me area by biking through it and procuring the necessities of life.
The South Side, I saw, was all right.
Back north, I began to brag on certain South Side places: doughnuts at Beverly Bakery on Western, good sushi at Sesame Inn on 95th, microbrews at Horse Thief Hollow and Blue Island Beer Company. Friends, familiar with my North Side parochialism, gave me no end of shit about the fact that I was spending so much time south of the Loop—and apparently liking it.
I half joked that I had become a Chicago freak: Neither North Sider nor South Sider, I was a “bi-sider,” at home in both parts of town. In each hood, I had the things I needed to feel at home.
By which I mean a bar, a butcher shop, a grocery store, and a coffee shop. I found them all, and then lost each of them, one at a time.
First, I required a local tavern, something low-key and quiet. An Evergreen Park native (neither the Unabomber nor Norm) recommended Bleekers Bowl as a joint I might like, and he was right. After biking down on summer Fridays, I’d stop in to rehydrate and carbo-load, read the paper, do the crossword. At first, the regulars—a mellow, older after-work or retired-with-little-to-do-but-drink crowd—just looked and nodded when I came in. As in any real neighborhood bar, they’d all known each other forever, and I was the new guy who sat at a table in the window and read The New York Times.
And who seemed to have ridden there on a bicycle.
On the South Side, I learned, if you were an adult male on a bicycle, people presumed that you couldn’t drive due to your multiple DUI convictions. This assumption was especially, and understandably, common in various saloons.
The regulars and bartenders were friendly, and one guy started calling me Lance, in honor of the bike, I assume. Soon we hit that perfect level of casual barroom acquaintanceship: We’d say hi, make some small talk about the Bears, Cubs, or Sox (the bartenders were mostly Cubs fans, the patrons mostly Sox rooters), I’d pretend to give a damn about golf or hockey, and then we’d let each other be.
When I disclosed exactly where I rode my bike from, general incredulity ensued. How on earth could I get to 95th and Trumbull from 6500 North Sheridan … alive? Passing through those neighborhoods? I detailed my different routes and emphasized that I never had any problems in African American or Latino areas but that sometimes in Bridgeport (presumably) Irish drivers didn’t respect bike lanes as much as they should. As the years went by, anytime anyone had seen some helmeted white guy with a beard on a bike, they asked if that had been me. Apparently, only one guy can ride his bike down Damen, Halsted, or California.
Then I got word: The owners of Bleekers were selling. To Binny’s. A soulless corporate liquor store replacing a bowling alley and saloon? Gentrification in Evergreen Park?
That was the first blow.
Then the butcher’s shop closed. When I first began spending time in the EP, some North Siders who were fans of Petey’s Bungalow recommended A-J Meats at 99th and Clifton Park. Best pork chops in town, I was told. Excellent pork chops, for sure, as well as rib eyes cut to order. But the real winner was their homemade Lithuanian sausage.
This sausage? Outstanding, world-class. What didn’t sell when fresh they smoked, which created the Platonic ideal of smoked sausage. If they have Slim Jims in Carnivores’ Heaven, they’d be A-J’s Smoked Lithuanian. I brought them back to the North Side for years as Christmas gifts, and people clamored for more. Where had I gotten this stuff? Ninety-ninth and where?
North Siders. Such limited worlds they live in, I thought.
In 2014, the first warm weekend in the spring arrived after our brutal polar vortex winter, and I planned to clean up the Weber, hit A-J for meat, and grill. Only then did my sweetheart tell me the bad news: A-J had closed. She’d known for a while but hadn’t wanted to shock me till she had to. Who knows what I might have done. The older man who owned it was retiring, and his family and the part-timers (including a fireman who made the tastiest lamb burgers) didn’t want to continue the hard work of running a butcher shop.
It’s been replaced by an Irish bar. Just what this section of Chicago was crying out for.
I’ve yet to find an equal to A-J’s pork chops, and I despair that I will never taste that smoked Lithuanian sausage again.
Sometimes I dream of it.
The third strike came soon after: The local grocery store succumbed to the corporate giants. Lagen’s, at 89th and California, was a typical little Centrella-ish neighborhood “super”-in-scare-quotes-market. The place was in a time warp from 1975. Not someplace you go to stock up. But for that emergency run for bread or potatoes, they carried Gonnella, and the produce was OK. Some cans of chicken soup if you had a cold. Cat food, milk, butter, eggs, orange juice, the papers.
Well, in 2013, a Meijer opened in a vast ugly-as-bad-urban-planning-can-make-it mall at 91st and Western. Naturally, the joint was mobbed, and though we tried to avoid shopping at it, it was cheap and had a better selection. Then a Mariano’s opened on 95th, and Lagen’s went from an every-few-weeks stop to an every-couple-months stop.
Then it closed. We blamed ourselves, rightly.
During that same time, Hardboiled Coffee had a café on Western that all too briefly supplied my need for caffeine, Wi-Fi, and solid conversation about baseball that wasn’t just call-and-response “Sox rule, Cubs drool” nonsense. But it, too, succumbed to the physical reality of Beverly, the lack of density and the high-volume streets, that makes a café a hard sell. At least the brew is still available at County Fair Foods, Wolf’s Bakery, and some other cafés. But I’d loved that place, and it was gone, though now the space has been taken over by a local coffee-roasting empire—not Intelligentsia or Metropolis from up north but Bridgeport Coffee.
Who ever thought that the South Side would have competing artisanal coffee empires?
Nonetheless, I’d lost another essential place.
And then I felt like a true South Sider.
Over these last 10 years, I’ve learned that the sense of belonging to a neighborhood in Chicago isn’t just about where you were born, or how much time you spend there, or how many neighbors you get to know, or how many formal or informal institutions you interact with.
Now I don’t just like the neighborhood. Just as I miss the parts of Rogers Park that are long gone—Hamilton’s, Bornhofen Meat Market, Dominick’s, Ennui Cafe—I lament the parts of the South Side that I’ve lost.
In Chicago, on either side of town, maybe you only realize something is yours when it’s taken away from you.