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Twelve Blocks

Chicago Avenue, 1700 West | East Village

Photos by Nick Murway

The Wild West

By Camille Bordas

Published Oct. 29, 2018

I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2012 without realizing that’s what was happening. I was simply visiting a guy I liked, not imagining that I’d postpone my flight home to Paris twice and that we’d get married eight weeks later. This is to say that my first walks around town were tourist walks, uncommitted walks. I noticed only the unique (the L!), the radically foreign (highways running through the city?), the drop-dead gorgeous, the weird, and the quaint. I took hundreds of pictures of skyscrapers, of maroon bridges, of motley architectural assortments (brick next to wood next to terra cotta next to Gothic next to Disney-movie-looking mansions), of colorful signs that appeared older and heavier than the walls they were bolted to. It was all so new to European eyes, so eclectic, so wonderful.

As it became progressively clear, though, that I was settling in Ukrainian Village for the foreseeable future, the honeymoon with Chicago came to an end. I started noticing the ugly and the sad, the strip malls, the absence of outdoor cafés or public benches from which to watch people go about their lives. Those tree-lined streets I’d marveled at lost their foliage. Winter came. Even things I’d previously admired lost their charm. The L was just too loud. The city was too big. What I’d thought of as beautifully kaleidoscopic now seemed jarring and disjointed. Places I liked started closing. Worse, restaurants I liked started changing their menus. See, I wasn’t familiar with the seasonal-menu-change idea. The bill of fare at my favorite brasserie in Paris hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve been going there. In France, things take a good long while to change, which I understand can be aggravating to some, but for better or worse this was what I was used to — the idea that your life was mostly tragic, a succession of people entering it and then leaving it more or less definitively, but that you could, to a certain extent and as a consolation, count on your surroundings to stay roughly the same.

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I’ve since come to understand that it is in Chicago’s nature to change constantly, that the city’s strength might lie precisely in the ability to welcome change, or at least to expect it, that that’s how it stays on its toes and never bores. But at first, the whole idea made me sad. People moved. It seemed useless or a waste of time to make friends or develop habits. Everything changed, but I didn’t need a new burger joint, a new ramen place: I just wanted Chicago to sit still for a minute, give me some time to make it feel like mine.

In that time of crisis, that time when Chicago made no sense to me — when I would take long walks around my neighborhood thinking, What have I done? — one block on Chicago Avenue, between Wood and Paulina, never failed to bring a little comfort. I can’t explain why exactly. It looks nothing like Paris, yet walking along that stretch of Chicago Avenue always gave me a curious feeling of homey familiarity and somehow reminded me of my childhood. Sandwiched between blocks of beastly new glass constructions, this one block and its neighbor (the block between Paulina and Ashland) have retained their horizontality and feel strangely stuck in time.

And yet the place itself feels uncertain, forever open to interpretation. The first time I saw the false façade of 1746 West Chicago Avenue, I immediately thought of the Wild West or, more exactly, the spaghetti western movie sets I loved to run around in as a kid when I visited my grandfather in Spain. There was a place in the Tabernas Desert, near his home in Andalusia, where you could walk around whole ersatz villages built for movies such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. You could go from saloon to jail to hangman’s scaffold in under a minute. (The stories I told myself as a child were pretty fast paced.) On a spaghetti western set, 1746 West Chicago Avenue would’ve been the saloon, and thus I felt vindicated in my little filmic fantasy when a brewery ended up opening there in 2016.

The brewery is flanked by Fruteria y Carniceria San Jose on one side, a currency exchange office on the other. In my spaghetti western mind, they’re the general store and the bank. Across the street, El Taco Veloz is the cantina. And there’s the dentist, at 1727, who I wouldn’t be surprised to hear can double as a veterinarian if your horse has colic. For everything else horse related, you might want to go to Alcala’s, at 1733. Alcala’s is where I went to buy jeans after I’d realized that I’d moved to Chicago without enough clothes, only to discover that people buy their horse tack there, too, as well as saddle blankets, bridles, spurs, bolo ties, and holsters. I was embarrassed to only be purchasing boring denim, like I wasn’t living my life fully.

The block is a mix of the rundown and the hip, the useful and the useless. The smells will tear you apart, at least they do me: The hot-butter scent of Hoosier Mama pies beckons from the north side of the street, while the smell of El Taco Veloz’s fresh corn tortillas beckons from the south. (Having lived in Mexico City for a while when I was younger, I should mention that the corn tortilla is basically my version of Proust’s madeleine.) The colors of the block, too, always improve my mood: The jungle of signs looks good in all lights, and few things are prettier than red brick on an overcast day. San Jose’s storefront is a masterpiece of sun-faded paint and lettering and washed-out colors. I go in for a minute sometimes, just to hear Mexican Spanish and to buy the mango lollipops of my childhood.

When the sun sets, the whole block is bathed in orange light, and the street life settles into a more relaxed tempo. People stop to chat and trade local news, like in the small towns where my family is from. If I take a walk around 7 or 8 o’clock, I can almost hear one of my uncles wake up from an afternoon nap and ask what’s for dinner. That’s what I like about this block: It reminds me of all the places I’ve called home without actually resembling any of them. It is every place I’ve ever loved, translated into a dream. The dream starts at Wood, fades at Ashland, and has its own rules in between, where it is conceivable to buy cowboy boots. To me, it doesn’t look like any of the other 20,800 Chicago blocks, either. It is its own thing, an exception. It doesn’t match what surrounds it, doesn’t match the rest of Chicago, and for that exact reason, it perfectly embodies the city.

Camille Bordas is the author of the novel How to Behave in a Crowd.

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