The busiest stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” system is 95/Dan Ryan, at the southern terminus of the Red Line, which attracts an average of 2,739 passengers a day.
The least trafficked stop, at least in the city of Chicago, is Kostner, on the Pink Line. Only 119 passengers board a train there on an average day. On Tuesday afternoon, I took the “L” to Kostner, just to see what is, or isn’t, there. It turned out to be a lesson in how there’s always something fascinating to discover in Chicago, even in neighborhoods far from the edges of the tourist maps.
Officially, Kostner is in North Lawndale, but locals call the neighborhood K-Town, because all the street names begin with ‘K’: Kostner, Kildare, Keeler, Karlov, Kenneth.
“Did you know this is the least busy ‘L’ stop in the city?” I asked the CTA attendant when I got off the train.
“Is that right?” She looked amused. “You learn something new every day. We get our regulars in the morning, but the rest of the day, it’s pretty sporadic. It’s just people living here and commuting here. All the action is at the next stop, Cicero. That’s where they’ve got the grocery store and the plaza.”
I walked south on Kostner and turned east on 21st, the first busy street. Halfway down the block, I met Tony, who was admiring a half Mexican, half American flag flying in the bed of his pickup truck.
“I saw one of those at the Mexican Independence Day Parade in September, and I wanted one,” he said. “I finally found one on 26th Street.”
Tony and Roberta, who goes by the nickname “Little Mama,” live in a converted restaurant with their pit bull mix, Daisy. There’s only one window, which looks out on the street, and no closets. Tires were piled in the living room. Tony brought them inside because people were stealing them from his truck bed.
“You know what they say about this neighborhood? If you keep your mouth shut, you can live here. It’s rough.”
Why does he live there?
“I was homeless for three years, living in this truck,” he said. “Nobody would rent to me, because I’m on SSI. Finally, I found a guy who said, ‘Yeah, I’ll rent to you.’ I pay $1,000 a month for this place.”
While we were talking, Tony’s friend Zachary walked by. It was lunchtime, so I asked him if there was anywhere to eat. He pointed to the corner, at a sign for Ms. B’s Kitchen and Catering.
“That’s closed,” he said. “We need some places around here. You gotta go under the viaduct, to Cicero. They got a Popeye’s and a Chipotle.”
I didn’t want to go under the viaduct. That was another “L” stop. I walked north, along streets packed tightly with bungalows, two flats, and a few West Side greystones. Past storefront churches that seemed to be competing with each other for the longest name: Anointed Emmanuel Deliverance Temple of Apostolic Faith, Gospel Healing Temple Apostolic Faith Church, Deliverance Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith. Past a few tire shops and light industrial factories: Charter Steel Plant #3, Cleats Mfg. Co. (a sheet metal fabricator), Empire Hard Chrome Inc. (a metal finisher). Between Kostner and Kildare, I walked the Unity Park Story Trail, where wooden, child-height stands featured pages from the book Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?
On 16th Street, I finally found a place to eat. From the outside, Upp ’n the Kitchen didn’t look like a restaurant. A black mesh metal door hung half open, next to a sign labeled Upp ’n Shenell’s, which seemed to advertise a corner store. It didn’t look like a restaurant from the inside, either. On the shelves were a sparse selection of chips, diapers, pancake mix, motor oil, and Chef Boyardee. A Lil Durk video was playing on a big screen TV. But nobody was tending the counter. After a few minutes, Reginald Sanders appeared. He had been next door, at his other business, Uppiddi Enterprises, where he screen prints t-shirts and sweatshirts.
“You serve food?” I asked.
“Yeah. What you want? I can do a hamburger, pizza puffs, pizza, Italian beef.”
“Italian beef. That’s a Chicago meal.”
While Sanders cooked, he talked about his store. On Sundays, for $15 a plate, he served an after-church buffet of chicken, pork chops, catfish, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread. He had stocked his shelves with staples because he was trying to qualify to accept LINK cards.
“It’d be a smoother business if we had LINK,” he said. “A lot of people in the neighborhood don’t have cash. If they do, they spend it on hot food. You want peppers?”
“You got sweet?”
It was a complete Chicago meal, with fries and RC Cola, for $7. Maybe it wasn’t Portillo’s, but the sandwich was dipped.
“This reminds me of a country store,” I said.
“Like down South?” Sanders replied. “I like my little scene. I like that it’s nice and low key. Out of the way.”
Sanders suggested I check out a “boxing gym” called BBF, on Pulaski. On the way, I passed a sidewalk entrance plate for Fried’s, presumably a department store in the days when Lawndale was a Jewish neighborhood. Those days ended in the 1950s. The department store was gone. In its place was Grace General Merchandise, which sold Chicago-themed athletic apparel. It was closed, despite what the hours on the door advertised. I copied down the New Testament verse on the sign: Luke 1:37 — “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
I didn’t find a boxing gym at BBF. Instead, I found K-Town’s newest tourist attraction. BBF Family Services, which occupies a modern brick and glass building that looks like a library or a police station, was founded as the Better Boys Foundation by Joseph Kellman, a wealthy auto glass manufacturer who grew up in North Lawndale during its Jewish era, and continued funding charitable endeavors there through its demographic changes. Today, BBF provides tutoring, paid apprenticeships, parenting classes, reentry services, and health screenings.
In September, world-renowned artist Kerry James Marshall — winner of a MacArthur Genius grant — completed a frieze encircling the building’s courtyard, consisting of photographs from the Bud Billiken Parade interspersed with “found images from various disciplines including astronomy, architecture, engineering, biology, chemistry, and medicine.” The work was designed specifically for BBF, said Nathanael Cole, director of outreach and community engagement.
“There’s no other facility that fits with what he wants: the glass, the layout,” Cole said. “Its message is about Black culture. It’s really pushing the culture of Black people.”
According to a sign in the window, “The public is welcome to visit the installation Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Groups of more than 6 people must call to make arrangements at 773-542-7300.”
You’ll probably want to get off the train at Pulaski, though. It’s closer.