Folks on a beer run at the Portage Park Binny's last weekend might've caught an unusual scene in the liquor store's back lot: A bona-fide county fair, complete with hay bales, bag tosses, bluegrass, Silkie chickens, and a whole lot of vendors slinging goodies from windswept tents.
For the first time in decades, a version of the Cook County Fair went off in the city — this one called County Fair Chicago and organized by the Six Corners Association, a nonprofit advocating for economic development in Portage Park.
It's been 70 years since the Chicago area had a county fair. Even before its most recent iteration, an eleven-day stint at Soldier Field in 1948, the fair was sporadic and shape-shifting, migrating between Forest Preserve land and makeshift lots on the South Side and in neighboring suburbs. In fact, according to a 2016 WBEZ report, Cook County’s failure to secure regular fairgrounds is largely to blame for the event's inconsistency.
A Binny's parking lot, it turns out, gets the job done — especially in a marriage of convenience with Portage Park. For years, the Six Corners Association and groups like it have tried to draw residents and businesses to Portage Park's ailing shopping district, presently home to hulking storefronts vacated by Sears and Bank of America.
So when Portage Park resident and SCA head Kelli Wefenstette heard WBEZ's report on the erratic fair, she got to work on a "unique, signature festival," she says. "We didn't want to do what's happening in other parts of the city already."
Portage Park's gusty first County Fair this weekend comprised mostly new businesses, and some that don't even have brick-and-mortar stores yet. At one tent, Portage Park resident Catherine Siebel promoted her soon-to-open cooking school and shop, Fearless Cooking. At another, entrants in the fair’s 4-H–style competition showcased handmade clothes, recipes, and floral arrangements.
Wefenstette credits the influx of new businesses to a plan the SCA cooked up with alderman John Arena, the Department of Housing and Economic Development, and local residents and business owners. The document outlines a handful of practices for attracting — and retaining — businesses to the area. It also calls for infrastructural improvements for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. (They counseled, for instance, against a long-desired Metra stop on Irving Park Road).
Since the Chicago Plan Commission adopted their vision in 2013, dozens of new businesses have moved into the Six Corners shopping district. Arena sees the effort as a means of accommodating the wave of young parents moving west in search of family-friendly neighborhoods with amenities. “That’s why homeowners are buying $600,000 homes across the way,” he said on Sunday, gesturing across the lot to a row of the newly built homes, some still wrapped in Tyvek. “They want to get in their strollers and walk to the corner and have everything they want at their fingertips.”
That’s certainly a draw for Rafa Esparza, a former sous chef at Momotaro and A-10 who’s leaving fine dining to open a bookstore/coffee shop hybrid, Finom, on Irving Park Road. “I live in Pilsen, where gentrification is a big thing, so I’m always mindful,” he says. “I don’t want to [open the shop] in places that are being actively gentrified.
"But this neighborhood is unique in that it’s majority homeowners. Development culture thrives on turnover. They want people in and out every two years.”
Esparza's shop won't open for another month; at this weekend’s fair, he tended to his friend Hipolito Sanchez’s mobile barbeque trailer, where a pig roasted over applewood. Still, Esparza appreciates the sense of community in Portage Park. “This is for real what Chicago culture is. People walk in the door and say, ‘Hey man, what’s up? When you guys opening?’ It’s so refreshing."
It wasn't just Portage Parkers at the weekend's fair, either. On Sunday, Justin Kesselring and Ryan Burns rode their bikes up from their South Loop home. They'd expected a bigger turnout, but were no less excited to watch country blues band Devil in a Woodpile and chow down on roasted pig. “I almost feel like this is the last festival of the season,” Kesselring said.
At the center of it all was a changing Portage Park. “How long ago did they put in this Culver’s here?” asked Devil in a Wood Pile front man Rick Sherry from the stage, having just covered Ray Charles’s "I’ve Got a Woman."
“It looks brand spanking new. I can feel the heat coming off of it.”