Street Smart Chicago

Kickstarter Chronicles: The Soul of Cuba

Kickstarter Chronicles, Oak Park No Comments »
Photo: Cesar Augusto

Photo: Cesar Augusto

By Jeff Gilliland

The Kickstarter Chronicles is a series of profiles of Chicagoans holding crowd-funding campaigns on Kickstarter.com. Kickstarter allows for people to finance creative projects through individual donations, and seek new audiences at the same time. However, sometimes great projects still need an extra nudge into the limelight. 

Cesar Augusto doesn’t take photography lightly. “I don’t take many pictures,” the Oak Park-based photographer and creative director says. “In fact, I hate taking pictures when I haven’t had the time to think about what I’m trying to achieve.”

Augusto has had plenty of time to think about what he’s trying to achieve with his most recent project, “The Soul of Cuba.” The hardcover book, featuring more than a hundred stunning photographs from Augusto’s native country, documents his return to the home which has been, in his words, “the place of my dreams and nightmares for the last twenty years.” In it, Augusto grapples with the fading image of the Cuba he still remembers, and discovers the birth of a new economy and culture in a country that Americans still associate with old cars, Communism and exploding cigars. “The Soul of Cuba” captures this nostalgia, pain and wonderment in a sequence of black-and-white photographs that are at once haunting and uplifting, decayed and vibrant, aged and brand-new. “These photographs are exactly how my heart sees Cuba today,” Augusto says, both remote and always familiar, just like the tempestuous nation he fled more than two decades ago. Read the rest of this entry »

Eco-Partying: Greenline Wheels seeks higher returns from a low-profit business

Bicycling, Green, Oak Park No Comments »

It’s the grand opening for Greenline Wheels, an “eco-happy” bike and electric car rental and tour center in Oak Park, and the land of Wright and Hemingway looks like an active transportation utopia. Just south of the futuristic Harlem CTA stop, Marion Street is closed for the block party. A dude in a Hawaiian shirt tows kids on a pedicab, a cop rolls a Segway, folks check out a PT Cruiser-like electric buggy and a pair of cheerleaders pedals a tandem. The new venture hopes to lure visitors out to the western ‘burbs to explore architectural and historical gems, while providing locals with green transportation options. Co-owner Mary Jo Schuler tells the crowd the shop is officially designated as an LC3 “low-profit” business, a new model in Illinois. After local bigwigs cut the green ribbon in front of a phalanx of shiny new rental bikes, dozens of folks parade around the block on various non-noxious vehicles. Afterwards, Schuler explains why she started this new business, “The village of Oak Park continues to get more congested with cars and instead of whining I wanted to do something about it.” (John Greenfield)

Greenline Wheels, 105 South Marion, Oak Park, (708)725-7170, greenlinewheels.com.

Guy Talk: Turns Out, Five Guys Got Nothing on Wendy

Lincoln Park, Oak Park No Comments »

fiveburgerBy Michael Nagrant

How many guys does it take to make a great burger? Based on my recent experience at Five Guys in Oak Park, it’s definitely more than five. Of course, quantity probably doesn’t matter, as McDonald’s Corporation employs hundreds of thousands of people and they’ve yet to get it right.

Actually, the number of folks it takes to make a great burger probably isn’t as philosophical a question as how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. There’s no doubt in my mind the best fast-food burger available in Chicago these days can be found at Marc Burger in the food court at Macy’s on State, and that burger was invented by one man, chef Marcus Samuelsson (C-House).

So what’s wrong with the Five Guys patty? It all starts with cooks who use spatulas and grill presses to smash the life out of the beef. Once grilled, these well-done juiceless pucks look like Wile E. Coyote after one too many anvils to the head. While struggling under the weight of the press, the patties never really get griddled, but instead steam in their own juices.
You also wonder why a place that cooks patties to order makes their burgers well done, but at Five Guys, it’s not really a secret. Their corporate Web site answer is “By cooking all of our burgers juicy and well done we are able to achieve two goals: Insure a consistent product [and] Meet or exceed health code standards for ground beef.”

Translation: we don’t trust our training programs or our grill cooks to do a good job, so instead, we’ve decided that cooking the living moo out everything we serve is the only way to succeed.

I’d give them slack on this point, but the high-volume Marc Burger grill manned by everyday hairnetted joes somehow manages to turn out perfect, juicy medium-pink beauties one burger at a time and have so for a while.

Lest you think this is the sound of one man typing, one of my good friends, a non-food-writing burger aficionado, suggested that the Wendy’s double is better than the Five Guys burger. I was skeptical, but as I reflected on it, he’s right. The Wendy’s burger (also fresh, never frozen beef just like Five Guys) sports discernible grill marks, good seasoning and a flame-broiled taste. The dense grayish mass at Five Guys tasted as if it hadn’t come within ten feet of a saltshaker.

Even the squishy sesame-seed bun here, which disintegrates under a dollop of mayo and gooey cheese, isn’t much more inspiring than the patties. If I’ve learned anything eating hundreds of burgers in my lifetime, the greatest buns are usually of the potato variety and are best when toasted and topped with a touch of butter, as at local chain Culvers.

The skin-on fries at Five Guys are decent (though much better ones are available at Hot Doug’s or Susie’s in Irving Park), but at $2.59 for a “regular” portion they’re kind of pricey. Five Guys would be better off cutting the portion size and the price in half.
This all being said, the real central question of Five Guys is not how many folks it takes to make a great burger, but rather, how can so many well-respected news outlets can be so hoodwinked into loving it?

Where some burger joints might hang framed prints of scary clowns or fat purple blobs, Five Guys has culled over twenty years of good reviews and posted mini-billboard-style excerpted quotes from the Atlantic City Weekly to the New York Daily News. On one wall, you’ll find a decade or so of successive reprints of the Zagat guide fawning over Five Guys.

It could be that all of these signs work as a form of mind control, but I suspect Five Guys’ success is actually a function of cheap nostalgia and relatively sad competition. Up against the garbage served by mega chains, save Wendy’s, the flawed Five Guys burger is much better.

More than anything though, Five Guys is also capitalizing on the East Coast’s and Midwest’s yearning for the glorious burgers of West Coast chain In-N-Out. Absent their gooey animal-style patties, we settle for second best.

One thing Five Guys has going for it is crispy bacon and oozy cheese and a menu of condiments (any and all free with your burger purchase) that makes the salad bar selection at Whole Foods jealous (golden-fried onions are best). But this is just lipstick (on a cow?). And as we learned last November, when you put lipstick on something, all you end up with is a rifle-toting civil-liberty-revoking hockey mom who can see Russia from her backyard.

Five Guys is located at 1115 Lake Street, Oak Park, and at 2140 North Clybourn in Chicago.

Live (and Die) Green: The growing trend of green burial

Green, News etc., Oak Park No Comments »

sw_sumnercemeterygrave_cs4369Oak Park’s Jane Zawadowski wants to start a green cemetery. The pursuit of a green cemetery in Illinois began in May of last year, when Zawadowski and her family decided to make a will and trust. She pulled out an article she had saved for years on funerals at home, and after reading it, she came to the conclusion that a home visitation and all other natural things for her after death were completely consistent with her personality.

“The consumer will have their need for a ‘green’ lifestyle fulfilled, even after their official ‘life’ as we know it has ended,” Zawadowski says. “It is the continuity of an ecologically based life, and completes the circle of life. People who are ‘land-based’ feel a deep need for connection with the earth and view their bodies upon death as the ultimate gift back to the earth.”

More people are moving toward the new trend of eco-friendly or “natural” burials in recent years. According to a 2007 AARP survey, twenty-one percent reported that they would be “very interested” or “interested” in a burial that is more environmentally friendly than the traditional burial that involves embalming. But Mark Harris, environmentalist, journalist and author of “Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial,” says the interest has doubled in the past year. He cites a Kates-Boylston survey that found forty-three percent of Americans were now interested in green burial.

These burials are the opposite of traditional burials, where the corpse is embalmed with formaldehyde and then placed in a steel or wooden casket for viewing. After the funeral, the casket is lowered into a concrete vault and buried. Green burials involve no embalming, no plastic-coated caskets or cement vaults and no chemical lawn treatments. Once underground and covered by tons of dirt, there is no opportunity for the casket to become a mini-landfill of non-biodegradable waste.

Eco-friendly burials are less costly than traditional burials. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $7,500, plus cemetery costs. Natural burials can cost up to $4,000. Zawadowski is currently educating possible partners about her desire, about what green cemeteries are, and engaging in conversations with many allies and interested parties.

“To be clear, this effort is a combination of a business venture but also a spiritual quest,” Zawadowski says. “I am driven by the need to create transformation, enable change, make art and educate and connect community.”

The cemetery will be more than a sacred place, but a place for all types of gatherings and ceremonial events. “Gatherings such as weddings, family reunions, camping and picnicking are examples of other uses of the land.” Zawadowski says. “There will be an environmentally friendly gathering space adjoining a kitchen space.”

Most of all, the emotional investment of where a final resting place should be is an important factor. “People who visit their loved ones seek spaces that comfort them, and this cemetery will be life-affirming and nourishing of the body and soul of visitors,” Zawadowski says. “Traditions may be begun or continued with this cemetery that will be fulfilling for entire families and multiple generations.” (Kenshata Harris)

If you’re interested in contacting Jane Zawadowski, you can reach her at zawelski@sbcglobal.net.

Have a Car-Free Summer: Life around the Edge

Bicycling, Essays & Commentary, Events, Green, Oak Park, Wicker Park No Comments »

By Elizabeth Winkowski

Shortly after I began biking a few years ago, I showed up at the Hollywood Grill on Ashland and North early one Saturday morning for the fifth-annual Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile jaunt around the edge of the city. I knew little about bicycling then, except that serious bicyclists called hundred-mile rides “centuries.” I had done some research online, and found information on proper century training and equipment—padded spandex shorts, a skin-tight jersey and a light, carbon-fiber bike. I disregarded this information and pulled up in a t-shirt and sunglasses instead, riding a rickety, rusting, pink Schwinn ten-speed. Read the rest of this entry »