Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: A Mistake by the Lake?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Rogers Park No Comments »
Rendering of the proposed garage courtesy of Tawani Enterprises

Rendering of the proposed garage courtesy of Tawani Enterprises

Colonel J.N. Pritzker, one of Chicago’s wealthiest, most influential residents, is a historic preservationist and a bicycle advocate. As an heir to the Pritzker family fortune and longtime Rogers Park resident, the billionaire has used his money in creative ways to help revitalize the community.

In 2004 his investment firm Tawani Enterprises began buying residential properties in the neighborhood, renovating and leasing them. Some of the company’s holdings include the Mayne Stage theater, Act One gastropub, Cat’s Cradle bed and breakfast and the Emil Bach House, 7415 North Sheridan, a Prairie-style home by Frank Lloyd Wright, currently undergoing a faithful restoration. As an avid cyclist, he bankrolled the latest edition of Active Transportation Alliance’s Chicagoland Bicycle Map, and he occasionally pedals in Critical Mass, the anti-car bike parade.

So I’m puzzled why Pritzker’s company wants to tear down an attractive, historic house, a stone’s throw from the beach in Rogers Park, and replace it with a parking structure for 250 automobiles. The garage would largely serve Bach House visitors and residents at Farcroft by the Lake, a twelve-story tower at 1337 West Fargo, built in 1928, which Tawani is currently renovating into eighty-four upscale rental units. Both buildings are located only a few minutes walk from the CTA Red Line’s Jarvis Station. Eighty-four spaces would be set aside for short- and long-term paid parking for the general public. Read the rest of this entry »

Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop, Rogers Park 3 Comments »

Photo: Thomas Marlow

By Harrison Smith

To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.

“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”

Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.

Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Savage Ride

Andersonville, Avondale, Beverly, Checkerboard City, Chinatown, Rogers Park, Uptown No Comments »

Bill Savage/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“Nelson Algren wrote, ‘It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet,’” says Algren scholar Bill Savage, strapping on his bicycle helmet. “‘But you never truly love it until you can love its alleys too.’ So there’s this dynamic in the city between the boulevard and the alley, between the beautiful urban spaces and the place where the garbage and the rats are, and if you really love Chicago you’ve got to love both.”

An English lecturer at Northwestern University, Bill grew up in Rogers Park with his brother, sex advice columnist Dan Savage, and still lives in the neighborhood. “I tell my students, it’s very easy to experience the city secondhand, in books and movies and online,” Bill says. “But if you’re not out there on the pavement, whether on foot or on a bicycle or in a car or on public transportation, you’re missing something.” Read the rest of this entry »

Mind the Gap: Will West Rogers Park’s new alderman finally build a controversial bicycle bridge?

Bicycling, Politics, Rogers Park No Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

The other day I was pedaling with friends under azure skies to Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe when I was reminded of an old political fight. We were riding on the North Shore Channel Trail, a scenic, nearly car-free route from Albany Park to Evanston, when we came to the notorious gap in the path just north of Peterson. The trail ended abruptly, so we spun north on Kedzie a few blocks, turned west and rode on hectic Devon Street across the channel, then turned north to continue on the bike path into Lincolnwood.

If it weren’t for opposition from former 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone, we would have been able to instead make a car-free transition to the section of the trail west of the channel via a bike-pedestrian bridge. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Menu: Alderman Joe Moore lets Rogers Parkers pick their poison

Green, Politics, Rogers Park No Comments »

Forty-ninth Ward alderman Joe Moore is famous for his crusades against big-box stores and foie gras, but lately he’s been having more success with a new initiative called participatory budgeting. In this process, regular folks recommend projects for public funding and vote on how the cash is spent. First pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participatory budgeting is gaining popularity as a way to engage citizens and make government spending decisions more democratic.

Moore is the first politician to bring participatory budgeting to the U.S. Each of Chicago’s fifty alderman has an annual budget called “Menu Money” to pay for physical improvements to their wards, like replacing streetlights and fixing streets and sidewalks. Normally, aldermen dictate how the money is spent but Moore, whose ward is comprised mostly of left-leaning Rogers Park, decided to let his constituents have their say.

Instead of just the usual meat-and-potatoes projects last year, when the process started, residents bankrolled a community garden, a dog-friendly park, solar-powered garbage cans, historical marker signs, and murals under CTA and Metra viaducts. Transportation improvements include a pedestrian signal, shelters at El platforms, new bicycle lanes and bike racks that will double as public art. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Back, with more Heart

News etc., Rogers Park No Comments »

The Heartland Café is back in business after being temporarily shut down by the Public Health Department on March 12. The inspection resulted from a 311 call made by a customer who felt ill after eating a tofu and vegetable dish at the restaurant. Café owners Katie Hogan and Michael James consider the circumstance to be a hard lesson learned and completely overhauled their restaurant’s kitchen as a result. The staff spent five days renovating floors, scrubbing equipment and patching up “endless nooks and crannies.” When inspectors returned on March 18, the café passed the follow-up inspection with flying colors. “Inspectors were literally oohing and ahhing,” Hogan says. As a result of the situation, Hogan says that they have taken additional safety measures, such as changing certain purveyors and promoting an employee to the position of sanitation manager. “We’ve taken lemons and turned them into lemonade,” Hogan says. “We will never be caught in that situation again.”

Giving the Bissness

Lit, News etc., Rogers Park No Comments »

eulabissEula Biss brings it in “Notes from No Man’s Land,” her collection of essays published this month. Touted (and praised) as a book about race, “Notes” is that and more. “Opening a different kind of dialogue is where I see a possibility for me to do something meaningful as a writer,” says Biss. Identifying the lack of discussion about race as a “chronic problem” in this country, Biss works to create a conversation where we don’t “police each other so closely,” where we can think clearly about race because “we aren’t afraid of saying the wrong thing or being exposed as racists.” The title essay of “Notes” is about moving to Rogers Park, and while Biss is a relatively recent arrival, she’s already endowed with the signature Second City directness, both outing Chicago as a “hyper-segregated city” and asserting that it will take more than one election to end racism. “Part of my project is to be as forthright as possible,” Biss says. (Meaghan Strickland)

Sweet on Senegal: Café Senegal brings West African cuisine to Chicago

Food & Drink, Rogers Park No Comments »
Debbe

Debbe

By Michael Nagrant

I don’t know if Diaw Sow, owner/chef of Café Senegal in Rogers Park, has seen “Field of Dreams,” but she clearly doesn’t agree with the movie’s tagline that if you build it, they will come. Or, rather: if you cook it, they will come. Because the restaurant is so new and because of her concern for freshness, she’s waiting for customer traffic to increase before she expands her selection. As a result, though her French-inflected West African-style printed menu features forty or so items, you’ll likely only be able to order a handful on any given night.

This reflects a smart business move from a serial entrepreneur. Though Sow emigrated from Senegal in 1996, she’s already run three local businesses, including a grocery store and a hair-braiding operation. But this new project is her true passion. While the restaurant opened recently, Sow took a sanitation certification course seven years ago, because she knew she’d always wanted to cook professionally. Because her food is so good, my only lament is that she waited so long.

My initial impression of the restaurant belied any kind of quality cooking. Though Café Senegal is a clean spot lit up by a gigantic wall mural of a neon-hued sunset, the dining room is also smaller than a high-rise studio apartment. Art sat on the floor waiting to be hung, and there was an empty hot box on the back counter, the kind you might see filled with desiccated “hot” pretzels or pathetic pizza puffs. And, when my wife, son and I first entered the restaurant, for one short awkward moment, Sow, her two daughters and another older woman looked us up and down like a couple of elderly tourists who’d just set foot in a Hells Angel’s hangout.

The awkwardness turned out to be a touch of panic because they’d just served the last of their signature dish, ceebu jen. Ceebu jen, aka rice and fish stew, is to Senegal what deep-dish pizza or Italian beef is to Chicago. As a national dish, there are also as many recipes for ceebu jen as there are active Senegalese political parties (eighty-plus). Sow’s version is made with eggplant, carrot, cassava and white cabbage and tomato. Unfortunately we’d have to come back to sample it.

But that didn’t matter, after what I know now, if Sow only had one dish and she said it was made from old shoe leather, I’d trust her instincts. Fortunately, our options were quite a bit wider than braised animal hide, and we started with a generically named “beef patty.” Featuring a flaky-puff-pastry-half-moon filled with ground beef and peppers, it’s Senegal’s version of an empanada. But by any standard the light crust and full fruity and fiery-peppered beef make this the best empanada, Latin American-based or otherwise, that I’ve had in Chicago.

We followed that with a set of Nem. Though the dish sounds like a government agency or obscure stage of the sleep cycle, Nem is actually what would happen if you pan-fried a Vietnamese-style spring roll. Sow’s version is a flavor torpedo of crispy, charred rice-paper conucopia oozing with scallions, glass noodles, egg and chicken.

While waiting for our main courses, the older woman in the restaurant entertained my unruly 21-month-old son by dancing with him to the house music and convinced him to call her grandma. She stopped only when a young man came in to purchase some African Black Soap (apparently Café Senegal doubles as a retail beauty operation). While “grandma” stepped out to get change for the man, he told my wife and I, “This is the good stuff, it’s way better than Proactiv. It’ll get rid of blemishes and everything.”

As I dug in to a heaping plate of Debbe—peppery, grilled lamb topped with a sweet vinegar-tanged salad of olives, onion and tomato—I thought, man, that’s good news. Maybe I won’t have to endure those horrible infomercials of Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and Puff, err, Sean Diddy Combs rehashing their horrible acne drama anymore. The Debbe was followed by Yasa Ginar, a succulent sweet-spiced stewed-chicken perfumed with lemon and smothered in caramelized onion.

Though Sow learned to make these great dishes from her mother, she is no weekend warrior. She’s a full-blown culinarian with a mastery of flavor and balance. The lack of a full menu here is actually a blessing that allows her to guide you, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. The only thing mother-like at Café Senegal is that Sow cooks meals to order and entrees take forty minutes or so, but that just leaves you time to do a jig with “grandma.” Whether Sow believes it or not, I’m pretty sure “they” will come. Just to be sure, you better head on over now.

Café Senegal, 2131 West Howard, (773)465-5643

Spell Hell: Adults do the Bee at Morseland

Events, Rogers Park No Comments »

In the age of spell-check dependency, he who attempts to spell “senescent” on stage without the help of a computer program should be respected. “Senescent,” number 58 repeats, with no sign of worry. Then, looking toward the judges: “Please define the word.” He brings his beer to his lips; his goatee is bushy and full. “The word means growing old,” a judge calls back.
Read the rest of this entry »