Best of the South Side: South Shore

South Shore is often the forgotten cousin of Hyde Park, often because of one notable difference: the absence of the University of Chicago. But South Shore may have that to its advantage. While Hyde Park’s image is often dominated by the University’s shadow, South Shore is a middle-class neighborhood that has made its own name and burnished its own image. It also is the first place to go for unexpected finds. And a day at the beach. The site of nigh unparalleled development and one of the most creative protests from the civil rights movement, South Shore remains one of the South Side’s crown jewels.

Best Serious Culture
eta Creative Arts Foundation
Chicago has always been one of the vanguards of African-American culture. The DuSable Museum of African-American History was the first museum in the world to focus exclusively on African-Americans. The founder of the DuSable also helped found one of the institutions which ensure that African-American culture will be a part of the future as well as the past: the eta Creative Arts Foundation. The basis of the Foundation is a professional theatre, which commissions original works for its stage featuring nationally renowned talent. The plays all depict the African-American experience, but that’s about all they have in common. A typical year’s run will include plays about the 1930s South, a slave couple that gets married in secret, an urban family trying to weather their differences, and a piece which throws them all together at once. The plays are performed in the Foundation’s theatre. Offering good sightlines for all 200-odd plush red seats, it’s another reason why Chicago is second to no city in terms of quality theatre.

The Foundation also boasts two art galleries and classrooms for children, which provide art and theatre instruction. The theatre classes are especially successful, producing graduates such as the current artistic director for the Foundation and Hollywood stars like Kel Mitchell.
The Foundation’s future looks even brighter than its present. A multi-million dollar expansion is due to complete construction within the next few years, which will almost exponentially increase the Foundation’s current space. Look for more classrooms, a larger theatre, and a community space which can hold everything from weddings to wakes to conceptual art. 7558 S. Chicago Ave. Show runs and times vary. (773)752-3955. www.etacreativearts.org (Ben Oren)

Best Place to Feel Like a Millionaire
South Shore Cultural Center
Ah, to be young and rich; to walk into an opulent clubhouse and hear footsteps reverberate down columned corridors and off domed ceilings; to play a round of golf away from the hustle and bustle of the city; to play a tennis match in a secluded court; to eat a lavish picnic on a private beach; what a lifestyle one could lead. Of course, in order to enjoy it a large pile of cash has to be lying around somewhere close at hand–or, failing that, a bus that goes down to 71st street and the South Shore Cultural Center.

Converted from a 1920s country club, the Cultural Center retains all the aura of privilege while being free and open to the public. The entrance to the complex is a lavish arch, the driveway to the Center lined with thirty-foot columns and a glimmering flower garden. The Center itself is a large two story building, all marble and tile that houses an auditorium, a large gathering area for events which looks like it could hold a Southern debutante ball circa 1932, and an art gallery which holds around fifty works of painting, sculpture and photography. Behind the Center winding paths lead down through a wooded glen and past a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts, both of which are far enough removed from the road that they may as well be in Montana. The real prize is the beach. It’s wide enough that a hundred people would make a sparse population, and is at the end of a channel so that surf, loud surly surf, constantly crashes on the shore. Picnic tables and grills dot the freshly mowed grass which surrounds the beach.

Besides the facilities, the Center hosts a slew of social events depending on the season: back-to-school mixers, art and theatre classes, movies, and concerts. The horseback riding lessons are also offered, and are only a little more dangerous than the mixers. Whether taking advantage of the events or the whiff of the high-life the facilities provide, patrons at the South Shore Cultural Center know what it’s like to be filthy rich, if only for a little while. 7059 S. South Shore Drive. Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm. (773)256-0149. (Ben Oren)

Best Beach
Rainbow Beach
To the discerning Chicagoan, all beaches are not created equal. The beach adjacent to the Point in Hyde Park is fairly average. Not too big, not too small, and just the right amount of pollution: enough to make things interesting, but not enough to be dangerous. Usually. The beaches on the North Side, especially around Lincoln Park, are wide, gorgeous and visions of what urban beaches should be. Except they’re so popular that extending an arm while sunbathing will invariably hit a 350-pound Polish guy and three skinny emo kids from Wicker Park. Traipsing around the city in search of the perfect beach can be exhausting (especially in flip-flops), so save the time and effort and go straight to the best beach in the city: Rainbow Beach.

Rainbow Beach extends from 75th to 79th street, making it one of the longest beaches in the Chicago area. The most obvious part of Rainbow Beach’s appeal is what it doesn’t have: traffic snarling in the background. The beach, and the park which surrounds it, extends several blocks away from the city, so that it doesn’t seem like playing in the sand and surf is taking place in the median of Lake Shore Drive.

Other attractions help Rainbow Beach put other Chicago beaches to shame. There is a large gym, fitness center, and outdoor recreational facilities like handball, tennis and basketball courts (by some sort of minor miracle, the basketball hoops actually have nets). Any spot on the beach affords a sweeping view of the entire downtown area, from Navy Pier to the Sears Tower and beyond.

Rainbow Beach isn’t just a pretty face; there’s soul there, too. As the area around the beach became gentrified in the early 60s, black and white youths fought over the right to inhabit the beach, with the scuffles sometimes getting violent. The Beach eventually became a site of a major protest against de facto segregation policies when the NAACP staged a “wade-in” to protest policies which were shifting the area’s population from black to white.

Whether sunning, chilling, grilling, or playing basketball, tennis or Frisbee, Rainbow Beach is the best spot in the city to do it on the sand. 3111 E. 75th St. (Ben Oren)

Best Place to Get Your Jesus On
God’s Dollar Store
The best thing about living in a big city is that every corner conceals a new surprise. Someone aimlessly wandering around 71st street, tunelessly whistling and putting a hop in every fourth step, would never think to themselves that a store satisfying every conceivable Christian proprietary need, and most standard Earthly ones as well, would be just up the block. Once upon it, the store is hard to miss: Music blares out into the street, and Jesus merchandise fills the front windows. God’s Dollar Store doesn’t mess around with first impressions.

A combination of spiritual salve and pragmatic provider, God’s Dollar Store carries the regular dollar store fare (some food, some toys, some household necessities, etc.) while also providing a large selection of diverse Christian paraphernalia. Things needed to attain salvation (Bibles and prayer guides), provide meditation (incense), and proclaim faith (T-Shirts with varying Jesus motifs), as well as a multitude of other Christian items, are all offered.

A Christian aura permeates the store. Prices are listed on the bottoms of drawings of crosses, some of which say “thank you Jesus” in red pen. The music blaring into the street is louder and more discernable inside; a version of “Our God is an Awesome God” is sung over riffing guitars and power chords, followed by a hymn set to house music. Posters and banners proclaiming God’s love and greatness line the walls. The overall tone isn’t oppressive piety but a light-hearted reveling in Christian glory; slogans on the t-shirts range from the sappy-yet-satisfying “Life is Fragile — Handle with Prayer” framed with pictures of butterflies to the sort-of-obnoxious-but-good-hearted Ford symbol with the F turned into an L.

Michelle and David Williams have been running the store for fifteen months, and work hard to make each customer feel satisfied, beginning with Michelle greeting each customer with a “God bless you, how are you doing?” when someone enters. They also ably assist customers who are unable to find some item they want in the store, be it a specific spiritual requirement or a favorite kind of toilet paper. “We’ve acquired a reputation for being able to get anything, whether it’s spiritual or practical,” David says without boastfulness in his voice. Lack of pride is an enviable quality, but it must be hard for the proprietors of God’s Dollar Store to cultivate. 2150 E. 71st St. (Ben Oren)

The Best Smells
The Scentuary
Beware the snake oil salesman, children. Be wary around the peddler of “ancient Chinese herbs” who promises to make the worries of the world melt away and induce an otherworldly superhuman calm. The man on the soapbox, shouting in rhyming couplets the mental and spiritual benefits of his specially formulated fragrance, can only lighten your wallet and shroud you in a cloud of stinky shame. This does not mean to pass up the honest merchants, the ones who care about their customers and provide fragrances which really do assist in getting through the day to day drudgery of living. In short, it means not to overlook The Scentuary, whose commitment to wellness through aromatic therapy is impressive.

Billing itself as the only fragrance bar in Chicago, The Scentuary is serious about providing scents which deliver not just a general uplift but a strong, calculated experience to individual customers. They are able to custom blend a scent from over 160 individual oils and fragrances to provide exactly the mental and spiritual renewals any customer may be looking for. Want to feel a burst of self-esteem while getting a dash of intellectual stimulus? Try the combination of Jasmine, Geranium, Green Tea, and Bergamot. The custom concoction can be made to be worn on the person or waft throughout a room or house.

Besides custom-blending scents, The Scentuary offers a wide range of pre-made scented cleansers of the body and mind. Body oils and lotions are made with all-natural ingredients and can be used in combination with various soaps which fight acne, open pores and exfoliate the skin. Candles, incense and other alternative methods of delivering scents are also available.

Perhaps the most surprising service offered is the chance to customize a scent for a party. Given measurements on the color scheme and theme of the party, The Scentuary can create an aromatic dress that perfectly fits the occasion. The consultation for this “Escentual Affair”, and all other business, is done in a tasteful room decorated with soft chairs, plush sofas and, of course, a color-matching array of scents. Far from being a modern-day snake oil emporium, The Scentuary is the real deal, delivering on its promise to enrich the lives of its customers through aromatic stimulation. 2154 E. 71st St. Sunday, 2pm-5pm; Tuesday, by appointment; Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30am-6:30pm. (773)643-1425. www.thescentuary.com (Ben Oren)

Best Italian Food On the Go
Italian Fiesta Pizzeria
Giordano’s and Leona’s are fine, quality places, but for Italian food that’s just as good for half the time and money, go to Italian Fiesta Pizzeria. Although there’s no place to sit, there’s no need, as the food comes out lickety-split. The portions are huge, and the food is maybe a notch above places with more atmosphere. Little touches like butter in the pizza crust and meat sauce to top the already-stuffed Italian sausage and beef sandwich makes this place worth traveling the extra mile. Additional niceties only further establish the Pizzeria as a must: pizzas come with such esoteric ingredients as shrimp and black anchovies, side orders include red pepper seeds and grated cheese, and the garlic bread doesn’t paint garlic spread on bread but uses, incredibly, real minced garlic. Pound for pound, cent for cent, ingredient for ingredient, Italian Fiesta Pizzeria should get just as much traffic as those other places with “tables”. 1919 E. 71st St. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-1am; Friday-Saturday, 11am-2am. (773)684-2222. (Ben Oren)