Best of the South Side 2010

Literally the crossing of two major railroad lines–the Illinois Central Railroad and the Lake Shore & Michigan Railroad–this historic community area has seen better days. In the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the rails ruled the city (and the nation) and Grand Crossing was king of the South Side. The trains brought a labor force of European immigrants from the North and blacks from the South; industry and trade flourished, and the neighborhood became a junction not just of steam and steel, but of cultures, as well.

The rest of the story is familiar–white flight ran its course and the railroad lost its scepter to new methods of transport. Grand Crossing tumbled off its throne. Today, though some trains still run, the neighborhood is in disrepair; streets haven’t been repaved in decades, overgrown lots dot the landscape, and most storefronts and homes are in need of–at the very least–a fresh coat of paint. But underneath Grand Crossing’s worn exterior, culture still runs deep.

best serious soul food
Army & Lou’s
Established in 1945, Army & Lou’s bills itself as one of the oldest black-owned restaurants in the Midwest. Maybe, but the thing that really sticks in your mind about this place is its unbelievably good food. As might be expected, the fried chicken is great, but if you’re going to order one thing, go for one of their phenomenal side dishes. The velvety, melt-in-your-mouth macaroni and cheese is nothing short of heavenly, and while the collard greens look a little soggy, they’re perfectly seasoned with bacon and are quite great. Anything you eat here should also be accompanied by a corn muffin (or two); even restaurants south of the Mason-Dixon line don’t make ’em this fluffy and sweet. Food from Army & Lou’s can be enjoyed at their quaint Grand Crossing location, or you can call ahead and order take-out. One word of advice, though–this food is not for calorie counters. 422 E. 75th Street. Open daily, 9am-10pm. (773)483-3100 (Clare Fentress)

best venue for plays you’ve never heard of
eta Creative Arts Foundation
Although it’s easily the South Side’s most established theater venue, eta Creative Arts Foundation is more than just a stage. Since 1971, eta has studied and celebrated the African-American experience in the performing arts by offering not only an impressive program of shows each year (four mainstage productions, along with a teen-billed series that runs on Saturday afternoons), but also adult theater classes, teaching workshops for arts educators, children’s summer camps, partnerships with neighborhood schools, and showcase opportunities for up-and-coming writers. eta is dedicated to casting black actors and actresses and producing works almost exclusively by underappreciated black playwrights. And although eta is located on a rather forlorn strip of South Chicago Avenue, the inside of the building is warm and vibrant; an art gallery and a large office area flank the theater. It’s unlikely you’d be able to walk in and not see something worth stopping for.  7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (773)752-3955. (Clare Fentress)

best broken electronics

The Cheap Store
There’s a layer of dust covering everything. Dirt is smudged on the floor, on the shelves, on the items on the shelves. A significant amount of said items are broken. No, this isn’t your grandma’s basement–it’s the Cheap Store. True to its name, this is a store where things are cheap. Located on a busy block of a run-down street lined with shops and cell phone stores (named Commercial Avenue, aptly), the Cheap Store sells everything from strollers missing a wheel (or two) to neat (if stained) furniture that will probably count as vintage in a couple years. But don’t let the dingy atmosphere scare you off–there are treasures to be found. On a recent visit, digging through a pile of junk uncovered some old-fashioned trunks ($10 each), and a dubious-looking clothing rack yielded choice finds (nothing more than $5). Some of the suspiciously inexpensive stereo systems probably work, too…but don’t bet on it. (N.b.: the Cheap Store is actually just southeast of Grand Crossing, in the South Chicago community area.) 8936 S. Commercial Ave. (773)734-0001 (Clare Fentress)