Best of the South Side 2010

Around the turn of the last century, workers and businessmen attracted by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition settled down in Woodlawn and South Shore. New homes and brick apartment buildings were built for the predominately upper-middle-class white Protestant residents. The streets of South Shore are filled with remnants of the first decades of the 20th century, with houses designed in styles ranging from prairie home to Renaissance revival, and the most striking structures in Woodlawn are the churches that sprouted up during its initial development. But the buildings here have borne witness to a history far different from the one imagined by their architects.

The immigration of blacks to the South Side caused racial discrimination to flare and produced tensions that are still playing out around questions of gentrification. Many whites fled to the suburbs, taking their wealth and political power with them, and leaving the neighborhood to suffer recurring aftershocks of severe economic depression. The socialite attitude of South Shore largely faded, and was replaced by the working-class ethic of steel mills. Both neighborhoods have seen times of struggle: they were on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Chicago, and continue to battle poverty, crime, and gang violence.

Still relatively poor and politically neglected, both neighborhoods have seen a hard-earned period of reinvigoration over the past 20 years, and a visit to either of these historically and culturally rich communities will show that even in hard times, the raw pasts of Woodlawn and South Shore are giving way to a brighter era.

best experiment
Experimental Station

Founded in 2002, the Experimental Station aims to create a social and artistic nexus that facilitates cultural diversity and discourse within the local community, while simultaneously supporting independent initiatives such as music and publishing. Besides hosting a popular farmers market every Saturday from 9am to 2pm, the Experimental Station offers low-rent studio space and houses several community development efforts. Through the Woodlawn Buying Club, area residents chip in on wholesale orders of organic and natural foods, helping to make good food affordable. The station also hosts Backstory Café, a small coffee shop and restaurant that serves reasonably priced organic dishes. A neighborhood journalism project, Invisible Institute, focuses on building robust public debate out of neglected local issues. The Station’s Blackstone Bicycle Works provides affordable bikes and cheap repairs to the community, while at the same time employing and instructing community youth in the art of bicycle repair and maintenance. Check the Station’s website often for lectures, art exhibitions, and concerts by local musicians. 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. (773)241-6044. (Alec Mitrovich)

best olive branch
Woodlawn Collaborative

It’s a poorly kept secret that the University of Chicago has a historically tense relationship with its surrounding communities; we’ve seen it flare up most recently in the UofC’s continuing efforts to expand its real estate with new facilities in Woodlawn. Tired of the divisions, a group of UofC students and Woodlawn residents decided create an independent forum for community involvement and cooperation. The Woodlawn Collaborative is housed in the First Presbyterian Church at 64th Street and Kimbark Avenue, and is designed to be a space where community groups and student organizations can converge and tackle a variety of educational, political, and artistic projects. There is a roving calendar of events and activities hosted by partners of the collaborative, which range from Blue Gargoyle Tutoring to Jelly (a non-profit that teaches juggling) to Students for a Democratic Society. Less than two years old, the Collaborative has quickly established itself as one of the most prominent platforms for cooperation between UofC students and residents of Woodlawn. 6400 S. Kimbark Ave. (Isaac Dalke)

best coffee for a cause
Backstory Café

The most commonly accessed component of the Experimental Station, Backstory Café was designed as a communal gathering place in an effort to effect real social change through casual encounters. Sitting inside the small café, it’s easy to tell that the establishment is being used as it was intended to be: conversations about grassroots organizations and community goings-on can always be eavesdropped on, and the clientele is usually diverse. It’s easy to see how such an environment could make anyone’s coffee break more interesting. Aside from beverages, Backstory serves tasty sandwiches, soups, and salads made from organic ingredients and halal meats, with vegetarian and vegan options abounding. There is also a used book selection, provided in part by Powell’s Books, all of which are available for intermittent in-store reading. If you’re looking to escape commercial monotony and support a local, progressive café, this is your place. 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. Monday-Friday, 11am-4pm. (773)324-9987. (Alec Mitrovich)

best no-bullshit burger

The menu at That’s-A-Burger is sprawled over two walls of the restaurant, a carnivore’s delight of sausage, chili, chicken, turkey, and other staples of a meat lover’s diet. However intimidating this might be, if you ever find yourself at That’s-A-Burger there is probably only one thing you’re interested in: the burger. TAB doesn’t produce a particularly witty or creative variation on the standard hamburger; rather, they’ve elevated that simple form to almost platonic perfection, heights rarely reached by a humble neighborhood burger joint. While long waits for a TAB burger are not uncommon, even when there are few customers, the reward is well worth the delay. All burgers are cooked to order, and the handcrafted care is apparent. In this era of frozen patties, burger assembly lines, and other mainstays of fast food, eating a well-seasoned burger with a side of hand-cut fries is a delicious change of pace. 2134 E. 71st St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-7pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-9pm. (773)493-2080 (Isaac Dalke)

best ex-country club
South Shore Cultural Center

Replete with a ballroom, stage, solarium, gardens, and a top-notch dining room, the South Shore Cultural Center would seem more apt in the hands of a monarch than in those of the Chicago Parks District. Indeed, the center saw its share of Chicago elitism in its early days as the once Protestant-whites-only South Shore Country Club. Those days are thankfully long gone. Today, the center holds classes ranging from ballet to kickboxing to ceramics, houses a professional culinary institute, hosts a variety of cultural shows and exhibitions, and can be rented for private events (President Obama and First Lady Michelle held their wedding reception there). If you can’t make a class or performance, the grounds are still worth a visit. With a golf course, horse stables, nature reserve and bird refuge, small beach, and a beautiful Mediterranean Revival-style clubhouse, the park is magnificent. 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Varying hours. (773)256-0149. (Isaac Dalke)

best history lesson
Rainbow Beach

Chicago prides itself on its lakefront. The well-groomed network of beaches and parks that line Lake Michigan’s shores are a beautiful background for summer’s blazing afternoons. The beaches’ beauty also means that they see a lot of traffic on a daily basis–but if you look hard enough, there are still stretches of calm. Take Rainbow Beach: spanning over five city blocks and outfitted with a concession stand, bathing house, and field house, it’s one of the largest beaches in the city, and receives considerably less traffic than some of its better-known counterparts in Lincoln Park or downtown areas. The beach also has some fascinating history. It was once an area of racial conflict, largely avoided by black beachgoers because of the hostility of white lifeguards. In July of 1961, an interracial community coalition that included members of the NCAAP youth counsel staged a “freedom wade-in,” a quiet but significant precursor to the techniques of the civil rights movement. Grab a towel and some sunscreen, and take in the beauty of the lake, the history of the beach, and one of the most complete views of the Chicago skyline you are likely to find. 3111 E. 77th St. (312)745-1479. (Isaac Dalke)

best way to eat your vegetables

Standing out colorfully from its surroundings and boasting an equally distinct cuisine, Yedidah King’s globally inspired vegan soul food attracts customers from all around the city. Dishes such as basmati rice casserole, sweet potatoes, smoked greens, baked beans, and even stir-fry grace the eclectic and ever-changing menu. The $10 daily special includes a main course and your choice of three heaping spoonfuls of sides. Yah’s also offers desserts and freshly made juices. But be warned: if blueberry cheesecake (vegan, of course), banana pudding, or pineapple lemonade intrigues your palate, it’s best to arrive early, as many of the restaurant’s sugary selections get snagged up by lunch customers. Service is laid back, but the complimentary cornbread makes the wait enjoyable. Vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike can be more than satisfied with Yah’s hearty entrees, diverse sides, and inspired sweets. 2347 E. 75th Street. Monday-Saturday, 9am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-7pm. (773)759-8517 (Nandini Ramakrishnan)