Back of the Yards

Just southwest of the former Union Stockyards, there’s a neighborhood that, for better or for worse, will always be defined by them. The Back of the Yards, one piece of the larger New City area, is bordered by 39th, 55th, Halsted and the railroad tracks along Leavitt. While the area is still heavily blue-collar, the grim realities of stockyard life immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” have drifted off into history.

Settled in the late 19th century by Irish, German, and Czech butchers, the area saw a surge in immigration from Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia at the turn of the century. During and after the Great Depression, these culturally distinct micro-communities united, at work and on the block. The Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee fought for wages and civil rights in the plants, while the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council collaborated with parishes and fought for improved housing, and henceforth became a model for grassroots organizing across the country.

Since the meatpacking plants closed, the face of the neighborhood has changed. Occupation has ceased to define the area. Taquerías and bars are open most of the day and night, factories test out green technologies, and community groups organize 5K races through the very stockyards once stained with blood and grime.

Best Futuristic Factory
The Plant
Opportunity, for most people, would not be found in a retired meatpacking facility whose rooms are filled with scrap metal and fragmented building materials. But John Edel and his dedicated volunteers see potential in those piles: they are in the process of creating Chicago’s first vertical farm. The repurposed building will eventually house a sustainable, connected group of enterprises–including a beer brewery, hydroponic growing rooms, kitchens for lease to independent cooks, and a souped-up military jet to provide the building’s power. On the tour, you’ll peek into a room on the second floor, where layers of debris reach almost to the ceiling, giving a good picture of what the place looked like before. Edel’s commitment to reusing materials meant they had to sort out what was useful before any building could begin. How will these scraps be transformed into such an eco-wonderland? Well, I won’t go into the details of what my tour guide called the “physics magic” that will occur when the building is fully occupied–but a visit to the space will make you believe it’s possible. 1400 W. 46th St. Tours Monday, Thursday and Saturday at 2pm.  $10 suggested donation (Rachel Lazar)

Best Flea Market
“You can get anything there,” a neighborhood council member told me. “New, used, or abused.” Spanning nearly a full city block on Archer Avenue, Swap-O-Rama is a one-stop shop where you can pick up everyday supermarket items like fresh produce or shampoo. A labyrinth of shops spill out from the market’s main big-box, giving an ad hoc feel to the bazaar. But some vendors seem to have really settled into the place–a jewelry store has its own security system set up while one woman sells pet food as her son watches TV. Outside, people sell a more motley assortment of wares: an older man revs a chainsaw by a row of dirty vacuums; one vendor displays granola bars next to a Disney princess lamp. And then there’s some stuff you might not want to buy: tons of bikes and bike parts look like they could be stolen, counterfeit films and iPods abound, and men sit and flirt with the woman at a “Free Massage” stand, where a sign guarantees there are “no strings attached.” Swap-O-Rama is the place where you can buy almost anything. But it doesn’t mean you should. 4100 S. Ashland Ave. Tuesday, 7am-2pm. Thursday, 7am-2pm. Saturday-Sunday, 7am-4pm. (708)344-7300 (Rachel Lazar)

Best Yogurt
Paletería Lindo Michocán
Don’t let the line keep you away. The homemade $2.75 yogurt–their most popular item–is more than worth the wait. The yogurt has a thin consistency but isn’t too runny, while the taste recalls sweet milk rather than the store-bought variety. Get your yogurt loaded with guava, bananas, strawberries, granola, and coconut shavings or sprinkles. If you’d rather go for a popsicle or ice cream, you’ll need time to settle on a flavor: there are over 40 kinds of popsicles alone. They also make sundaes, aguas naturales, chocolate-covered frozen bananas (with granola on top), and saltier options, like Cheetos smothered in nacho cheese along with Mexican-style hoagies. It’s also a nice place to sit; sometimes a guitar player will wander in from the street, and kids will sing or dance in time. Feel free to wave your popsicle along. 1733 W. 47th St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11am-11pm. (773)475-7506 (Rachel Lazar)

Best Hidden Taquería
Pepe’s Tacos
People don’t come Supermercado La Internacional just to go grocery shopping. They walk past the registers and all the way down the aisles just to line up at the little taqueria counter tucked away in back. Paco’s Tacos, as it is known, has a short menu: five kinds of meat tacos, one cheese-stuffed pepper taco…and that’s it. But when tacos are $2 apiece, made in a matter of minutes and commonly lauded as the best in the city, you’ll be happy with any choice. Most people grab theirs to go, as seating is limited–a framed sign says the capacity shouldn’t exceed 15. Drinks come from the supermarket fridges, and you eat on paper plates, but locals and visitors consider this to be the peak of Mexican dining in the area. Many supermarkets run similar operations, where employees alternate between the register and the grill, but this is the one that can draw a crowd. 4556 S. Ashland Ave. Daily, 9am-8:30pm. (773)523-9745 (Rachel Lazar)

Best Family-Style Mexican Food 
La Cecina
Although the Back of the Yards is full of great Mexican restaurants, La Cecina stands out for the quality of its ingredients and its relaxed atmosphere. It’s popular among locals, so service can be a little slow when the place is crowded, but the waiters are very friendly and patient, which is nice when your Spanish menu-reading skills are a little rusty. The tortillas were the standout; they were obviously freshly made, and arrived wrapped in a white, embroidered cloth napkin. Everything else was fresh tasting and flavorful too, from the vinegar and chili sauce smothered shrimp fajita, accompanied by rice and vegetables, to the quesadilla de flor de calabaza, filled with zucchini and other vegetables. 1934 W. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 8am-10pm. (773)927-9444 (Rachel Lazar)