There’s a common question asked to visitors of Englewood and Auburn-Gresham: “Do you know where you are?” If you’re walking in the neighborhoods west of the Dan Ryan and south of 55th, and a worried, well-meaning passerby thinks you might not be from the area, you might get asked yourself.
Look around. You might see a train rumbling on rusted Green Line tracks passing over an empty lot of cracked pavement. Or smoke rising from an oil drum at a neighborhood barbecue. Or what was once the South Side Masonic Temple, a brick colossus with white paint flecking from the columns and windowsills decaying behind a wire fence, a thick crop of weeds breaking through the mortar.
If you’re not careful, the histories of Englewood, West Englewood, and Auburn-Gresham can read like bottomless tragedies. The Great Depression hit Englewood and West Englewood hard, and real estate values dropped as buildings aged and resources dried up. The Black Belt expanded southward and many African American families moved in to take the place of the European immigrants who had migrated farther west. But racist housing and lending practices prevented any substantial investment in the communities and contributed to their decline. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in the early 1960s displaced thousands and drew the east-west color line deeper into the city’s geography. Auburn-Gresham, located farther south, has historically been home to a slightly wealthier community living in single-family homes. Nonetheless, all three neighborhoods have suffered from violence, crime, and a withering population over the last forty years.
And yet, there are signs of renewal. Residents are mobilizing to stop gangs and bring peace to the streets. At St. Sabina’s Church, a pastor and his congregation have campaigned against drug use and founded a number of social service organizations. And in 2007, Kennedy-King College opened, bringing in educational opportunities and spurring some of the first commercial construction in years.
Keep looking. There are townhouses, barbershops, a new college campus, and churches with committed congregations. A man looks under the hood of his car and tinkers with the engine. Neighbors chat on stoops and under streetlights. Learn where you are.
Best Hot Dog
Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots
The procession of car dealerships along Western Avenue is briefly interrupted by a white picket fence emblazoned with large, candy-red capital letters proclaiming, “FAT JOHNNIES.” Next to the fence, an unassuming white shack stands, its roof slumping a little. This roadside hut is a 39-year-old family-run institution, serving up some of the best hot dogs in the city, as some fans boldly argue. The son and nephew of the actual Fat Johnnie now manage the hot dog stand while living in the home next door. When we asked Johnnie’s son what their best dog is, his cousin quickly interjected, “the mighty dog, no doubt.” The mighty dog is an all-beef hot dog stuffed inside a cornmeal and beef tamale, stuffed in a poppy-seed bun and dressed with cheese. For a quarter they will add the Chicago-dog works–a sliced cucumber seasoned with celery salt, fresh tomatoes, diced onions, and Chicago-river-green relish. Instead of fries they serve nachos dripping with cheese and smothered in chili. Wash it all down with a suicide, the fountain drink all-in-one sampler popular with rebellious ten-year-olds. Yet far from inducing suicide, sitting at a Fat Johnnies picnic table scarfing their tamales and dogs will have you affirming life, Johnny, and da Bears. 7232 S. Western Ave. Monday-Saturday, 11am-6:30pm; Sunday, 11am-3:30pm. (773)737-6294 (J. Michael Eugenio)
Best Take-Out Soul Food
BJ’s Market and Bakery
Though it looks like a Boston Market, don’t hold that against BJ’s. With striped awnings and an oval logo, and a case filled with metal trays of American home-style dishes, BJ’s does resemble that other chicken chain. But BJ’s is a local business through and through. John Meyer, the owner and head chef of BJ’s worked at restaurants across the city before starting a business in his own neighborhood in 2001. The restaurant’s name is taken from the first letters of Meyers’ two children’s names. Like any soul food joint worth its salt, BJ’s has thick, flavorful rib tips and fried chicken. The mustard-fried catfish is their signature: its breaded exterior is slightly crispy but the fish stays tender. The dish comes with a special tangy-sweet mustard sauce for dipping and your choice of sides, but good luck choosing! They’ve got baked mac’n’cheese, black-eyed peas, collard greens with smoked turkey, buttery corn, and sweet potatoes that taste like Thanksgiving. There’s ample seating, but few customers use it. Most seem to come in after work and place a big order to go. With its comforting, slow-cooked staples and fast service, BJ’s offers take-out that almost passes for a home-cooked meal. 1156 W. 79th St. Monday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm; Sunday, 7am-8pm. (773)723-7000. bjsmarket.com (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Food of the Gods
Reese’s Gourmet Mana
Located at 1022 Â½ W. 63rd, this little pudding shop is–as the “half” in its address implies–a hole-in-the wall in the truest sense. The exterior of the shop is basically just a yellow banner hung over a gated door. Inside, the walls are bare, except for a dry erase board with the daily flavors and a poster of the Ten Commandments. The store’s simplicity befits the divine product they peddle: a custard-like pudding garnished with Nilla wafers called mana. The classic “banana mana” is silky and sweet with slices of real banana at the bottom of the cup. The orange turtle gives off only the subtlest citrus notes, so the nutty caramel-chocolate topping really shines. When we asked what kind to buy, the jovial woman behind the counter detailed the virtues of each variety. While she’s normally a chocolate woman, the lemon mana is “one-of-the kind,” while the strawberry mana makes her feel “all tingly,” just like her beau does. These delicious treats are only $3 per cup or two for $5, so there’s no harm in trying more than one kind. In Englewood’s food desert, mana does seem like a godsend for the gourmand. 1022 Â½ W. 63rd St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-7pm. (773)418-0790. reesesmanaflavors.com (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Roller Rink
MLK, Jr. Park & Family Entertainment Center
With no grass, trees, streetlamps, playgrounds, or benches, this isn’t your average park. Instead of a sun above, you’ll find disco lights, and the show-stopping moves happen don’t happen on the court, but on roller skates. Entry prices vary, but go as low as 50 cents on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Skate rentals are reasonable, too. And though it is an astounding value, forget about the prices–the experience is golden. You rent skates, get out on the waxed hardwood floor, and wobble-glide in circles for hours like you would at any other roller rink. But here, they don’t play lame jock jams or moldy oldies. The DJ plays hip-hop radio hits, and couples skate hand-in-hand to a Weezy track. Kids wearing adorable birthday tutus try to stay balanced, while the older skaters will make your jaw drop as you watch them pirouette and get low. “I’ve been coming here since I was a shawty,” said one of the most gifted skaters. He pointed at a group of kids struggling to reach the joystick of a claw machine even with the boost from their skates, whom earlier in the night he had taught a couple of moves. “Like them shawties.” 1219 W. 76th St. See website for schedule of skating times and entry fees. (312)747-2602. mlkskating.com (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Garden of Contradictory Power Relations
An English garden and a monument to prominent African-American figures seem odd bedfellows, but they come together nicely in Renaissance Park. Once a derelict lot at 79th and Throop, the park was built in 2000 as a symbol and reflection of the revitalization of the neighborhood. The half-block of well-maintained grounds makes for a good picnic spot, while benches offer ideal seating for a good read. Neatly trimmed hedges form geometric patterns, while colorful flowers are a delight to the eyes and nose. At the center of the park, a modern black granite sculpture fountain honors a number of heroes with ties to the South Side. A pyramid of large granite stones are engraved with the names of a number of prominent African-American figures–Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Mahalia Jackson, and Harold Washington, to name a few. Water trickles down from the pyramid to a granite pillar on the other side of the monument, a statement on the power of role models to inspire future change. Judging by the signs of rebirth around Auburn-Gresham, the legacy of community activism and leadership flows on. 1300 W. 79th St. Open dusk-dawn. (312)747-7661 (Rachel Wiseman)