Flying into Midway Airport, travelers catch a glimpse of a quaint scene of Americana–white lawn furniture, above-ground pools, and soccer balls abandoned in backyards. Quivering within the airplane’s jet stream, the mid-century homes vanish just as they appear within reach. While the air terminal is just a stopover on many flyers’ trips, the neighborhoods surrounding Midway–West Lawn, Clearing, and West Elsdon among them–continue to offer a comfortable if not quiet refuge.
Before the airport was built, the railroad drew working families to the area west of the Grand Trunk tracks. The industrial plants in Clearing provided jobs, and immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Lithuania streamed in. To this day, West Lawn remains a small but vibrant cultural center for Lithuanians in Chicago and beyond–home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and one of the only Lithuanian-language printing presses in the country.
The pace of growth quickened during World War II when the airport expanded and factories were put to work for the war effort. One-story bungalows popped up in rows, the rising middle class seeking the neighborhood’s grassy lawns and tree-lined streets. But the population explosion was matched by an outburst of violence. Ethnic and class tensions escalated over the integration of the neighborhood and in 1946, erupted into race riots at 60th Street and Karlov.
The demographics shifted in the last quarter of the 20th century, but these neighborhoods retain their ties to the American dream. There is now a sizable Mexican community–in West Lawn and West Elsdon Hispanics make up 50% of the population–while Arab families and businesses are moving in. Though the homes, which in the 1950s surely must have been pictures of the future, are now showing signs of wear, the Midway area remains a place for families and ambitions to touch down and then take off.
Best Plantain Sandwich
A quiet restaurant with fans lazily spinning overhead and fake palm trees in planters, Kapeekoo doesn’t feel like a destination vacation to the Caribbean. But order a jibarito and it’ll taste like you’re there. A sandwich with fried plantains instead of bread comes hot and not too salty, and is filled with your choice of meat, vegetables, and cheese. Ask for the chili sauce on the side, which brightens the salty-savory flavors with spice. The sweet plantains are tender and perfectly caramelized, and the beans are well seasoned. The list of exotic offerings can be daunting, but our waiter patiently explained the flavors and textures of the dishes we didn’t recognize. “Careful,” he cautioned as he brought out our freshly fried guava cheese empanada, “the insides are, like, 300 degrees.” Wait for the molten sugar to cool before washing it down with some coconut soda. 6336 S. Pulaski Rd. Tuesday-Friday, 11am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday, 12:30pm-9pm. (773)284-9400. kapeekoo.comÂ (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Cheap Socks
The Sock Shoppe
Socks don’t get much respect. They get worn thin until they look like Swiss cheese, lost in the wash, and totally forsaken during sandal season (unless you’re from Vermont). Too frequently they’re afterthoughts on jaunts to the mall, always playing second fiddle to the hot new pair of kicks you bought with them. But one store on 63rd and Pulaski has been giving socks their due for the last 42 years. The Sock Shoppe carries a wide selection of different knits, shapes, and sizes, and since many of the socks for sale are factory irregulars, they’re super cheap. Neon cutout signs list the prices in permanent marker: three pairs of wool thermal socks for under $6–even cheaper than you’ll find online–and multiple sets of funky decorative socks for even less. They also sell loungewear, plain T-shirts, and uniform elements. But for the best deal, stick to the socks. 4012 W. 63rd St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-7pm; Sunday, 10am-7pm. (773)582-4787 (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Old Fashioned Five-and-Dime
J & R Variety Store
Like that photograph of your mustachioed uncle from the ‘70s, J & R Variety gives off a comforting air of nostalgia. Bright floral frocks are displayed on the wood-shingled wall above racks of aprons and sweatshirts. Hanging from the ceiling, smiling paper sun decorations shine over the dimly lit aisles. J & R Variety is one of a dying breed of five-and-dime stores that were once frequently found in the city and sold everything from clothes to pots and pans, sewing materials to toy soldiers. Now, big box mammoths like Walmart and Target have made these mom and pop shops almost obsolete. But J & R holds on. It’s still owned and operated by the family that has worked at the store since 1956. And though some of their wares look as vintage as the dÃ©cor, they’ve got all the modern necessities for your home. But the friendly service by the owner and his daughter, quirky plastic swan planters, and typewriter paper supplies make every shopping trip seem like you’re traveling in time. 6318 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Friday, 9:30am-6pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 11am-4pm. (773)735-4995 (Rachel Wiseman)
Best Annals of History
The National Archives
If history is a kind of collective memory, then this low-lying building on Pulaski and 73rd is its hard drive. Here at the Chicago branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, you’ll find a treasure trove of historical documents, covering everything from westward expansion to African American history to space exploration technology. One of only fourteen locations in the country, the National Archives on Pulaski hold more than 78,000 cubic feet of hardcopy and microfilm materials, including letters, maps, photographs, and blueprints that date as far back as 1800. Though the research room can seem a bit stark, you’re not alone: Abraham Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Enrico Fermi, Lorraine Hansberry, and (gulp) Al Capone all live here in the records. If you’re doing genealogical or academic research, you might want to call ahead to make sure they have what you’re looking for. Anyone can use the archives, provided you are over the age of 14 (they prefer old things, what can we say). Make sure to bring a pencil and a notebook, you won’t want to forget what you see. 7358 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Friday, 8am-4:15pm. (773)948-9001. archives.gov/great-lakes/archives (Rachel Wiseman)