In Auburn-Gresham, the streets are filled with renaissance. The word pops up all over the neighborhood. On 79th Street, a park earned the name from Mayor Daley’s dedication on its opening day, when he described Auburn-Gresham as entering a “new era, a renaissance.” This spirit simmers beneath the community. On sidewalks, there are sections of pavement etched with short statements such as “strength and humility” and “intelligence and interdependence.” Today 79th is Auburn-Gresham’s busiest commercial strip and Chicago’s busiest bus route. On a warm summer day, residents sit contently on their porches, mothers watch their young children play.
Yet a renaissance presupposes a decline. In the late nineteenth century, Irish American railroad workers flocked to the area as the first railroad lines came through, setting off a long population boom. The population almost tripled in the 1920’s, driving the construction of the distinctive bungalows for which the neighborhood is still known today. With the second great migration, racial tensions began to flare across the South Side–Auburn Gresham was not at the forefront, but it was not immune to the overt and institutional racism of the time. Businesses began to leave the community, and crime rates began to rise.
In the 90’s, members of the community decided to take action, including newcomers Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s and then-Alderman Terry Peterson. Then, the word renaissance started coming up a lot.
Best Peachy Treat
BJ’s Market and Bakery
Soft, flakey, crumbly, and sweet–the peach cobbler at BJ’s Market and Bakery is a consistent customer favorite for its perfect strike between fruit and cinnamon sugar crumb. With peaches in season, the warm gooey mass is sweet and tangy. Served cafeteria-style in a glass bowl, its mushy texture allows it to be easily consumed with a knife and fork. In addition to peach cobbler, BJ’s also offers typical southern fare such as ribs, fried chicken, and catfish along with daily breakfast specials. Though peach cobbler is a staple in Southern cuisine and the South Side features a surfeit of Southern food, BJ’s peach cobbler is definitely a cut above the rest. BJ’s Market & Bakery, 1156 W 79th St. Monday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm; Sunday 7am-8pm. (773)723-7000. bjsmarket.com (Sarah Miller)
Best Farm to Table Three-in-One Eatery
Salaam Restaurant and Bakery
In 1995, Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan opened the Salaam Bakery. In its heyday, the looming crescent and rotating star could be seen for blocks and the lines were always long. Yet the bakery closed its doors for unknown reasons five years after it opened in 1995. After a long hiatus, the bakery reopened in the summer of 2012 after a reported $5 million dollar restoration. Today, Salaam Restaurant and Bakery features three venues in one space–the bakery, the Crescent Cafe, and upstairs, a more upscale restaurant. The Crescent Cafe and bakery both feature highlights like the tasty and healthy white fish sandwich and the sweet bean pie, which is similar to sweet potato pie, but with more protein. Salaam Restaurant and Bakery, 700 W. 79th St. Bakery open daily, 7am-6pm. Restaurant Monday-Friday, 11am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-6pm. (773)324-6005 (Sarah Miller)
Best Piece of Solitude
As cars whiz by on 79th street, the main commercial strip of Auburn-Gresham, the onlookers in Renaissance Park seem unfazed by the noise, choosing to hear the sound of birds chirping and to enjoy the colorful flowers in the park instead. The half-block park was originally built in 2000 to symbolize revitalization in the community. A modern granite fountain sculpture honors a number of African American heroes, including Harold Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and Toni Morrison. The fountain consists of a pyramid of granite spheres meant to represent prominent African American heroes, each of which has made significant contributions to the African American community in their field of work. The water trickles from the stones towards a granite pedestal, representing the flow of love and positive energy in the community. In the middle of the park, there’s a more personal memorial. A display of roses and a plaque sits in the middle of the garden–a haunting tribute to numerous children within the community who have been murdered in recent years. Renaissance Park unites heroes and victims, living and dead. 1300 W 79th St. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/Renaissance-Park (Sarah Miller)
Best Community Anchor
In April 2011, Father Pfleger of St. Sabina’s was suspended from his ministry by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Pfleger refused to abandon his flock, claiming he would leave the Catholic Church if forced to leave the parish where he has been since 1981. In his 20-year plus tenure, Father Pfleger has established an Employment Resource Center, a Social Service Center, and an Elders Home. In addition to providing drug rehabilitation, counseling, employment resources, housing for the elderly, and violence awareness, St. Sabina’s also supports Catholic Charities and hosts a number of community events in collaboration with a number of community organizations. For instance, this past July, St. Sabina allowed the South Shore and Englewood Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Consortium to host a community resource fair in the basement of St. Sabina’s. Whether it’s getting arrested at an anti-gun protest or openly supporting the ordination on women, Pfleger has not been afraid to make a splash. In May 2011, Father Pfleger was reinstated. Saint Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th Place. (773)483-4300. saintsabina.org (Sarah Miller)