When Chicago was hog butcher to the world, America’s hog butchers lived in Back of the Yards. The neighborhood takes its name from the adjacent site of the Union Stockyards, which ran on the fat and gristle of bovine slaughter from 1865 to 1971. Today, Back of the Yards runs from 39th to 55th street and from the Leavitt train tracks to Halsted, directly adjacent to the current (and less brutal) Stockyards industrial park.
Back of the Yards originally housed the predominantly Eastern European immigrants who performed the Union Stockyards’ gruesome labor. Over time, the area’s squalor metamorphosed into the same blue-collar grit that remains today. The transition was hard won. Organizations like the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council have saved the area from the putrescence that Upton Sinclair famously chronicled in his novel, “The Jungle.” The council, founded by left-wing radical Saul Alinsky in 1939, cut its teeth fighting against the establishment for the betterment of Back of the Yards’ residents, although it now mainly funds community building programs and initiatives.
Since the stockyards closed in 1971, the old Eastern European stock has moved out and been replaced by Mexican immigrants. Two opulent cathedrals, originally built by Polish Catholics around the turn of the century, nourish the community spiritually, while myriad taquerias and a large tortilla factory provide culinary sustenance. Vendors sell sno-cones on the street corners in the summer, and families amble by, virtually all conversing in Spanish. The site of the old stockyards now hosts a wind turbine built to power a fresh produce company, while other start-ups try to go green on the soil where blood once flowed.
Best Cowboy Store
Sanchez Brothers Western Wear
Just a mile away from the cattle-decimating Union Stockyards stands Sanchez Brothers Western Wear, a store specializing (fittingly) in cowboy clothing. The store features multitudes of cowboy hats of snowflake uniqueness–no two are exactly alike. Some are encrusted with rhinestone; others have ostentatious patterns, while many are simple and leathery, hearkening back to a fashion trend circa 1870. Sanchez Brothers even offers their own hat-shaping service for those cowboys and cowgirls fixing to lasso up some style. Pointed boots also find purchase in Sanchez Brothers; glittery cowgirl heels triumph over boots of the more rustic and staid variety. If you’re looking to wrangle up a western look, Sanchez Brothers is an excellent partner in ranch attire. 1942 W. 47th St. (773)254-4090 (Josh Kovensky)
Best Better Than Jerkey Dried Meat
Nestled along 47th Street, in the far western corner of Back of the Yards, the Homestyle Mexican Restaurant La Cecina offers Mexican cuisine straight out of your madre’s kitchen. La Cecina, meaning “dried meat” in Spanish, serves exactly that, amidst other delicious delicacies. Homemade tortillas appear on every table, offering a nice floury start to your meal. Dishes to try include the queso fundido, as well as the standard fajitas, enchiladas, and tacos. The namesake dish, the Cecina, is a must-have, coming in various preparations. Service is generally speedy, although many of the waiters and waitresses expect to interact en espanol, as is the norm in the neighborhood.Â 1934 W. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 8am-10pm. (773)927-9444. (Josh Kovensky)
Best Sorcerers’ Supply Store
Botanica San Miguel Arcangel II
Not far from the eclectic cathedrals of Back of the Yards, people can feed on a different kind of spiritual nourishment from the Botanica San Miguel Arcangel II. For those not in the spiritual know, a botanica is a store that specializes in the occult, providing herbs and charms mainly for the SanterÃa religion. SanterÃa is a mixture of Roman Catholicism and traditional West African beliefs, sprinkled with Caribbean ritual by way of Cuba. Back of the Yards’ botanica is sublime in its herbal scope. A wall of roots and powders would make Professor Snape give a greasy grin, while Spanish-language books on how to resurrect dead love and dead people peek out from under the counter. A large statue of a cackling Buddha incongruously sits on the counter glass. Underneath his sublime rotundity is a cluster of candle spells, each one designed for a certain outcome. Unlucky in love? Try a love candle. Want revenge? Buy a curse candle! The list goes on. Botanica San Miguel Arcangel fills a nice niche market for Back of the Yards’ SanterÃa community, and offers a nice pit stop for any tourist of the occult. 1743 W. 47th. (773)376-1284 (Josh Kovensky)
Paleteria Lindo Michoacan
In the center of Back of the Yards’ main commercial strip on 47th Street, paletas and other Mexican deserts find purchase among neon green walls and smiling cashiers at the Paleteria Lindo Michoacan. A paleta is a kind of ice cream bar, which, instead of finding flavor in the chemical and the fatty, is made from fresh fruit or natural cream. Paletas span the range of flavors, covering the standard (strawberry, chocolate) to the foreign (guava, tamarind, hibiscus). Back of the Yards’ resident paleteria does not only house the dessert for which it is named. The traditional front of ice cream is available in a commensurately staggering array of variety as with the paletas. The restaurant also offers yogurt shakes, as well as bioticos, which are an agglomeration of fruit atop a pile of yogurt. An assortment of other cakes and desserts are available, all originating from the Mexican state of MichoacÃ¡n. If you’re in the mood for dessert or refreshment Ã la Mexico, try a paleta or bathe your tongue in a biotico. 1733 W. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 11am-10pm. (773)475-7506. (Josh Kovensky)