Just north of where 71st Street meets Exchange Avenue, the South Shore Cultural Center sits regally on a lush, manicured throne, with a grand, arboreal promenade leading to the entrance. The chronology of the space can be considered in parallel to the neighborhood that surrounds it. The establishment of the South Shore Country Club in 1905–Protestant whites only–coincided with the architectural and development renaissances that first developed Chicago’s South Side. As the twentieth century marched on, the Club and the neighborhood witnessed a growing middle class and a changing demographic composition. Eventually, whites left as the area became largely African American. In 1975, after a substantial and steady decline in membership, the Club was purchased by the city and deemed a historic landmark, open to all members of the community as a recreational center.
For that South Shore, you have to step off the Metra platform. The passenger’s introduction to South Shore is at the intersection of 71st Street and Jeffrey Avenue, where a large shopping center commands attention, and the comings and goings of residents by foot, car, or bus appear to defer to the punctual silvery snake. As the train slithers east, the storefronts along 71st proceed past in an unabashed parade of awnings: the B Selfish Salon and Barbershop, The Scentuary, Ming Chop Suey, the rhythm at times interrupted by boarded up windows and empty lots of gravel and grass.
The contrasts between the color and bustle of South Shore’s commercial strips, and the largely tidy and quiet residential South Shore can be striking; dig deeper into residential life, and you’ll find contrasts there as well. Old South Shore lingers in the larger-than-life mansions of the Jackson Park Highlands and the towering high rises along the Lakefront, but most South Shorers call the grid of modest streets between 71st and 79th streets home. And while these areas are a far cry from the Highlands, it is in a leisurely stroll, along the courtyards and playlots and front porches, that you’ll find the heart of this neighborhood.
Best Combination Beach and Water Treatment Facility
Rainbow Beach Park
One late summer morning at Rainbow Beach and Park, a man sang spirituals while standing at a picnic bench. The gentle idling of a Park District truck and the lapping of waves on the shore of the beach provided a backing track. A young lifeguard broke into a jig at the foot of the beach, darting in and out of the ebb and flow with controlled spasticity. Off the shore, the city presented itself in layers of regressing clarity: the trees on the shoreline adjacent to the South Shore Cultural Center, six blocks north; Promontory Point, jutting out from 55th Street; and beyond, the profile of downtown, obscured by distance and a fine mist rising from the lake. Rainbow Beach Park is a gathering place for residents of South Shore and the South Side, sporting verdant grounds, a delightful beach, and several acres of protected dunes to the south. Curious visitors may also have a glance at the Southwater Treatment Plant and enjoy the offerings of the fitness center, which range from youth clubs to sport leagues and adult classes. 3111 E. 77th St. Chicago, IL 60649. Monday-Sunday, 6am-11pm.Â (312)745-1479. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/rainbow-beach-park (Claire Withycombe)
Best Community Dialogue
eta Creative Arts
Since 1971, the eta Creative Arts Foundation has used its stage to discuss issues of contemporary and traditional social importance within the African American community, both on the South Side and nationwide. This past season, a lineup entitled “Reclaiming Community” focused on the theme of community involvement in addressing violence, with dedicated post-show discussions that encouraged audience participation. The Foundation’s upcoming season, entitled “Shades of Blues,” incorporates a blues motif into a theatrical dialogue that encompasses thematic linchpins such as religion, familial strife, and racial segregation and discrimination. Both Kemati J. Porter, producing director, and Phillip Thomas, President and CEO of eta, emphasize the role of the Foundation to, in Porter’s words, “train and employ” the next generation of artists. This nurturing of an artistic community is a part of what they see as a “spirit of advocacy” unique to the South Shore neighborhood. “We’ve become an anchor…that’s where we see our future,” says Thomas. Eta is also host to a visual arts gallery space, classrooms, and music and comedy events throughout the year, independent of their official dramatic lineup. 7558 South Chicago Ave. (773)752.3955. schedule online at etacreativearts.org (Claire Withycombe)
Best Collection of Things You Never Thought You’d See Again
Alice Johnson Resale Shop
Enter the Alice Johnson Resale Shop, and you’ll find Mr. Howard Johnson sitting calmly on a stool, hands on his knees. Careful to explain that he is not a hotel proprietor, nor an ice cream vendor, Johnson greets visitors with a pair of twinkling eyes and an unprompted opinion on happenings in the neighborhood. He is surrounded by a massive pile of stuff–mountains of delicate dishware and silverware, lightly used furniture, an ancient ladder, and a rack of clothes. Jesus weeps on the left wall. Packs of Magic: The Gathering cards are sprinkled throughout the store like Easter eggs. A Schwinn stationary bike in metallic burnt orange gleams through a fine layer of dust, aching to be carried home and enjoyed by lava lamplight. The Alice Johnson Resale Store can be easily missed by the casual pedestrian, one among many inconspicuous business fronts along 75th Street. There is a layer of grated metal on the windows, but a sign on the front door welcomes visitors; and entry will be rewarded by the imminent acquaintanceship of the amiable Mr. Johnson. 2122 E. 75th St. (Claire Withycombe)
Best Expertly Curated Record Store
The Music Experience
Dedry Jones exhales, staring at the computer screen with a furrowed brow. The payment system is not cooperating this afternoon, but he chats cheerfully about business and about last night’s in-store meet-and-greet with rising R&B star Dwele. All copies of the artist’s latest album sold out. Jones is the mastermind behind The Experience, an interview-cum-miniature-concert series which has showcased artists from Common to Patti LaBelle in venues across the city. Despite the difficulty of maintaining a brick-and-mortar record store in a digital age, he has a faithful customer base. The store is proudly analog, carrying a well-rounded selection of R&B, soul, gospel, hip hop, and the latest in rap. You’ll find new and used CDs arranged by genre, music oriented DVDs and posters, and a shelf behind the counter packed to the brim with new releases. 1959 1/2 East 73rd St.Â Monday-Saturday, 11am-6:30pm.Â (773)493-0154. amusicexperience.com (Claire Withycombe)
Best Corner Hangout
On the counter adjacent to the open kitchen, Chef Sara has collected an assortment of greeting cards, opened to reveal expressions of congratulations and wishes of good luck. Behind the counter, an apron-ed Sara greets customers as they walk in below the mural of a tree that embraces the exposed brick framing the front door. The menu offers hot and cold drinks, produce-of-the-day smoothies, and freshly prepared breakfast and lunch items. The Arnold Palmer, featuring house made lemonade, has little discernible flavor other than sweet, but the bright orange elixir is most welcome on a sweltering afternoon, as are the lax attitudes of staff and patrons alike. What catapults the spot to a region beyond good food and beverages is the atmosphere. Women in matching uniforms stop in after a round of golf at the Cultural Center. A men’s Christian discussion group meets up for bagels. Patrons tend to stick around for a couple of hours, chatting within parties and reaching over to others, exchanging laughs and neighborhood gossip from the early morning to the late afternoon. 7201 S Exchange Ave. Monday—Friday, 7am—4pm; Saturdays, 10am—3pm. (773)359-4637 (Claire Withycombe)
South Shore Cultural Center
It’s midsummer, at sunset, and the solarium at the South Shore Cultural Center smells of heady spices and echoes with infectious music and the noisy chatter of the crowd. Tonight celebrates the opening of a new art exhibit in the adjacent gallery, a display of traditional costumes worn during the annual carnival celebration in Loiza, Puerto Rico. While the center hosts similar shows throughout the year, the venue itself is a work of art: the room is regal in powder blue with gold and classical plaster detailing; a turquoise zodiac spins ahead. A fine view is to be had in practically every direction, as dusk falls on the grounds outdoors and lights come up on the chandeliers in the foyer. Once a private playground for privileged South Siders, the Cultural Center is now home to events such as Loiza, as well as a golf course, beach and nature preserve, and arts and fitness classes. Tonight, as must have been true for many nights previous, the giant windows in the solarium are open to let a breeze in and the music out. 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Monday-Friday, 8am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday 9am-4:30pm.Â (773)256-0149. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/South-Shore-Cultural-Center (Claire Withycombe)
Best Sweet Potato Pie
Give Me Some Sugah
If your sweet tooth is in need of a fix in the vicinity of South Shore, look no further than Give Me Some Sugah. Disclaimer: I am not inclined to compliment baked goods heedlessly. Moreover, I take the particular case of pie quite seriously. Sampling the sweet potato pie, served in sizable, cure-the-blues slices, is like biting into heaven, or Thanksgiving–here, they are one and the same. The buttery crust is a savory cradle for the sweet potato filling, whipped up with a hefty kick of autumnal spice. Besides pie, Give Me Some Sugah offers a wide range of fresh sweets and pastries. Cookies, brownies, cakes, quick breads, and scones fill the shelves fresh daily and are just as pleasing to the palate. Among the more unusual offerings is the potato chip cookie, an initially bewildering, but ultimately rewarding concoction. 2234 E. 71st St. Monday, 3:30pm-7:30pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30am-7:30pm.Â (773)363-9330. givemesomesugah.com (Claire Withycombe)