You can feel the pulse of the community best on a summer night along 79th Street. The sky is pink and perfect, wispy with clouds, while cicadas mingle with the rumble of traffic. People are driving home from work down Racine and Halsted. On Loomis and Parnell children are playing before dinner. From the grey monolith of St. Sabina Church the strains of an organ pour out in waves. Singing rattles the slightly open windows.
Further south, where side streets dead-end at railroad tracks, men sprawl on front stoops, chatting. Further east down 89th Street, the roads widen. Huge plots of land come into view, hosting sprawling houses, most ramshackle Victorians, one with a barn stacked alongside. At the corner of Halsted and 79th the skyline of another city, gleaming and far away, towers in the distance.
Like many neighborhoods on the South Side, both communities share a history of white flight and disinvestment. Yet at the end of every summer, the 79th Street Renaissance Festival brings thousands of people to celebrate the food and flavor of a community in the name of non-violence. The community garden surrounding the Gary Comer Youth Center is bustling. In the upper windows, teen girls from the surrounding neighborhood practice complicated flag routines.
Day by day, people meet to talk outside storefronts on Emerald, and Union, and Normal. A contractor refurbishing a walk-up grabs his tool belt from the sidewalk before rushing back inside through the newly painted door. Life doesn’t stop, and people press on.
BEST CUP OF COBBLER
BJ’s Market and Bakery
Snug in the elbow of 79th Street and Racine, BJ’s Market and Bakery is, at least physically, in the heart of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Decked in gaudy yellow and green, with a replica street market awning over the register and bright advertisements reminiscent of a neighborhood grocer in its windows, BJ’s presents itself as a friendly spot. It’s a place to bring the kids, to sit down for a home-cooked meal. BJ’s is the project of locally grown and trained chef John Meyer, a graduate of Chicago State University and Washburne Trade School’s Culinary Arts Program. The standout dinner item is the smothered dark meat chicken. It’s tender, drenched in gravy, with heaping sides of mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. The mac and cheese is surprisingly delicate and explodes with flavor, with hints of brown sugar lingering around the end of each bite. The highlight, however, is the peach cobbler, comfort food of the highest caliber. Piled in a cup, it’s glazed and warm, each bite rich and inviting. Meyer and his establishment create comfort first and foremost, from the hostess eager to give recommendations, to the students, cops and neighborhood regulars rubbing elbows in line, to the cobbler in a cup. BJ’s Market and Bakery, 1156 W. 79th St. and 8734 S. Stony Island Ave. Monday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm; Sunday, 7am-8pm. (773)723-7000. bjsmarket.com (Jack Nuelle)
Oak Woods Cemetery
Is it strange to hang out in a graveyard? Maybe. But Oak Woods Cemetery, with its nearly 200 acres of manicured lawns, stately oak trees, man-made lakes, and 100-year-old masonry is one of the most hauntingly beautiful historic sites in all of Chicago, and an irresistible pocket of tranquility amongst the noise and bustle of the surrounding neighborhoods. Visitors with morbid sensibilities will be drawn to the numerous Gothic crypts which dot the grounds, many of which date back to the 1800s. The more historically minded can visit the graves of Jesse Owens and Enrico Fermi, as well as the infamous Confederate Mound, final resting place of 6,000 Confederate prisoners of war and the largest mass grave in the Western hemisphere. Of course, with so many souls interned here, the question must be asked: is Oak Woods haunted? Yes—by a family of rare gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), who can sometimes be seen scurrying between the headstones of the overgrown Jewish cemetery. And, ghostly or not, there are some delightfully eerie landmarks worth seeing: the tomb of still-living Senator Roland Burris (who constructed the mausoleum for himself in advance of his death) is a creepy curio, and on the cemetery’s south end you’ll find an ancient lych-gate that leads…nowhere. Enter, if you dare. Oak Woods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St. Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm; Sunday, 9am-4pm. (773)288-3800 (Will Dart)
BEST AFTERSCHOOL DRILL GROUND
Gary Comer Youth Center
Rising like a Technicolor monolith, the Gary Comer Youth Center cuts a notable figure in the otherwise low-slung landscape of Greater Grand Crossing. Built and dedicated in 2006, the Center is named for and funded by Gary Comer, the Land’s End clothing mogul whose investment in the surrounding neighborhood has dramatically changed the face of urban education in Greater Grand Crossing. Designed by John Ronan Architects, the Center is some 80,000 square feet, with facilities ranging from the academic (classrooms, college readiness centers) to the extracurricular (horticulture classes, performance halls). Especially notable, however, is the center’s role as host to the South Shore Drill Team. The team, known for its annual appearance at the Bud Billiken Parade, is often a staple at other Chicago public events. Made up of 250 South Side students, it’s built around giving at-risk youth a creative and structured extracurricular outlet. As eighteen-year-old member Khalif Toler says, “The Drill Team [has] encouraged me to strive for greatness.” Aside from the Drill team, the Center also sponsors and hosts community events, conferences, and conventions, notably the Pocket Con comic book convention this past July. At once a resource for students and a community center for art and cultural programming, the GCYC is helping to build all sorts of futures. Gary Comer Youth Center. 7200 S. Ingleside Ave. Monday-Friday, 8:30am-9pm; Saturday, 10am-4pm. (773)358-4100. gcychome.org (Jack Nuelle)
BEST DANCING ALTAR SERVERS
The first thing that hits you is the noise. It’s a thrumming, a constant backbeat. It takes a second before you realize that it’s the congregation, murmuring in agreement, arms outstretched in prayer. On the altar, dancers sway and a saxophonist wipes his brow. This is Unity Sunday, St. Sabina’s monthly mass to bring the entire parish community together. On Unity Sundays there is a single service in place of twin masses, and the congregation is out in force. Father Michael Pfleger, the dynamic head of St. Sabina’s since his appointment—as the youngest-ever pastor of a Chicago parish—in the mid 1980s, gives a rafter-rattling sermon as his congregation rises in front of him. In the wings, senator Dick Durbin pays his respects, and the father of Hadiya Pendleton watches from a seat of honor by the altar. Unity Sunday is Auburn Gresham’s monthly pep talk. From his pulpit, a roaring Father Pfleger offers encouragement for overcoming unemployment, violence, racism, and oppression. It’s a community celebrating itself, the liveliest Sunday in the city. St. Sabina’s Catholic Church, 1210 W. 78th Pl. First Sunday of every month, 10am. saintsabina.org (773)483-4300 (Jack Nuelle)