Auburn Gresham sits on the main artery of Chicago, 79th Street, the busiest bus line in the entire city. Life branches off from this line along the main thoroughfares—Ashland, Racine, Halsted—and their blocks trace the neighborhood’s history. Tens of thousands of the brick bungalows iconic to Auburn Gresham were laid down city-wide between 1910 and 1930, and still shape the residential streetscape. Lawns are punctuated by parks and the steeples of churches once frequented by the German, Dutch, and Irish immigrants responsible for the rush of construction during the formative twenties. But blocks are also interspersed with physical reminders of decades of disinvestment, as empty lots mark the struggles of local businesses which came and went, as a second influx of move-ins came from African Americans looking to escape the brutal conditions of the Black Belt.
A vision of a redefined Auburn Gresham arose in recent decades, one that sought to move the neighborhood beyond the obvious associations with poverty and high crime. Pillars of 1990s Auburn Gresham pushed for change, from Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s, still a key voice for the community, to Betty Jo Swanson, president of the 79th and Carpenter Block Club, which transformed what Crimewatch deemed “one of the worst blocks in Chicago” by replacing abandoned houses with flower beds and pressuring public officials for improvements.
Today, organizations such as the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation pursue a vision of the neighborhood rooted in its past and its people. From a festival held on the same street as the old Southtown Parade—the original St. Patrick’s Day Parade, moved downtown by Richard J. Daley in 1960—to multiple public–private partnerships bringing back open spaces and diverse businesses such as Salaam Restaurant, the fruits of those pursuits are evident, even in a neighborhood still dogged by crime. But the community’s greatest investment remains in its children. Forty-eight homes in the neighborhood comprise the United States’s first urban SOS Children’s Village, a development for foster families, and countless educational initiatives and community cleanup projects are passing down a vision of an Auburn Gresham renaissance to its future leaders.
BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH: Three Chefs Restaurant
Three Chefs sits just down the block from the many small churches lining Halsted, its brick building and green awning popping out from the empty grass lots on both sides. Walk in and find cozy wooden tables laden with a mix of sweet and savory all-day breakfast items, or heftier entrees such as rib-eye steak or sea bass with fettuccine sauce and bay scallops. A TV plays quietly above the seldom-used bar (regulars prefer sitting face-to-face, hats on). The atmosphere is perfect for unwinding while debating the addition of syrup to three fluffy sweet potato pecan pancakes and turkey sausages, wading through layers of peppers, eggs, potatoes, onions, cheese and salsa in the Mexican skillet, or eyeing the plates of other diners. Chef William Effort, of the original three, comes in daily and sends an unbelievable variety and number of plates out of the kitchen. Three Chefs Restaurant, 8125 S. Halsted St. Tuesday-Sunday, 7am-4pm. (773)483-8111. (Bonnie Fan)
BEST PLACE TO FLOAT YOUR LINE: Auburn Lakes
Residents around Auburn Lakes admit that it looks “transplanted from the suburbs,” with its charming white stone bridges peeking out at 79th Street. In the 1890s, the swampy area was transformed into three interconnected fishing lagoons that today spout water from fountains surrounded by planted trees and fishermen hoping to snag a bite. Every three months, the lagoons are replenished by the city with fish ranging from catfish to bluegill. Leaning off the edge of a bridge, you can catch a glimpse of a koi or two. A few hopefuls participate in monthly fishing tournaments with cash prizes, while others come just to stroll along the peaceful Winneconna Parkway that winds along the still waters of the lagoons. Rows of two-flats and several properties saved by the Chicago Troubled Buildings Initiative keep the lakes tucked away from the roar of traffic on 79th. Bordered by S. Fielding and S. Vincennes Aves. between 77th and 79th Sts. (Bonnie Fan)
BEST END OF SUMMER STREET BASH: 79th Street Annual Renaissance Festival
The Southtown (St. Patrick’s Day) Parade actually began in the early 1950s in Auburn Gresham, only to be moved by Richard J. Daley in 1960. In the spirit of revival, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation held the first Renaissance Festival in the beating heat of July 2006 with a handful of vendors on the sidewalks. The idea, says festival coordinator Pia Shantee, is to “highlight the renaissance taking place on 79th Street—bringing back the sense of community, sense of connectedness, sense of partnership among agencies and families.” The festival now attracts Chicagoans from all over the area, with around 12,000 attendees (including a number of former residents). From Racine to Lowe on 79th, the festival showcases over a hundred vendors of every industry while also bringing in international performances such as practitioners of Kalapriya Indian dance, with even a Ferris wheel for a neighborhood far from Navy Pier. This year, the festival was combined with a Family Jam for Peace, which meant that after celebratory staples like face painting and a free catered senior luncheon, the all-ages festival ended with music for dancing in the streets. 79th Street Renaissance Festival and Family Jam for Peace. Held annually in early September. (773)483-3696. gagdc.org (Bonnie Fan)