Reminiscent of green lawns and warm summer evenings, the name “Back of the Yards” might evoke the image of a quaint small-town neighborhood. Rather than neatly-trimmed backyards, however, the neighborhood gets its name from a much grittier—and gorier—history.
From 1865 until 1971, this district was the center of the world’s largest meatpacking center, the Union Stockyards. Job opportunities in the meat industry attracted thousands of immigrants of diverse nationalities who settled in the Back of the Yards community. Early German and Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century were followed by an assortment of Slavic groups in the 1960s and Mexican immigrants in the 1970s.
Epitomizing the progression of industry, immigrants, and development, Back of the Yards may be the archetypal Chicago neighborhood. As one resident put it, “If someone asked me what neighborhood sums up Chicago in a nutshell, this would be it.”
Recently, a shiny modern high school was opened near 47th and Damen at the price of $91.5 million, boasting newfangled facilities and a public library open to members of the community. Construction of the state-of-the-art high school followed another novel addition to the yards—a sustainable, “net-zero energy” vertical farm and food production facility called The Plant.
To the blue-collar workers who constantly ebb and flow through the streets, these modern facilities may seem out of place amidst the ever-looming shadow of the stockyards. While the brutal jobs in the stockyards are gone for good, the bars once frequented by these workers still remain. Even though today’s local customers no longer bear the weight of the world’s demand for meat, a lot still seems to hang on their shoulders. The bars aren’t the district’s only link from its present to its past; the ornate cathedrals once built by Polish Catholics still dot the streets, and are open for Mass to the remaining immigrants as well as the new Hispanic community. These new Hispanic residents have made their own significant contributions to the area, with Spanish supermarkets, banks, furniture stores, and countless taquerías that have sprung up over the past few decades.
BEST CARNE ASADA: Paco’s Tacos
It’s the salt. The salt and the freshness and the perfectly balanced kick of the salsa and the lime. In the back of Supermercado La Internacional, this is carne asada as it was intended. None of the frills and superfluous ingredients (cabbage? really?) of a North Side taquería. Just a healthy serving of your chosen meat, onions, cilantro, and two fresh corn tortillas. These tacos are not for the faint of heart or stomach, but they are dirt cheap—I’ve known more than one eating contest to occur at that counter. Appetite: necessary. Spanish language skills: optional. Supermercado La Internacional, 4556 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pm; Sunday, 9am-8pm. (773)523-9745. Additional locations at 4311 S. Archer Ave. and 6034 S. Pulaski Rd. (Meaghan Murphy)
BEST CAFÉ CON LECHE: Cafeteria Yesenia
With foaming café con leche and flavorful espressos for under $2, Cafeteria Yesenia would already be a hot spot for its freshly ground coffee. It is more than a just quick coffee fix, however, with exemplary steak sandwiches, an artfully decorated lounge, and free Wi-Fi to keep you coming back. This shop is a hidden oasis for a day of work or study, decorated and scored with a nod to the owners’ Cuban roots. Whether lounging in an armchair or sitting at a table, you’ll feel as if you might be transported to a different country altogether. But there’s no fear of dozing off. If the coffee wasn’t enough to keep you alert, the waiters will also make sure that your table has a steady supply of spicy, tingling Cuban peppers. Cafeteria Yesenia, 4244 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Saturday, 6am-6pm; Sunday, 8am-4pm. (773)523-8480. facebook.com/CafeYesenia (Amelia Dmowska)
BEST PLACE TO FIND COWBOY BOOTS: Swap-O-Rama
It would be easy to assume Swap-O-Rama was a carnival, with its red and white striped sign, ticket booth, blaring pop music, and hundreds of outdoor stands. Truth be told, you wouldn’t be far off. At this giant indoor–outdoor flea market there is fun to be had and prizes to be won, with vendors selling “literally everything” for seriously low prices. For a small entrance fee, visitors can browse offerings that include wedding dresses, huge tubs of chilies, washing machines, $1 per pound plums, $3 men’s dress shirts, and some of the most impressively long-tipped cowboy boots this side of Texas. Swap-O-Rama, 4200 S. Ashland Ave. Tuesday, 7am-2pm; Thursday, 7am-3pm; Saturday-Sunday, 7am-4pm. Outdoors only on weekdays. (708)344-7300. swap-o-rama.com (Theo Rossi)
BEST MURAL: Lotería
Spanning 8,500 square feet on a cinderblock wall of the flea market Swap-O-Rama, the mural “Lotería” has been a symbol and cornerstone of the Back of the Yards community since 1994. Artists Hector Duarte and Mariah de Forest worked for two years on this massive piece of art. “Lotería” illustrates playing cards swept along a vortex of red and white stripes into a machine that transforms them into spheres. The image not only represents the iconic Mexican card game, but also the symbolic transformation of an immigrant traveling from one country to the next. The detailed artwork seems to pop up from the wall with a three-dimensional quality that is best appreciated when the parking lot is empty from the flea market’s usual bustle. Wall of Swap-O-Rama, 4200 S. Ashland Ave. (Amelia Dmowska)
BEST METHOD OF ACQUIRING AN ENTIRE GOAT: Park Packing
One of three remaining slaughterhouses within the city of Chicago, Park Packing is a family-owned meat market and processing center that specializes in pig, lamb, and goat. The owners promise only fresh and safe products, emphasizing the differences between their local wholesale business and the large-scale American meat industry of today. They will even invite passing guests to tour the inside of their slaughterhouse, where animal carcasses eerily hang from the ceiling under softly blinking fluorescent lights. The stillness of the chilled room contrasts sharply with the loud and rambunctious meat market just outside. The swinging carcasses inside might give you a nightmare or two, but at least you’ll have a first-hand, if spine-chilling, look at the way the food on your plate is produced—though you may still be at a loss as to why it tastes so good. Park Packing, 4107 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Friday, 6am-6pm; Saturday, 6am-4pm; Sunday, 6am-2pm. (773)254-0100. parkpacking.com (Amelia Dmowska)
BEST PORTAL TO THE NINETEEN-TWENTIES: Union Stockyards Gate
By the corner of Exchange and Peoria, an austere limestone gate looms over an industrial park, standing tribute to the stockyards that shut down nearly four decades ago. As chronicled by Upton Sinclair in ”The Jungle,” this meatpacking district processed more meat than any place in the world, and employed over 40,000 workers. “My grandfather used to walk through this gate every day to get to work,” says a local. “When I look at it, I can still imagine the cattle, the sheep, the pigs, and especially the smell.” The gate was officially declared a National Historic Landmark in 1981, and today is one of Chicago’s most significant architectural relics. Whether you’re a history buff, a Sinclair fan, or simply curious about Chicago’s olden days, walking through this gate will make you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time to witness the sights of Chicago’s blood-stained past—thankfully without the authentic smells. Union Stockyards, W. Exchange Ave. and S. Peoria St. (Amelia Dmowska)