St. Sabina Church. Photo by Jason Schumer

Two homey communities on the far southwest side, Ashburn and Auburn Gresham are bordered by Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn to the south and west, and Englewood and West Lawn on the north and east. Full of classic Chicago bungalows, Ashburn can often feel like the suburbs within the city. With numerous nature spaces, close access to two public libraries, and myriad options for personal fulfillment like the Masjid Al Muhajireen or WAO Toastmasters, Ashburn is a small neighborhood in size, but is a thriving racially diverse community at heart. 

However, it hasn’t always been so. Ashburn is still in the process of healing the wounds of its past when city residents and officials chose segregation, preventing Blacks and Latinos from living within the boundaries of the neighborhood. A diverse range of old and new business speak to the evolving character of the neighborhood: Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria has been a staple of the community for more than seventy-five years, and Bluebird Lanes originally opened in the late 1950s, while the much younger Las Islas Marias serves up delicious seafood dishes from the Mexican state of Nayarit. The Greater Ashburn Planning Association has worked to ensure that all residents of this community are seen, heard, and respected. The Black Fire Brigade, likewise, provides workshops and education for African American residents seeking to become medical technicians and EMTs. My own organization, Light of Loving Kindness, provides youth development programs focusing on mental wellness and mindfulness tools for high school students. These are only three of the many organizations working towards healing and unity within this community. 

Adjacent to Ashburn, Auburn Gresham was originally settled in the late 1800s by German and Dutch immigrants, and later became a neighborhood of Irish railway workers. Today, Gresham is a thriving, predominantly Black community rich with history, culture, and deep aspirations for a bright future. With a current population of around 45,000, Gresham is a community with families, youth, and elders, all seeking to live a high quality, enriched life. 

A 2016 quality of life plan initiated by the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation defined Gresham’s future growth with clear directives to meet twenty-four outcomes, among them strengthening relationships with business owners and cultivating entrepreneurs from the community; improving neighborhood schools and providing students with access to committed, culturally responsive urban educators; focusing on becoming spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically healthy through increased access to nutritious foods, healthcare and rehabilitative services; increasing participation in community crime prevention programs such as C.A.P.S., and providing options for seniors to participate in fitness and movement-based programs to name a few long-term goals. 

Hanging out in the neighborhood today you can clearly notice spaces being continuously activated to meet these community goals. A Healthy Lifestyle Hub on 79th Street, the result of a partnership between GAGDC and the nonprofits Green Era Partners and Urban Growers Collective, was the citywide winner of the $10 million Chicago Prize from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation in 2020. Just last month Invest/SouthWest artist-in-residence Dorian Sylvain put the finishing touches on a new “Colors of Community” mural on the corner of 79th and Racine. Truly, things are growing and changing on the southwest side.

Cassandra Powell is the founder and executive director of Light of Loving Kindness, an Ashburn organization dedicated to empowering young people.

  • Best Place to Get a Car Wash: Buddy Bear Car Wash

    No matter where I move in the city, I swear by getting my car washed on the far South Side at Buddy Bear Car Wash. It might seem trivial to drive past so many other car washes along the way, some as close as five minutes from my home, to come all the way here, but I have never second guessed it. There is something about being out south that makes the chore of washing and cleaning my car more bearable. Maybe it’s the people; when it’s hot outside the car wash is filled with folks hand washing their cars nearby, playing music, offering car air fresheners or microfiber towels, and politely maneuvering around each other. 

    As I continue to become acquainted with adulthood, many of my formative car-related moments happened at Buddy Bear Car Wash. For example, when I lived all the way up north in Edgewater, I had a ticket stuck to my window for parking illegally. Before I could retrieve the ticket, it rained, causing the adhesive to fuse with the glass on my driver’s side. It seems small except I’d been borrowing the car from my dad for the past few months and needed to return it soon. So, I drove forty minutes to Buddy Bear where two young men offered to help me scrub the glue off of my window. They lent a hand without even being asked as they watched me scrape away at it. That is the kind of energy that lives at this specific car wash. I know that even if I pull up alone, I’ll be surrounded by good people and high spirits. 

    Although I am now a proud owner of my own vehicle, I still run into situations where I need a hand. My dad bought me these striking red and black mats for my car’s interior, and as winter and spring departed I realized I needed to clean them for the summer. I’d always seen the mat cleaning machine, but I never dared to use it. One day, I decided to go to Buddy Bear knowing that it would be busy and full of people. I was genuinely banking on someone offering to help me use the machine and I was right. As I approached the machine with my mats, I didn’t stand there for long before a young man approached me and offered to show me how to use it. How did he demonstrate? He washed all four of my mats. When my mom needed her car cleaned, I took her and my brother to Buddy Bear and revealed that I’d finally learned how to use the mat cleaner. It was a seemingly small task we realized we never attempted to do because we simply did not know how. 

    While these anecdotes are not necessarily life changing, they speak to the fact that feeling accounted for in the smallest of ways adds happiness to places and situations we least expect it. If I’m burnt out after running errands all day, taking my car to Buddy Bear feels like the least of my chores. If anything, the relaxing colors in the car wash and the satisfaction of sucking up crumbs from your backseat are therapeutic. This thought reminds me of the most important part: Buddy Bear offers free vacuuming with every car wash. I don’t have to dig around for coins to put into a machine, the car wash spits you out right into the lot where all the vacuums and garbage bins are located. And Buddy Bear knows a lil’ something about freebies: in December 2021, they gave out 10,000 free car washes!

    Community can be found in the strangest of places, whether it’s teenagers using coins and credit cards to scrape glue off of glass or a master-class session on how to use the mat cleaning machine. As I become more aware of the world around me, I find myself cherishing even the smallest pockets where love and gratitude live. In the end, each patron at Buddy Bear is united by a central goal—we all hope that a bird does not poop on our windshield after all our hard work.

    Buddy Bear Car Wash, 8644 S. Kedzie Ave. Daily 7am–9pm.

  • Best Community Tutoring and Technology Program: New Foundation of Hope

    When Ronald Mason, executive director and founder of New Foundation of Hope, looks back on nearly twenty years of creating a haven for youth in the community, he sees tremendous success. He can pinpoint at least two dozen clear success stories where graduates of his program went on to college and secured great jobs, some with full scholarships and support along the way. Two are now lawyers, he said, “kids who had no opportunities and found a way there.”

    New Foundation of Hope was founded in October 2002 when Mason rented a generous space for kids to safely trick-or-treat on Halloween. This idea continued for seven years until the organization evolved to a full-scale program that includes an after-school tutoring service, a community engagement program, and a summer school camp. 

    This year’s cohort includes fifty-five low-income youth aged 6-16. The program is provided for free, subsidized through the State of Illinois. Monday through Friday, the kids have arts and crafts, take classes like computer literacy and math, and take field trips once a week to places like Medieval Times, Chicago-area science museums, a beach in Indiana, and several zoos. 

    “The idea is just to get them out of their usual surroundings and broaden their horizon,” Mason says. 

    New Foundation of Hope has also hosted a large-scale food drive for the last ten years. 

    “People come up to me and say, ‘I had no idea where I was going to get my next meal,’” said Mason. “So, for me, it’s about the kids and their families. They are just as involved in the process.”

    While they remain standing after a difficult stretch from the pandemic, Mason is looking forward to some stability. “It’s been a challenging year,” he said. “You do your best to sustain yourself, but it’s always an uphill climb. Poor communities see direct hits year after year. We see the devastation in the community.”

    He describes New Foundation of Hope as a small, but mighty nonprofit that should stand side by side with better-known nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago. 

    His hands-on approach comes from a deep history in nonprofit fundraising and development work. In fact, when Mason first had the idea to form New Foundation of Hope, he sent letters to each of his former employers asking for their support, detailing his vision. He said they gave him a resounding “go for it,” elated someone was venturing to do what so few nonprofits have attempted—really helping a community from the inside out. Mason was raised in Auburn Gresham, so it was a given that he would make it New Foundation of Hope’s permanent home. 

    On October 21, 2022, New Foundation of Hope will celebrate twenty years with another safe Halloween gathering. The nonprofit will also host a turkey and ham giveaway in November and December. Mason hopes that this precedes a seismic shift for the organization. He anticipates owning, not renting, a bigger space by the spring of 2023 and is working towards expanding New Foundation of Hope to other locations, one option being his hometown of Reserve, Louisiana. In the meantime, the nonprofit will continue to welcome back their graduates to speak and influence the next generation of hopefuls. 

    “It never gets old to see a kid come into their own, stay out of trouble, and come back and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Mason.’”

    New Foundation of Hope, 8144 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm. new They’re always looking for experienced after-school tutors; reach out at to volunteer. 

  • Best Place to be in Nature: The Dan Ryan Woods

    When I first started college in the city, my classmates and I were deliberating over how to film a short script we’d been assigned. When I suggested that we shoot it in the woods, my classmates were confused—where were we going to find a wooded area in Chicago? 

    Stretching from 90th Street all the way up to 82nd Street, the Dan Ryan Woods is a 257-acre chunk of nature nestled in the far South Side. While people familiar with the woods may assume it sits within the Beverly neighborhood, as it was formerly named the Beverly Woods, this beautiful public space actually calls Ashburn its home. I spent my teenage years tightrope walking over fallen tree trunks and emerging from the brush covered in Enchanter’s Nightshade—a harmless but pesky hitchhiking plant that can latch onto your clothing as you explore the unpaved pathway. The park and hike brings a dense, fresh plot of greenery to the South Side, and is home to many plants, birds, and small creatures. The woods also have picnic groves—including accessible picnic groves for guests with varying needs—where visitors can sit and commune from spring to fall.

    Although public parks and gardens provide a breath of fresh air within Chicago’s concrete jungle, there’s something irreplaceable about getting lost under a canopy of trees. Studies have shown that being around nature can improve our mood and frame of mind. Imagine perching on a tree stump and reading your favorite book, or riding your bike down the paved trail. There’s a peace that will follow you home after spending a day becoming one with the natural world around you. And, speaking of biking on the trail: the park features both a one-mile paved loop and the more than six-mile-long Major Taylor Trail, named after Marshall “Major” Taylor. Taylor was an award-winning Black cyclist and civil rights activist who spent his parting years settled in Chicago. For a long time he was the fastest bicycle rider in the world, and one of the first Black world champions in any sport. When we refer to the Dan Ryan Woods as historic, these are the types of stories that live amongst the wildlife. 

    Everyone should visit the Dan Ryan Woods at least once if they call the South Side their home. It’s so important for us to see how much beauty and adventure is available to us right in our backyards.

    Dan Ryan Woods, W. 87th St. and S. Western Ave. Sunrise–sunset.

  • Best Food Truck Grub: No Sauce AZ Smokehouse

    The menu at No Sauce AZ Smokehouse is based on favorites from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood: pork tips, turkey tips, ribs, chicken wings, and pulled pork. Unless you ask for sauce, you don’t need it. 

    In 2013, No Sauce founder Albert Johnson made some chicken with no sauce—his signature—for a nightclub gig, and a patron argued with him about the preparation. 

    “He said, ‘Where’s the sauce? Where’s the sauce?’ Like he was offended. And I said, ‘you don’t need no sauce.’ Well, he got a drink, grabbed some chicken, ate it quickly, and he said it was the best chicken he ever had. He said, ‘your name is no sauce now.’” 

    The name stuck. No Sauce officially launched in Arizona in 2018 as a pickup truck and a tent. Johnson frequented farmer’s markets, setting up his small outdoor kitchen. 

    “This was my first time actually going out and selling food,” Johnson said. “I thought ‘farmer’s markets have vegetables—they aren’t going to be interested in my food. This is not going to work.’ Well, we sold out that first day. That really put a fire under my foot.” 

    Though he had been barbecuing since he was a kid, messing around with his Weber Grills, Johnson never imagined this would be his job. “When I first started cooking, it was because of the love of barbecue, and the passion of talking to people working their smokers, and to see people eat and smile,” he said.

    From then on, No Sauce was being booked across Phoenix. Johnson learned some tricks of the trade along the way from fellow smokers, many who had nothing in common with him beyond the love of BBQ. 

    “In the barbecue world, food is a connection to peace. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe, almost everyone likes barbecue.”

    Two years into starting No Sauce, he won second place at a citywide festival in Yuma, Arizona. Attendees booed the decision, proclaiming No Sauce as the winner.

    “Tears just started coming from everywhere. I was proud of myself. It felt crazy.”

    He bought a food truck with the hope of more flexibility and greater gains. It was a successful year, but then a personal separation motivated him to move back to his hometown of Chicago. A few months later, he was getting a haircut just doors down from No Sauce’s current 79th Street location, and saw the building storefront was available. “It seemed meant to be.”

    No Sauce finally had a permanent home. Describing the new venture as being “scared to death,” Johnson quelled his fears by remembering the success in Arizona and the confidence he brought to his cooking. 

    Quality control is everything for him; he comes in at 6am to start smoking. 

    “If you have a good portion of meat that has been smoked properly, then you’re in heaven. Smoking that meat to perfection, it does something to me mentally. It really came from my experiences in life. The smoker makes me happy. I don’t consider it work. If you have a good product, people are gonna buy it—and I have a great product.”

    Johnson still makes his food truck an active part of his business. Each Friday, he takes the truck to a local car show, brings a manageable amount of food and always sells out. Then, he closes up and enjoys the car show. For right now, the truck is a side project, but he could see it growing.

    All the No Sauce recipes currently exist only in Johnson’s head. Eventually, he will pass on his knowledge so he can expand. But for now, he’s just showing what he can do, one day at a time. His cooking credo is to keep the food fresh and stick to what you know. 

    “It’s been a hard road, but I never felt defeated,” he said. “It took a lot to get to where I am and feel good about what I do. I know they say Texas has the best barbecue, but I have the best barbecue.” (Nicole NeSmith)

    No Sauce AZ Smokehouse 2055 W. 79th St. Wednesday-Saturday 11am-8pm, Sunday 12–6pm. (773) 891-4684.

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