I’m sixty-eight years old, but I really feel like I’m nineteen. I really try to stay busy. I love what I do, and the reason why I love what I do is because that’s what God wants me to do. Here, 139 years old, the church is. Really, we’re well-known for all the years we’ve been here. St. Gabriel’s is the same.
Actually, I even got married here. Been here a long time, you know. I had a youth center, ran it for twenty-six years. Started with nine kids and then I wound up with four hundred kids involved. Five and a half years ago we had to close ‘cause we lost all our funding, but we averaged about eighty kids a day. We started with the shorties, then middle schoolers and high schoolers at nighttime. I hate using these words, but it was a good program and we kept kids off the streets. It’s just amazing how many kids came through this place in twenty-six years.
I’ve always worked with, you know, tough kids, mean kids. One of the reasons is ‘cause I was one of ‘em. I know what it was here, out in these streets. It’s hard! Came up from a broken family, my ma raised six of us, coming up on public aid. I know what it was to have the gas shut off, the lights shut off, to not have any food.
Growin’ up around here, Canaryville was always Irish Catholic. On the other side, east of us, the Germans lived there. West of us was Polish, and then mixed to the south. Back of the Yards has always been mixed, bringing a lot of jobs within the stockyards, and now it’s industrial. I remember we used to go over and watch them slaughter the cattle over in the stockyards. They had cowboys on horseback who’d move the cattle from pen to pen until they got to the slaughterhouses. People living around here, they used to just walk over and go to work. You know, the Stockyards, everybody knows that’s where all the slaughtering happened. Then they would put the meat in refrigerated cars and ship the meat out, and as the years went on the yards closed ‘cause of it, ‘cause of other packing houses in different towns shipping out there. So people working over there in the Stockyards, they left.
Really, this brings back a ton of memories for me. The amphitheater was right there on Halsted. The Beatles played there, they had the Democratic Convention there—I was there. Along Halsted it was all bars back in the day. It was like a strip, but really we had everything. The car show, the rodeo, wrestling, even the Chicago Bulls started in the Stockyards before they moved. They started in the amphitheater, the International Amphitheatre. We used to sneak in and watch ‘em! Right here, west of us on Halsted.
Not much has changed. Now I been here forty-four years, been twenty-one years on the local school council over at Graham. My wife works there, my daughter worked there. Just like the church, the school’s been in trouble. Staff’s been cut, sixth and seventh graders are split in one room, just ‘cause we’re trying to keep the budget goin’. We’ve really come into some trouble, but you know…Canaryville, Back of the Yards…we’re different from any other neighborhood in the city. ‘Cause we care about everybody. With our food pantry, the community really needs us right now. We reach out to the community—if anything happens we’re here to help.
I could have left years ago, but we’re all like family. We know everybody, and we try our best. That’s the good thing about this area.
Ray Carey is sixty-eight years old and was born and raised in Canaryville/Back of the Yards. He has been a member of the historic Union Avenue United Methodist Church for forty-four years.
Best Place to Find Absolutely Anything
You could spend an eternity searching through the stalls of Swap-o-Rama flea market. Brand new ovens line one of the narrow avenues created by the tents, side by side with treadmills and mattresses. Some tents are like mini-storefronts full of new-age oils and medicines. Other stands are filled with dried peppers and candies. One man had a collection of power tools, mini army figurines, and a 102-year-old cream separator he found on an old farm. “You can put plants in it,” he said assuredly.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Swap-O-Rama opens up its doors and doubles its size with both indoor and outdoor sections. The indoor part is a giant, haphazard mall, set up in the same grid as the outside, but since everything is closer together the market becomes more like a maze. It is filled with, more than anything else, boots. So many boots. But in between these boot vendors, one finds a variety of other things for sale, from food to jewelry to haircuts.
The vendors at Swap-O-Rama find their wares from a variety of places—some of them make what they sell, some gather overstock items from stores, and others collect piles and piles of junk from abandoned storage lockers. The flea market is largely Spanish-speaking, so, while you can get by without it, knowing the language helps with haggling.
Back of the Yards, the neighborhood Swap-O-Rama calls home, was once the site of the Union Stock Yards, which closed over forty years
ago. The Stock Yards served as the inspiration for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and it was rumored that Henry Ford designed his assembly line after seeing the “disassembly” line of meatpackers in the stockyards. By the mid-1920s, production had peaked and would slow over the next half-century. After 106 years of business, the declining stockyard could no longer compete with growing technologies and global markets. The closing of the stockyard left a hole in the city’s economy, which significantly affected the neighborhood. Over the last forty years, that hole has been filled with convenience retail shops, furniture stores, Mexican grocers, and, most notably, Swap-O-Rama.
“What’s beautiful here is you have everything,” said one vendor, Alejandro, who was selling trinkets from his world travels that he hadn’t been able to sell to stores around Chicago. He noted the way that single items seem to show up at every stall in waves. “Bootleg pornography, organic vegetables…Twinkies! There were no Twinkies here yesterday, now they’re everywhere.”
The market attracts mostly Latino people from the neighborhood and surrounding areas to pick up deals on their necessities. So the closing of the stockyards brought around a new kind of Back of the Yards, in which incomes were no longer generated by outside corporations, but by residents themselves, as exemplified by Swap-O-Rama. Through its rows of cowboy boots, antique farm equipment, and candy stands, residents are helping to recreate and redefine their neighborhood.
Swap-O-Rama Flea Market, 4200 S. Ashland Ave. Tuesday, 7am–3pm (April through November only); Thursday, 7am–3pm; Saturday–Sunday, 7am–4pm. Entry $1, $2 on weekends, children and seniors half off. swap-o-rama.com (Ryn Seidewitz)
Best Last Place to Buy Lamb and Veal
Chiapetti Meat Co.
Fiore Chiappetti was an Italian immigrant to Chicago in the early twentieth century who founded one of the last remaining slaughterhouses in Chicago, and the only slaughterhouse to provide specifically lamb and veal. During the Great Depression he lost his savings and was compensated by the banks with a farm, which sparked the beginnings of his family’s long history in the butchering business. He later opened Chiappetti Meats Co. on Halsted, bordering Back of the Yards and Bridgeport, in the 1940s and passed along his craft to the next four generations, including the current Chiappetti-in-charge, Franco Chiappetti. Chiappetti’s Meats is one of the only plants to continue operating in the area after the closing of the Stockyards in 1971, in the hopes of staying local and loyal to their customers. According to Chiappetti, this quality is what helped the company survive after the closings—focusing on kosher and halal products has been serving “local needs,” ever since Barkaat Foods certified halal lamb products for the store. The big families like Swift and Armour may have left the Stockyards, but Chiappetti Meats is still in business.
Chiappetti Meat Co., 3810 S. Halsted Street. (773)733-7110. chiappettimeats.com (Zach Taylor)
Best All-In-One Taquería, Tequila Bar, and Mexican Grocery Store
Super Mercado y Taqueria La Barca
Don’t let the auto repair shops that surround it fool you: visiting La Barca (“The Boat”) is an outing pleasant enough to last all day (and some of the night). Within this no-frills, family-run establishment, there is a taquería, a fully stocked tequila bar, and a compact grocery complete with Mexican pastries, fresh produce, and a large meat counter. The little cordoned-off restaurant is definitely the main attraction here. Prices are low, the waitstaff is warm and quick, portions are large and do not disappoint. The kitchen offers an assortment of Mexican and Mexican-American staples, with options for conventional and intrepid palettes alike. Order the mariscos and fajitas. Drink the spicy michelada (Corona, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, and peppers). Come for the food, stay for the drinks, and leave with your grocery shopping already done. Menus and services in Spanish.
La Barca, 1221 W. 47th Street. Average entrée $5-$7. (773) 523-6443. (Lauren Gurley)
Best Neighborhood Bar Balladeers
Goodwin and O’Connor
In the 1920s composer Walter Goodwin collaborated with local barroom crooner Joseph “Sambo” O’Connor on a ballad devoted to their beloved Back of the Yards. Naturally it became a hit in the area’s bars, granted that by 1910 there were forty-six drinking establishments lining Ashland from 42nd to 45th Streets, decorating the blocks behind the stockyards with neon signs. Since the meat-packers failed to provide dining facilities, workers could find shelter from the elements, eat hot food, and relax, all for the price of a beer.
“Back o’ the yards—back o’ the yards,
In old Chicago town,
Where each fellow and gal is a regular pal,
They never turn you down.
Where an ace is an ace any time, any place;
They’re bound to win your kind regards,
They’re a wonderful crowd and I feel mighty proud
When I shout I’m from back o’ the yards!”
Goodwin and O’Connor dedicated the song not only to the pubs and packing facilities, but also to several men of the neighborhood who’d climbed the ladder to public office, such as Alderman Thomas Byrne and P.J. “Paddy” Carr. It’s said that most of the Irish who lived around the stockyards knew the tune by heart and that it could be heard in almost every bar on Ashland. (Zach Taylor)
Best Corn Tortillas and Jugos de Frutas
Walk a few blocks west of Ashland on 43rd and you’ll find a joint tortillería and taquería under the name Atotonilco, amongst several supermarkets that also stock Atotonilco’s countless locally-supplied corn, flour, and dairy products. Known mostly for their milkshakes and tacos, Atotonilco also delivers with equal (if not better) quality tortas, chicharrones, and vegetarian options, as well as just-the-right-size fresh fruit juices prepared in the corner of the taquería. Regardless of entrée choice, the highlight of the experience is the corn tortilla. Somehow Atotonilco manages to make them soft and tasty while preserving what they call their “no-tear construction” in a satisfyingly huge size. While finishing up your hefty tacos and a refreshing juice, you can rest assured that everything is locally grown—Atotonilco boasts that growing their corn locally leaves a smaller carbon footprint and secures food safety.
Tortillería Atotonilco, 1707 W. 47th Street. Open 24 hours. Average entrée $5-$7.
(773) 523-0800. tortilleriaatotonilco.com (Zach Taylor)
Best Pipe Organ
Union Avenue United Methodist Church
On February 18, 1877, when Union Avenue was still Winter Street, the Winter Street Methodist Episcopal Church (the name changed with the street) was officially established. According to Ray Carey, a congregation member for forty-four years and counting, the church was built around the stockyards to serve its laborers, including the well-known Swift family of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. In 1890 the Johnson & Son firm built the now-historic 1,299 pipe organ for the church. In the pipe organ’s 125 years of use it has seen little alteration, which is apparent from its worn keys and façade pipes that used to be stenciled with a decorative pattern. Unfortunately, this is probably due to the fact that the church, like many local institutions, suffered from the closing of the Stockyards in 1971, and in recent years the church has run into quite a bit of financial trouble. Luckily the community is strong: one of the church’s most avid supporters is the Canaryville Veterans Riders Association, which has held many benefits to raise funds for the church. “It’s unbelievable the way God works,” says Carey. “We’re gonna make it.” Despite needing about $11,000 of work, this gorgeous organ is one of the oldest that remains in Chicago.
Union Avenue United Methodist Church, 4350 S. Union Avenue. (773) 373-0577. unionaveunitedmethodist.com (Zach Taylor)