Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma

Best of Back of the Yards 2020

Back of the Yards hasn’t historically been known for being a gorgeous residential area or a hub of commerce—rather, it’s famous for its factories, its slaughterhouses, and for the former Union Stockyards that give the neighborhood its name. Through the decades, as businesses have come and gone, community has made the neighborhood persevere. After growing up in Chicago and not knowing much about the area, I moved here and have learned firsthand that this community is strong. That people look out for each other. Some people have lived here their whole lives, owning businesses that have served their community for nearly as long. Some places are rather new: farms feeding locals food grown from the same earth tired workers trod to and from slaughterhouses years ago, sprouting where few have expected life to sprout. 

New libraries, businesses, even breweries and coffee houses. All are additions, not replacements. I don’t think anything could replace the personality of this resilient, homey collage of a neighborhood. (Mell Montezuma)

Neighborhood Captain Mell Montezuma is the Weekly’s visuals editor, illustrator, cheesemonger, and aspiring sommelier. Born and raised in Chicago, she enjoys learning even more about her beloved city through working with the Weekly.

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Best Food Pantry That Does It All

Casa Catalina

Illustration Credit: Mell Montezuma

The Catholic Charities “basic human needs center” Casa Catalina has served the community of  Back of the Yards for thirty-six years. Run almost single-handedly by Sister Joellen Tumas for most of those years, Casa Catalina and its food pantry distribute food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository as well as from individual donors, providing nourishment for hundreds of families—as many as 350 a week, and an estimated 10,000 unduplicated visitors a year—in the neighborhood. About a third of Back of the Yards residents were born outside the U.S., and a third of households in the community earn below the poverty line. But, as per their name, Casa offers a lot more than food. The center also provides social services, unemployment aid, volunteer opportunities, and the warm support of those dedicated to helping others. 

Casa Catalina was closed for several months in late 2019, as the aging building underwent extensive rehab. It reopened in late January with much fanfare and a blessing from a priest, as the pantry transitioned to a new “client choice” model that would allow clients to pick and choose their groceries much as one would in a grocery store, rather than receive a prepacked box or bag of food. Supermarket-like aisles were stocked with canned goods, cereals, and other dry goods, along with several freezers of meat, and visitors wheeled small carts through the shelves, with the assistance of volunteer personal shoppers. Back then, Sister Joellen said, “I think it’s to give people more of a choice and help them feel like they have control over their lives. We’ll see how it goes.” Well, it lasted all of six weeks before the pandemic forced Casa Catalina to restructure operations again in the name of public health. 

Sister Joellen, who’s in her seventies, was herself sidelined for several months due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the pantry has soldiered on, and she’s back now, distributing bags of food out the back door of the storefront space to socially distanced clients in the alley. No matter what challenges the winter brings, this neighborhood anchor will be there to meet community needs. (Mell Montezuma and Martha Bayne)

Casa Catalina, 4537 S. Ashland Ave. Monday–Tuesday, 9am–3pm; Wednesday, 1:30pm–6pm; Thursday, 10am–3pm; Friday, 9am–3pm; closed weekends. (773) 376-9425

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Best Spiked ‘Booch

Whiner Beer Company

Whiner Beer Company. Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma

Off the 47th Street bus, tucked away behind a medical center and a Marshalls, there is an old meat packing facility. Except now, instead of producing sausages  this old red brick building, now known as The Plant (Best Futuristic Factory, 2011 BoSS), is home to a number of small businesses producing vegan food, fresh breads, honey, and some of Chicago’s most iconically kitten-clad cans of beer, thanks to Whiner Beer Company. 

On one recent day, I’m shown around by Brian Taylor, Whiner’s co-founder. It’s almost eerie seeing the empty taproom, with the specials still up on the cement wall in cheerful chalk. Despite having to close the taproom in March, Whiner is still producing thousands of cans of beer, including “spiked kombucha” that blends their beer with house-brewed kombuchas that incorporate flavors such as hibiscus, guava, and grapefruit. I’m shown a large room with wooden walls; taking up the entirety of this room is a massive mother SCOBY, the bacterial and yeast culture that serves as the basis for kombucha, resting in a large vat. You can smell the yeasty, promising aroma of fermentation in the air as soon as the doors are open. Whiner has been making hard kombucha since March, trying something new (and still just as delicious)—one of the ways that they must navigate how business operates these days. The playful illustrations on the cans (available in stores citywide) feature a mustachioed figure and colorful animals from cats to birds.

All the businesses in the building seem to intertwine; Whiner even filters the carbon dioxide from its fermentation tanks up into gardens on the top floor, reducing its environmental impact. But the symbiosis isn’t just chemical. Over the summer, Whiner participated in a collaboration with Weathered Souls Brewing as part of the Black is Beautiful campaign, intended to raise funds for police reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged, and raise awareness of the injustices done against BIPOC on a daily basis. Whiner’s owners felt that, as a business on the South Side, where BIPOC communities are a majority, it was important to show their support. A hundred percent of the proceeds from the fundraiser went to this campaign, and Whiner sold out of the stout created for the campaign in just a couple of months (unfortunately for the rest of us who didn’t get a taste). Nine months into the pandemic Whiner, tucked away in The Plant, is still brewing up some of the best beverages in the city. (Mell Montezuma)

Whiner Beer Company, 1400 W. 46th St. Taproom currently closed; purchase beer for pickup or delivery at whinerbeer.com.

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Best Local Green Spaces

When COVID-19 hit, South Siders, along with the rest of the world, were forced to isolate in their homes. It was difficult for many to stay confined within the walls of their own house, without seeing friends and family members as a precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Many people are coping with this by visiting local parks, which offer a safe way to get out of the house while still adhering to social distancing protocols. From meeting loved ones for a socially distanced get-togethers to walking the dog, parks have become a staple of the COVID-19 era. 

When thinking of major Chicago parks, people probably think of Millennium Park, Lincoln Park, Jackson Park, and Ping Tom Memorial Park. But Back of the Yards is home to plenty of great places to both enjoy the outdoors and have communion with others. 

Some of the amenities discussed, such as programming, playgrounds, and pools, may be closed at this time due to COVID-19.

Davis Square Park

Davis Square Park offers a vast variety of amenities: a field house, an outdoor pool, a horseshoe area, a soccer field and plenty of benches to enjoy the scenery on. This park is located in a fairly residential area so there is no hustle and bustle to worry about, unlike in, say, Grant or Millennium Park. 

The park opened to the public in 1905, one of ten parks that opened that year in the City of Chicago. While 1905 was over one hundred years ago, Davis Square park barely looks its age. In 2014, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Plays! Program helped the park implement upgrades to the playground equipment. The baseball fields were renovated with assistance from the Cubs Charities Diamond Project the same year.

Davis Square Park, 4430 S. Marshfield Ave. 6am–11pm. (312) 747-6107. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/davis-dr-nathan-square-park

Sherman Park

Located at the southern edge of Back of the Yards is Sherman Park. Significantly larger than Davis Square Park—57.7 acres of land, compared to Davis Square’s 8.88. But along with Davis Square Park, Sherman Park was established in 1905

Sherman Park provides all the essentials for a nature-filled walk with plenty of paths that go around the Sherman Park Lagoon. These paths include four bridges that lead to an island, home to several benches to enjoy the scenery along with soccer and baseball fields. Tennis and basketball courts are also available at Sherman Park for those interested. 

Sherman Park, 1301 W. 52nd St. 6am–11pm. (312) 747-6672. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/sherman-john-park

Back of the Yards Park

The smallest of the parks on this list is Back of the Yards Park. This park is a total of 1.07 acres and while it does not have any active programming through the Chicago Parks District, there is space for a small gathering adhering to City of Chicago restrictions. Originally known as Throop Park, this park was renamed Back of the Yards Park in 1990 to eliminate confusion with Throop Park up in Pilsen.

As a community park, there is a swing, playground equipment, a relatively new basketball court and a water spray feature to keep the kids occupied in summer while the adults enjoy some time to themselves. 

Back of the Yards Park, 4922 S. Throop St. (312) 747-6107. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/back-yards-park

Cornell Square Park

Cornell Square Park was established back in 1904 to help provide more recreational programs to a highly populated residential sector of the city. The park is named after Paul Cornell, an important figure in the creation of the South Park System who passed away the same year this park opened to the public. 

The fieldhouse is a highlight of this park. It contains two gymnasiums, an auditorium, and a kitchen. 

This park is home to a playground that was renovated back in 2014 as part of Emanuel’s Chicago Plays! Program. Alongside the playground and fieldhouse, there are soccer fields, an outdoor swimming pool, a water spray feature with an interactive option, and baseball fields. (Corey Schmidt)

Cornell Square Park, 1809 W. 50th St. (312) 747-6097. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/cornell-paul-square-park

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Best Parent Activism

Campaign for a Back of the Yards Library

Since 1972, when it opened as the New City Branch Library in a storefront at West 46th Street and South Ashland Avenue (now occupied by the Ameri-Mex Insurance Agency), the public library in Back of the Yards has bounced around the neighborhood four times. Two more storefronts followed—one on 47th Street, and then another at the Yards Plaza shopping center—before it ended up, seemingly for good, at the then-newly-opened Back of the Yards College Prep High School in 2013. 

There, it was to serve as both the community’s library and the high school’s, an arrangement unique in Chicago—since, libraries have been paired with public housing developments, but no other schools. A Chicago Public Library (CPL) spokesperson told reporters when the library opened that it would “have all of the full-service things you’d find in a public library but with an enhanced space for teens,” and a 2014 quality-of-life plan labeled the co-location of the school and library as a success that would “anchor” the neighborhood—but it has ended up serving both populations poorly.

Neighborhood residents detailed complaints about visibility, accessibility, and heating and air conditioning in a 2017 Medill Reports story. Then, after the Tribune’s series on sexual assault within CPS was published in 2018, more security measures were put into place, making library access harder on days school was in session, Block Club Chicago reported in July. Still, students worried about the public having access to the school via the library pre-pandemic, and called for the neighborhood to have its own standalone library once again.

In May, according to the Block Club report, state Representative Theresa Mah, who represents the area, secured $15 million in state capital funding toward a potential library development project. (She previously worked on the successful campaign for the new Chinatown library, which opened in 2015.) She credited the work of parents on the school’s Local School Council, who asked for her support last year. “Like other high schools in the area, our students deserve their own library and our community deserves a library—a fountain of knowledge,” LSC president Consuelo Martinez told Block Club. 

When parents and advocates made their case to her around the beginning of the year, Mah told the Weekly, she told them she was impressed and would support their cause. At the time, she was limited to contacting the Chicago Public Library commissioner to express her support—but when, during the process of working on this year’s state capital funding bill, she was asked if she had any “regional projects” in or near her district she wanted to propose funding for, she asked after the $15 million for the library, and it was approved.

Officials are still determining potential sites, including one at West 47th Street and South Justine Avenue and another at 47th and South Bishop, according to Jesse Iñiguez, a community leader and owner of Back of the Yards Coffee (Best New Friend in the Form of a Coffeehouse, 2017 BoSS), across the street from the high school. He said in an interview that he hopes more public attention comes to the project to prompt public officials into action; the community has, after all, been waiting decades for this essential safe space in the neighborhood. 

According to Mah, the city is currently conducting a land acquisition analysis and plans to begin conducting public comment procedures sometime early next year. It’s unclear whether any further funding will come through, or be required—the Chinatown library she advocated for ended up costing around $19 million—but Mah and CPL spokesperson Patrick Molloy said that construction costs can vary between rehabbing existing structure and new construction, and the size of the building. Those pending questions also prevent hard timelines from being set for the library’s opening. Neither the city nor CPL has pledged any further funding yet, however Molloy said he was optimistic in the potential for the infrastructure of the city’s Invest South/West Plan to provide for additional funding. Both Mah and Molloy stressed that Iñiguez’s hope for robust public engagement would be fulfilled; Mah said she’s a “huge champion of that part of the process,” and Molloy said CPL is “anxious to start the” community engagement process. (Sam Stecklow)

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