- • Best Billy Goat For Your Buck
- • Best Monkey Business
- • Best School Singing Session
- • Best Home Away From Home
- • Best Definitely Legal Cannabis Products
Brighton Park changed dramatically in the 1990s—in the late 1990s and early 2000s the neighborhood became a gateway community. We saw a big increase in the number of foreign-born people—predominantly Latino and mostly from Mexico—people where this was their first stop because they had relatives that were living here or something like that. And the neighborhood really grew significantly.
A need arose in the community to start organizing and creating grassroots leaders that were really interested in making sure that the neighborhood was getting what it deserved, and working more towards an equity agenda. So that’s how [BPNC] was founded: community leaders who were really interested in organizing themselves and developing new leaders to bring these institutions together and start organizing around campaigns to hold officials accountable, to hold the city accountable, and to really start building a social service infrastructure.
I was hired in 1999, so the organization was a year and a half old when I came on, and I was hired just as a field organizer. I was trying to identify these abandoned houses and work with the community to try and get them cleaned up, get the city and the federal government to draw attention to these properties, and get them fixed up and back on the market. But then all the issues continued to change. The schools were so overcrowded and there really weren’t enough resources in the buildings to address the huge need that developed through the 1990s and 2000s. And we still [didn’t] have a community center or anything like that where kids can go after school. So we started our first Full Service Community School, at Burroughs Elementary School on the north side of the neighborhood, back in 2003. The premise was really simple: make the school a community center.
The campaign to renovate Kelly Park was another big campaign that took several years, but the idea was that we [didn’t] have any park space. We’re one of the most park-poor communities in the city (if not the most park-poor community in terms of acreage per park district land per capita), so we have to make the park that we do have the most usable and durable park it can be. And before we started this campaign, it was a disaster. Kelly Park was basically a mud pit. We organized this campaign, it’s been about a $3 million initiative. We’ve been weighing different grants in support and then working with the [Chicago Park District] to partner with them and convince them to fund other sorts of initiatives in the park.
We’ve been able to demonstrate success and so we’re able to keep finding resources to build this model because of the fact that it works. We’ve been very diligent with the resources, so you start to see big increases in freshmen on track and graduation rates at Kelly, and with Burroughs Elementary School the test scores just showed it’s the highest-performing school in the entire Network 8. You see incidences of suspensions going down, incidences of youth violence going down. And I believe part of the reason is because of the approach that we’ve taken to increase the resources that are available to young people, and keep them in school. There’s so much that needs to be done, but we’ve seen tremendous growth, and we’ve been able to demonstrate it, so we keep fighting, trying to win resources to keep it going.
This is a neighborhood really where working families need a place in the city to live and raise their kids, a safe neighborhood with good schools and access to jobs. We’ve been able to demonstrate as a neighborhood what it can look like if working people can still afford to live in the city and still have access to jobs and it can be safe and the schools can be really good and have opportunities for their kids. And I think that’s all people want.
Patrick Brosnan is the executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC). He has worked at BPNC since 1999.
Best Billy Goat For Your Buck
The gourmet cuisine at Birrieria Zaragoza, though made mostly out of goat, certainly won’t get your goat. The signature item in this restaurant’s dishes is birria, a roasted goat meat stewed with ancho mole sauce that has its origins in Jalisco, Mexico. Here, it’s plated either on or off the bone, or encased in tasty quesadillas. Table condiments include fresh cilantro, onions, lime, and sauces, but Zaragoza’s Salsa de Molcajete, made with fire-roasted tomatoes and served warm, cannot be beat. The meal comes with tortillas made fresh in-house, and customers also praise the homemade flan offered for dessert. Don’t just take the Weekly’s word for it, though: Food Network Magazine named Zaragoza “The Top Taco in Illinois”; Fox News, The Daily Meal, NBC, and celebrity gastronomes Rachael Ray and Andrew Zimmern give similar testimonials. More importantly, Archer Heights residents remain perhaps most loyal to the original family-owned spot, good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and just about any excuse you can find to visit in between. (Sara Cohen)
Birrieria Zaragoza, 4852 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday–Friday, 10am–7pm; Saturday, 8am–7pm; Sunday, 8am–4pm. (773) 523-3700. birrieriazaragoza.com
Best Monkey Business
Ed & Annette’s Monkeys & More
Ed and Annette Parzygnat have been in the business of caring for exotic animals for decades. Their Archer Heights facility serves as a refuge for thirty different animal species, including raccoons, alligators, and boa constrictors. The pair showcases their animals at libraries, retirement homes, and schools, and also invites visitors to their home to teach them about the distinctions between pets and wild animals. Providing proper care for these exotic animals is no easy investment: the Parzygnats must maintain a federal exhibitor’s license in addition to nutrition and nurturing, but due to their persistence and passion for the animals, the couple continues to spread their mission. They may show primates, but keeping exotic animals as pets is nothing to monkey around about. (Sara Cohen)
Ed & Annette’s Monkeys & More, 4301 W. 47th St. (773) 376-0812.
Best School Singing Session
Musicality Vocal Ensemble
Curie Metropolitan High School’s choral group, Musicality, struck a chord with the nation earlier this summer when their audition for the eleventh season of America’s Got Talent premiered on NBC. The act garnered a standing ovation from the crowd and high accolades from the judges, including British personality and former American Idol curmudgeon Simon Cowell. Led by the school’s chorus teacher and music director, Michael Gibson, the group rehearsed daily in preparation for their performances as they made their way through judges’ cuts and live shows, before being eliminated in the semifinals. Though their TV stint ended before the singers returned to school for the fall, Musicality’s presence in and out of Archer Heights endures. Check out their latest covers and arrangements on SoundCloud or YouTube, or better yet, support them by buying their first album, Purple Summer. (Sara Cohen)
Musicality Vocal Ensemble, Curie Metropolitan High School, 4959 S. Archer Ave. musicalityvocal.com
Best Home Away From Home
Café El Meson
Whether they’re looking to study, socialize, caffeinate, snack, read, or snooze, patrons of Café El Meson can count on the coffeehouse/bookstore for unbeatable fare and a snug and welcoming atmosphere. Given that the outside looks like a typical townhouse, passersby may initially overlook this evangelical establishment. Nonetheless, its shelves of Christian literature, friendly staff, and tasty sandwiches have an irresistible and alluring power that keeps you staying once you find a seat. The coffee shop is run by the nonprofit El Meson Ministry, but the owners are far more likely to strike up casual conversations with customers than make attempts at conversion. Christian and non-Christian Brighton Park residents and visitors alike frequent the destination, sipping piña colada smoothies on either of its two stories or taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. (Sara Cohen)
Cafe El Meson, 4631 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday–Saturday, 10am–10pm. (773) 696-9691. cafeelmeson.net
Best Definitely Legal Cannabis Products
Bart Studnicki and Andy Zarycki co-founded the low-profit online marketplace and hemp awareness brand Hemp Helps in 2012, promoting various vendors with products made from cannabis fiber. Though it is not a drug, hemp has been historically criminalized because of its links to marijuana (both come from the cannabis plant). The Hemp Helps website, operated out of Studnicki’s Archer Heights home, educates visitors about this convoluted history and offers them information on the power of hemp plants and products to reduce pollution, restore soil, conserve water, and improve nutrition, skin care, and overall health. Not only are the products Hemp Helps promotes eco-friendly, but their approach is, too: their contributions have helped the reforestation and hunger-eliminating efforts of the nonprofit Trees for the Future, through which Hemp Helps has planted 13,405 new trees and counting in Africa and South America. (Sara Cohen)
Hemp Helps, hemphelps.org