Our neighborhood introductions are generally written by one of two types of people: someone with deep roots in the neighborhood, like Bronzeville’s 2020 captain, Bridget Vaughn, whose family settled here during the Great Migration, or someone who’s just beginning to set down roots, like Jacqueline L. Foreman, a civically engaged, first-time homeowner who captained the Washington Park section last year. I fall into the latter category.

The first time I remember visiting Bronzeville was to meet a friend for dinner at Yassa African Restaurant, shortly after moving to Chicago in 2011. Yassa chicken with a side of jollof rice and plantains is still one of my go-to dinners in the neighborhood. I moved to the South Side at a time when Washington Park was changing in real time, right before my eyes, as I drove to work at the University of Chicago. The university, of course, was responsible for the dramatic changes I was seeing unfold along Garfield Boulevard, Washington Park’s main artery running east to west. Oliva Adams, the 2016 Washington Park captain, noted that “between 2008 and 2014, the University spent $18 million to buy twenty-six properties in Washington Park,” including the building that became the Currency Exchange Cafe, which is now known as Retreat at Currency Exchange and which is this year’s “Best Happy Hour.”

But my real introduction to both neighborhoods, and to so much of the South Side, for that matter, began when I started delivering newspapers and volunteering as a photographer for the Weekly, where I’m now the Managing Director. Only then did I truly realize how big Bronzeville is. They call Chicago the city of neighborhoods, but Bronzeville is the neighborhood of neighborhoods. It is made up of at least three distinct community areas: Douglas, along its northern boundary; Grand Boulevard, which runs along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive; and Oakland, which is sandwiched up against the lakefront. Keep driving south through Grand Boulevard on King Drive and you spill out into Washington Park, both the community area and the park for which it is named. 

My fiancée, Lilly, and I bought our first home in Bronzeville last year. We settled in near the Calumet-Giles-Prairie District, another area within Bronzeville that feels like it could be its own neighborhood, albeit a small one. This area is nicknamed “The Gap” because of its collection of row houses that survived “urban renewal” after the end of the second World War. 

Within the first week of moving in, our neighbors impressed two important facts upon us. First: the holiday lights on Prairie Avenue are a source of community pride and that we should stock up on decorations. Second: the legendary producer Quincy Jones grew up in the house next door to us. (The exact address of his childhood home remains in dispute on the block.) But Jones is far from the only notable former resident of the neighborhood. An afternoon spent with the “TikTok historian” Shermann “Dilla” Thomas of Mahogany Tours, another one of this year’s bests, will tell you all about the rich history of this historic neighborhood. The Weekly’s annual Best of the South Side issue is one of the reasons I now call this neighborhood home. And it’s directly responsible for addiction to the lemon pound cake from Eméché, 2020’s “Best New Cakery.” Whether you have deep roots in these neighborhoods or not, we hope you’ll find something new to love in the bests below. Lilly highly recommends the Burnham Park Wildlife Corridor, this year’s “Best Quick Nature Retreat.”

Jason Schumer has worked with the Weekly in some capacity since 2016. He is currently the Managing Director of South Side Weekly NFP, the nonprofit that publishes both the Weekly and the Hyde Park Herald

  • Best Bus Tour: Mahogany Tours

    Growing up I’ve often heard about Chicago’s rich history. As I have gotten older, I begin to notice some glaring omissions from the city’s mainstream narrative. Specifically in reference to the West and South Sides. 

    I came across urban historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas via Twitter. Every so often he’d post a video about a minute or so long diving into a little known historical or cultural tidbit about our great city. When he began offering bus tours of Bronzeville, I knew I had to get a ticket. I’m so glad I did.

    What struck me about Dilla when I met him with the rest of the group is that he’s remarkably Chicago. I’d been on a number of group tours downtown and along the river with bubbly guides (many of whom had not lived here very long), but this one was different. He looks like, speaks like, and acts like my Chicago. The people I grew up with. I hadn’t realized how necessary that was.

    “Everything dope about America comes from Chicago,” he boasts. And with good cause. Over the next two hours we ride on a coach bus through Bronzeville as he stops to point out everything from architectural details (how the different color brick homes meant the clay was sourced from different regions) to notable residents of the past (Redd Fox and Harold Washington attended high school together).

    There was so much packed into each of the 120 minutes of the ride, I came out with a completely different, and more endearing, perspective of a neighborhood I had already loved.

    Chicago Mahogany Tours. For information about current tours, visit www.chicagomahogany.com. $45–50.

  • Best Writing Group: PenFlow

    In 2020, when the world seemed to slow down, many of us picked up new and old hobbies—some even stemming from our childhoods. You could not scroll a social media feed without bumping into photos of friends and family caring for new plants, picking up knitting needles, or returning to a beloved instrument. 

    This is what led me to seek out a writing group. 

    Coincidentally, it’s also what led to the birth of PenFlow writing sessions. It was not lost on me that such a space started up in poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s beloved Bronzeville. 

    “We wanted to create a space for people to get back to writing, or to even start writing, and provide an intimate setting for them to perform those pieces for anyone who may be nervous performing in front of others,” said PenFlow co-host Jovan “Skrypt” Plunkett.

    Besides the occasional English class assignment, I had never taken a crack at writing poetry—let alone performing a piece in front of others. But the vibe at the sessions is such that even a novice like myself felt welcome to perform in front of some of the best spoken word artists, rappers, and poets in Chicago. 

    Each session begins with a two-hour window to write about the topic picked for the evening. The scene is an inviting one—a space about the size of a three-bedroom apartment, with quiet rooms for strictly writing others for those of us who like to be a bit more social, and a main room for collaboration. As guests arrive, co-hosts Jovan and Darron Anthony filter through the group to see who would like to perform. Though there is no pressure, there is often gentle nudging. “I always look forward to hearing your songs! Even if they are unfinished,” I overheard Darron saying to one of the group’s songwriters one night.

    Hosts invite attendees to feel out the scene for the first two sessions, then decide if they would like to become a member. The space is 420 and BYOB friendly, which allows some of the creators to get into their modes.

    PenFlow, 4500 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Wednesdays, 7–11pm. Contact penflowsession@gmail.com @penflow_writingsessions via Instagram for more details.

  • Best Place to Drink in Art: Happy Hour at Retreat at Currency Exchange

    Retreat at Currency Exchange, one of Theaster Gates’s several projects on the 300 block of E. Garfield Blvd., also known as the Arts Block, has many façades besides the wall revealing the building’s past as an actual place to cash checks and pay utility bills.  A café and artist working space by day, Retreat at Currency Exchange moonlights as a bar on Thursdays and Fridays for happy hour, from 5pm to its 9pm close.

    If Starbucks exists for some as the “third place” between home and work, Retreat exists for artists and members of the community as a homegrown third place between home and gallery.

    Gates’s trademark inclination—of using his urban planning background to repurpose the detritus of white flight and disinvestment into an elegant statement—is on full display at this location, where everything has an artistic bent. The chipping paint walls of the former Currency Exchange are lined with bookshelves and comfortable seating areas; director of music programming Baredu Ahmed’s carefully curated list of jazz, house, neo-soul, afro-beats, and other styles fill the space (when it’s not filled by the music of a live ensemble, as it is most Thursdays); and Jason Vazquez, director of operations, uses his mixologist background and his time at the Art Institute of Chicago to create riffs on classic cocktails that speak to the community. His Controlled Currency cocktail uses bourbon, coffee liqueur, and cold brew made by CTRL Z, the Retreat-based coffee brand headed by Zandro Zafra, who uses Costa Rican coffee beans roasted in Chicago.

    “It is a rotating menu,” said Vazquez. “We had more of a summer menu recently and now we’re gonna go into fall and winter with more flavors, you know, darker spirits, spices, cinnamon, vanilla, pumpkin spice.”

    Previously, Retreat at Currency Exchange hosted pop-ups by local chefs on occasion, but Sabina Bokhari, director of communications and philanthropic initiatives for Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, said to be on the lookout for a resident chef by the end of the month.“We consider it as an incubator for culinary entrepreneurs…We are really intent on making sure that we’re supporting BIPOC culinary entrepreneurs through this residency program, where they’ll have a brick-and-mortar space to serve out of if they haven’t before, and are able to cultivate a community on the South Side,” said Bokhari.

    Pro tip: Be sure to bring cash to tip the bartender, as their credit card reader did not allow for a tip on a card at the time. (Francisco Ramírez Pinedo)

    Happy Hour, Retreat at Currency Exchange, 305 E. Garfield Blvd. Happy hour Thursday and Friday, 5pm–9pm. Coffee bar open Monday–Friday, 8am–5pm. Instagram: @retreatcurrencyexchange

  • Best Everything Vendor: Truck Outside the Garfield Green Line Stop

    If you’ve ever had to catch a train at the Garfield Green Line stop, you might notice a very familiar fixture: Garland Gantt’s truck, outside of which you can pick up socks, clothes, pops, and water bottles. But inside his truck, Gantt operates what is essentially a mobile corner store.

    You can pick up snowballs, hot dogs, ground beef nachos, and even Italian beefs. He’s been at the same spot since 2002.

    Gantt is one of the best people to ask about the undergoing transformation of the neighborhood while you pick up a bag of chips. 

    Inflation is something that has not escaped this entrepreneur, as he makes it clear on his signage that rising prices are due to economics.

    When asked what the biggest change he’s seen all these years, he attributes the investments made by the University of Chicago.

    Outside the Garfield Green Line stop, 320 E. Garfield Blvd. Monday–Friday, 10:30am–7:30pm.

  • Best Bridge Over DuSable Lake Shore Drive: 35th Street Bridge 

    I love every pedestrian bridge across the DuSable/LSD—they all help me reach Lake Michigan, my favorite place in the world. But among these lovely bridges, the best is the 35th Street bridge, because it leads to a field of flowers.

    This lakeside prairie is part of the Burnham Park Wildlife Corridor, a ribbon of native grasses and wildflowers. The flowers bloom all season and the palette of the park changes as the months go on. I’m particularly fond of the bright yellows and pastel purples of late July, when black-eyed susans, bee balm, and milkweed are in full bloom.

    It’s not a big park, but it is immediately enveloping. Stepping off the bridge, you can meander down one of the thin dirt paths leading deeper into the prairie. The noise from the road muffles, the city disappears from view. You can see a sliver of deep blue lake just over the crest of grasses. The last time I was there, the air was full of dragonflies.

    35th Street Pedestrian Bridge, 3500 S. Lake Shore Dr.

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