Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga
Marquette Park. Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga

Best of Chicago Lawn & West Lawn 2020

I spent the first ten years of my childhood living across 71st Street from Marquette Park. During these years I got to know Chicago by the sounds of airplanes flying low over Midway, and by trips to the Dominick’s on Pulaski.

Marquette Park is also where I learned to ride a bike. My first bike was painted a metallic purple with mermaid cartoons, decorated with streamers on the handlebars, and outfitted with training wheels. Stubbornly, the training wheels refused to stay on the bike. When they fell off, I fell down with them. They were so stubborn I eventually chose to just remove them, and find my own balance.

The 60629 ZIP Code has been a COVID-19 hotspot throughout the duration of the pandemic. The primarily working-class Latinx community comprises many of the city’s essential workers, most of whom haven’t had the luxury to work from home, and still lack access to efficient testing. Months into the pandemic, this lack of resources in a heavily impacted community is nothing short of unjust and negligent.

Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga
Marquette Park. Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga

On a recent visit to the neighborhood, I listened to the frustration of a woman whose husband tested positive even though he only went to and from his job as a mechanic. I saw parents coming back from work to pick up their kids from daycare late into the evening. At a COVID testing site, community members were met with long lines.

But at Marquette Park, with the safety of open space and room to run, I saw kids screaming and playing tag. I saw families at the lagoon admiring the geese who had yet to migrate south. As I admired the trees, all the willows and the yellows and oranges, couples and groups of teenagers strolled past. 

This neighborhood has so much to carry. The virus is out of control, and workers have not stopped—they can’t stop. At Marquette Park, the weight is lessened just for a bit as community members look for balance during this heavy time. (Alex Arriaga)

Neighborhood Captain Alex Arriaga is a journalist currently completing a residency with City Bureau. Her reporting focuses on how immigrant communities in Chicago build power and participate in democracy. She grew up in West Lawn, moved around a lot, and now lives in Pilsen.

Chicago Lawn Neighborhood Captain Eli Hoenig is a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying materials science. He’s trying to figure out what happens to densely packed ions at electrically charged surfaces. He’s lived in Hyde Park for several years and likes community and co-ops and riding his bike to out-of-the-way places.

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Best Community Ceramics Studio 

IMAN Beloved Community Ceramic Studio

Iman Ceramics Studio. Photo Credit: Eli Hoening
Iman Ceramics Studio. Photo Credit: Eli Hoening

I wasn’t looking for a ceramics studio when I entered the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) community center, an inconspicuous building on West 63rd Street, Chicago Lawn’s main commercial strip. Instead, I was interested in its community health clinic, which the organization has transformed into a local COVID-19 testing center, and their food distribution efforts, which have been active since the onset of the pandemic. After a chance encounter with Ariya Siddiqui, the artist in charge of the studio, I soon found myself holding a flyer advertising a new series of ceramics classes, as she led me through newly renovated spaces to the studio in the back. 

There’s an abrupt transition from the freshly painted plaster walls of the IMAN gathering spaces to the exposed brick and cement of the studio. The ceramics studio smells earthy, and feels clean and organized. It’s a spacious room, filled with several large tables and built-in shelving that holds finished sculptures, glazes, and tools. The kiln, where sculptures can be fired on-site, sits in a small alcove off the main workspace. 

Iman Ceramics Studio. Photo Credit: Eli Hoening
Iman Ceramics Studio. Photo Credit: Eli Hoening

The walls of the studio are lined with pictures from the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement march led by Martin Luther King that ended in Marquette Park. (The pictures were taken and donated to IMAN by photographer Bernard Kleina.) The march is infamous for the violent reactions of the police and many residents from the Chicago Lawn community. MLK himself was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a counter-protestor. (A living memorial to that march was erected in the park in 2016, and named Best Reminder in 2016 BoSS; the site where it was constructed was converted to become the ceramics studio.) These images point at the studio’s mission that extends beyond ceramic arts. The program offers a space for, and is integrated with, classes covering topics such as spirituality, civil rights, and local history. The ceramics studio is part of IMAN’s larger mission to “foster health, wellness, and healing” in Chicago through social organizing, holistic health clinics, and art.

A series of two classes offered this fall, for example, covered the economic effects of segregation in Chicago; while learning, the potters crafted their own miniature ceramic banks. These classes were forty dollars per sequence, but the instructor assured me that anyone from the surrounding neighborhoods can join free of charge. The ceramics studio also hosts open studios, where people can simply work on their projects. (Eli Hoenig) 

IMAN Beloved Community Ceramics Studio, 2747 W. 63rd St. imancentral.org/chicago/arts-culture/beloved-community-ceramic-studio

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Best New Hobby for Families Who Rock

West Lawn Rocks!

Take a closer look at the rocks in West Lawn. They’re not like normal rocks.

In West Lawn, the rocks are watermelons, they’re lucha libre fighters, they’re pencils, and they’re Patrick Star from SpongeBob

Eddie Guillen launched the neighborhood rock painting group West Lawn Rocks only four months ago in order to help families cope with the pandemic. Since its inception, the group has grown to 400 members. 

Community members on the online group shared their positive reviews of the initiative.

“Starting this activity throughout the neighborhood has allowed us to build connections between families despite this pandemic. It definitely allowed us to keep our sense of community,” said West Lawn resident Vanessa Carlin. “I was able to teach my senior parents how to paint and they were able to share this experience with younger members of the family.”

The group was created as a community-building effort meant to spark creativity in the neighborhood. The group encourages painters to hide their painted rocks and for group members to stay on the lookout for the hidden art pieces. 

“The goal is to get lots of people all across our communities painting so that there are lots of rocks to be found out there, as well as get people outside and looking at the beautiful world around them,” says the introduction to the page on Facebook. 

With everything that the neighborhood has gone through in 2020, it’s one way that the community can share creativity and joy. (Alex Arriaga)

West Lawn Rocks! facebook.com/groups/286027296052959

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Best No-Frills Pizza Parlor

Papa T’s

Papa T’s is a classic Italian restaurant serving distinctly American-style pizza: the cheese layer is slightly thicker than the crust it’s served on (which is not particularly thin), and the mushrooms and onions, although certainly present, are barely seen within the folds of the mozzarella. It’s the type of pizza that satisfies my most basic food desires: for fat and salt, for cheese and bread, for large quantities that I can eat quickly and immediately satisfy my hunger. It’s the type of pizza that is immeasurably better while hot and fresh and that, if left cold, would unpleasantly solidify. Thankfully, despite the large quantity it’s served in, the appeal of the pizza is great enough to preclude that possibility.

The pizza is good, but truthfully, that’s not how the restaurant stood out to me. Their pizza is too similar in style to that of Little Caesars (a location of which is a few storefronts down) to be worth writing about for its own sake. Papa T’s has, according to the employee who took my order from behind a permanent plexiglass window, been around for thirty years and during that time has consistently provided its food and labor to the local community. It’s helped at block parties and has been a consistent spot for locals to hang around in and watch the small TV perched in the corner of the dining area. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they distributed pizzas to schools and hospitals. 

As a result of the permanent plexiglass barrier separating customer from employee, and the restaurant’s overall spaciousness, Papa T’s has operated for the entirety of the pandemic, but its business has still suffered. Employees have been forced to cut hours to prevent others from being laid off entirely. Even with these measures, Papa T’s hasn’t been able to support its entire workforce. The restaurant itself was empty when I ordered my food, instilling a sense of disquiet while offering relief from the stress of crowded indoor spaces. (Eli Hoenig)

Papa T’s. 2843 W. 63rd St. Monday–Thursday, 11am–11pm; Friday–Saturday, 11am–midnight. (773) 436-2100. papatspizza.com

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Best Intersection for Love

59th & Keeler

59th and Keeler. Photo: Courtesy of Milt Coroando
59th and Keeler. Photo: Courtesy of Milt Coroando

At 59th and Keeler, you’ll find love. 

This intersection is where Love Fridge Chicago installed the #11 Love Fridge so that families can come daily and take what they need, or donate what they can. This show of community love in the form of mutual aid has been an essential cushion for Chicagoans in neighborhoods all across the city getting through the pandemic.

To draw people to the love fridge to take needed items or drop off donations, local artist Milt Coronado created a mural that honors the identity of West Lawn: the words “West Lawn” are featured prominently and between the words, two wings which read “Midway.”

59th and Keeler. Photo: Courtesy of Milt Coroando
59th and Keeler. Photo: Courtesy of Milt Coroando

This was the first mural that went up as part of the West Lawn Mural Project, an initiative to bring more public art to West Lawn, to represent unity and generosity in the community, with the design on T-shirts sold to raise money for local businesses.

“It is a very blue-collar community, highly impacted by COVID because they are essential workers, they have bills, they have families,” Coronado said. “I think that with the murals, it shows a sign of strength. It’s close to home, and it gave me great honor and humility to be able to contribute my talents this way to the community.” (Alex Arriaga)

Love Fridge #11: El Refri de la Vida, 4215 W. 59th St. Weekdays, 7am–2pm and 5pm–8pm; Saturday, 8am–noon; Sunday, 9am–noon. thelovefridge.com

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Best Tacos and Best Truck

La Chaparrita’s McQueen Taco Truck

Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga
Photo Credit: Alex Arriaga

On the corner of 59th and Kedzie, amongst the traffic and people walking, you can smell the tacos from La Chaparrita’s red truck, McQueen—named after Lightning McQueen, hero of Pixar’s Cars series. It has become a staple in Chicago Lawn in the two years it has been there. 

During the pandemic, many have depended on this truck as a way to get some quick and delicious tacos. During the summer, it made a patio available, making it one of the only patios open to the Chicago Lawn community. It attracted many people from the community and those passing by the usually bustling intersection of 59th and Kedzie. 

Yet McQueen is just a chapter in the history of La Chaparrita, which goes back to matriarch Doña Emma, who, after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, created a legacy with her family selling tacos that have become a South Side staple. 

The original La Chaparrita is on the corner of 25th and Whipple in Little Village. Ulises Sanchez, Doña Emma’s son-in-law, emphasized in an interview that nothing would have been possible without her. Now he and his wife run the taco truck together. Part of that vision was expanding their reach, which they ended up doing in Chicago Lawn. 

The pandemic has hit Chicago Lawn hard. However, for the workers of McQueen, accessibility and its delicious tacos has helped them keep their jobs. Sanchez said this is important because “They need to bring home la papa”—the bread, the money—to feed their families.

McQueen shows resilience in the face of chaos. It brings joy to Chicago Lawn in the form of tacos. Perhaps most importantly in a year like 2020, it is something familiar that brings comfort. (Carolina Gallo)

La Chaparrita #2’s McQueen Taco Truck, corner of W. 59th St. and S. Kedzie Ave. Monday, 6:30pm–11pm; Tuesday–Sunday, noon–5pm and 6:30pm–11pm. (773) 940-1306, facebook.com/lachaparrita2restaurant

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