- In Memoriam: Best Newsletter Writer
- Best Grassroots Sports Scene
- Best and Longest-Tenured Waitstaff
- Best Egg
Bill Gerstein is the former owner of Mr. G’s Finer Foods, a longtime high school principal, and a civic force in Hyde Park, having served on the boards of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, the Hyde Park Development Corporation, The Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference, and the Kenwood High School Local School Council. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Both my parents were from Hyde Park. They went to Hyde Park High, they went to Kozminski Elementary School, they got married after World War II. They moved to South Shore, which is what a lot of Hyde Parkers were doing back then—that’s a whole other history. My father started a grocery store. His father was in the grocery business on 31st in Bronzeville. [My father] decided he didn’t want to work for his father, so he started his own store on 53rd and Kimbark. It was called G’s Certified, and he had another store in the neighborhood called Prairie Shores, where Michael Reese Hospital used to be.
As a kid I worked in the store on and off, starting when I was eleven. I didn’t want to go into the family business, so I became a high school teacher until 1981. My uncle got real sick, and he was running the Hyde Park store. I decided if I was ever gonna be in the business, I only wanted to do the Hyde Park one, because I loved Hyde Park. I took a leave of absence from being a teacher and I ended up loving it.
I loved the neighborhood. You got to really touch the community in a way that very few people see a community. Grocery stores are very democratic institutions. I hired all these neighborhood kids. I’m very proud of the fact that many, many, many of them have turned out to be really important people in the world.
As a supermarket owner who also had to make money, I saw myself as somebody who stayed away from a lot of controversial big issues, otherwise you alienate half your customers. I promoted all good stuff: the schools, the parks, solid community projects that brought affordable housing or good development. To be good at retail you have to get along with your customers, who were in my case my neighbors. I ended up living two blocks from Mr. G’s, so for almost fifteen years. My whole life was in a one-and-a-half-mile concentric circle of where I lived.
I got involved in this movement to create high schools—the small schools movement. I ended up starting a whole bunch of schools. I was principal until 2010 at South Shore High School and Austin High School.
Any kind of neighborhood school is the center of a community. It used to be everybody would send their kid to a neighborhood school. If you have a parent of a child in your school and they are angry with something, they’re gonna come right to the top. They’re gonna want to, in some cases, curse you out. My job, I felt, and I learned this from the supermarket business—you let them vent, okay, and after they’ve vented you apologize if you need to, and in almost every case you need to. Then you try to figure out how you keep them as your customer and as your neighbor and build their trust and make sure it never happens again.
My big obsession was how do we get better K-12 systems for the neighborhood? Hardly any school in Hyde Park has a large number of Hyde Park children going to it. That was always one of my big interests, and I wish that people who were spending time, energy, and money on the typical, the rocks at the Point, would take on: How do we get more Hyde Parkers engaged in the schools?
I’ll be real specific on this: I think people move to Hyde Park for its racial diversity, and you could create a better sense of community if everybody sent their children to the neighborhood schools. That way, they’re all in the same place, children and parents are all in the same place, but people get to know each other. You build community through neighborhood schools.
The strength of my store was that I was able to attract the full diversity of Hyde Park—I had a really good cross-section. My estimate was eighty percent of my customers came from the Hyde Park community—and it was a strength, and we built community around that. By doing that, you have racial integration, you have economic integration.
I think having a larger group of neighborhood residents owning key businesses creates a civic culture, for lack of a better term, where people feel closer together. The small business ownership is not what it was back in the day. There was Herman Cohn from Cohn and Stern, there was Hans Morsbach, there was the old John Swain from the old Kimbark Liquors. There is a decline in the number of neighborhood business owners.
I really believe most Hyde Parkers want what I’m talking about. They want to live in a community where they know their neighbors, people go to the same schools. They want that, but how are you gonna actualize what they want, is the big dilemma.
I knew a lot of people and I liked people. A lot of people don’t like other humans. I felt really good about almost everybody in Hyde Park. They were good people, I liked engaging with them. I loved the diversity of it. I couldn’t have done what I did at Mr. G’s in any other neighborhood. It gave me more of a sense of place, how important place is in human society. That, I never thought about that before.
As told to Morley Musick.
The Hyde Park Herald, Chicago’s oldest community newspaper, prints once a week and updates online every weekday with news about Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn.
In Memoriam: Best Newsletter Writer
I used to go drinking at my friend’s apartment on 53rd St. Walking home, I would pass the Falcon Inn, where, for several years, a weekly newsletter was posted in the window. It included the editor’s musings on life, as well as puzzles, trivia, and local and national news. The letters were laid out in three columns with clip art in the margins and a decorative border dividing each section.
I liked to stop by here while I was drunk and try to solve the puzzles. The newsletter also contained updates on the lives of the bar regulars. I have happy memories standing outside here on summer nights and reading the newsletter by the orange light of the streetlamp.
I was hoping to write about it and its author for this issue, but when I checked a week ago, there was no newsletter to be found. The bartender working at the time, Belinda Roddy, informed me that its author had passed away three or four years ago.
His name was an unusual one and no one I spoke with was entirely certain about how it was spelled: “Roberiste” was the most confident guess, though I also heard “Robaris” and “Roberis”. One person said his last name was Walton. I have been unable to confirm any spelling with the City coroner’s office.
Belinda told me that the newsletter had originally been her idea and that Roberiste had taken it on. “He used to put all of us in there, Pudgy, Jackie, Floyd, we was all in [the newsletter],” said Roddy, gesturing at several regulars sitting around the bar.
Roberiste had helped manage the Falcon Inn’s softball team and organized its Thanksgiving dinners. Belinda recalled him wearing white latex gloves outside the door on Thanksgiving, spritzing the hands of customers before they walked in.
Jackie, who was sitting across from us, spoke about Roberiste’s work with the Department of Health. As a gay man, he had worked for decades to raise awareness about AIDs and other sexual health issues. “He used to always bring condoms in here, all kinds, even lady condoms, little pamphlets and things,” said Jackie.
Belinda retrieved a water pitcher from a cabinet behind the bar which was about a quarter of the way full with condoms—Roberiste had left it here years ago. An elderly man asked for a Magnum condom, to which Belinda replied, “Don’t have any. You’ll have to glue two together.”
One of the younger Falcon Inn regulars, Tommy Deaderick, had been good friends with Roberiste, and remembered his distinct look.
He said, “I always used to joke about his fashion cause it looked straight out of the 80s, broad jeans, things like that. But back in the day I would’ve probably wanted to wear his whole catalog.”
Belinda remembered his custom Cubs shirt, and others recalled clothes he had sewn himself.
Tommy recalled, “I went to Atlanta and so I knew about gay culture, gay lifestyle…and the Falcon Inn was an accepting place. But I would sometimes say, you know, ‘oh that’s gay’, stuff like that. Roberiste kinda took me aside one day, like, ‘Do you know how you sound when you say that?’ I thought about it, I said, ‘Yeah I sound pretty dumb.’ He was upfront like that. He changed me.”
Jackie said she and Roberiste frequently argued about the news, and that Roberiste made sure to include his opinions in the newsletter.
“We’d get in a fight, yelling at each other, all that. Then I’d see him the next day: ’Hey baby, how you doin?’”
Tommy said, “He was a real one, genuine. I don’t think you’ll find too many people like Roberiste no more. He gave a shit. At the same time he was so ahead of his time, the world was different thirty years ago. You had to be a bold person back then to be outright gay. He was like that.”
He recalled that Roberiste had broken up with a partner shortly before passing away, and that he had concealed his illness from the regulars. Roberiste disappeared from the bar for many months before his death and, when he returned, appeared sick and small. Floyd, another regular, remembered that his usual hat fit “so loosely on his head that you could stick two hands in it, between the ears.”
“He was angry,” said Tommy, “He didn’t want to die.”
It took the Falcon Inn regulars several months to learn that he had passed. They drank shots in his honor after they finally heard.
Among the Falcon Inn’s mementos, Belinda could not find any of Roberiste’s newsletters, nor a photo, nor the custom t-shirt she had made celebrating him (“his name was spelled wrong on it anyway”, she said).
I mentioned all of this to a friend, who had previously worked for The Hyde Park Herald, and he remembered Roberiste sending him a few of the newsletters. Though he unfortunately signed the email “Rob”, there were nonetheless four newsletters attached to the email (firstname.lastname@example.org) all dated from 2017.
Of these, the July 8th edition is my favorite.
It contains many things: a notice for the Friday afternoon dominoes game; patron reviews of Falcon Inn Karaoke — “Some men come because their wives or girlfriends enjoy it.” — Anonymous, “I love Friday Karaoke… the diversity of people and the talent. A shot of beer will do you good.” — Tanya; various ads for local businesses — “www.Twoffold.com is the place to go if you are looking for great service that provides ‘a second set of eyes for your business’.” “ATTENTION all candle lovers.” — along with what must have been an unsanctioned beer ad that simply read: “Miller Lite. The Original Lite Beer. Born in the 1970s…”
It also records historical events that occurred the week of the newsletter: the marriage of the Duke of Windsor to Wallis Warford Simpson, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Robert F. Kennedy — and then an event of local significance: “On Thursday, May 25th the FALCON INN was blessed with the presence of renown [sic] Blues Harmonicist, Mr. Billy Branch.”
It includes a survey of Falcon Inn patron opinions on the occasion of Father’s day: “A beautiful Sunday to honor or remember our fathers and maybe enjoy a nice cold beer.” — Terrence. “Father’s Day for Black men is a very important day mainly because of the significance of the absence of Black fathers.” — Billy Branch. “It’s just a day to highlight what fathers do anyway. It really doesn’t hold any weight because even without that day father’s do it anyhow.” — L. L.
This is what I could find.
Roberiste wrote the Falcon Inn newsletter for several years without expecting glory, for a small group of friends, on the edge of oblivion, and posted it in a tavern window. (Morley Musick)
Best Grassroots Sports Scene
This spring, nearly 150 parents and residents petitioned the city to repave Kenwood Park. In an accompanying letter they explained that the blacktop, despite twenty years of neglect, was being put to good use again: Local shop Natty Bwoy Bikes and Boards had started offering skateboarding lessons to children at the park each Sunday.
Founded last October by brothers Kahari, Kari, and Katon Blackburn together with their friend Carlos Cortes, Natty Bwoy is located in nearby Boxville, the mall on 51st St. near the Green Line station. They ended up at Kenwood Park because Katon spent lots of time there when he was first learning to skate. “It was just like, what else can we do around this brand that can also help with the community in some sort of way,” he told the Hyde Park Herald.
This summer, the park got even more crowded, after DePaul undergrad Maxwell Murray started up the Urban Football League (UFL). The UFL is Murray’s attempt to bring more Black kids into soccer at the local level. Murray, who grew up in Detroit, often had to travel long distances for practices and games.
“I was the only black kid on my teams,” he said. “To the majority of people around the world, soccer is a working poor man’s game. I want to let our communities know that as well. It’s not a game of affluence. Only here, it’s marketed that way.”
For now, he’s offering soccer lessons to children in the park each Saturday, as well as hosting a pick-up game on Sundays on a paved part of the old basketball court he’s dubbed “The Pavement.” He’s got plans to expand to more days and neighborhoods, including Pilsen and Woodlawn, as well as dreams of partnering with professional clubs.
“It’s very much a diverse community out here,” Murray said one Sunday afternoon while drill music played from a set of speakers, and a radio broadcast the Manchester United–Wolverhampton Wolves game. “To play in a community like [Hyde Park/Kenwood] where we are able to listen to our music, where we are able to communicate in the way we naturally communicate, you know. It gives it a different feeling.” (Marc Monaghan, Christian Belanger, and Corli Jay)
Kenwood Park, 1330 E. 50th St. Natty Bwoy Bikes & Boards, nattybwoychicago.com. Urban Football League, instagram.com/theurbanfootballleague
Best and Longest-Tenured Waitstaff
Original Pancake House
Standing on the porch of the Original Pancake (OPH) on 47th and Lake Park and waiting in line has been the norm since the restaurant opened. People wait patiently under the store’s eaves for the host to stick their head out of the entryway and call a name, even in the winter. There must be a reason.
Once inside and seated, a busser will quickly bring you your silverware and water, and then a server will put a menu on your table.
As you read the menu, you might watch the servers move through the room. Nearby, one might say to a customer, “More coffee?” Another across the room: “The Dutch Baby? You know that takes about twenty minutes?” “You pay up front,” says a third, pointing toward the door.
And then, as you hold your menu and watch an apple pancake or an andouille chicken sausage skillet order being carried by, you look up. Your server is waiting, pen and pad in hand, “Has your order been taken yet?”, she asks.
What makes OPH a great pancake house? It has great food, but a lot of places have great food. So what makes it so special?
“The waitresses are spectacular. Yeah, we are just spectacular,” said Latisha Warfield, a Wendell Phillips graduate who has worked twenty-seven years at OPH, mostly as a server, but for the past three months as a store manager. “We get the job done. We take the order, we put the orders in, you know. Service with a smile. This is how we make our money. So, if we don’t give good service, we don’t make any money.”
Jonte Marshall, a Dunbar graduate who has been serving for nine years at OPH, had another answer to the question.
“The food, everything is just about made from scratch. So that’s number one. We serve fresh fruit, you know that’s a plus. The pancakes is awesome,” she said. “You can’t go to all breakfast places and get a Dutch Baby. You know some people don’t even know what a Dutch Baby is. And then we have thick bacon. Who don’t like thick bacon?”
Marshall said she has worked at OPH for so long because “I always feel like God put me here to [serve] people,” said Marshall as she explained why she has worked so long at OPH. She previously served at Soul Queen, a restaurant located at 90th and Stony, which closed in 2009 after its proprietor Miss Helen Anglin passed.
Many of the servers working at OPH have done so for a long time. “It’s the hours and the money,” said Helen Linn, who has been at OPH for about thirty years. “I start at 6:30 a.m. and I pretty much get off by one-thirty, two o’clock in the afternoon. So, I can go and do what I gotta do.”
Linn and Warfield are the only two workers still at OPH who started out at its old location on the corner of 51st and Lake Park, where Joe Zimmerman first opened his doors in 1971. He would eventually expand to three other locations in the Chicago area. The four locations opened by Zimmeraman and one other are now owned by Zimmerman’s great-niece, Lisa LaRoche Sczurek, and her husband Steve Sczurek.
“On 51st Street, when I was down there, there was some ladies there when I first started, and they had been there for years ,” Linn said. “Now it’s me and one other girl that came from 51st to here. It actually was three others, Trish, Cerita and Cat. Cat isn’t working here anymore, Cerita is a manager out in Oak Forest, and Trish is the manager here now.”
“We call each other, hang out with each other. We know their kids, you know, from babies until now. Trish has a daughter that’s like twenty-five, twenty-six years old. And I’ve been knowing her since then. It’s a great place to work. Everybody pretty much get along. We fight like sisters and brothers sometime. And Cerita, I am her son’s godmother.”
Yocelyn Santana attends Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy in the Little Village neighborhood and has been serving at OPH for about a year. She started on her sixteenth birthday; it’s her first job. Her dad is a manager with the business, mostly at the Orland Park location.
“I basically grew up here. I used to eat blueberry pancakes all the time,” Santana said. The job “gets difficult sometimes, because I am young. You know, I have to deal with people my age, older people. I like it though. I like the people I work with. Sometimes I like my customers.”
Alicia Price is the only server I spoke with who wasn’t raised in Chicago. She has been serving at OHP for about three years. “I moved here from Ohio, and I came up here,” she said. “Ended up moving into Hyde Park. Seeing that the Pancake House is always busy, been serving my whole life, came here and got a job.”
“This is the busiest restaurant I have ever worked at and I’ve made the most money here selling pancakes and eggs. More than I’ve made in the last seventeen years of my life serving, like literally. The hours too. My kids go to school from 8:45 to 3:45 and there is a 9 to 3 o’clock shift here that works perfect. My kids go to school right down the street.”
Quentin King, a King Prep graduate, is one of two male servers at OPH. He has been serving at OPH for two years. “I’ve been a bartender, a bar back, a floor manager, a store manager. I’ve done it all,” he said. “Nothing good comes easy. So, if you have great service in a restaurant, if the food is great, if the service is great, if the music is great, it took a lot of time and effort to get there. So as seamless as it looks, that’s how much work we are putting in. If you have a great experience, we are putting in great work, a great amount of work. We’re going to be the foundation and the glue.”
Tamara Mack-Lee, a Westinghouse High School graduate, has been serving at OPH for about four years. She said the biggest benefit was being able to work around her children’s schedule.
“I have an associates degree, a paralegal, I have certifications in medical assistance, phlebotomy, EKG. You name it, I’ve done it,” she said. “But this is the only job at this point that has given me the opportunity to basically be a good mom, you know, for my kids. Without having to ask someone else, can you pick them up from school, can you do this, can you do that, so it gives me the level.”
“What got me here?,” she asked herself as we spoke. “I was recently married, now divorced. I had moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I was down there for maybe like six years. It didn’t work out for me.”
“My aunt, she works with the company as well. She started off pretty young, I think, maybe right after high school. She, like, has over, maybe, thirty-five years with the company.” Her aunt said OPH was hiring, so she told herself she’d see how it would go.
“I am still here.” She laughed. “It worked out.” (Marc Monaghan)
Original Pancake House, 1358 E. 47th St. Daily, 7 am-3pm. ophchicagoland.com
The Bird of Peace
Plenty of public art is monumental, aimed at making an impression on a grand scale, but not the Bird of Peace. Inside Nichols Park—unobtrusive in its own way compared to the acres of space found in its neighbor parks, Jackson and Washington—the Bird of Peace is tucked away by a little plaza in front of the fieldhouse. A bronze egg standing on two other eggs, with a beak that resembles an upside-down coat hanger, it’s innocent without being naive, puzzling but not inaccessible.
The sculptor, Cosmo Campoli, was a local character, one of those eccentrics remembered mostly by old-timers. When the Herald interviewed him in 1986, he told them he’d like to be mayor of Hyde Park and outlined his vision for the neighborhood: “I’d encircle Hyde Park with parking lots. You’d leave your car in the outer circle before you come in, and then Hyde Park would be free of all this traffic.”
Even then, Campoli was a bit of a fossil, the last hirsute relic of the Monster Roster, an overlooked group of post-war artists in Chicago who made up a loose movement oriented around existentialism and psychoanalysis. Like the Chicago Imagists, their more celebrated descendants, the Roster found a home at the Hyde Park Art Center. Campoli’s work was strange and obscurely dark, working out a fascination with birth, death and nature that developed, he said, after witnessing chicks hatch from eggs as a child on his family’s Indiana farm.
Bird of Peace, installed in 1968, was graffitied repeatedly. Campoli didn’t care. “I don’t mind a bit because they can’t destroy that bronze, even with their pipes, stones, whatever, they can’t even put a dent in that,” he told the Herald. “You know, kids write their names on things.”
In 2000, the sculpture went missing for a day after someone took it from its pedestal. (The park supervisor said that, “given the aerodynamic shape of the statue, it wouldn’t have been able to catch enough of the wind to topple by itself.”) It was soon recovered and, a few years later, anchored in place by titanium steel rods. It may be there until the Earth falls into the sun.
The Bird of Peace, an egg that is not yet a bird, represents the promise of future peace that might never be realized. It is also a reminder of an oddball artist and a past version of Hyde Park that is now mostly gone. “The egg is the most exquisite shape there is,” Cosmo once said. “You hold one in your hand and you are holding the universe.” (Christian Belanger)
Bird of Peace, Nichols Park, 1355 E. 53rd St.