Photo by Michelle Gan

When I first moved to the South Loop, I wasn’t aiming to live there. But I quickly fell for it after learning it was a place where whispers of the city’s pulse could be heard. At times it was ferocious, but it could be sleepy, too, with the steady jingle of sirens and construction. The pandemic made this part of Chicago a haven: picture dewy walks along the Chicago River, standing beneath Harrison Street’s very own bascule bridge, built in 1960, to the tune of gathering groups. 

Home to some of the city’s first manufacturing plants, saloons, and galleries, the South Loop was pivotal in the reconstruction of a city devastated by fire and organized crime. It’s evolved further over the years, from Printer’s Row, a former hub for some of the country’s largest and most impressive printers and publishers (and current host of the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest), to Dearborn Station, one of six prominent train stations that served downtown Chicago—and now a fleeting caricature of the past, offering new spaces for shopping and high rises. Of course, South Loop also has some of the city’s best hidden eats—Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen and Umai, I’m looking at you.

There isn’t a particular kind of resident that dwells here, as the South Loop is an ever-changing melting pot of immigrants, families, business owners, and singles. You’ll be greeted by enthusiastic dog moms (and dads), coffee snobs obsessed with Hero Coffee, newly transplanted Wisconsinites, or recent college grads exploring a new business venture. The South Loop is one-of-a-kind, and a splash in the larger pool that is Chicago. Whether you’re heading north, south, east, or west, you’re certain to find a new memory waiting to be made here.

A myriad of “bests” are within a moment’s reach. Experience them for yourself below.

Neighborhood captain NaBeela Washington is an Alabama-raised poet, editor, and budding art collector. Read more at

  • Best African Grocery: L’Afrique Market        

    If you’re looking for high-end African products that you can’t find anywhere else in the South Loop, L’Afrique Market is the place to shop. From fresh produce to spices to baked goods, the quality of their items is hard to beat. 

    Owner Ibrahim Agoro is a first-generation immigrant originally from Nigeria. When he moved to the South Loop, he found few shops that carried ethnic products like Obiji, Ola-Ola plantains, Asiko spices, or Aboniki balm, and noticed that the stores were not run by Africans. At times, he would reach out to family members back in Nigeria who would ship items to him. 

    Frustrated and determined, Agoro put matters into his own hands. “Over the years, I took my time to really see how we can tackle the need for provision of ethnic foods to the highest level, just like you can walk into Mariano’s and be assured that you can make any meal from a whole range of items,” he shared. 

    Immediately, he knew that he wanted his shop to be located in the South Loop, because he did not see any stores that catered to Black and Indigenous residents. 

    By last September, things were finally coming into place, and Agoro was ready to open the store. A week before the grand opening, a woman knocked on the storefront’s door and expressed her appreciation for opening a shop with the products that she desperately needed. She took some flyers after she shopped, and within an hour, six more customers arrived, all before the actual store opening. 

    Now, L’Afrique Market is celebrating its one-year anniversary. Over the course of the last year, the team has continued to sell hard-to-find products, and now offers curbside pickup and delivery services. They also collaborate closely with the community to make sure their voices are heard and the products they desire are available. 

    As for what’s next: “The master plan for L’Afrique Market, my key idea, is to be as close [as possible] to the doorstep of every desired customer,” Agoro told me. He hopes for L’Afrique Market to become a franchise and to expand to Dallas, Houston, New York, and Atlanta. As Agoro and L’Afrique Market have made African products accessible to South Loop residents, he hopes to provide an identical service to other Black communities throughout the United States.

    L’Afrique Market, 2001 S. State St. Open noon–8pm Mon, 10am–9pm Tues–Fri, 9:30am–8:30pm Sat, and 11am–7pm Sun. (312) 344-1931.

  • Best Everything From Crystals to Zen: The Lotus Den

    One step inside this luxurious, Black woman-owned, three-level metaphysical emporium is a transformative experience for all the senses—sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, and the intuitive senses. Colorful stones in countless hues mesmerize the eyes and are irresistible to the touch. Tibetan singing bowls reverberate in a full range of pitch. Rows of candles, incense, sustainable sage bundles, and palo santo wood sit in conversation with exotic feathers, crystal pendulums, herbal teas, Indigenous dream catchers, books, jewelry, and tarot, oracle, and greeting cards. All merchandise is hand-picked in support of other Black-owned businesses whenever possible. Every item in stock has information and meaning behind it; someone on staff can tell you what each item is and how it is best used. A menu-style chalkboard announces upcoming workshops, moon phases, a featured crystal of the week, holistic healing sessions, Reiki training and certification, womb wellness, social media handles, and more.

    Owner Kellie Woods, whose business portfolio includes real estate, fashion, and personal care, was led to open her store through a mystical journey that began in 2007, when her very first piece of crystal—a necklace—was gifted to her by a complete stranger. Woods describes The Lotus Den as a place of refuge for those who are trying to find their way on their spiritual path. Since Fall 2018, when she opened The Lotus Den, Woods has held a supportive space for spiritual life guidance where visitors can release energies that no longer serve them and leave feeling lighter and renewed. 

    There is a sense of welcoming and community inside The Lotus Den—complete with an intention altar and crystal grid where visitors can write their intentions on small slips of white paper to leave in a bowl, where they will be infused with supportive collective energy. An in-house quote, displayed on artwork above the counter, reads: “Love is … always welcomed here, self belief is a requirement, as you speak, you create. Trust in yourself & know you’re the light!” 

    Team member and lightworker Karizma, who lived nearby and would shop as a customer, enjoyed the vibe so much she’s now on staff. Inventory manager Ajanae, who has been part of the team since day one and helped with the installation, put me up on her three favorite crystals: smoky quartz to help release unwanted energy, citrine for abundance and happiness, and black tourmaline, a popular protection stone which she says the store keeps affordably priced to make the stone accessible for nearly any budget. Ajanae firmly believes that everyone should have a piece of black tourmaline. 

    I firmly believe The Lotus Den has exactly what you are looking for, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it. Whether shopping for yourself or for the perfect gift, you’ll come for the vibe and stay for the tribe.

    The Lotus Den, 18 E. Cullerton St. Open daily 11am–7pm. (312) 285-2685., IG and FB @thelotusdenchicago

  • Best Corner Grocery Store: Totto’s Market 

    Out of bread? Craving fresh pasta and sauce for a quick meal? Need a plant to keep you company? Looking for flowers to make amends with a friend? But wait, you’re out of deodorant and want to smell your best before trying to make up. Look no further than Totto’s Market, your one-stop shop for all your household goods, packed into one tiny corner store on historic Printer’s Row. They’ve got fresh produce so bright it looks like it was produced in technicolor, prepared sandwiches and tubs of salads behind their deli counter, and an array of scrumptious pastries in a glass case just before the register. 

    By no means a large space, Totto’s nonetheless has a sunny, airy, and open feel that is a marked contrast from the narrow, jam-packed, dimly lit bodegas and local supermarkets of my native New York City. West and south-facing windows provide plenty of natural light, and orb-shaped lamps hanging from the ceiling keep the market well-lit even in the post-sunset hours as fall and then winter roll around.

    Totto’s is the brainchild of Scott Perin, whose father, Allen “Totto” Perin, was a local butcher for the better part of six decades in Chicago’s grocery business. Ergo the motto of the place—“You’re a stranger here but once”—is homey and inviting in a mom-and-pop shop way.

    Scott himself met me at the checkout counter. He wasn’t the overly saccharine grocer I had expected from the motto—rather, he had a no-nonsense kind of vibe. I was purchasing an assortment of goodies: a walnut and goat cheese salad, a tofu wrap, and a baguette by Publican Quality Breads, which he rang up quickly on a digital monitor. I was mildly surprised that there was no old-fashioned cash register, given such antiquated touches as the loose candies displayed in glass containers beneath the counter. The prepared food was solid enough to sate my partner and I’s appetites. We enjoyed it on an evening picnic spent watching and listening as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed at the Grant Park Music Festival. Whether it was the music or the crowd or the generally congenial atmosphere, I will now associate Totto’s dinners  with au plein air dining, and recommend that you, too, think of them too for your next picnic plan.

    Totto’s Market, 751 S. Dearborn St 8am–8pm daily. (312) 888-3600.

  • Best Non-Island Island: Northerly Island     

    East of the South Loop and just south of the Adler Planetarium sits a man-made island with a 119-acre park, a five-acre pond and a natural area teeming with prairie, savanna, and native plant life. It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago it was an airport – the site of Meigs Field, a small airstrip serving commuter planes and corporate jets. The story of Meigs, which was abruptly destroyed in 2003, its own saga. But in its place you can now find 12th Street Beach, a beautiful spot layered with brick and stone along the beachfront—the perfect spot to bring a date and picnic under a tree while red-winged blackbirds fly overhead and the waves crash onto the shore. Del Campos Tacos sits right behind the beach. Grab a bite, take a path, and see a variety of native wildlife, or by chance, see a sailing ship pass by on Lake Michigan. 

     The Northerly Island Visitor Center has many programs available, including tours, camping, fishing, boating, field trips for children, a music venue that holds concerts and events, and annual seasonal festivals that highlight the city’s natural life. There are also public artworks throughout the island that are worth the trip—like Denise Milan and Ary R. Perez’s America’s Courtyard, a spiral galaxy made of stone that represents an ancient celestial observatory, located just south of the city’s largest public telescope (behind Adler).

    To get there, I got off the train at the Roosevelt stop and headed east. At the southern end of Grant Park, I found the Mississippi Blues Trail Marker #77, in honor of Muddy Waters and the many other blues musicians who came to Chicago. Further east, I passed the train tracks, and just before Columbus Drive, I took the Museum Park Roosevelt Underpass, which takes you directly to the Museum Campus and the lakefront trail. Walking through the Field Museum’s Ivy Garden was a trip through the past. Next, I made my way to the Shedd Aquarium, before heading south towards Solidarity Drive, which leads to Northerly Island. Burnham Harbor is a perfect location for a shot of the city’s skyline, named after the famous Chicago architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham, who designed the island. I made it to 12th Street Beach, sat below a tree, and watched the sunset. A perfect night.

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