South Loop. Fort Dearborn. Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma
Battle of Ft. Dearborn Park Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma

Best of the South Loop 2020

Janie Urbanic is the founder of the South Loop Village. It hosts monthly Memory Cafe events for elders with dementia and their caretakers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

The Villages were started twenty years ago, and Boston actually was the first Village and the whole purpose is to create a community of older adults to help each other age in place. We call it “aging in community.” In the Greater Chicago area, there are seven villages, and the South Loop Village is the newest. The first of this year—2020—was our official opening, but we started our Memory Cafe a year ago in August [2019]. When I started the Village, my interest in trying to help older adults focused around overall health but specifically brain health.

I worked in marketing and advertising for over thirty years and I woke up one morning literally and I thought, “You know, I had great clients but I don’t care if XYZ companies ever sells another bag of potato chips, and I don’t really care if so-and-so ever sells another seat on an airplane. In truth, they’re going to do that with or without me. It’s time for me to give back,” is really what I felt like, “It’s time for me to give back.” So I went back to school—I got a master’s on the weekend program, with a neuropsych concentration in dementia. And then I was lucky enough to be hired at [Rush University Medical Center], kind of managing the operation there of their memory clinic. I worked for another twelve years at Rush, and it was during my tenure at Rush when they offered an early retirement package to 800 people because they were trying to lighten their financial load. And I was at retirement age and I thought, “Boy, this is my swift kick in the you-know-what to say, here’s your opportunity—now I can go do this.” I could never have done this Village thing while working, it’s just too all-consuming. And I thought, you know, somebody is giving me a little nudge to say, “Yeah, it’s time for you to put it out there and go do this thing that you’ve had on your brain for two or three years.” [Because] I knew right away, I can’t work at Rush, I can’t work anywhere and do this too. So they kind of gave me the opportunity. I will be forever grateful for that.

Unfortunately in February of this year was our last in-person Memory Cafe because of the virus. We have been holding it on Zoom, and we will continue to do that until everybody is comfortable and it’s safe to get together in person again. When it’s in-person, [the Cafe] is a little bit longer of an event, and on Zoom, it’s a little bit shorter. We do an hour, but we have key elements that we make sure that we cover in every Memory Cafe. We open with some sort of meet and greet, and then we make sure we have music because music is very important to people as they age, and definitely people with cognitive issues respond very well to music, and sometimes that’s a singalong. And then we have a quiz, we always want to make sure we tap into people’s cognition and work a little bit with some brain exercises. Then we show a craft, and we let people know ahead of time what is involved in making it so if they want to make it along with us during the cafe they can or we tell them, you know, we show them how to do it and then they can do it on their own. And then we always have some sort of physical activity, that might be chair exercises, or sometimes the sing along will prompt people to get up and do some dancing around and that sort of thing. We make sure those elements—we want to touch into their senses, we want to touch into their cognition. We want to touch their physicality, make sure that they get some sort of movement, and we want to make sure we include music, every time.

We’re trying to do as much as we can but we’re so limited—we also have an issue with a lot of our older adults who are financially challenged. [They] don’t either have devices on which to Zoom, or don’t have connectivity. I mean for us a bigger problem has been that there’s internet that exists in a lot of these senior housing subsidized buildings but only in a community room, which is not open, because of the virus. So while they can get online if they go to their community room, their community rooms are closed. That’s changing, day by day, month by month, but we still face a lot of issues with people not having connectivity, so that’s made it additionally challenging for us to try to reach some of these older adults that we fear are dramatically socially isolated.

From where I sit, I look at five-, ten-million-dollar condos on the north end of my geography, and I look at public housing on the south end of my geography. And I know that each of those two demographic, geographic areas have different needs. I know that the people that live on the north end, a lot of folks are empty nesters who move back to the city to do the things that are available to do in the city, but they left communities where they lived their whole lives and they come here and they don’t know anybody. So they’re desperate to make friends, and to have activities together and to do things that are of mutual interest to each. I look on the south end, and I see, gosh. These people don’t need [just] activities, they need services. And so that’s what a Village does, is it provides activities and services, at least for us, [that is] a South Loop Village. We provide activities and services for people to help them, allow them to age in community. And so each end of our geography has a different need in that regard. But it’s real obvious to me having lived here for sixteen, seventeen years, how the community on one end has changed and the other end has really been neglected. So, living in this community for sixteen or seventeen years, the minute I learned about villages, I thought, gosh, we’re the perfect community for a Village, you know we are, because Villages serve people in different ways. And, and everybody is longing for something. Everybody is in need of something. (Lucy Ritzmann)

South Loop Village Memory Cafe, hosted virtually. (312) 225-4406. facebook.com/southloopvillage

Neighborhood Captain Jasmine Mithani is an editor at the Weekly.

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Best Shortcut

Under Roosevelt Bridge

After twenty-four years, I had finally learned how to ride a bike, but was terrified I would hit a stoplight and then be unable to get my balance again. In my mind, cars would line up behind me, honking their displeasure at my pace, while pedestrians passing by shook their heads in judgment. Imagine my delight when a friend said she discovered a way to avoid the traffic of Roosevelt Road on her walks. She pulled up a map and pointed out the underpass. A few weeks later I had discovered how to bike from 16th Street to Polk—a regular commute—via the magic of Plymouth Court.

If you’re heading north, enter the passage at 16th and Dearborn. Bike (or walk!) on the concrete sidewalk under the train tracks until you get to Cotton Tail Park. Cross the park and exit onto Plymouth Court, and head straight, through the Roosevelt Road underpass until you hit Polk. Admittedly, there are a few stop signs, but the street is quiet and no one will notice if you, like me, still fumble with your pedals every once and a while. (Jasmine Mithani)

Enter from the north on Polk/Plymouth, and 16th/Dearborn on the south.

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Best Place To Forget The Hustle And Bustle Of Everyday Life

L+A Healing Studio

South Loop. L+A Healing. Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma
South Loop. L+A Healing. Photo Credit: Mell Montezuma

L+A Healing Studio’s spacious Michigan Avenue location is filled with warm light, vibrant flowers, and artfully crafted displays. There are shelves filled with (but not limited to) South Loop-concocted perfume, Texan botanical soaps, luxurious shaving supplies, and sparkling jewelry made in-store. A dance studio behind the counter coupled with multiple private rooms for massages, acupuncture, and facials completes the wellness hub.

L+A Healing Studio has been in business for five years, two at their current location on 21st and Michigan. The “L+A” is a reference to the owners, Leo Gonzalez and Alex Agudo, long-time Chicagoans who have made the South Loop their home for nearly a decade. The studio is a blend of their interests: Gonzalez is a former nurse now practicing massage therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine, while Agudo is a dancer with a background in the jewelry industry. 

“We always want to make sure that everything—not only just like the treatments, but the products that we offer, the classes that we have—[with] all the services, there is affordability,” Agudo said during a phone call with the Weekly.  “Because one of the biggest things is that people always think that wellness, or taking care of yourself, costs a lot of money, which it can, in a way, but we wanted to make sure that it was approachable. We wanted to get that out there to let people know: hey you know your health should come first.” (Compared to other acupuncture services in Chicago, L+A is indeed affordable.) The Studio’s community acupuncture program is one such way they’ve lowered the financial barriers to wellness. Pre-pandemic, acupuncturists would treat multiple people in the same room, focusing on a subset of treatments which only require access to elbows, legs, and feet—the twenty-minute “collective healing experience” (per its website) is thirty dollars, versus the eighty dollar hour-long individual sessions offered as well. 

In addition to holistic health, L+A is built on pillars of community, environmentalism, and diversity. All of the products sold in-store are from women-, LGBTQ+, veteran-, or minority-owned businesses. Additionally, all products must use natural ingredients and come in biodegradable, recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging. Agudo notes that many of the vendors they work with donate a portion of profits to charity. Given all these stringent criteria, the overflowing shop is even more awe-inspiring.

Nowadays, L+A has adapted to these times. Gonzalez and Agudo are researching the safest way to restart the community acupuncture sessions, but otherwise are in full swing. The art classes previously held on the huge, knobby wooden table in the middle of the store have migrated online, and fitness programs are limited to four students. Between every class and client, the rooms are sanitized with UV-C lights, steam, and disinfectant sprays.

Brightly lit in spring, cozy in the winter, L+A is a small haven where the traffic of Michigan Avenue melts away. Don a mask and swing by—you’ll never know what treasures you will find. (Jasmine Mithani)

L+A Healing Studio, 2018 S. Michigan Ave. Wellness appointments available Monday–Friday 10am–9pm; Saturday, 10am–6pm; Sunday, 10am–5pm. Retail open Monday–Friday, 11am–7pm; Saturday, 10am–6pm; Sunday, 10am–5pm. (312) 753-3249. lahealingstudio.com

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Best Place to Reckon With History

Battle of Ft. Dearborn Park

On a quiet part of Calumet Avenue, near the entrance to the Lakefront Trail lies a very small park with a brown plaque. The park resembles a large lawn, yet has the requisite amount of trees and benches; there is a small sidewalk where on a sunny day, kids will bike around and around. It is quiet, peaceful, and the site of a fierce conflict which took place over 200 years ago. 

There is a brown plaque close to the exterior of the park that reads in bold gold type “BATTLE OF FORT DEARBORN August 15th, 1812,” followed by an attempt to explain the history of the battle. However, the blurb is far too small to encompass the alliances, trials, and tribulations that any of the groups have suffered but it tries to give a vague sense of who was fighting on which side. The blurb references “Some Indian Tribes” who were allied with the British to fight against the Americans who at the time were mostly living in and around Fort Dearborn. The Battle involved nearly one hundred soldiers and civilians and approximately 500 Potawatomi peoples, according to the plaque.

The park was dedicated in 2009, three years before the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This spot is intentional—nearly two miles from the actual site of Fort Dearborn at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive—since later nineteenth-century accounts claim that this was the spot where the Battle happened. Even more specifically, locals pinpointed the Battle to a patch of sapling cottonwood trees near Pullman Mansion which was located at 1729 South Prairie Avenue. One tree was even nicknamed the “Massacre Tree”  because it was thought to be alive at the time of the Battle, according to accounts in Alfred Theodore Andreas’ History of Chicago, published across three volumes in the 1880s. 

The history around the Battle of Fort Dearborn has been contentious, as it has only started being referred to as such in the twenty-first century. Previously, it was known as a massacre. The debate around the word used to describe that conflict and the way it has been framed has been ongoing—and the current plaque neatly can’t distill all that turbulent history. In the words of John N. Low, a member of the Michigan-based Pokagon Potawatomi and now director of the Newark Earthworks Center at Ohio State University, “History is not truth; it’s memory, [a]nd a part of remembering is considering what we forgot.” (Siri Chilukuri)

Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, 1801 S. Calumet Ave. Daily, 6am to 11pm. (312) 328-0821. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/battle-fort-dearborn-park

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Read an In Memoriam for Overflow Coffee Bar and Akhirah’s Praline Candy & Coffee House here

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