Photo by Reema Sales

Walking into the sanctuary of Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church of Chicago on a Monday afternoon in midsummer, I stood admiring the stained-glass windows with Pastor David Black, sunlight illuminating the panes in a dazzling array of colors. He remarked on the special features that reflected the radical tradition of his church: the all-female panels in the arch over the doorway, the beehive symbolizing the labor movement, and the depiction of Jesus as carpenter, a nod to his working-class roots.

He commented on unplanned details too—bullet holes pockmarking the panes and the slightly dulling effect of the panes’ plexiglass backings.

Earlier I had asked Black how he’d first formed relationships in the community when he moved to Chicago from New York in the early days of the pandemic. His recent change in residence comes after a peripatetic childhood bouncing around Eastern Europe and two years as a pastor and community organizer in New York City, including at Riverside Church near Harlem.

“Getting integrated into the community and getting to know people was really a fun process. It didn’t feel like a huge exertion. It was just like you keep showing up, keep asking people their names, who they are, and their stories and people are open to sharing that.”

Black, who is white, is young and affable.

“I’m also really privileged to be the pastor of this church because people in this community know this church and they know this church’s history,” said Black.

That history is a unique and fascinating one. As Black said: “Every part of Chicago history was a part of the church’s history.” 

First Presbyterian, the oldest continuous congregation in Chicago, has been around for 189 years, calling seven different buildings home. The only physical item carried from its first location in old Fort Dearborn all the way through to its current one on 64th Street and Kimbark Avenue is a wooden beam that looks not much worse for wear than the newer beams that were installed in 1927.

Founded as an abolitionist institution, the church’s pastors declaimed the evils of slavery from their pulpits in fire-and-brimstone style. Following the Civil War and the assassination of her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln called First Presbyterian her house of worship, according to Black. The social justice tradition of the church continued with the founding of the first public school and the first interracial classroom in Chicago. And against religious intolerance, First Presbyterian hosted the 1893 First Parliament of World Religions, an interfaith forum that remains one of the world’s most important. 

First Presbyterian made its move to Woodlawn back in 1926, constructing the American Gothic cathedral that still towers over rooftops and treetops. But just as Lincoln, quoting the Bible, famously declaimed from the statehouse in Springfield that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” so the church could not hold together amid increasing discord in its congregation concerning whether to accept Black members, even as the neighborhood became increasingly Black demographically because of the Second Great Migration. 

When the church’s leadership decided to go ahead with their integration plan in 1953, half of the white congregation up and left for the suburbs, taking with them a huge sum of funding. That may have been a blessing in disguise, as the church returned to its radical roots, introducing an interracial team of pastors, and inviting activist Saul Alinsky to lead community opposition to the University of Chicago’s plans to buy up the neighborhood.

For a time, the church provided refuge to members of the neighborhood gangs. “It was common knowledge that the Blackstone Rangers were here,” said Black. The Rangers’ rivals, the Gangster Disciples, sometimes shot up the place, hoping a bullet might strike the likes of Rangers’ leader Jeff Fort. This happened even though the Chicago Police Department and the FBI knew of the Rangers’ presence, having previously allowed the church to set up a weapons cache for the rival gangs in their main vault in an attempt to reduce the internecine violence by safeguarding their weapons. 

For a time, the church gave the Rangers use of their third-floor basketball court, which they painted in the colors of the Black Power Movement: red, black, and green. Fort, seated in an ersatz throne, held court with his supplicants there, planning projects to develop and keep the neighborhood safe using funds from the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty.”

Now, a new chapter of Woodlawn history is unfolding, with construction of the Obama Presidential Center underway and with organizers continuing their years-long fight for an anti-displacement plan for longtime residents; in 2020, their efforts culminated in the passage of an ordinance committing to developing affordable housing and other provisions for Woodlawn tenants and homeowners.

First Presbyterian remains a source of stability amid the flux and change. Neighbors and parishioners of the church tend the thriving community garden that has existed in some form since the 1970s, volunteers and residents come together for a weekly food pantry, and Black stands at the door ready to welcome you anytime you happen to stop by.

Max Blaisdell is an educator and basketball coach based in Hyde Park. He is originally from New York City and later served in Peace Corps Morocco. He last reported “ER Doctor Conveys Health Inequities at South Side Hospital” for the Weekly.

  • Best Peaceful Spot Hidden in Plain Sight: The Pier at the 63rd Street Beach

    The pier at the 63rd Street Beach is shaped like an enormous elbow, extending far out into Lake Michigan. It’s so thin and narrow that when I ride my bike along it, I have to remind myself not to ride too close to the edge lest I fall off into the blue waters. The path to the pier is unmarked, flanked by tall grasses growing out of loose, sandy soil, reminiscent of the shorelines of Cape Cod or Montauk from my native East Coast. 

    There are two enormous towers on the pier that have electrical equipment and lights on them. Their wrought iron ladders could easily be scaled, just as one might have scaled the mast of an enormous sailing ship on the waters of Lake Michigan in the era before steam power, back when the trade in furs was the principal economic raison d’etre for the white settlement of Chicago. 

    There are metal rails extending the first part of the pier and wooden panels where fishermen can rest their poles. That length of the pier faces south towards La Rabida Children’s Hospital, with the South Shore Cultural Center visible in the near distance, and further off the stacks of the Gary steel works puffing their plumes of smoke into the atmosphere like a pair of old cronies chomping on cigars while yacking away. 

    As you turn left to the outer section of the pier, you face north, bringing Promontory Point and the whole skyline of the Loop into view. The pier now has no guardrails along either side, only one down the middle, and it ends so abruptly that, as you’re walking towards the outer edge, you could imagine continuing your stroll onto the water like a modern-day Jesus.

    I rarely see another person on the pier. This comes as a surprise to me given how much city life can oppress and burden its denizens with all its noise, heat, and chaos. To escape and find a piece of peace amid the din and daze of the city is a rarity that can be found at this pier. 

    The clamor of the city lowers from the volume of a shout to a whisper, one that is equal to the steady susurration of water lapping against the concrete walls of the pier. The limpid blue of Lake Michigan edges into a horizon of gossamer gray clouds pinned beneath the immense cerulean sky.

    Whether it be impromptu encounters with people of the negative kind, the claustrophobia induced by walking between enormous buildings, or an indescribable happening on the L or bus ride home, come to the pier at the 63rd Street Beach for a bit of serenity.

    63rd St. Beach, 6300 S. Lake Shore Dr. 6am–11pm.

  • Best Ghost Kitchen Turned Sit-Down Restaurant: Lloyd’s Upscale Street Food

    I had the pleasure of coming upon Lloyd’s Upscale Street Food as a beautiful oasis during a hot (and, let’s be honest, sweaty) summer bike ride. Lloyd’s sits like a beacon on the corner of 61st and Eberhardt, in a building clad beautifully in white and green glazed terra cotta tile.

    Lloyd’s has a vibrant presence and a clean, modern aesthetic. Loud R&B music spills out of this spot, which is as good for a coffee as it is for a hearty meal. Lloyd’s menu has pasta, tacos, and burgers, as well as some outstanding salads and appetizers.

    To quench my thirst, I ordered a caramel iced coffee with oat milk, a burrata salad, and some garlic parmesan fries. The food that came out was hot and fresh. Those three things were exactly what I needed to power me up for my bike ride home. I was also extremely pleased to find I could feed my bougie side and my constantly-craving-fresh-fries side all at the same time. The iced coffee was, in a word, amazing. Maybe it was the heat, but everything from the bold coffee flavor to the sweet caramel just hit the spot. Really, it couldn’t have just been the heat. It was a solid coffee.

    During a later visit, I met one of the three owners of Lloyd’s: Lai McCoy. McCoy has been cooking professionally since 2015. After years working with the Chicago Park District, McCoy started Lloyd’s in February 2021. They initially worked out of  a series of ghost kitchens in Logan Square and South Loop. 

    The restaurant is named for McCoy’s grandfather, Lloyd, who loved to eat the food Lai cooked. McCoy’s vision is to provide something different, a gathering space, for the people of Woodlawn. McCoy envisions a centerpiece for the community and a showcase for the arts, such as spoken word, painting, and live music. They currently do brunch on Saturdays, and will be having after-hours gatherings twice a month starting on September 2nd from 7pm to midnight. In the long term, expect to see food trucks and additional locations of Lloyd’s Upscale Street Food. (Smitha C. Vasan)

    Lloyd’s Upscale Street Food, 501 E. 61st St.  Open Monday through Friday, 9am–5pm; Saturday, 11am–5pm. See website for Lloyd’s After Dark announcements. $5–22. (224) 489-0937.

  • Best Local Museum: Johnny Twist Historical Blues Museum 

    Near the corner of 64th and Cottage Grove sits the Johnny Twist Historical Blues Museum; it’s  incredibly difficult to miss. The brick facade can barely be seen behind the slew of rainbow posters that read  “Black Love Is Power” and “The Black Shoe Delta Blues.” In addition to the colorful posters across the front of the museum, there are several racks of beautiful clothing, accessories, and posters that can be purchased as well. 

    The front of this museum gives you just a taste of the rich, artifact-packed museum just beyond the front door. There is a single narrow pathway through the museum and where you’ll be surrounded by newspaper clippings, photographs, magazine covers, posters, and artifacts from Twist’s time as a rock-a-boogie blues superstar. Twist himself guides you through the museum, first establishing himself as a prominent blues star,and if you still doubt his stardom, he has a stockpile of newspaper clippings and magazine articles written about him from the Chicago Defender and the Weekly.

    Throughout the tour, Twist welcomes questions about his collection and is happy to share his contributions to and knowledge about blues history. As he explains the meaning behind the various artifacts of the museum, he sometimes sighs with nostalgia. Twist highlights many of the people who made blues the legendary music genre it is today. His museum keeps their legacies alive by sharing with guests stories of those who have passed. 

    At first glance, this museum appears to be an assortment of random objects but the museum truly comes to life once you’ve experienced it alongside Twist himself as he explains their significance. It’s called the Johnny Twist Blues Museum for a reason! Twist’s guidance and knowledge gives meaning to the museum, an experience that would be difficult to find anywhere else. 

    Leaving the museum is almost as strange as entering it, you step back to reality and leave the cramped storefront behind. This museum leaves a lasting impact on you though. You will find yourself thinking back on Twist’s quirks and small trinkets around the museum. The Johnny Twist Blues Museum is more than a museum, it’s the history of an entire people and genre all in one place.

    Johnny Twist Blues Museum, 6455 S. Cottage Grove Ave. $5. Open Monday through Saturday, 11am–5pm. (312) 779-4116

  • Best Bacon, Egg, and Cheese for the Homesick New Yorker: Robust Coffee Lounge

    On a hot midsummer Monday afternoon, people continuously bustle through Robust Coffee Lounge on the corner of 63rd Street and Woodlawn Ave. in their shorts and tees. A nurse in dark blue scrubs is nestled in an armchair by the entrance dozing peacefully, perhaps after a late-night shift. “Order 91, order 91,” calls the server, and the nurse jolts awake from her cat nap and grabs her sammie, prepped fresh to order in under five minutes. 

    “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” as sung by Aretha Franklin blares over the speakers and a TV on the wall displays a cooking show, building mouth-watering anticipation within the customers who have yet to order. The whir of the coffee grinder behind the corrugated metal counters matches the industrial décor of the space—exposed vents, newspaper print wallpaper, street signs adorning the walls instead of paintings, and floor-to-ceiling concrete columns.

    An old-fashioned gumball machine that takes quarters and an array of loose-leaf teas in glass jars lends a timeworn feel to the space, despite being founded in  2009. The backroom, larger than the space out in front, has leather booths along the east-facing windows and a back wall with huge drapes to block out light from the rising sun, which, when drawn, evoke the backrooms of the old South Side, obscure places where deals might be struck between the mafiosos and political heavies. 

    From where I stand looking up at Robust’s blackboard menu, there are eight different breakfast options and a plethora of sandwiches featured, all lettered in white chalk by a practiced hand, maybe that of a former schoolteacher. The reason I’d stopped by, though, was not to admire their signage or gawk at the crowd, but to sink my teeth into another piping hot bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, one so good it cured my friends from New York of their hangovers just a few days before.

    The bacon, egg, and cheese (made with American, not cheddar or any other Midwestern fromage) is a New York City staple, one that “chases off any remaining morning demons and clears the way for whatever fresh demons are waiting at work,” according to one New York Times food critic. Comparable only to the Subway and counter slices of ‘za, the bacon, egg, and cheese also pulls off the remarkable feat of not dividing New Yorkers along the lines of class, ethnicity, or neighborhood in a city profoundly segregated in ways Chicagoans are surely familiar with.

    After emerging from the kitchen with freshly washed hands, Jake Sapstein, the co-owner, told me that the bacon, egg, and cheese is Robust’s best-selling menu item. Though I didn’t say it, I wanted to tell him that my taste buds felt validated by this fact.

    Sapstein and his husband decided to start Robust after they were laid off from their corporate jobs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Using money from their 401(k)s, they decided to bump up their retirement dreams of opening a neighborhood coffee shop rather than searching for other work. 

    Having worked eight-hour shifts every day in an understaffed cafe since the start of the pandemic, Sapstein said that he was finally instituting days off for himself, starting, well…soon. “Right now, we’re just thankful for the help that we have. Everybody’s definitely being stretched thin. Everybody’s definitely putting in their most effort [because] this is the most productive staff that we’ve had.”

    Curious to uncover the secret of how they make such good bacon, egg, and cheeses, I was tempted to submit a job application myself. But then I thought some beloved things—maybe all things beloved—are better left a mystery.

    Robust Coffee Lounge, 6300 S. Woodlawn Ave. Open daily, 7am–3pm. $2.75–$12.95. (773) 891-4240

  • Best McNugget of History: McDonald’s Restaurant 

    You’ve driven south on Stony Island Avenue—maybe on your way to the Pullman National Monument for a history tour or to fill up on some smoked and fried fish at the venerable Calumet Fisheries. Or maybe on your way to a dip at the 63rd Street Beach or to take a stroll through Jackson Park. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve taken this route, you’ve passed a McDonald’s that from the outside is as unremarkable as any other of the 38,000 locations you can find anywhere around the globe. And if you’ve ordered food from the drive through, you’ll find that the food is no different from that of any other of Chicago’s 111 McDonald’s. 

    Indeed, that is one of the enduring appeals of fast-food chains like McDonald’s—no matter which one you go to, you can order a Big Mac and it will taste exactly like the Big Mac you scarfed down decades ago when you were a kid with an insatiable appetite.

    But what belies the unexceptional appearance and menu offerings of this particular McDonald’s, is that this spot is the very first Black-owned-and-operated McDonald’s franchise in the country. Herman Petty opened the franchise in 1968 during the heyday of the civil rights era when there were growing calls for Black ownership of businesses, and the restaurant was later purchased by Yolanda Travis in 2007, keeping it in Black hands.

    “Make no mistake—Herman Petty was a true history maker and risk taker. When he purchased the store, it meant that African Americans could invest in and strengthen our communities, and we’ve been doing that ever since,” Travis said in an interview with Block Club Chicago.

    If you walk inside, that much is abundantly clear. Al Green and Marvin Gaye play over speakers, while life-size photos of Black children beam at customers. Near the back, a large bronze plaque displays the names of all the current Black McDonald’s owner-operators, recognizing their contributions to the growth and permanence of the Golden Arches chain.

    Mere miles away from Travis’s outpost is the seat of McDonald’s global operations, the headquarters from which strategic marketing and supply chain decisions get made. Their training program for aspiring franchise owners, Hamburger University, is also run out of those same offices in Fulton Market. 

    For the corporate executives of the late 1960s, placing a McDonald’s under Black leadership had less to do with altruistic motives and more to do with self-interest—with white owners and employees deserting neighborhoods, McDonald’s needed people to fill those vacant restaurants and positions. And at the same time as Chicago’s South and West Sides went into serious economic decline because of disinvestment and the flight of industry, McDonald’s benefitted from massive federal investments in new highways that cut apart neighborhoods, creating food deserts where residents would have no choice but to eat out at their restaurants. 

    Today, Black franchisees like Travis are struggling to hold on to their businesses and to keep their dreams of making a fortune off frying patties alive, even as corporate profits hit all-time highs. Based on documents from the National Black McDonald’s Owners Association, the number of Black owner-operators declined from 304 outlets to only 222 from 2008 to 2017. What explains that drop? Apparently, the gap in cash flow between the typical McDonald’s franchise and Black-owned ones has widened from $24,600 a month to $60,600 over the five years preceding 2017. 

    So if McDonald’s corporate is to live up to the commitments made in its marketing blitz in support of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, it had better reinvest its profits where its buns are and do more for Black franchise owners to minimize the cash flow gap— but it should also accede to the demands of its Black and brown workers in their fight for paid leave and basic workplace protections.

    McDonald’s, 6560 S. Stony Island Ave. Open 24/7. (773) 493-5800

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