Ellie Mejia

Scott Smith was late putting his daughter to bed Wednesday night, but the Morgan Park resident and editorial director of video news startup TouchVision TV had an excuse for his neglect of paternal duties. The debut of the reading series he’s spent the past few months organizing was the following night. What began as an idea he idly “tossed around” a year ago with friend, writer and artist Dmitry Samarov, was about to become The Frunchroom, a quarterly reading series in Beverly and Morgan Park.

“Frunchroom” is what “front room” sounds like through a thick Chicago accent, says Smith.  With it comes, he said, “the whole idea of a place where you tell stories and hear people share their remembrances, or talk about things that are important to them, or laugh, or tell jokes.”

The name hit a sweet spot—an evocation so specific that South Siders would recognize it immediately, while other Chicagoans, Smith hoped, would be intrigued.

This quest for balance between local and universal may be what most differentiates The Frunchroom from the rest of the South Side’s live lit scene. Story Club Chicago draws a crowd to Bridgeport monthly, while Do Not Submit holds open mics in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Englewood, and Pilsen. Representation on the far South Side has been missing, so keeping the series in Beverly was always part of the plan.

“I wanted to do something that felt really local to the neighborhood,” he said. He organized The Frunchroom with the Beverly Area Arts Alliance, a group started last year to foster arts in the Beverly and Morgan Park community. Smith has lived in Beverly for five years, but the art scene’s never been so bustling—he and the Alliance directors are fond of calling it an “art uprising.”

Yet Smith’s goals for The Frunchroom also include diversity, not just in the types of stories told and who’s telling them, but also in the neighborhoods the audience hails from. The Frunchroom is a reading series by and about the South Side, but also seeks to attract an audience from other parts of Chicago. Smith wants, he said, “to show people all the different parts of the South Side, what it really is beyond what they may have heard in headlines or on television news. I think the idea that the South Side is of one particular type or one particular spirit is just silly.”

“I think we have an opportunity to have this be a bit of a destination reading series,” Smith added. Residents of the North Side rarely come all the way down to fairly suburban Beverly. The Frunchroom could change that.

That Thursday night, The Frunchroom pulled off its destination aspirations. The side room in O’Rourke’s Office, a Morgan Park bar, was packed with well over one hundred people. The audience flooded the rows and tables of seating, brought in extra chairs, and crouched on the floor and by the fireplace, spilling out the door. Some, unwilling to join the standing crowd, remained in the main bar and formed a semicircle around the entrance, peering inside. It wasn’t quite the number of people in your typical front room, although the décor was comfortingly reminiscent of the sort of living room where, Smith told the audience, “you sat with your drunk aunt and told stories”: a chandelier, bookshelves, no fewer than ten paintings and three sculptures of horses.

As for the audience in the room, about one-third raised their hands when Smith asked who was a native South Sider, and just about all the standing crowd was from Beverly. “We’re gonna work on that,” Smith offered when his attempts to scout out residents of the West Side drew crickets—but when called, a surprisingly substantial contingent from the North Side cheered.

The South Side residents, though, supplied the most abundant enthusiasm for and rapport with the event’s readers. The five readers, whom Smith met through the years he’s spent in Chicago journalism, all grew up on or live on the South Side. Smith was eager to tout the universality of South Side stories, and though he was right, the power of the readings was rightly grounded in the realities of local experience. Even the most general of the readings, DNAinfo Director of Social Media and Engagement Jen Sabella’s listicle about her “ideal commune,” was inspired by her time at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Mount Greenwood: “When I came out to my dad a few years ago,” she recounted, “he asked, ‘Did McAuley make you gay?’”

From there, the readers burrowed deeper into the neighborhoods below Roosevelt. Dmitry Samarov read about his time working at Hardboiled Coffee Company in Beverly, a two-year-old coffee shop “with the only fresh roasted coffee beans for miles around.” People spontaneously called, “Gregg! Gregg!” when told Hardboiled’s owner, Gregg Wilson, was present.

Freelance journalist Adrienne Samuels Gibbs wrote a story for the event about her high school years hanging out at the Evergreen Plaza, befriending a “bad boy” who lent her his herringbone gold chain. She ad-libbed to an audience that roared their appreciation, “That secret place on the second floor of the arcade that I can’t describe—everyone knows what I’m talking about, right?” They did: after the show, a man told her, “You brought up all the old memories.”

Perhaps WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore’s reading best underscored the importance of not conflating Chicago neighborhoods’ differing experiences but of weighing them against and with each other. Her piece on food inequity in Chicago, excerpted from her book-in-progress on segregation in the South Side, journalistically and autobiographically examined how “food access can be racist.”

Here the audience was silent, rapt when she covered subjects like the potential for South Side corner stores to supply suitable food instead of bringing in grocery stores like Whole Foods to Englewood. Moore’s personal anecdotes elicited the usual approving noise:  she recounted a friend’s reacting to an expensive, lackluster meal at West Loop hot spot Green Street Smoked Meats by remarking, “It’s no Lem’s.”

Chuck Sudo, former editor-in-chief of Chicagoist, also satisfied the crowd with the attention he lavished on neighborhood mainstays through the lens of his years biking the city. A Northwest Side native who never expected to end up in Bridgeport, he dropped a bevy of names, from Top Notch Beefburgers to Lem’s, that invited the raucous laughter of recognition. There is nothing better than hearing your local haunts treated with adoration, respect, and authenticity.

So it was somewhat jarring for Sudo to conclude, after asserting the joy of biking the lakefront is “to see the different Chicagos revealing themselves block by block,” that “we live in one neighborhood. It’s called Chicago.” The words play upon the common understanding of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods, uniting a city that is sometimes too fractured, one that hasn’t achieved solidarity in dealing with both the problems and successes of different neighborhoods. How do you bring a disparate city together while maintaining its vibrant plurality? This is the question The Frunchroom asks, and which it will continue trying to answer at its next event in July.

Nevertheless, the one-neighborhood declaration was heartwarming; when Sudo left the stage, Smith said, “This is everything I wanted this to be.” Comments like “That was awesome” and “That was really cool” came both from audience members donning their jackets and those who remained in O’Rourke’s for the next half hour and beyond. Joining friends and mothers, the readers melted into the crowd—not so much performers as voices representing the audience.

“The Frunchroom’s special,” Gibbs said. She’d never met the other readers, but their readings were “on the same wavelength,” and not just in terms of overlapping mentions of Lem’s. “We had a nice South Side flow,” she said.

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