I met Susan Garza, 10th Ward alderwoman, in her office on 106th and Ewing, an expansive space where staff answered emails and calls and walked in and out of a strategy meeting in a large improvised conference room in the back. Garza stood proudly over it all in the front, and every resident who walked by waved through the windows. Her comfort in this new office (she was elected only months ago) comes from having known the Far Southeast Side—loosely bounded by Indiana on the east and the Calumet River on the west and north, but described as nearly all of the 10th Ward by Garza—since birth. She left only for college, returning to raise her kids and carry on her father’s union striking tradition as a part of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Her father’s campaign poster, “Ed Sadlowski: Steel Workers Strike Back,” hangs proudly at the entrance to her office, which she pointed out before telling me about the community she lives and works in.
This was a true blue collar community, and the steel mills just drove everything. We used to have nine steel mills just in this area, just in the 10th Ward, and with those mills came restaurants and stores, and there was a tavern on every corner that ran continually. It was constant, it was vibrant, it was exploding with life, and when the mills started to close, the community just lost hope.
I grew up in a very traditional union home, where my life was spent in union halls and gate pass outs and Christmas parties at Local 65 headquarters because it always seemed like my dad was campaigning for something. My dad [Ed Sadlowski] was the face of [the Steel Workers Fight Back] movement. People still to this day come to me and say, “Oh, your dad changed our lives here.” They tell me that all the time. He always told us to honk when you go past the picket line, and then stop at the donut shop and go back and bring the guys a donut.
Right after high school I went to work in the mill, at Chicago Steel and Wire Mill. I was eighteen and I lasted six weeks. I was like, oh hell no, I can’t do this shift work. I was inside the walls of Jane Addams for forty-six years as a student, a parent, and as an employee. When I went to school there, there were like 300 kids and when I left, there were 894. I was a counselor, but I was a counselor with 894 kids. I get choked up thinking about [leaving Jane Addams]. You know what I miss the most? I miss the kids. You know, and the kids that were on my caseload, I worry about them.
One of the things people don’t know is that we have a state park in our ward: Wolf Lake State Park, which no other ward has, I believe. Growing up, every teenager hung out at the rocks in the summertime. You’d get up at 9:30, go to the rocks, and there would be hundreds of teenagers on the rocks. Kids used to run and dive off the top rock into the water. That was one of my favorite spots. We have wetlands, and we have natural habitats in the big marsh. We have the international port. We have rivers and lakes and tons of rail. But we have some of the most beautiful natural habitats; we have eagles that live on the river that nobody knows about, and it’s kept a secret, so nobody messes with them, and turtles, and herons, and deer. It blows you away. Six hundred acres of undeveloped lakefront. Who has that? With beautiful views of downtown, and nobody’s there! If 600 acres were on the North Side, that wouldn’t be vacant anymore. (Transcribed by Maira Khwaja)
Cocula Restaurant, with its own parking lot and wraparound awning, is reminiscent of a suburban family restaurant, complete with a gumball machine greeting you at the door. The clean booths, dark decor, and laminated menu—a book of combo family platters of tortas, tacos, and fajitas—are just a satisfying substrate for why you really came: the gallon of horchata. The expected, if not standard, food offerings fill your stomach, letting you fully indulge in the sweetest, nuttiest, creamiest horchata available in the city. This is the rare stuff: made in-house, there’s no watering down the crisp lingering of rice and almond. Bring a group to fill your booth, stay for the friendly restaurant vibes, and buy a rich big cup for yourself.
Cocula Restaurant, 8847 S. Commercial Ave. Sunday–Thursday, 8am–12am; Friday–Saturday, 8am–2am. (773) 374-3214. cocularestaurant.com (Maira Khwaja)
Best Cream Cheese Delicacy
As a panadería fanatic, I’ve dedicated myself to exploring the family-owned bakeries that dot Latino communities around the city. Like most panaderías I’ve been fortunate enough to frequent, Panaderia Marzeya has the requisite silver tray and tongs, along with racks filled with traditional pan dulces, elotes, cacahuates, and orejas, as well as loaves of sandwich rolls and bread to bring home to the family. Try the pineapple beso or one of the more Americanized cookies, fresher and tastier than any found in a commercial supermarket. The customer fills a silver tray from the racks that line the room, and usually ends up paying a few dollars (cash only!) for a couple pounds of delicious baked goods. If your eye is caught by the sign advertising the “cream cheese and hot pepper roll,” suppress any notion of self-control you may have thought you possessed before entering the bakery: buy the cream cheese and hot pepper roll and bite into it as you leisurely stroll down Commercial Avenue.
Panaderia Marzeya, 8909 S. Commercial Ave. Monday–Friday, 6am–7pm. Closed Saturday–Sunday. (773) 374-7855. (Julianna St. Onge)
Best No-Bullshit Tacos
On the outside, Tacos Nietos isn’t all too flashy, but what the restaurant lacks in immediate showmanship it makes up for in delicious and fresh cooked food. The spotless interior isn’t quite a harbor for foodies across Chicago, unlike many of Pilsen’s popular venues. Instead, the staff is focused on providing a simple, tasty, and inexpensive meal. Of course, the asada and carnitas make great classic eats, but the beef tongue serves as a serious alternative for the more adventurous. Aside from the tacos, both the freshly cooked gorditas and the sopes are fantastic: thick, warm, cheesy, and perfectly cooked. Tacos Nietos is the perfect place for those looking for some simple, clean, and filling tacos.
Tacos Nietos, 335 E. 106th Street. Monday–Thursday, 8am–midnight; Friday–Saturday, 8am–2am. (773) 221-5000. (Clyde Schwab)
Best Early Retreat From Urban Living
Despite the environmental damage caused by the factories that decorate the Illinois-Indiana border, Wolf Lake remains one of the most important and beautiful biological sites on the Southeast side. While there are as many routes to Wolf Lake as there are ways to skin a rabbit, one of the best methods of getting there is by bike. A bike lets you appreciate the juxtaposition of the busier, surrounding urban area and the scenic serenity that the lake has to offer. Approaching Wolf Lake from the northwest brings you along the Illiana Marina Trail, where only the power lines that hum gently above break the silence. Continue onto Wolf Lake Trail to round the southern end of the lake and make your way up the lake’s eastern shore. You’ll pass the Wolf Lake Trail pavilion, a popular site for fishing, kayak rentals, musical performances, and yoga classes. On the last stretch of the path before it turns back into 112th Street, the soapy smells that belch forth from the Unilever factory might make it difficult to breathe and serve as a reminder of the encroaching urban-industrial sprawl. While the ride around the lake is a short one, its proximity and beauty make it a must-see for anybody that wants to get lost in the peace of nature and escape from the hustle of everyday life. (John Rudnik)