It seems almost impossible that the geographical bulk of the South Shore neighborhood—running from Stony Island to Exchange and from 71st to 79th—encompasses only a few square miles of land. The neighborhood gives off the impression of being far more expansive. The commercial arteries are fat and long, stuffed to the brim with knickknack shops, convenience stores, and steam-filled restaurants. Stony Island is a massive six-lane thoroughfare cut along the middle by a huge median, while 71st Street and Exchange are both bisected by the Metra Electric tracks. Turn off any one of these boulevards, though, and you’ll find yourself on quiet, tree-lined side streets like 73rd or 76th, Paxton or Constance—streets filled with old houses where kids play in the street and men sit smoking on porches. Those same streets have seen the crime and gun violence that ranks South Shore just behind Englewood and West Englewood, the two South Side neighborhoods with the most incidents, according to Red Eye’s homicide tracker.
Certainly, the neighborhood has seen its share of violence and systemic neglect; these oft-cited crime statistics are accompanied by a litter of vacant lots and boarded-up community centers. But for every crusading church like South Shore Bible Baptist on 72nd and Cornell, whose sidewalk evangelists say there’s nothing good to do or eat in the neighborhood, there’s a woman like Teyonda Wertz of the South Shore Chamber, who defends her neighborhood to the teeth. Wertz falls fiercely in line behind the group of students from Bradwell School of Excellence who, in July, trumpeted South Shore’s life and spirit in an op-ed published in the Tribune. For every mess of vacancies on 75th between Jeffery and the lake there’s a bustling street like 79th or a lively stretch of the same 75th from State to Cottage Grove, home to one of the city’s most diverse collections of restaurants.
If any street in Chicago deserves the title of “heterogeneous,” it is Stony Island, where the Nation of Islam mosque looms above the landscape, across the street from a Harold’s Chicken Shack and a chop suey joint.
The multiple neighborhoods that intersect with South Shore, whose boundaries blur depending on whom you ask, do not offer themselves up for easy summarization. The Jackson Park Highlands, north of 71st between Cregier and Jeffery, are some of the city’s quietest and most historic streets, filled with columned mansions and ancient trees—just blocks away from the sign-filled sprawl of 71st Street. West of Stony Island is the strange amalgam known as Greater Grand Crossing, where elements of Woodlawn, South Shore, Englewood, and Chatham collide. These side streets and embankments are some of the city’s densest and most dangerous, but the neighborhood also hosts strange delights like Oak Woods Cemetery and community centers like the Gary Comer Youth Center. South of 79th is South Chicago, a residential neighborhood where the majestic St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church towers at the center and the empty fields that will soon become the futuristic Lakeside Development sprawl towards the east.
Running up from South Chicago through the heart of South Shore is Jeffery Boulevard, home to the city’s only Bus Rapid Transit route, the J14. Jeffery is a multifaceted street, home to residential, commercial, and communal spaces. Some of its blocks are wide-open and exposed and others are intimate and tree-covered. At 76th, steam rises from the See Thru Chinese Kitchen, while blocks away the chalk-coated playgrounds of South Shore College Prep wait for recess—neither is any less or any more South Shore than the other.
BEST (ONLY) POTATO CHIP COOKIE
Give Me Some Sugah Bakery
Though owner Lenore Lindsay claims there are potato chip cookies all over the world, the only one I’ve ever seen is hers. The idiosyncratic delight is one of a vast array of cookies, lemon bars, cupcakes, and other desserts available in neighborhood staple Give Me Some Sugah. Everybody knows about this place, and for good reason: Lindsay wakes up every day before sunrise to fire up her hundred-year-old oven and set to baking a myriad of treats, including the mysterious potato chip cookie. Does the existence of such a thing surprise anyone else? It doesn’t surprise Lindsay, who found the recipe in the labyrinth of her mother’s Tribune clippings and “massaged” it a little to make it marketable. Whether or not it’s unique to Lindsay’s kitchen, the potato chip cookie is delicious, as is every other concoction Lindsay serves. Nor is the baking grandmistress, who opened the store after spending a quarter-century in the accounting business, willing to rest on her sugah-coated laurels. Since last year’s Best of the South Side issue she’s added an adjoining café and soup restaurant to the original bakery unit. The intention, she says, is to give people a place to relax, chat, and take a load off in a neighborhood that is otherwise low on public spaces. “We have nothing,” she says, gesturing out at 71st Street. Well, Ms. Lindsay, that’s not exactly true. South Shore residents have you, your café, and your delicious potato chip cookies—and that seems to me like a good place to start. Give Me Some Sugah Bakery, 2234 E. 71st St. Monday, 3:30pm-7:30pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30am-7:30pm. (773)363-9300. givemseomesugah.com (Jake Bittle)
BEST UNEXPECTED CHINESE RESTAURANT
House of Bing
The locals in South Shore, whether polled on 71st, 79th, or any other main boulevard, are in agreement: the House of Bing is one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood. It’s hard to see just how everyone managed to find the place at all: it adjoins an apartment building set back from South Shore Drive and appears to be housed in some kind of refurbished hotel conference room. Sometimes the restaurant is almost empty, but there’s no arguing with the food. The menu is so robust as to be daunting, but personal favorites include the Hunan Beef and the Shrimp Egg Foo Young. The restaurant also has a rich history: before its twenty-year tenure in South Shore, it was the House of Ing in Hyde Park (no word on where the “B” came from). It also used to host the Mo Better Jazz Collective on Friday nights, but the City of Chicago ordered the restaurant to desist after finding out its owners lacked something called an “entertainer’s license.” Not to worry. The food is attraction enough.House of Bing, 6930 S. South Shore Dr. Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Friday, 11:30am-11:30pm; Saturday, 2pm-11:30pm; Sunday, 2pm-10pm. (773)363-5400. www.hobsouthshore.com (Jake Bittle)
BEST OP-ED COLUMNISTS
Bradwell School of Excellence
The authors of the most incisive commentary about the South Side this year may be a group of fifth-graders too young to know what “incisive” means. Earlier this summer the Tribune published a moving submission from a fifth-grade class at Bradwell School of Excellence at 77th and Burnham, in which the students of this South Shore neighborhood school argue that the mainstream media presents an inaccurate picture of their neighborhood, misconstruing it as a “heartless” “Chi-raq” full of the “uneducated, jobless, and thieves.” They mount a stirring defense of South Shore that includes descriptions of local storeowners and jump-roping elementary school girls. “When the sun shines here,” they write, “it’s not God saying he wants to burn us; he sees us all with bright futures.” In a summer that saw almost eighty shootings over Independence Day weekend alone, this is an important reminder that the “reporters with fancy suits in front of [a South Shore] laundromat” don’t have the whole story. Myra Bradwell School of Excellence, 7736 S. Burnham Ave. (773)535-6600 (Jake Bittle)
BEST BIRD FOR YOUR BUCK
Royal Caribbean Jerk
Tucked into a cubby on 71st Street scarcely bigger than a walk-in closet, Royal Jerk offers the most unapologetically flavorful meal in South Shore. But it’s not the volcanic sauce and juicy chicken that keep you coming back—it’s the almost frightening calorie-per-dollar ratio. The store’s billboard advertises a half-dark lunch special as $7.50. Fair enough. But in addition to the standard four hunks of chicken, the meal comes with a huge mound of rice and beans, two different kinds of sauce, two sides (get the mac and cheese), and a canned soda. But then, when everything gets rung up, the total comes out, every time, to…$7.13. Um, okay. I’m not complaining. Royal Caribbean Jerk, 2126 E. 71st St. (773)363-6855 (Jake Bittle)
BEST PLACE TO FRAME YOUR MASTERPIECES
“This is your clubhouse now,” said Benyamin Maccabee when I sat down to talk with him. “We want you to feel at home.”
We are sitting in the main gallery of Studio 71, a small shop with big windows, tucked into a corner on 71st Street. He offered me a beer as he chatted the afternoon away with two friends who had stopped by to visit. For almost a decade now, Maccabee—tall, dreadlocked, extremely candid—has run Studio 71 as both a forum for his own work and a community art gallery. He studied art as a child, but went on to pursue a career in the culinary arts; he opened Studio 71 after leaving a decades-long culinary career that included a high-ranking chef position at Michael Jordan’s Steak House. Now he runs the gallery full-time during the summer; during the school year he keeps it open and also teaches art at a public school in Beverly.
Though small, the gallery boasts an impressive variety of work: surrealistic depictions of Ghanaian children sit alongside close-up portraits of CPS students and minute renderings of Chicago’s skyline. The contributing artists include longtime friends of Maccabee’s and South Shore locals like a seventeen-year-old student (now at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) whose portraits Maccabee cites as some of his highest-fetching pieces. Maccabee’s own paintings range from abstract color schemes with titles like “Energy” and “Spring Rain” to portraits of Bob Marley to interpretive allegories about the African slave trade. Maccabee’s variety of artistic subjects bespeaks the diverse experience of a self-described “jack of some trades, master of some” who moonlights as a radio voice actor. (Ask to see his demo tape, which includes all the car dealerships and pesticides and diabetes medications he’s advertised over the years.)
Most of the money that keeps Studio 71 afloat, Maccabee tells me, comes not from original art but from cutting and selling wooden picture frames. Hundreds of frame corners hang on pegs behind Maccabee’s desk like a mosaic. The floor of his workshop in the back is silvered with a layer of sawdust. As we talk, a woman comes in looking to buy a frame for a piece she did in an art class at the Hyde Park Art Center. Maccabee inspects the painting, gives it an appreciative “Oooh,” and then haggles with the woman and her husband to find the right frame for the right price.
Studio 71, Maccabee admits quite openly, is not making a killing. But in his ten years selling art in South Shore, Maccabee has carved a niche for himself in the community: people on the street trust his talent (Though he swears his wife Kathy is the inspiration and motivation behind his pursuits). He’s also known as the brains behind the South Shore Art Fair, in which businesses painted their storefronts and art was sold up and down 71st Street. The Fair didn’t run this year, due to a lack of finances, but Maccabee isn’t content to confine his influence to the walls of his shop. Even in the absence of the Art Fair he’s constantly connecting with neighbors. He seems to have everyone’s name and most people’s phone numbers.
“I like to see what people bring in,” he says after selling a woman a frame. “It’s nice to put art on display, but it’s not about me. I like it to be a balance, with everybody contributing. That’s the way I’ve always done it, since we opened.” Studio 71, 1834 E. 71st St. Monday-Friday, 11:30am-7:30pm; Saturday, 11am-7pm; Sundays by appointment. (773)324-5904. studio71art.com (Jake Bittle)