Patrick Leow
Patrick Leow

It seems as though the center couldn’t possible hold in South Shore. In a city where homogeneity within neighborhoods has been the rule for decades, the uneasy marriage between rich and poor, progress and stagnation—at times just a block away from each other—is blatant and inescapable.

The plights of the neighborhood are manifest. The 2,700 housing vouchers in South Shore outpace every neighborhood in the city. There are long stretches of Exchange Avenue lined with closed and boarded storefronts. Shopkeepers seem to sing from the same hymnbook: “We’ve got a long way to go” is their common refrain, and given that South Shore is the neighborhood with the second-highest number of homicides citywide, that assessment is hard to disagree with.

But those somber figures belie the very tangible signs of progress in South Shore and its nearby sister of Greater Grand Crossing. The massive Lakeside development, planned for the old U.S. Steel site, promises to become the new downtown for the South Side; the ornate New Regal Theater has recently been rescued from its slow decay and is under new management; and the section of 75th Street between Cottage Grove and State is a consistent joy, one of the city’s most under-appreciated stretches.

Yet a neighborhood cannot improve solely due to the work of jackhammers and ambitious top-down plans, and the sense that its residents are banding together to bring about a better future for their little worlds is palpable. People talk about the neighborhood’s future with evangelical zeal, heard in every fiery “We’re getting so much better!” There’s an obvious pride in where South Shore residents come from and where they’re about to go. An informal community meeting erupts one blazing afternoon in Chef Sara’s Café with a consensus that there need to be more bike racks in the neighborhood, and the South Shore Chamber of Commerce is one of the most energetic and dedicated in the city. Whisper it softly, but South Shore’s on its way back.

“No such thing as a small Jim Shoe sub, man! No such thing.” The invariable foundations are simple: a drippy, messy mixture of roast beef, corned beef, and gyro meat topped off with cheese, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, then wrapped up in tinfoil and served with fries and can pop. It’s a calorie-heavy cornucopia whose basics the ubiquitous South Side sub shop doesn’t deviate from, and it is the quintessential South Side sandwich. Stony Sub, the only noticeable commercial establishment for blocks on each side, does it best—topped with fresh giardiniera and succulent meat, the sandwich held up even when I had the second half of my enormous “small” Jim Shoe for dinner the next day. Stony Sub, 8440 S. Stony Island Ave. Monday-Sunday, all hours. (773)978-4000. (Patrick Leow)

In a neighborhood dotted with sub stores and other food outlets that pile on the calories, the newly opened Southern Kitchen is a welcome addition, providing a fresh alternative to Polish sausages. Jessica Warfield, the owner of the restaurant, happily recalls her childhood in South Shore, while Le Cordon Bleu–trained chef Carvis Clausell busies himself with my order of fried catfish, okra, and collard greens. “It’s getting better,” Warfield says, speaking of the future of the neighborhood. She points toward the storefront, where eight beautiful paintings hang in support of the South Shore Art Festival, held earlier in the summer. Business support is going to be critical if the neighborhood’s going to see a revival, and helping that is the quality of Southern Kitchen’s offerings—the okra was succulent and made to perfection, and I haven’t had a better, or lighter, fish fry anywhere in the city. Southern Kitchen, 7167 S. Exchange Ave. Monday-Sunday, 10am-9pm. (773)734-2100. (Patrick Leow)

The site itself isn’t much to look at. Waves lap against the shore, and children can be heard at the nearby Rainbow Beach, but Chicago’s much-touted Lakeside development still lies almost completely empty. It’s the city’s largest vacant lot. But the banners which lie around its borders suggest a phoenix-like rebirth, and the city’s hyperbolic plans are remarkable. Plans finalized in 2010 established the desire for soaring skyscrapers to house over 50,000 residents, for its tree-lined avenues to provide the best place to bring up a young family on the South Side within the next couple of decades. It’s been touted as the South Side’s version of the Loop. There’s still a long way to go before these dreams are realized, but this could be the most important thing to happen to South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing in decades. Take advantage of this time to peer at the remaining concrete structures up close, the best monument to this neighborhood’s industrial past before it’s replaced by green and glass. Lakeside, 8555 S. Green Bay Ave. (312)944-3777. (Patrick Leow)

Stephanie Hart owns Brown Sugar, and she explains how choosing a hulking slice of cake shows off more refined taste buds in comparison to those who would settle for a cupcake. “It’s all about the ratio,” Hart says. The cake should take pride of place over the sweets slathered on top, and there’s simply more cake in a slice than in a cupcake. And what a cake it is. Her caramel cake has won numerous citywide awards and is what draws most first-time visitors in, but once you’re in Brown Sugar it’s difficult to go wrong. Everything smells warm, sugary, and of home. A lovingly-made slice of Turtle cake is to die for, and the portions are very generous. Best bakery in the city is a big claim, but considering the tenderness Hart and her team bring to the table, it wouldn’t be a stretch. Brown Sugar Bakery, 328 E. 75th St. Monday-Saturday, 10am-7pm. (773)224-6262. (Patrick Leow)

A tall, skinny shack with faded letters, Yah’s is easy to miss if you’re not told to look out for it. The one-room establishment seems strangely out of place in the South Shore community, but the emphatic “Made from scratch, nothing microwaved” signs on the green and blue walls and the warm enthusiasm of Mama, the owner tell you that Yah’s has carved itself a place in the community. An astounding variety of dishes attracts quite a few loyal customers, with the mixed vegetables a crowd favorite. The stuffing and cornbread are bursting with flavor, and their specialty drinks—shakes, smoothies, and more— are always worth a try, though one should be ready for seeds and other bits. The apple cobbler, however, seems lacking—an honorable mention here goes to another establishment, Tim’s on 87th, whose peach cobbler is customer-professed to be nothing short of “absolutely divine.” Yah’s Cuisine, 2347 E. 75th St. Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm. (773)359-7988. (Himabindu Poroori)

BEST SHOESHINE EXPERIENCE: Soloman and Soloman Custom Shoe Repair
My poor, shabby boots. A year’s worth of Chicago’s salt, snow, and rain meant deep furrows and creases, which all spoke of how they were much loved, but hopelessly neglected. In stepped Soloman and Soloman. Oh, and I could hear Charlie Parker playing too, so I had to enter. Within were men—at a shoeshine joint, they are invariably men—and next to the men were strewn copies of the day’s Sun-Times on faded blue plush chairs. Though they were strangers, the conversation among them ebbed from the latest indiscretions of “the Jackson cowboys” (“Sandi Jackson walked around so fine in those coats, when she bothered to show up in the ward”) and flowed to how grandchildren were so often absent from their lives (“the kid’s down in Memphis now”). Soloman and Soloman is a blissful twenty minute shine, with Fathead Newman saxophone standards providing the soundtrack to the young man meticulously making his way down the line, taking the utmost care with each individual shoe. My boots glow now, and so do I. Soloman and Soloman Custom Shoe Repair, 349 ½ E. 75th St. Monday-Thursday, 9am-6pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-7pm. Close at 5pm every other Wednesday. (773)783-8003. (Patrick Leow)

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