In 2012, hundreds of violent crimes and dozens of murders occurred in Washington Park and Woodlawn. The city reeled and the reputation of these two neighborhoods, once famous for their music, activism, and culture, was threatened by the specter of violence.
And yet, in spite of the trauma, the institutions that made these neighborhoods what they are remain as vibrant and powerful as ever. Evidence of an active and energetic citizenry abounds: The Woodlawn Organization still acts as a staging ground for important conversations in the neighborhood, and R.A.G.E., an Englewood-based community service group, is a particularly vigorous voice for maintaining the neighborhood’s integrity, especially in its latest fight for more stringent pollutant standards in a railyard that spans Englewood and Washington Park.
More historical remains survive today too. Daley’s Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage Grove has been going since the World’s Fair, serving up sweet tea to centenarians and chicken and waffles to teens. Bishop Byron Brazier, son of the civil rights era evangelist Arthur Brazier and honoree of a proposed street name for Stony Island—the first name change since 1968 and Martin Luther King, Jr.—preaches the gospel at 63rd and Stony, while underground hip-hop shows make 65th St. an entertainment destination for those in the know. Former cop and current alderman Willie Cochran dominates the political scene in the neighborhood, and is particularly active in issues related to crime and safety. A veterans group at Halsted in Washington Park tends garden, while chicken and lemonade storefronts whet the area’s year-round appetite for soul food.
It’s easy to say that Washington Park and Woodlawn are stalagmites of crime amid a city that has rarely seen more peaceful times. The reality is more complicated and, fortunately, much brighter than that. While the issues cannot be ignored, neither can the area’s abiding dynamism. As Curtis Mayfield said, “Just get on back to living again…right on.”
BEST SOUL FOOD: Baba’s Famous Steak and Lemonade
Washington Park may lack many things, but it’s certainly got soul. One of its greatest spiritual pit stops is Baba’s Famous Steak and Lemonade, a lardy joint of fast food delight located at the corner of 51st and Indiana. Baba’s Famous’ cashiers serve up the Philly cheesesteaks and maraschino cherry–topped lemonade ices that cool the South Side’s churning summers and grease her winter wheels. A line perpetually forms toward the cashier, and a group always mills around outside. The food is fatty, but delicious. While each steak sandwich roughly corresponds to the loss of a single heart chamber, it is delicious enough to risk even death. So if you find yourself hungry and in Washington Park, pray to whatever God you pray to that Baba is near enough to feed your soul. Baba’s Famous Steak and Lemonade, 130 E. 51st St. Monday-Thursday, 10am-midnight; Friday, 10am-2am; Saturday, 10am-midnight; Sunday, 10am-10pm. (773)548-6288. (Josh Kovensky)
BEST STICKY WICKETS: Washington Park Cricket League
Cricket, lovely cricket. If you’re looking for a pastime that combines boredom with regality, irreverence with rage, and catharsis with chauvinism, come to Washington Park any weekend over the summer. There, you will find a gathering unlike any other outside of the Raj; a gaggle of men, dressed all in white, indulging their favorite pastime, cricket. The Washington Park cricketers are primarily South Asian. The gentlemen of the pitch engage in sledging, the ritualistic berating of the other team. These exchanges range from playful jibes to biting, personal insults (the Purdue Cricket Team is especially known for its ferocity of sledge). And yet, the ref, one Rup Seenarain—a Caribbean immigrant who has been involved in the Washington Park cricket league since the early 1970s—actively supports the practice: “You have to do it!” These men play and sledge each weekend in the summer, from morning till night or until fatigue overtakes them, possible even in a sport which famously stretches for upwards of ten hours a match. Many South Siders have expressed curiosity in the sport, although very few native-born Americans play on Washington Park’s pitch. Perhaps Washington Park’s summer cricket will eventually open up to both local spectators and sportsmen. Washington Park Fieldhouse, 5531 S. King Dr. Sunday mornings. (Josh Kovensky)
BEST WORLD’S FAIR PIT STOP: Daley’s Restaurant
In 1892, when thousands from America and around the world descended on the Midway Plaisance, the World’s Fair was there to entertain them, but somebody also had to feed them. Enter Daley’s Restaurant, the century-old standby of flavored fat and scrumptious sugars on 63rd Street. John Daley, an ironworker contracted to help build the fair, took his job and shoved it onto the taste buds of locals by opening his eponymous restaurant at its current location. Daley’s serves a series of South Side favorites like chicken and waffles, as well as the standard diner fare of sandwiches, steaks, and all-day omelettes. The food is, without exception, cooked in staggering amounts of fat, or dipped in pancreas-freezing portions of sugar. For Woodlawn, Daley’s is a hearty standby, serving the neighborhood with down home cooking. It has mostly stayed a reliable, unchanging fixture in the midst of the neighborhood’s wild upheaval—from World’s Fair to Depression, from white flight to the modern era. The restaurant, 111 years on, is a greasy spoon that should not go unlicked by any Chicagoan. Daley’s Restaurant, 809 E. 63rd St. Monday-Sunday, 6am-7pm. (773)643-6670. daleysrestaurant.com (Josh Kovensky)