Woodlawn and Washington Park sprung up in the late-nineteenth century, accompanied by a rapid influx of (primarily European) immigrant populations and increased industry driven by the 1893 World’s Fair. During the twentieth century, Woodlawn and Washington Park served as a hub of political and cultural activity: important figures from Saul Alinsky to Jesse Owens are associated with the area.
More recently, Woodlawn and Washington Park have seen the departure of industry and the decline of infrastructure. This past year, the city began an effort to unload vacant properties in these neighborhoods by selling them for $1.
Still, Woodlawn and Washington Park continue to live up to their historic reputation for activism. Offices for STOP—Southside Together Organizing for Power—remain at 61st and St. Lawrence. Community organizations have successfully advocated for change at the site of the formerly dilapidated Grove Parc housing units. The now-shuttered Woodlawn Mental Health Center stands as an epicenter (both symbolic and geographic) of the ongoing movement to prevent the city from closing the rest of its public mental health clinics. STOP’s youth advocacy group, FLY—Fearless Leading by the Youth—has received national attention for its efforts to bring a trauma center to the South Side.
The trauma center campaign is a particularly fractious example of Woodlawn and Washington Park’s frequent interactions with the University of Chicago. In a 1964 agreement with Woodlawn residents, the UofC agreed to not expand southward past 61st Street. In 2013, as part of a UofC initiative, the artist-planner-entrepreneur Theaster Gates opened the Washington Park Arts Incubator. This year saw the opening of Gates’s second Washington Park venture, the Currency Exchange Café, designed in Gates’s typical “reuse model” of repurposed production. The café neighbors the Incubator across from the Garfield Green Line.
Amidst widespread external buzz for both projects, the Incubator and café have drawn criticism from the Washington Park Advisory Council, which has called for more transparency in the UofC’s plans concerning Washington Park properties and local residents. Yet Washington Park retains a distinct identity and independent history—as does Woodlawn. (Sarah Claypoole)
BEST COFFEE SHOP ASSOCIATED WITH THEASTER GATES
Currency Exchange Café
Thanks to the Currency Exchange Café—situated just steps away from the Green Line 55 stop—long, miserable winter nights waiting outside for the bus may become a thing of the past. The new café serves as a place for CTA commuters, Washington Park residents, and UofC students alike to stop to refuel or sit down for a full meal. Located in an abandoned currency exchange building, the café features repurposed everything: repurposed wood on the tables, repurposed mugs, repurposed doors from the old Crispus Attucks Elementary building, and repurposed stairs and hand-painted signs from the old currency exchange itself. The resulting aesthetic is eclectic, and with its high ceilings and large blue-and-white ceramic-tiled tables, the Currency Exchange Café is the perfect space to settle down and wait for inspiration to strike. Currency Exchange Café is a Theaster Gates project, connected to his efforts to repurpoe materials and revitalize communities. The café’s basement will soon house a collection of around 150,000 35mm slides of world art and architecture, donated by the Art Institute, available for public use. It is located next to the Washington Park Arts Incubator, in a building owned by the UofC, leased to Theaster Gates. The menu blends soul food along with Mexican and Filipino cuisine, and offers economical prices for creative, delicious dishes. Items like the street corn, which combines shaved corn, lime, spices, and cilantro, make use of few ingredients for a clean and flavorful appetizer. The entrée items—like tacos, mac and cheese, and sandwiches, as well as a diverse dessert menu of popsicles and homemade truffles—round up the comfort food classics. Currency Exchange Cafe, 305 E. Garfield Blvd. Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm; Saturday,10am-5pm. (773)855-9163. cexcafe.com (Kiran Misra)
BEST DIASPORA LIT
Black Ink Book Exchange
The Black Ink Book Exchange (BIBE) reflects a pride in curation. First set up in the front room of the Arts Incubator, the collection features hundreds of titles, some class staples—Heart of Darkness and The Wretched of the Earth among them—and others more obscure. Having opened the exchange with the help of an Indiegogo crowdfund project in early 2014, founder Savannah Wood has used her skills as a working visual artist to create a warm, welcoming space. The intention of BIBE is to create an extensive library of books by and about people of the African Diaspora. Through the process of exchange, BIBE’s collection of materials now ranges from slave memoirs to more modern reflections on blackness regionally; its texts pass through centuries of often-tumultuous history. While BIBE was initially housed at the Incubator, the project moved for part of the summer to the Rebuild Foundation. Wood intends to reopen the library in the fall; guests are limited to two exchanges per day, and thoughts about materials intended for exchange are always appreciated. Black Ink Book Exchange. blackinkbe.com (Sarah Claypoole)
Ms. Biscuit’s small, unassuming brick exterior hides this Washington Park classic from the uninitiated. In its previous incarnation, the restaurant existed as a shack entitled Mr. Biscuit at 67th and Chicago. Now, forty years later, it sits on Wabash near 54th, owned by the nephew of the original owners. This version is friendly: small tables are packed closely together, befitting the occasional rush of regulars for mid-morning breakfast and early lunch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the classic order at this soul food powerhouse is the biscuit, fried and still soft, flaky enough to satisfy but still easy to eat. Pick up a dozen biscuits for less than twenty dollars, or sit and enjoy with a variety of classic breakfast dishes: omelets, gravy, grits, and the classic breakfast sandwich with eggs and ham. Particularly suited for early birds, the restaurant opens at 5am daily and stays open until 6pm. The neighborhood vibe and friendly service complement the sense that Ms. Biscuit is on its way to becoming a local institution. Ms. Biscuit, 5431 S. Wabash Ave. Monday-Sunday, 5am-6pm. (773)268-8088 (Sarah Claypoole)
BEST COFFEE SHOP NOT ASSOCIATED WITH THEASTER GATES
Cottage Grove. 64th. King Drive. Garfield. 51st. 47th. 43rd. Indiana. Bronzeville-IIT. Roosevelt. What are all of these places? If you guessed Green Line stops, you’re correct. But if you need to brush up on your CTA geography, there’s no better place to do so than Greenline Coffee, located on 61st and Eberhart, which boasts a bold black and white poster of the aforementioned stops right beside their menu. With off-beat soda flavors like mango lime and delicious fruit smoothies and blended drinks, Greenline aims to create “the ancient future,” blending new ideas with a revitalization of a once-bustling commercial strip. The café is owned by Sunshine Gospel Ministries, a small business incubator located at the same intersection that offers a comprehensive range of job training, youth outreach, and business development initiatives. “A lot of people ask us, ‘Why would you want to open up a business in this neighborhood?’ But it’s a great neighborhood, it’s our neighborhood,” explained Jacqueline Allen, a member of the Greenline team. The specialty at Greenline Coffee is the Belgian waffles, made with dough imported directly from Belgium. These were inspired by manager Paula Hamernick’s time as a flight attendant in Europe, where waffles were a common midday snack. Stickier and crunchier than your average waffle, Allen describes the waffles as “a funnel cake mixed with a beignet. They’re not breakfast waffles, they’re more like desert waffles.” If waffles aren’t your thing—or if you’re looking for a bit more of a meal—Greenline also has a wide range of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, as well as tea and coffee roasted by Bridgeport Coffee. Greenline Coffee, 501 E. 61st St. Monday-Saturday, 6:30am-9pm; Sunday, 9am-5pm. (773)493-0656. greenlinecoffee.net (Kiran Misra)
Blacks in Green
Naomi Davis’s voice booms across the crowd seated on folding chairs and hay bales at the Green Village Pavilion, a space of calm tucked into a corner of the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park. Out on the festival’s pathways, women double-dutch in the shade. Reggae music floats over from the booth down the lane. Davis is the founder and leader of Blacks in Green (BIG), a West Woodlawn-based organization that focuses on sustainability, economic development, and land stewardship in African-American communities. See feature-length story. (Julianna St. Onge)