From the moment I saw the bright pink cover of Secret Chicago by Jessica Mlinaric I was excited. Visions of the kinds of things I loved to see so much on WTTW’s “Wild Chicago” danced through my head, and I was already halfway to my camera bag to get packed up and ready for adventure. Urban exploration is what Jessica Mlinaric, one of our very own Third Coast Review writers and a colleague of mine from Chicagoist, is passionate about, and this passion translates into a love letter to all things wild and weird about Chicago, the city Cleveland native Mlinaric adopted eight years ago and now calls home.
Secret Chicago highlights, in words and pictures, some of the most unique places in the city, from unusual monuments, and unusual or even lascivious museums to great independent stores, hidden graveyards and places with their own secrets, like the Secret Agent Supply Store in Wicker Park or The Drifter, a former speakeasy that still features a bonus room full of mystery and oddities. I found things I knew and loved, like the Green Mill and Beverly’s totally free Vanderpoel Art Museum, as well as places I want to make sure to explore, like Skyspace on UIC’s South Campus or the shipwreck of The Silver Spray at 49th Street beach. If you were a fan of “Wild Chicago,” if you like finding hidden gems, or if you just love to explore the place you call home, you will need to add this to your library right away.
Pick up this book and you’ll find 90 separate sites Jessica sussed out from all over the city, with an interesting narrative and a few pictures to whet your appetite for adventures of your own. I had a great time checking off places I’d discovered in my own city adventures and finding out about new places and things to see and I can envision this book being a great resource for anyone hoping to get more acquainted with Chicago as it truly is—a group of totally unique, diverse neighborhoods with their own style and culture.
We got a chance to sit down and talk with Mlinaric about Secret Chicago—how she developed it, what inspired her, and what she learned, and we’ve got the conversation here for you to enjoy. Read on, and then head to one of the amazing independent bookstores mentioned at the end of this interview to pick up a copy of Secret Chicago and start exploring yourself!
What made you want to write this type of book?
I’ve been living in Chicago for eight years, and as soon as I got here, I was just interested in learning as much about the city as I could. I was really curious about the city and trying to experience as much of it as possible. Because I’m a writer, I started blogging and sharing what I was learning and the different places I was going. My real goal for the book is to try to tell stories that get people curious about the city and about the people in it, whether it’s their neighbors or the neighborhood they’re visiting.
One of the first things that came to mind for me in reading Secret Chicago was the PBS show “Wild Chicago.” Are you familiar with that show and what it was about?
Since I didn’t grow up in Chicago I wasn’t familiar with it, but somebody mentioned it during my research phase, and I watched a couple of episodes on YouTube. It was cool to watch old episodes and see what the city looked like 20 years ago. It’s fun to see what’s changed and what hasn’t.
You mentioned that you’ve been working on this book for over a year. How did you get through so many places, and how did you find them?
I read a lot. I had a giant sack of books from the Chicago Public Library the entire time. I started writing up the places I knew I wanted to include already, from things I’d written about before on my blog (urbnexplorer.com) or questions that I had already answered for myself about the city that I was curious about and I started mapping it out. I really wanted to cover the entire city and a little bit of the suburbs, to get people who are in Chicago to visit different neighborhoods, or for people visiting from out of town, once they check out the main tourist things, to get them to go check out something different. There’s so much personality in Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Then, I looked at the holes in what I was covering, and I reached out to people in those communities—historical societies, community leaders or bloggers in those areas. Or I’d just go to a local bar and talk to the bartender. I was able to get a lot of recommendations just by talking to people. Anyone I met really, for a year, I would just ask them. I was taking pictures at Pitchfork last summer, and I thought, “Photographers know a lot of weird places around town.” So I started chatting people up. I just asked a lot of people and I read a lot.
Was there anything that you wish you could have included in the book that you didn’t get to for some reason?
Hmm. I know there are. I have a whole list of things that didn’t get included for one reason or another. Ether it was something closed or places that were kind of on the fence, like Calumet Fisheries. Calumet Fisheries is a place I love on the south side—a fish and shrimp shack that’s been around for decades, but it’s been on Anthony Bourdain and it’s like…people know about it. But I also feel like if I’d included it, it’d reach a lot of people who didn’t know about it. There’s a lot of places like that that were on the fence. The Green Mill is in the book, which is a legendary jazz place, but I asked people before I put it in there, “Everybody knows about this place, right?” I polled a bunch of people, and they didn’t actually know about it, so it’s hard to say what will be surprising to people. I guess it depends on how long they’ve been in Chicago and what neighborhood they’ve lived in.
That’s surprising to me, too. Even not being directly in the city I knew about the Green Mill. Then again, I had a friend who was asked to sing there who had never heard of it. It’s weird what the gaps in people’s knowledge of where they live are sometimes. Is there anything else that took you by surprise in doing the book, as far as people not knowing their own city?
Absolutely. People not getting out of their neighborhoods took me by surprise. It’s such a big city, and it can be intimidating to do. I talked to a coworker the other day and she said sometimes we want to go out on the weekend and try something new and we’re just so overwhelmed by the options that we just stay in our house. Even in the winters here, I’ve made a point to schedule an excursion in a different neighborhood on purpose on my calendar to get out, because weekends are so cold up here, and it’s hibernation season. One specific example–I was in Bridgeport asking a bartender about secret places there, and he was like “you know I’m in my Bridgeport bubble, there’s nothing interesting here. I don’t really leave here unless I’m going downtown for something.”
I know so many people on the other side of town that have never been to Bridgeport that would find anything around there totally interesting. Same thing is true with Rogers Park or Beverly ..there’s so many neighborhoods that a lot of people maybe haven’t visited, but the people who live there might not even realize some of the unique things in their own backyard.
Is there a neighborhood that you didn’t know much about when you were writing the book that you’re more interested in now after writing Secret Chicago?
Definitely. I would say a lot of stuff on the South Side. Beverly, I’ve been back to a few times since then. I’m an architecture nerd. There’s a lot of great architecture down there. There’s bike trails and a forest preserve nearby. There’s a lot down in the southwest corner of the city. And then jumping over to the other side, a lot of stuff on the Southeast side of Chicago that I hadn’t been to before. In East Chicago, Indiana, three miles over the border, there’s a neighborhood called Marktown that’s in the book, and it was built to resemble a British village. It was for factory workers. It’s kind of dilapidated now, people are moving out, and BP is buying out homes and demolishing them so they have more land and stuff, but it’s such an interesting little community nestled in between all of these giant plants. A lot of other weird stuff down on the southeast side too, so I’ve had a lot of fun heading down that way and learning new things.
I’m sure there’s tons more secrets in Chicago—are there plans for another Secret Chicago book in the works?
I’ve got a running list of places I wasn’t able to include, because I stopped at 90 places in this book, but I’m really excited as I’m going and doing these speaking engagements to hear what other people have to say. I’m trying to do interactive events like trivia or bingo so I can connect with the readers and see what secret places they know about and learn from each other. I have a list going, but no official plans yet. But I hope so, it’s been so much fun to do.
So where can people find the book?
My book’s website is secretchicagobook.com, and then it’s at some local stores, like Volumes in Wicker Park, Secret Agent Supply Store in Wicker Park, City Lit in Logan Square and Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. It’s also on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble, but I like to plug the local stores and support them.
You can support Jessica Mlinaric and her work by buying her book and attending one of her upcoming events, including next Saturday’s signing at the Secret Agent Supply Store, and an upcoming party at The Drifter on May 6, for which we’ll have more details soon!