Book Review—In the Neighborhood of…—The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook Edited by Martha Bayne Belt Publishing

Chicago’s neighborhoods are one of its most distinct yet indefinable elements. Despite what those ubiquitous neighborhood maps in every other “frunchroom” say, the ’hoods are as real as we agree to make them. Nevertheless, they persist. But what makes a Chicago neighborhood what it is, and what differences exist between them? The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, edited by Martha Bayne, grapples with those questions, with 46 writers trying to capture what makes an Englewood different from an Edgewater, or a Bronzeville from a Bridgeport. The title is ironic. Not a tourist’s guide in the Frommer’s or Lonely Planet sense—providing travel tips and tourist traps to avoid (or not)—yet still a guidebook, albeit to the thoughts and experiences of the essayists about their respective locales.

Where do Chicago neighborhoods come from? The University of Chicago—big fans of defining territory—established the Local Community Research Committee back in the 1920s. The committee broke the city down into 75 community areas (raising it to 77 when O’Hare and Edgewater were added in the '70s and '  80s), basing borders on boundaries like parks, railroad tracks, and natural barriers such as the river. City officials go by that map for decision-making purposes, but being “official” doesn’t mean universal recognition. Local folklore can raise and lower the number. Older Chicagoans—mostly Catholics—still go by parish, while gangs stick to names inspired by the streets, parks, and schoolyards marking their territory. Real estate agents and property developers aren’t helping, with project names like Lakeshore East and Lincoln Yards, presumably to bestow them with  ye olde Chicago flavor.

Even the names are arbitrary, derived from ethnic groups that once dominated an area (Pilsen is a reworking of Plzeň, a city in the Czech Republic, while Bucktown stems from the male goats kept by 19th century Polish immigrants); landmarks (the Loop, Wrigleyville, and Back of the Yards); historical figures (Dearborn Park, Lincoln Park, and Logan Square); developer and tycoon egos (Pullman, Austin, and Hegewisch); or just because (Hermosa and Canaryville). Neighborhood identity is more capricious. With a lack of single-ethnicity and religious enclaves these days, few can be said to still possess a particular character—Boystown notwithstanding. Still, they persist. But why? The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook tries to answer that question too.

Critiquing an anthology is tough—a book isn’t necessarily as strong as its weakest piece, and the ability of the individual writers makes it difficult to declare a work a success or failure overall. Yet, The Chicago Neighborhood Guide is consistently strong, and I never felt my time was wasted. A rare thing, because when you read and write a lot about Chicago, you repeatedly encounter the same stories. Sorry, I’m jaded, and it’s rare for me to find a new take on the Great Fire, hot dogs, deep dish, and the Millennium Park/Navy Pier tourist axis. Blessed be, the Guidebook avoids walking the same paths as other guides. We do tread familiar ground here. Claire Tighe’s bit on Pullman is very nicely done, and I heartily recommend giving it a read. But I’ve been there before, physically and in print. Also, I wasn’t eager for yet another canoe trip up the Chicago River—do you know it’s barely filthy these days!?!—with descriptions of broken beer bottles and floating spent condoms to give it urban ambience.

Ah, but I didn’t know about Garfield Ridge and what it’s like to live in the roaring shadows of Midway Airport, shared by Sheila Elliot. Or the cynosure of basketball, sneakers, and being a young Muslim girl in West Ridge (Sara Nasser). Or Alex V. Hernandez’s account of running a banquet hall for Humboldt Park’s Hispanic community, serving both domino-playing old men and the fans who filed in on grunge metal night. Heck, even Rob Miller makes new points about the river as a winding, watery suture stitching together the city’s green and grey ecotones. The Chicago Neighborhood Guide is a piquant sampler of Chicago takes.

All the essays honor their neighborhoods, but the best and most tactile ones provide a sense of time, place, and history, coming from those born and bred in their neighborhoods. Credit to Bayne for finding new takes on old Chicago, like Gint Aras’ account of growing up in Marquette Park. Aras outlines the historical struggles of Chicago’s Lithuanian population, but doesn’t shy from the prejudice at play there. Aras’ memories of the “members only” Lith clubs blends the happy moments—hanging with one’s buddies and the illicit pleasures of underaged drinking—with grimmer times, when he watched his neighbors let outsiders know they weren’t welcome, showing how the old neighborhoods’ character was as much about isolation as ethnic pride. Eleanor Glockner’s Lakeview section conjures up a Chicago I remember. One of families living asses to elbows on their block, ready to break bread or throw hands at any moment. Glockner’s Lakeview is an invigorating blast, rejecting the strollers, scones, and shopping tropes of that currently calmly beige neighborhood for a familiar tale of the blue house—that house, the troubled one every block has.

Sweeter memory melodies play here too. Tim Mazurek recalls childhood visits to his favorite pizza joint in Auburn. Mazurek’s Proustian madeleines being pizza dough and the handsome young pizzaiolos tossing it behind the counter, who set his “nascent queerness” a’smoldering. It’s a beautiful moment. Many of the modern takes are equally lovely. Writer Audrey Petty gives South Shore a vigorous, evocative telling in the book’s strongest piece, managing to look back and forth and up and down and throughout that neighborhood’s streets and history, practically taking us inside her own home to sit down to dinner with her family.

But paeans and hymns to the Second City can grow lulling. Luckily, there are pools of rhetorical acid too. I practically levitated out of my seat when, in her section on Greektown/Little Italy/cruelly long-obliterated Maxwell Street, Ann Logue opened with a salvo on UIC’s Brutalist architecture, revealing proof of an anti-human agenda through its absence of toilets. Likewise, I light a saint candle to Jen Iversen with her unique portrayal of a surly Chicago bicyclist and familiar revelations of what a sharp, enduring pain in the ass city home ownership can be. Chicago has its charms, but it’s not always a pleasure to live there.

The “not a travel guide” conceit isn’t an inviolable rule. Some bits are actual guides, preferring to skip the past to pimp the neighborhoods’ presents and futures. I was happy to see my old Lumpen pal Ed Marszewski playing up Bridgeport. His coverage of the neighborhood’s current amenities (three of which, he openly admits, are connected to him) is welcome and inviting; though he only skims the sharp-edged past of the neighborhood of mayors. We miss the old flavor of the ’hood as we savor the new. New management does that to a place.

Sometimes I wanted more. Dmitry Samarov is a welcome sight, but his account of the Lower West Side’s Heart of Chicago neighborhood is far too brief. Likewise Jonathan Foiles’ slim page and a half devoted to Woodlawn and the inevitable upheavals it faces in rising rents and shifting population as the two towers of the proposed Obama Presidential Library and the University of Chicago loom nearby. Comparatively, Hyde Park has four pages to share its spiel as the cultured and kooky/urban yet urbane place where you can rub elbows with everyone from the proletariat to Nobel Prize winners. Again, I’ve heard it before. No aspersions cast at writer John Lloyd Clayton, who is only sharing the song of his tweedy people.

I am not entirely made of callus. I warmed to the young writers of Little Village, who seem able to experience their neighborhoods as places to live versus entertainment centers. Short bits by Emmanuel Ramirez, Ziporah Auta, and Gloria “Nine” Valle’s pieces look at the businesses and infrastructure of their neighborhoods, but also introduce us to their neighbors. Valle in particular left me wanting more after her encounter with her neighbor Rebecca Wolfram, an artist who’s created a “Museum of Objects Left on the Sidewalk” and an ofrenda celebrating the lives of unidentified people brought to the Cook County Morgue.

One suggestion for several of the writers: leave the eateries, saloons, and coffee shops. Yes, food and drink joints provide convenient anchors. Certainly, Chicago is a food town—short of fugu and hákarl you can gobble down pretty much anything from anywhere here—but some pieces make it appear that Chicagoans spend their days either looking for grub or thinking deep thoughts over it.

But again, sometimes it works. Josh Burbridge goes full Terkel jacket with Bob Zajac—good lord, what a quintessentially Chicago name—late of Hegewisch’s Pudgy’s Pizza, and makes something of it beyond pumping his subject for Zwerski impressions and noting colorful yet personality-free characters who wander in for a slice or Italian beef. Hegewisch is one of those lesser-known neighborhoods made for The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook; so far southeast, it’s practically in the lake, Burbridge does a great job of giving it its due. But still, one too many essays begin and end with coffee, grub, or hootch, most often remembering that special restaurant or watering hole that once was, but is no more. Leopold Froehlich’s “The Alleys of the Gold Coast” boggled me, with its musings on Gold Coast bricks, alleys, and the struggle…of the common man...I think…? It breaks the food and drink pattern, however, so bully for him. As Faulkner once commanded writers, “kill all your darlings,” so I decree, “Put down the coffee cup.”

A few subjects are absent. Chicago is quiet here, with not much on music. No one goes to the library, as I recall. Not many of the town’s gatherings and festivals are mentioned. One entry indicates proximity to the Art Institute as a point of living in the Loop, but only to note they, (chuckle), really need to go there some day. Save for one mention of a mosque, religion seems invisible. Once upon a time every neighborhood was connected by the linchpin of a church. Now, not so much. But that’s telling, isn’t it? What has replaced it? Sorry, my mind races down such side streets and alleys.

Child citizens are missing too. Mention is made of kids, though mostly memories of having been one, versus raising any. Kim Z. Dale and Lily Be take up the slack with Dale’s cheerful coverage of Halloween in Edgewater Glen, and Be’s distressing description of two kids on the street, one ready to beat down the other for no reason in Humboldt Park. Otherwise, the rug rats are MIA. In fairness, I know I’m asking for seconds, thirds, and fourths after savoring my firsts. You can only cover so much in 276 pages, and very much is covered here.

My picayune quibbles aside, The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook succeeds in its mission of presenting the Chicago its writers see. A multifaceted, shifting, amorphous beast. Few of the essays, inviting, descriptive, or intriguing as they are, hammer down any particular personality for their neighborhoods, but few of the writers seem to have stayed in one place for very long. Maybe Chicago’s current iteration doesn’t manufacture character anymore because no one sticks around long enough. Thinking hard about it, is anyone really encouraged to put down roots in Chicago anymore?

Sarah Steimer puts her finger on it with the title of her piece, “The Precarious Equilibrium.” That essay shows how Andersonville’s lesbian population is being priced out of the neighborhood they made in the late '80s and '90s. Steimer points to the 165 grand raised to replace the collapsed water tower atop the Swedish American Museum on Foster Avenue, saying the money could have been better spent on people currently occupying the neighborhood rather than a population that's largely moved on. But just because the Potawatomie, Ojibwa, Odawa, et alia failed to declare original dibs with folding chairs and utility buckets, is it fair for any group to say any neighborhood is “theirs”? A precarious equilibrium indeed. Everyone’s oblivious to their participation in Chicago’s perpetual bum’s rush.

Another thought The Chicago Neighborhood Guide set me to thinking: Does Chicago have a “voice” anymore?

Back in the day, white guy scribes and blue-collar philosophers like Ben Hecht, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, and Mike Royko concerned themselves with describing a gritty, grimy, smog-choked, and sin-soaked town filled with characters: coots, kooks, and troubled youths; swells, skells, and wanton frails; hustlers, hoods, goons, and…sorry, got carried away. Peer pressure from the above names, I guess. They especially covered good honest working-class working workers, mighty mitts scabby and callused from wheat stacking, hog butchering, and magnetic curse flinging (it’s in the Sandburg poem, trust me). Bless Hecht, Terkel, Algren, and Royko’s hearts and liver spots, but maybe it’s time to retire them as voices of Chicago. After all, we haven't seen that town in a long while.

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook steps up to present the latest Chicago, while paying homage to the old. They say there's two Chicagos. Try 77, or more, or less. A city sliced down the middle, with neighborhoods gouged and recovering (or not) from mid-century segregation and post-'90s gentrification on either side. Interspersed throughout, familiar memories and regret at what’s been lost, particularly Gemütlichkeit loci like independent bookstores, restaurants, clubs, and dive bars. Memorialization weaving through celebration. And more. Woof.

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook makes an effort to describe the kaleidoscopic sand art project that is the Windy City. Bayne is doing something new here with a skilled and colorful effort to remember the city’s then while recording something of the mercurial now it currently inhabits.

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook is available at most bookstores and through the Belt Publishing website.
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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.