South Side! (October 13, 2009)

As a near lifelong resident of the City of Chicago, I have an embarassing confession to make. Though I have driven around over the years, the only neighborhood on the South Side that I could ever lay any real claim to knowing was Hyde Park. This is due to my involvement with the Chicago Children’s Choir in the mid-90s, when home base was still at a progressive Jewish synagogue in that neighborhood (so progressive in fact that the Temple held its worship services on Sundays). Some may be tempted to level accusations at me of not caring much what goes on outside the upper middle class North Side lakefront that I have called home for quite some time. I will not try to defend the indefensible because my lack of South Side awareness is just pathetic. However, rather than a lack of interest or concern, I have been guilty of laziness.

However, I am pleased to report that my ignorance has been somewhat reduced in the course of the last week, through my work with the Chicago Office of Tourism. I have fully explored no fewer than four neighborhoods in the last five working days, and three of them were almost entirely new to me: Chinatown, South Chicago and Pullman – all to the South.

I had eaten dim sum with my family in Chinatown a time or two as a youth, but I hardly think this qualifies as real experience in the neighborhood. Let me tell you, I used to think I knew a good deal about this City, but a wonderful new world has opened up to me. How could I never have been to Pullman? Such a rich history as the first planned industrial town. A place of gorgeous architecture and culture. Did I mention you can actually call yourself the owner of a gut rehabbed Pullman row house, a national historical landmark, for the price of about $150,000? You can’t buy a rundown shack on the North Side for anything close to that. Talk of a possible Red Line extension out to 135th street only sweetens the eventual return on your investment.

In South Chicago, and I can hardly believe I never knew this, there are 576 acres of lakefront shoreline, sitting, undeveloped, since 1992. The former site of the massive (and now defunct) U.S. Steel plant, the empty space is enough to fit the whole of Chicago’s downtown inside with a little room to spare. Can you imagine!? And it’s just been sitting there for the last 17 years. When I think of how vital the lakefront is downtown, on the North Side and in the parts of the South where beaches are prevalent, this is literally mind boggling. Certainly efforts to do something with the space would trickle out and benefit the economically depressed South Chicago neighborhood.

But not content to wait for the City or Big Business to make something happen, South Chicago is perfecting its own cottage industry. I was surprised to learn that the area is one of the “greenest” neighborhoods to be found in our town. Low income, modern, ecologically sound housing sprouts left and right, community gardens pepper the area – I know my good friend Kevin is laughing right about now, marveling at my naivete.

If you read Kevin’s blog, he just finished waxing poetic on his own love for the South and consequent ignorance of the North. We are like the geographic gift of the magi, me making him come to Lincoln Park for hot dogs, him whetting my whistle for the South Side with promises of a Indian fried chicken place. No, that is not an oxymoron. Such a magical place apparently exists and Kev says it does booming business.

It’s 2009. Why is there still such a divisive imaginary line between the North and South Sides?

Tomorrow, I make my way to South Deering. I love my job, in no small part because it is turning me into a more whole Windy City citizen, as I always should have been.

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