Great Chicago neighborhoods: Three ethnic odysseys

Mayor Richard Daley liked to say “Chicago was a city of neighborhoods.” What he didn’t say was how easy it is to get trapped in your own neighborhood, treading the same streets, picking up the “el” train at the same stop, eating the same massive burrito from the same corner joint month after month after month. Maybe that’s because Chicago takes up 234 square miles – whether due to traffic or the vagaries of public transit, it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere in this town. Or maybe the explanation lies with the peculiar nature of travel activation energy: the farther the destination, the easier it is to summon the willpower to get there. Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is that in three years I’ve lived here I have failed to cross the city to Avondale.

That trek across town, I am fast realizing, has been an oversight. Today I am dedicating to exploring three Chicago neighborhoods where ethnicity is blazoned on neon signs; whether they’re advertising sausage in Polish Avondale, tacos in Little Village or curry along Devon Avenue.

At the moment I am poking around St. Hyacinth Basilica, which has served the Polish community centered around Belmont and Milwaukee Avenues for more than a century. I slip in a side door kept open for the faithful. The architecture is an ordered pile of domes and half domes, of small but brilliant stained glass windows set off by beige marble. Though 2,000 people attend Mass here on the weekends, this afternoon only a few singular souls sit in the wooden pews. One woman prays her rosary aloud in a breathy mush of Polish. Four old-fashioned confessionals, which look like wardrobes, are tucked away in corners: two for Polish, one for English, and one for Father Stanislaw, whose name is on the last one and who presumably speaks both. I briefly ponder the convenience of confessing to a priest who can’t understand you.

[Flickr photo credit: ncarling]

It’s highly inconvenient, however, not to understand a bookseller. Located on Avondale’s main drag a few blocks from the church, Eva’s Bookstore is chockablock with Polish titles. The only books in English are the language guides that teach them. A 50-ish looking woman with dyed auburn hair, Capri pants and severe glasses is tending the stacks when I arrive. She greets me, and we realize fast that this conversation will have some built-in limits. I can blunder along in French and Spanish and fake a little Greek, but I’ve got exactly one word in Polish, the name of Poland itself, and only that because a Polish-and-proud college classmate used to get drunk at parties and charge around yelling, “Polska!” The bookseller’s vocabulary appears only slightly less limited.

“Eva?” I ask, and point to her.

“No,” she shakes her head. “Elizabeth.”

She pulls a book off the shelves and shows it to me. The cover is a familiar image of outstretched white hands holding an apple: “Zmierzch.” Twilight. There’s Gossip Girl and Harry Potter, too. I want to ask Elizabeth how many books she sells on John Paul II; the Polish pope gets three shelves to himself. But there’s no way. Instead, I ask, “How many?” and sweep my hand around the store. She picks up a children’s book and shows me where the price is written inside: $2.50. How much.

“No,” I say. “How many?” I grab at spines, counting off, “One, two, three …”

She shakes her head again and responds; I have no idea what she says. I consider throwing my hands in the air with a big smile and yelling, “Polska!” but decide this will expand the language gap, not bridge it. Instead, I say, “Thank you,” smile gravely and leave the store, passing by Danielle Steel’s latest, “Duża Dziewczynka.”

The Poles came to Chicago in three waves, starting in the 1850s and ending with the “Solidarity” wave in the 1980s. They’ve since lost some of their old territory to new arrivals. Little Village was once Polish, but Mexicans have supplanted the Poles, as the Poles themselves supplanted the Germans and Czechs before them. Red, white and green pennants crisscross the air above the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, 26th Street, leftover decorations from a recent parade celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. Concession carts are parked on the corners, selling agua fresca and bags of fried pork rinds flavored with chili and salt. Technically illegal, the city unofficially tolerates the carts, except for occasional ticketing spates that put a considerable dent in the food vendors’ profits. The vendors have been trying to organize for more than a decade to force the city to license them. A sign backing U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez for mayor hangs on one of the carts. Perhaps the vendor figures he’ll have better luck under Gutierrez than the outgoing Mayor Daley.

My plan is to eat my way through Little Village from cart to cart. One man serves me a Styrofoam cup of purple agua fresca that he calls “flower” – probably hibiscus. From another I order an elote. He slices the kernels from an ear of corn and pours them into another Styrofoam cup, the vendors’ dining ware of choice. He squirts mayonnaise on top, then butter, then dusts the concoction with chili powder and cheese. A spoon mixes the ingredients like a sundae. It looks revolting, but thankfully it’s not. Sitting on the curb in the warm September sun alternating between bites of elote and swigs of hibiscus, all seems right with the world. Why can’t these guys set up in my neighborhood?

I buy one of the bags of chicharrón for a dollar from a smiling teenage salesman only to find that, just as if we were in Mexico and not Chicago’s West Side, he can’t break my $20 bill. Next time, he tells me in Spanish as he pushes the bag into my hands. Mortified at taking a freebie I escape to the bank across the street, where, despite the fact I am a resident of the city of Chicago, I whip out my best hapless tourist act, and it works. Though I am not a bank customer, the teller flouts protocol and makes change for the pitiful fool away from home.

It’s fun playing tourist in my own town. I feel like I’m getting away with something. Traveling to neighborhoods I know little or not at all liberates me to be the traveling version of myself, the woman who smiles more and talks to strangers, who operates with a hair more patience, who is the antithesis of my head-down-on-the-train city dweller self.

Still in tourist mode, I head to the city’s northern edge. Devon Avenue is lined with Indian and Pakistani restaurants, video stores, hair salons and textile shops. The street looks best at night when traffic snarls like a pale imitation of Delhi’s thoroughfares and store windows glow with colored cloth. Maybe because it’s after dark, or maybe because there are more people on the street, Devon feels the closest of these three neighborhoods to their corresponding countries. Faces on the sidewalk are subcontinental brown; the white people who come here don’t stroll, they go straight to the restaurants to eat. A few women wear saris, and clumps of teenagers chat in a language that’s definitely not English. Traffic seems worse here than in other parts of the city, but am I just making that up? A van and sedan nearly collide as I dodge two boys riding bikes on the sidewalk. Nope. Not making it up.

Kiran Bajw manages one of the fancier dress shops, Be-Jee Collection. The special occasion outfits are made by hand in Pakistan and, depending on the elaborateness of the beading, take anywhere between a week and three months to produce. They start around $300 and go into the thousands.

“I just love clothes,” Bajw says, laughing. Three years ago she cajoled her husband into giving her the money to open the shop. “I said, ‘I swear I won’t waste your money.'”

In general, Devon is a good place to not waste money. The restaurants are inexpensive, but the real deals are in the grocery stores. World Fresh Market stocks South Asian staples like lentils and chilies. You can buy a whole baby goat here. But it’s the spice aisle where I start hyperventilating. Garam masala is just $3.99 for 14 oz., and when I spot precious cardamom for roughly $10 a half pound, I silently vow to never buy spices anywhere else again.

It’s a small discovery, on par with the day’s other revelations. Chicago’s neighborhoods will never eclipse downtown as a touristic draw, not as long as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” hangs in the Art Institute and flowers bloom in the boxes outside the high-end stores on Michigan Avenue. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to realize that going just a few miles outside my usual radius can induce a mild form of the vertigo of international travel: a different language, unfamiliar foods, new architecture. All that, and no need to buy a plane ticket. Chicago has more than 200 neighborhoods. Maybe it’s time to stay local. But certainly not to stay put.

[Flickr photo credit: uBookworm]

Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She writes about an odd assortment of topics, including but not limited to, travel, workers’ rights and the Catholic Church. She is also a professional modern dancer, which never ceases to amaze her. Her website is