South of 95th Street and east of the Calumet River, Chicago streets start to have letters rather than names or numbers. It’s far far away from anything promoted in tourism glamor shots of the city but it really should be known. It’s one of the many forgotten pockets of town waiting to be rediscovered.
Periodically I see ad copy about Chicago’s “New East Side”. It’s a couple blocks of new residential skyscrapers at the end of Randolph Street by the northern end of Grant Park. I guess any place people live can be called a neighborhood but the people moving into these high-rises likely don’t know Chicago already has an East Side. Like New Yorkers not considering there was ever a York. I wonder whether old York didn’t have alleys either.
I haven’t been to the East Side since I stopped driving a cab. I read a story in Block Club about a guy renovating a storefront into a gallery and recognized his name. John had been a Bridgeport mainstay for many years. I didn’t even know he’d left till seeing the article. I was pedaling down South Chicago Avenue a few days later.
South Chicago is one of the diagonal streets that break our grid. It starts just south of Hyde Park and more or less ends at the lake, where the steel mills used to be. On a Saturday morning it’s as sparse traffic-wise as I remember it a decade-plus back. The six-way intersection with 79th and Stony is still stressful but otherwise it’s a smooth ride. Miles and miles of old buildings and open lots sitting by either side of the roadway waiting to come back to life.
I knock on the window of Buena Vista Projects and John’s happily surprised to see I biked down. He’s a serious cyclist and outdoorsman, not a piker like me. We catch up a bit, then a couple busloads of high-schoolers pulls up. It’s an after-school arts program. Soon the gallery and then John’s studio is filled with very young people. It’s an amazing thing to witness. Their hunger for the kind of tangible alternative that this space hints at is palpable. It’s an oasis from the generic virtual hellscape most of us waste so much time in. These kids are just starting with art whereas John and I have been plugging away for decades and decades but the sense of fulfillment is the same. It’s almost like a dramatic reenactment to show that the year he’s spent rehabbing this former auto parts store into what it is today was worth it.
We’re both in a bit of a daze as the young people file out to go eat tacos somewhere down the street.
I’m back the following week. I take a different route, past the Museum of Science and Industry and down the lakefront path. I rarely ride there. I like the streets better so long as there’s a bike lane. There are many different ways to go. It’s about thirteen miles from my place. This time John and I talk about maybe setting up a show sometime in the fall. He’s not interested in running a traditional gallery. He wants it to be a place where artists try something they haven’t done before. I have some ideas.
The ride back north is into the wind the whole way but I don’t regret it for a second. Something about reacquainting myself with the East Side has recalibrated my insides a bit. If I had any carpentry skills or wanted to own property, I’d be scoping out those letter streets. It’s only a matter of time till the area becomes a destination for the money people. A few blocks south of Buena Vista is a big sign for a coffeeshop about to open. These are the opening notes of a song I’ve heard in half a dozen other neighborhoods in this city. I hope this one’s sung its own way.
—Listen to a talk I recorded with John, sitting at the worktable in his studio, surrounded by his pictures of waterfalls.