‘The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook’ Offers a Democratic View of the City


When you hear the word “guidebook,” you may think of restaurant reviews and tourist attractions. But a new take on the concept introduces readers to the city through the personal stories and experiences of its residents.

“The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook” includes a wide range of essays and more from across the city’s diverse communities.

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Out this week from Belt Publishing, the book was compiled and edited by Chicago journalist Martha Bayne and includes entries from Englewood, Austin, Hermosa and many neighborhoods in between.

“It’s not really a guidebook in the sense that anyone would really understand a guidebook. It doesn’t tell you where to go or what to do or where to eat or sites to see, really,” Bayne said. “It is a literary anthology, it is a collection of essays, some photo essays, some poetry [and] a couple of interviews with neighborhood figures.”

Bayne says the driving force behind the book was to put forward “a grassroots, granular understanding of different Chicago neighborhoods.”

That plays out in personal stories about neighborhood changes and segregation, photo essays that take place miles from Chicago’s downtown, and interviews with community leaders and activists.

“I am really interested in counternarratives, ones that cut against the grain of the official, institutional narrative of a city or a place,” Bayne says. “So obviously the more personal you can get and the more particular, the further away you get from the corridors of power, and I am very drawn to that.”

Below, an excerpt from “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.” 

Garfield Ridge: Comeback Kid

SHEILA ELLIOTT

Prepositions best explain my connection to my old neighborhood, Garfield Ridge, on Chicago's Southwest Side. I've been around my old neighbor­ hood a lot, gone to it, and gone through it maybe a thousand times since my teen years, when a pair of size six penny loafers were my primary mode of getting around its streets. I left in 1969, but I have sat through many traffic slow-ups along Cicero, watched speedometer times riding along Archer, and waited impatiently for red-to-green light changes on Interstate over­ passes at Central and Harlem thousands of times since then.

Adulthood put distance between me and the neighborhood's neat and tidy streets, its villagelike friendship networks, its semi suburban ambience, far from Chicago's downtown. In the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, I was negotiating who I was and would become, and though I visited family for holidays and Sunday dinners, I barely noticed restaurant chains replacing once-favorite cafes, new business arrivals, or the bungalows and Georgians that seemed to balloon in size with second-floor dormer add­ ons. What I did notice, though, was in the air above and around me. What was this disrupting the silence I recalled about home, these intermittent sound blasts? There-there was one-and then it was gone. After a while­ another. Then it too would be gone.

Welcome to Garfield Ridge, a two-and-a-half-mile rectangular­ shaped neighborhood on Chicago's Far Southwest Side, and one of a small number of American communities whose past and present is intertwined with transportation history. Welcome to the home of Midway Airport, which anchors its eastern edge. In Garfield Ridge today those blasts of sound from overhead are generally described as progress, a claim that's hard to contest when you have frequently rushed to make a flight or pick up friend or family. But if you were the 1960s teen who biked, walked, danced, talked, and dreamed in the neighborhood nearby, the neighborhood that always seemed more small town than large city, you'd see things a bit differently, or more accurately, hear things a bit differently.

In 1963, my parents purchased a brick bungalow, a building style that remains synonymous with the neighborhood today. One of my first recollections of life in the new house was noticing that we could no longer hear the rush of the "El" trains that had run a few blocks from the two-flat where I had spent most of my childhood . It took a night or two, but I got used to a place so quiet that you could hear the sprays of water from lawn sprinklers and the low growl of traffic blocks away. Garfield Ridge was something quite different, I began to think.

How many residents of aviation-rich neighborhoods can say their airport was once the busiest in the world? That it hosted the rich and famous-until they all flew away? That it became a ghost town, was written off as a technological dinosaur? That it slumbered for nearly twenty years before things began again to change?

In the 1960s and much of the '70s, Garfield Ridge was an area where teenagers spent listless nights taking long walks along the fences that protected the empty airport tarmacs. Colorful  airstrip  lights still flashed at night, but they cast their  beams onto  wide slabs of concrete  rimmed by crabgrass. Lights still shone in a control tower, but the restaurants that once were filled with travelers had long since closed. An airplane guide light stood half a block from my parents' home, but as far as anyone in the neighborhood could see, its message was like that of a seldom heeded, old­ fashioned lighthouse. That may have been a mistaken assumption, but it fit the mood created by an airport that, by its lack of activity, spoke more to the past than to the future.

The quiet at Midway Airport began around 1959, when Chicago aviation shifted to an up-to-date, more modern O'Hare Field. It was then that what had been the busiest airport in America entered a dormancy of more than two decades. If you were, as I was, among a throng of teenage girls waiting in 1964 for the private jet carrying John, Paul, George, and Ringo to their first Chicago concert, you glimpsed the Midway-and Garfield Ridge-I knew then and recall now: quiet, almost deserted, a

place returned to the glittering spotlight if only for a moment. Not until the 1980s, when a slew of legal documents and decrees resulted in the deregulation of American airlines, did change come to Garfield Ridge again-not so much what could be seen, as what could be heard. The neat and tidy streets were all still there, but the near-suburban quiet that once characterized the place was lost to America's ravenous desire for affordable air travel. Little by little, flight by flight, Garfield Ridge's neighborhood airport was making its way back into the big time.

To get a sense of Midway Airport's past, think Lindbergh and Earhart, both of whom are said to have flown above its skies. If you recall the dramatic airport terminal scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, you have glimpsed a bit of Midway in its glory days. Other famous names could also be entered into a story about the airport. Presidential candidates, famous writers, and notables of all sorts passed through its stolid terminal building from the 1920s until the 1950s, while American  aviation  was growing. It's unlikely, however, that any of them paid attention to the grassy fields beyond the hangars. In those years, when Midway, like Chicago itself, was flourishing, just a scattering of buildings stood in Garfield Ridge. It was an area that grew sluggishly to eventually jut west into the suburbs about ten miles west of Lake Michigan. A wide route famous for its angularity, Archer is Garfield Ridge's main street, slicing its way from the South Loop to the city's border. Situated on the edge of an ancient beach ridge, Archer follows a path forged by Native Americans long before European settlement

in America. That Fr. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet were among the first Europeans to venture into the Illinois wilds is common knowledge. Less known is that one of their first encampments, which would have been slightly north of where I drove that day, was a few feet north of Garfield Ridge, off Harlem. The year was 1673 and, according to their journals, the two Frenchmen found themselves facing an immense acreage of inhospitable muck, a miasma barely able to support their canoe. Later, once they had traveled through and around the swampy area to explore Lake Michigan itself, they speculated that a canal could give the area real potential as a trade center.

Later, after English became the region's vernacular, the swampy expanse they spotted was nicknamed Mud Lake and, by 1848, a man-made water route, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, had  been  thrust  through the land near their old campsite. Fifty years afterwards, in 1900, a bigger, mightier, but more controversial waterway, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, cut a parallel route through the same area, which helped drain Mud Lake and make future development possible, and relegated the I and M to history's dust bin. Eventually, 1-55 took a cue from the southwest directional pattern of both. By the early 1960s, three interstate exchanges were functioning immediately north of a narrow strip of light-industrial suburban park at Garfield Ridge's north border.

It's a history once overlooked in school  books,  though  modern­ day history caretakers have given the area greater attention. A striking sculpture commemorating Marquette and Jolliet's visit stands today in an unincorporated forest preserve a few hundred feet northwest of Garfield Ridge, near Harlem. It looms above the foliage, within listening range of interstate traffic, beneath the flight paths.

Recently, I stopped at a cafe, new to  me, on-where  else?-Archer, to eat. When I approached the register to pay, the cashier left for several moments. She couldn't locate my server, she told me. A few minutes later, she returned. My waitress, she said, was just spending a few minutes with the toddler of a coworker who had stopped by on her day off to say hello.

The cashier cast a knowing glance my way, telegraphing an unspoken message. "Friendships. Children. First things first," it said. I smiled politely; I understood. Some things in Garfield Ridge had not changed at all, I thought .

That interlude in the cafe was a reintroduction to the place I had moved away from long ago, but in an odd way had not left. If your old neighborhood has an airpo rt, and you enjoy traveling, you get back to the old hood with some regularity, if only for expediency's sake. But driving slowly along Archer that day offered the chance to indulge in nostalgia. If local businesses were an indication, my old neighborhood had responded healthily to the intervening years. Names on the shops and overhead signs may have been different, but storefront vacancies were few. Vehicles filled spaces in the small lot outside a strip mall that replaced a burger jo int , and the paper window signs advertising Polish and Slovakian food I recalled were nowhere to be found . Had there ever been a resolution to that favorite debate about which bakery made the  best kolachky-was  that  question still unresolved? Perhaps so. I could find only two of the area's best-known bakeries that day. Maybe it was emblematic of any trip back to the old 'hood; memories revive the soft side and hard edges of everything, the sweetness with the salt. A ride along the most famous street in your old neighborhood may lead directly to memories long scuttled away, but it can also take you back to the reassuring facts of a place's history.

As in other neighborhoods, Garfield Ridge's newer names now fill the spaces on which many memories are built, which is no surprise. That the area retains the energy, vigor, and pride in homeownership that I recall is not unusual either. What's changed the most is its potential for aimlessness. An airport in its down time is a magnet for meandering walks around tarmac fences, past landing strip lights, even to the runway guide post that

was once across the street. They are all still there, but more shielded now, protected from the bustle of regular arrivals and departures. Garfield Ridge has never been the only American neighborhood with an airport. But can another be called "Comeback Kid?"


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