Monday, August 22, 2011

Berwyn, North Riverside, Oak Park, and Forest Park, Illinois

Yesterday, I left Albany, New York, for Chicago, Illinois, where the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) is just about to get underway. The meeting starts, at least for me, late Wednesday afternoon, and I'll be posting updates throughout the week.

We reached Chicago early this morning, and I spent my first night in the area with my friends Maggi (who traveled with me) and Heidi, who own a home in the adjacent city of Berwyn. Berwyn is filled with small but solidly constructed bungalows that originally housed the Czechs, Bohemians, Greeks, Lithuanians, Serbs, Croats, Poles, and Ukranians who worked in the slaughterhouses that were once located in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. The city's blue-collar heritage remains strong, and established families now live alongside newer Latino, African American, and Asian American residents; lesbians and gay men of many different ethnicities have also found it a hospitable place.

It's quite evident that Maggi and Heidi's house was once owned by a slaughterhouse employee: it still has the open-air basement shower that allowed him to clean up immediately after he got home from work.

Maggi, Heidi, and I spent the day visiting several establishments in the nearby communities of North Riverside, Oak Park, and Forest Park. All of them are well off the beaten tourist path, but all of them are worth seeking out. My friends are great tour guides!

We started with a delicious (and massive) lunch at Yia-Yia's (pronounced "Yah-Yah's") Pancake House and Restaurant, which is owned by one of the Greek families that settled in the city and now gives diners the option of having tortillas instead of toast. You'll find Yia-Yia's at 2250 Harlem Avenue in the village of North Riverside, which adjoins Berwyn.

We then headed to nearby Oak Park. Frank Lloyd Wright lived here for more than a decade, and one can trace the emergence of his distinctive style in the dozens of Oak Park homes and other buildings that he designed. Wright's contributions to the community are honored by this very minimalist memorial at one entrance to Austen Gardens Park . . .

. . . which is literally a stone's throw away from the Wright-designed Frank W. Thomas House at 210 Forest Avenue. Many architectural historians regard the Thomas House as Wright's first full-fledged Prairie Style home in Oak Park.

Just around the corner from the Wright memorial and the Thomas House is the Book Table, a new and used bookstore at 1045 Lake Street. The Book Table is no Powell's, but it's just the sort of bookstore that every community should have: friendly, thoughtfully stocked, and filled with little surprises. Its visual arts, (Wright-heavy) architecture, local history, and mystery sections are particularly strong, and it's worthy of a place on anyone's Oak Park itinerary. (FYI, the Book Table's owners have penned a thoughtful response to the impending closure of the Borders bookstore chain.)

After leaving the Book Table, we headed to nearby Forest Park and visited the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor at 7347 West Madison Street. The Brown Cow makes all of its own ice cream, sherbets, sorbets, and root beer -- and offers lots of sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, and fat-free options. I can personally vouch for its coffee ice cream, which was the perfect treat on a surprisingly hot afternoon. If you're ever in Forest Park, you owe it to yourself to take a break at the Brown Cow.

The building that houses the Brown Cow was built in 1913 as a movie theater. You can still see the projectionist's booth.

If you're in Forest Park on any day other than a Monday, be sure to check out Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore at 7419 West Madison Street. Centuries and Sleuths, which just won the Mystery Writers of America's Raven Award, specializes in history, biography, and mystery books, sponsors numerous discussion groups, and is the venue of choice for mystery writers on tour. It's closed on Mondays, so we confined ourselves to checking out its comprehensive and thoughtful window display.

After leaving Centuries and Sleuths, we returned to Maggi and Heidi's house and spent a couple of hours talking and playing with two very sweet cats. I then took the "L" train to my hotel in downtown Chicago. Owing to an ongoing labor dispute in which the conference hotel is embroiled, I found alternate accommodations at the nearby Hotel 71, which has successfully settled with its employee union. (Yes, I'm aware that my not staying at the conference hotel may have financial consequences for SAA, and, yes, I'm prepared to do my part to help make SAA whole.)

So far, so good. I'm currently perched high above the Chicago River, gazing out upon the twin corncobs of Marina City; if I walk over to the window--which runs the length of my room -- and turn to the right, I have a fantastic view of the Wrigley Building.

I don't quite know what I'm going to to tomorrow -- severe storms may hit Chicago tomorrow -- but I will tell you all about it. If you're coming to Chicago, I hope you get the chance to explore the city, even if for just a few hours. If not, I hope you get to see the city some time.

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