OUT OF THE LOOP: Exploring Pilsen, Chicago’s Mexican Mecca

By John Frame, Class of 2017

By John Frame, Class of 2017

A recurring column about the hottest things to do outside of the Chicago Loop!

Chicago is a city full of wonders. You can easily traverse the its unique character distinctions by riding the entire Red Line “L” route, north to south, from Howard to 95th Street. While you’ll clearly notice its economic disparities along that ride, you’ll also experience the vast diversity of the third largest city in the United States.

But let’s diverge from that seminal route and head slightly southwest off the Pink Line “L” to a beautiful cultural mecca known as Pilsen, Chicago’s largely LatinX community. While it may very well succumb to the inevitable effects of gentrification in the next decade, Pilsen remains a timepiece in the city’s rich cultural history.

Your first stop should be the National Museum of Mexican Art. The first and largest museum and cultural center dedicated to Mexican, Chicano, and Latino culture in the United States, the NMMA is the only member of the American Alliance of Museums dedicated to Latino culture. Boasting over 6,000 pieces of art in its permanent collection, art shows, and educational program, the NMMA is the recipient of the Time Out “Love Chicago” 2016 Award. 1852 W 19th St; Tuesday-Sunday, free admission; Pink Line: Damen or 18th St.

The colorful interior of The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of Getty/ Chicago Tribune. 

The colorful interior of The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of Getty/ Chicago Tribune. 

For a no-frills delicious bite to eat, La Casa Del Pueblo Taqueria (also includes an adjacent grocery store) is as close to unpretentious as they come. Their signature tender tamales are the draw, as well as the homemade pico de gallo--green not from cilantro, but from jalapeño. Eat up for under $10! 1834 S Blue Island Ave; Pink Line: 18th St.

The vintage selection at Knee Deep Vintage in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of Knee Deep.

The vintage selection at Knee Deep Vintage in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of Knee Deep.

For some thrift shopping, avoid the north side of the city and check out Knee Deep Vintage, founded by locals Trent Marinelli and Carlos Lourenco in 2008. Specializing in fashion-forward vintage clothing and accessories, as well as hard-to-find pieces from the '20s-'50s, Knee Deep brings in new finds daily (and accept trade-ins for store credit or cash), so shop often! 1425 W 18th St; Open daily; Pink Line: 18th St. 

 

The bar at Simone's in Pilsen made out of recycled pinball machines. Photo courtesy of Simone's.

The bar at Simone's in Pilsen made out of recycled pinball machines. Photo courtesy of Simone's.

When you’re ready to relax and engage in that favorite MBA student pastime (drinking), head to Simone’s. Entirely made of repurposed materials, Simone’s dons a rooftop herb garden and numerous solar panels, and is one of a few environmentally-friendly spots in the neighborhood. Catch tons of live music, art, extensive food and drink menus, and several event spaces. 960 W 19th St; Open daily; Pink Line to 18th St.

 

So, grab a friend or two, hop on the Pink Line “L” train (or catch an Uber if you must), and head to one of Chicago’s hidden, yet bustling, gems. Fill up on tamales and vintage clothing, art, and all the live music and drinks you can stomach. Then spread the word about this cultural mecca.

John challenges Boothies to get out and explore more of what Chicago has to offer!   

 

DEEP DIVE CHI: Explore Your Inner Hipster in Wicker Park

By John Frame, Class of 2017

By John Frame, Class of 2017

A new monthly column devoted to exploring one of Chicago’s many unique neighborhoods.

Wicker Park has a rich and diverse history. Once the Polish center of Chicago, the neighborhood saw a rapid increase in LatinX populations in the ‘60s and ‘70s due to the completed construction of the Kennedy Expressway and expansion of the Blue Line “L” trains. Displaced from rising rents in nearby Lincoln Park and Old Town, Latin folks migrated to Wicker’s more affordable and accessible Location. Due to such rapid movement and turbulent economic times, Wicker Park began to steadily decline. However, that only fueled the opportunity for wealthier business folks to seize cheap land and property, beginning a consistent process of gentrification.

Today, Wicker Park is still a culturally diverse neighborhood—somewhat quirky and hipster-centric, but with remnants of its Polish and Latin history. The hustle and bustle of the neighborhood is concentrated on the Milwaukee Avenue strip, easily accessible from the Damen or Division Blue Line stops.

Hipsters wait or a Sunday brunch seat at Bongo Room.  Photo courtesy of Party Earth.

Hipsters wait or a Sunday brunch seat at Bongo Room. Photo courtesy of Party Earth.

To explore, start your day with a blast from the 1980s past at The Wormhole Coffee (1462 N Milwaukee Ave). Creative drinks made with locally roasted HalfWit beans and finished off with intricate foam toppings butt heads with lived-in sofas and cramped window seating for great people-watching. The atmosphere comes complete with a model DeLorean for all the Back to the Future fans!

Once you’re nice and caffeinated, check out The Bongo Room (1470 N Milwaukee Ave) for brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Simple faire like red velvet pancakes and omelets sit side-by-side with tastier creations such as lemon brioche French toast and BLT eggs benedict. Bongo can be pretty busy on the weekends, so prepare for a wait.  

After brunch, head to Ragstack (1459 N Milwaukee Ave) for some thrift shopping. There is a lot of “vintage” denim jeans and jackets, and a fair amount of tasteless men’s overalls. Whatever floats your boat!

If art is your thing, stroll on over to Thr3e Birds Gallery (1323 North Milwaukee; entrance on Paulina St) with cute robots on the front door waiting to greet you. Located in the back of Lenny & Me consignment shop, the gallery features work from local artists with spotlights changing every two months.

Adorable robots greet art-seeking patrons at Thr3e Birds Gallery. Photo courtesy of ArtSlant

Adorable robots greet art-seeking patrons at Thr3e Birds Gallery. Photo courtesy of ArtSlant

You’re likely hungry again after doing absolutely nothing productive, so check out Big Star (1531 N Damen Ave)--a lively, funky Mexican “street food” joint that serves up some of the best tacos in the area. Then make a pit stop at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (1505 N Milwaukee Ave) for ice cream and frozen yoghurt in unique flavors like sun popped corn or honey butterscotch. And if you’re feeling a bit nostalgic or competitive, Emporium Arcade Bar (1366 N Milwaukee Ave) boasts a bunch of classic arcade games, 60 types of whiskey, and tons of beers on tap.  

To end the night, get your “‘90s dance” on at Crocodile (1540 N Milwaukee Ave; Saturday night), a small but super fun nightclub with really great music and a pretty diverse crowd. I recommend just staying close to the first floor bar while belting out your favorite TLC or Mariah Carey hit with a little bumpin’ and grindin’ thrown in the mix. Enjoy!

John is a second-year who is always exploring Chicago. Catch him if you can!

Steppenwolf’s 'The Flick' Tackles Race and Uncertainty in the Mundane

John Frame '17

John Frame '17

Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s play, The Flick, brings us the story of three young people exploring the complexities of modern-day life while working as underpaid ushers at a dying 35mm movie theater in Massachusetts. As the theater faces uncertainty with its refusal to switch to digital projection, Sam (Danny McCarthy), Avery (Travis Turner), and Rose (Caroline Nuff) reconcile past ghosts while grappling with an ambiguous future. 

Avery is the self-proclaimed “shit-phobic” 20 year-old rookie who is noticeably awkward and shy on his first day at the job. Sam, the 35 year-old loner, attempts to train Avery on the mundane intricacies of sweeping up popcorn, breaking down the soda machine (“you have the soak the spouts in seltzer water”), and splitting the staff’s side hustle of re-selling tickets to earn a bit of extra cash (“we totally earned it”). The latter is the impetus for a major plot twist in the second act where racial dynamics creep in and the trio faces a difficult turning point.

Rose, the theater’s projectionist, is immediately drawn to Avery while Sam, her silent love interest, looks on. In one unexpectedly entertaining scene, Rose breaks into an elaborate, energetic seduction dance sequence that proves to be miscalculated as the two prepare to watch a classic on the big screen. Avery is compelled to confess details about his personal life and insecurities: “And the answer to every terrible situation seems to be like, be yourself, but I have no idea what that f*ckin’ means. Who’s myself?” This turning point forces the characters to reveal hidden revelations.

Caroline Nuff, Danny McCarthy, and Travis Turner in  The Flick

Caroline Nuff, Danny McCarthy, and Travis Turner in The Flick

Travis Turner is a complete delight as the neurotic Avery struggling with his entrance into adulthood. Avery is confronted not only with the uncertainty of what happens next, but how his race will forever trump his privileged yet damaged upbringing. Caroline Nuff brings just enough biting humor and flippant attitude to convincingly reveal Rose’s broken interior. But it is Danny McCarthy’s Sam that is the heart to the play. Transitioning between an obsession with Rose’s carefree spirit and fascination with Avery’s uncanny expertise at Six Degrees of Separation and budding friendship, Sam exudes the insecurities we all try to hide.

The Flick makes liberal use of long moments of silence and quick black outs to close scenes. In an early scene, Sam models cleaning the theater rows in silence as Avery looks on intently for several minutes. The scene gives us a glimpse into the simplicity of their work. In a talkback with Travis Turner, the actor informs that Baker is quite specific about what the characters are thinking during the lengthy pauses. The silence forces actors to explore uncomfortable places that parallel real-life.

The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and has much in common with the naturalistic, fully realized drama of Anton Chekov’s work. An exercise in the exploration of the “littleness of everyday life,” with a subtle commentary on race relations, The Flick is worth nearly every moment of its three hour running time.

The Flick by Annie Baker. Now thru May 8th at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, $15 students       

John studied English literature and theatre as an undergrad at UChicago. He hopes to be a famous child star one day.

Promotional art for  The Flick  by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago

Promotional art for The Flick by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago