Street Smart Chicago

One Perfect Life: An Ode to the Real South Side

Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Chinatown, Englewood, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Little Village, Pilsen, South Shore, Southeast Side Add comments

By Scoop Jackson

“Pharaoh of the Sun/Lookin’ down the barrel of a gun/Y’all know where I’m from.”
—from the poem “Keep On” by famous South Sider Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. (aka Common)

We call them “pockets.” It’s the best way any of us who come from the South Side of Chicago can describe the drastic ebb and flow of the ‘hoods we live in.

“On the South Side,” real estate agent and South Side resident Chrystal Caruthers says, “you can grow up in a good neighborhood but go two blocks over and I’ll bet the people won’t feel the same.” The block-to-block change. The neighborhood-to-neighborhood shift in dynamics, living conditions and mentality. It exists in other neighborhoods in the country, but not like on the South Side in this city. The same way Chief Keef can weave tales about life on the South Side, Will Smith can come here and hang out on the lake on 31st Street and go write “Summertime.”

Growing up here gives one a perspective of range. Range in the sense of how far-reaching an area can be, how diverse and disconnected and devoted people raised on the same concrete can be. Where oftentimes the kids at Bogan were more dangerous to a young black kid than the GDs or El Rukns who went to Dunbar.

There is more beauty in the real South Side than anyone who doesn’t live here could understand. Through all of the bullshit, all of the incidents that happen on the side of Chicago that gives it the nicknames “Homicide Capital” and “Chiraq,” there exist pockets of life that bring an unmatched sense of pride and joy not found anywhere else in the city.

Pilsen to Bronzeville back to the Wild Hundreds up through the Back of the Yards returning to Bridgeport. Cultures don’t collide as much as they co-exist.

Or as Father Michael Pfleger put it when I asked him to define the South Side: “The South Side of Chicago, to me, is one of the true jewels of Chicago and America. Traveling around the country has caused me to value it even more.  There is potential of strength, talent, and tenacity that in spite of all the challenges make it an area of neighborhoods and communities that will continue to bring forth the leaders of tomorrow’s generation.  And there is not another place I’d rather live!”

We claim President Obama and Al Capone in the same breath. We have to. That’s our truth.

On April 27, 2012 five students of South Shore High School were shot at the bus stop just off 79th and Constance. Less than a month later, the Chicago Police Department carried out a drug sting targeting the Gangster Disciples in that area. Yet, in the graduating class of 2011 at Kenwood Academy, five students received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. More recipients at one school than at any other school in the city, second highest of any school in the nation. On April 6, 2012 Jalen Armstrong was shot dead on 81st and Cottage Grove. On August 16, 2013 Jalan Grandberry kissed his parents goodbye as he headed off for his freshman year at Howard University.

Welcome to the South Side.

A place where steppers and house-music heads can co-exist at the same lounge, a place where Soul Vegetarian and Lem’s BBQ can share the same block, the place where Rev. Johnnie Colemon and the Rev. Jesse Jackson built separate-but-equal congregations, followings and power.

A place where the largest Irish and African-American parades in America happened annually. Where Frank Lloyd Wright built a house and where Robert Taylor had homes named after him. Where Iceberg Slim was raised and Jesse Owens was laid to rest. Where both Richard J. Daley and Harold Washington made their home. Neither ever leaving.

A place where police officers will tell you that the 2nd District is probably the worst in the city yet refuse to move from the South Side neighborhoods they live in because it’s “perfect.”

It’s where one block away from one another the different worlds of Reggies rock and The Shrine’s soul music don’t collide as much as they bow in respect to one another, proving culturally, via music, that the South Side has no boundaries. It’s where Ryan McCaskey’s Acadia can be found. And where Harold Pierce’s Harold’s Chicken originated.

The South Side is where the true soul of this city breathes. The neighborhoods and the families and people and the family businesses and the churches and schools and parks and liquor stores and corners and alleys and currency exchanges that make up these neighborhoods are the arteries and veins where the blood of Chicago flows.

Where the best, most humane, giving, honorable, funny and caring people you will ever meet in your life come from and live in Roseland and in Englewood. But you’ll never know it because the reputation that precedes these neighborhoods is a small but acutely accurate representation of how we live and what we are forced to live with.


United Airlines has this magazine called Hemispheres. Inside of every issue there’s a feature called “Three Perfect Days.” One city. Three days. In June 2011, Chicago was the focus. Of the twenty-three places they singled out for a “traveler/visitor” to do over a seventy-two-hour period in Chicago, not one mention of anything south of Roosevelt Road. Excuse me, I’m wrong: in the “Lakefront Lounging” sidebar of the story, 63rd Street Beach was mentioned. And even then a criminal element was added into the editorial where it remained absent everywhere else in the story. The article read: “63rd Street Beach. The big draw here is history: A woman who once dared to bathe without a skirt on was legendarily arrested on this beach, and there’s a lovely bath house built in 1919. Concerts and volleyball courts are bonuses.”

Offended is an understatement as to the feeling I felt as a South Sider basically reading my side of town being shit on. I’m sure some West Siders felt the same way, but they should be used to it. (Too bad you can’t write “LOL” in a newspaper article). That article was the equivalent of them focusing on a perfect day for New York and not including Brooklyn, knowing well enough that if you go to NYC and don’t visit Brooklyn (or Harlem) then your visit and understanding of the city is incomplete.

And you leave nutritionally void of any local cultural value.

A better three perfect days would include eating at Nuevo Leon in Pilsen, visiting the Museum of Science & Industry in Hyde Park, going to hear Andre Hatchett spin at the Dating Game, catching a White Sox game, catching a Sunday service at St. Sabina, driving down South Shore Drive listening to Herb Kent, having breakfast at Ms. Biscuit in Washington Park, watching a Bears game at The Scout (or better, someone’s house), grabbing a corned beef or pastrami sandwich from Morry’s Deli on 57th, watching Tokie pour drinks at Reese’s, play a round of golf at Jackson Park, gamble at the Horseshoe Casino, catch a set at Jokes & Notes, visit the ARTrevolution art gallery in Little Village, get a hoagy from Home of the Hoagy on 111th, couture shop at Essential Elements on 87th, sneaker shop at Succezz in the South Loop, hear jazz at the Velvet Lounge on Cermak, see a play at eta in Grand Crossing, wait at Midway Airport for one of Kanye’s private planes to land.

But no one outside of the South Side sees that. No one puts everything that this side of town has together to show that you can come here—live here—and never have to leave to get a comprehensive feel for everything this city represents. The love, the hate, the indescribable, the indefensible, the great, the bad, the sad, the utopia. The everything we stand for.

There are people who have lived in Chicago all of their lives and never been to the South Side. They are afraid, they are naive; misinformed, don’t know any better and don’t want to.

Their problem. Their loss.

I’ve spent almost fifty years on this side of Chicago. It has had as much to do with raising me as my parents. 47th Street. 71st. 79th. The Gardens. All in my DNA. As one South Sider famously asked: “Do you wanna be dope or do you wanna sell it?”

Our struggle on the South Side is that we can’t decide. So we choose to do both. With perfection.

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