Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: From Southern Africa to the South Side

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park, Transit No Comments »
Dustin Gourdin / Photo: John Greenfield

Dustin Gourdin on 53rd Street in Hyde Park/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“Parts of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, and the South Side of Chicago are actually eerily similar,” says Dustin Gourdin, a PhD student in the University of Chicago’s sociology department, over coffee at Hyde Park’s Valois Cafeteria. “You see a lot of the same issues, in terms of transportation challenges and youth opportunities. Hopefully we can figure out ways to make things better in both places.”

Since 2009 Gourdin, twenty-five, has made three research trips to Namibia, a nation of 2.1 million people just northwest of South Africa. He’s been studying the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) Namibia, a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged local people with efficient transportation and job opportunities, as well as other non-governmental organizations. Read the rest of this entry »

Custer’s Last: A South Side Celebration at the Historic Ben Hecht House

Architecture, Chicago History, Hyde Park No Comments »

Photo: Harrison Smith

By Harrison Smith

Early Wednesday evening, when the first guests start making their way inside the Ben Hecht house on 53rd and Kenwood, Kelly Custer is sitting out on the porch with a friend, asking if “maybe it was too much.” Earlier that morning she had called someone over to her family’s historic ten-bedroom bungalow for a little house cleaning; eight hours later, the job was done, or done as well as could be expected for a short notice cleaning of a four-floor house in transition. The person was paid, but Custer—whose family is selling their home of nearly fifty years—is concerned that things still aren’t clean enough: there are boxes lying around in corners, books and papers piled on desks, and for the next couple of hours a hundred-odd visitors will be walking through it all, taking a look at the house and its history. And, she figures, its mess, which probably should have been cleaned a little better anyway.

Prompted by Op-Shop and Southside Hub of Production organizer Laura Shaeffer, the Custer family had decided to open up their home to the community before saying goodbye for good. Shaeffer, like many others at the “Ben Hecht House Party,” is dressed in full 1920s garb, greeting guests as she walks through the building in flowing white pants and a rustling jewel necklace-piece her friend Victoria, a psychic, found in Chinatown. “The family was so worried” about the mess, she says, “but I said that’s fine, we’re going to clean up the front room, make it really nice and comfortable, and let people roam around and see that this is a space in transition.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Bike and Proud

Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Pilsen 1 Comment »

Eboni Senai Hawkins/Photo: Richard Pack

By John Greenfield

All Chicagoans should have a chance to reap the benefits of urban cycling: cheap, convenient transportation, improved physical and mental health and good times with friends and family. The proliferation of nonprofit bicycle shops and youth education programs, along with the rising popularity of fixies among inner-city teens, is starting to broaden the demographics of cycling here. But the local bike scene still doesn’t reflect our city’s ethnic and economic diversity. Eboni Senai Hawkins wants to change that. The thirty-four year old recently launched the Chicago chapter of Red Bike and Green, a nationwide group that promotes bicycling in the black community. Read the rest of this entry »

A Thousand Voices in the Night: The University of Chicago celebrates the centennial of its Interfraternity Sing

Chicago History, Hyde Park No Comments »

Lanterns have been strung from the trees around Hutchinson Courtyard in the University of Chicago quads, speckling the area with light on a dark and warm summer night. This is the Saturday of Alumni Weekend, so the campus is already buzzing with tradition and remembrance, but the chairs of the courtyard tonight are specifically (but not exclusively) filled with alumni who were in the Greek system.

The Interfraternity Sing is an annual University of Chicago tradition that harks back to June 1911, when it began as a way to replace the less popular Senior Sing. Now, it’s a beloved and successful Panhellenic singing competition. In 1916, twenty fraternities marched into Hutchinson Courtyard, but by 1922 there were thirty fraternities and more than 18,000 participants. Today, the IF Sing draws over 1,000 and is 100 years old—so it’s more than ready to have a birthday party.

“We are just really excited for Sing in general this year,” says Jessica Sheft-Ason, Kappa Alpha Theta’s public relations VP. “I think because it is the 100th anniversary, many of the girls in our sorority are looking forward to it even more than usual.” Read the rest of this entry »

Chasing Glory: University of Chicago students strive for posterity with twenty-fifth annual Scav Hunt

Events, Hyde Park No Comments »

One young college student, balanced on the shoulders of another, wobbles dangerously while the lower one cringes. “Low five!” he screams, and claps hands with the scavenger-hunt judge beside me, successfully fulfilling said item on the list of required finds or feats. Over the next hour, as people rush around the quads trying to figure out “Nearest what classroom building you can find a Ferrari?” and “the theorem illustrated on Eckhart” before time runs out, this happens thirty times. Thirty.

Students from the University of Chicago are attempting to break the official Guinness World Record for the largest scavenger hunt, one currently held by 212 children from St. Anthony’s Catholic School in Ontario.

This record-breaking attempt is happening just as the twenty-fifth annual UChicago Scav Hunt, one of the school’s zaniest and talked-about traditions, is underway. The entire event is a four-day-long frenzy to collect almost 300 items, including “The most evil thing you can build using only the parts and materials included with one IKEA item” and “brownies baked using only the power of the sun.” Captivated students abandon their student groups, midterms and souls to fulfill hundreds of insane challenges, putting their intellects to use in ways that seem both geeky and totally, unashamedly cool. So today, in the warm sun of a late Friday afternoon, they’re trying to break the Guinness World Record, an effort that is just one small part of the larger Scav Hunt.

“It’s crazy,” says one student, a first-year, who is sitting beside her team and planning their attack, “I want to break a world record! I want to buy the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and say, ‘Hey, I did that.’” Read the rest of this entry »

The One-Man Gang: How Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago became America’s first Heisman Trophy winner

Chicago History, Hyde Park, Sports No Comments »

By Martin Northway

He lives on in crackling 1930s football footage: a running back in a long, Homeric dash ranging from sideline to sideline, on a field so muddy water stands in visible pools; he is a speeding human gyroscope, maintaining his balance while he evades and breaks tackles. Every defender seems to have a shot, yet he crashes into the end zone.

Comparisons of John Jacob “Jay” Berwanger with other football players fail. Legendary sports broadcaster Red Barber called him simply “the greatest college player I ever saw.” Late former President and onetime Michigan star Gerald Ford bragged about his scar from tackling Jay Berwanger in 1934.

The famous Red Grange said Berwanger had a “faraway look” allowing him to see downfield and rapidly adjust. Grange also said Berwanger could hit a hole closing on him, drumming his feet lightly, freezing tacklers before slashing through.

In fall 1935, the star back of the University of Chicago Maroons was selected as the first recipient of what came to be known as the Heisman Trophy. “Seventy-five years later, Jay Berwanger still receives positive publicity,” says Brian Cooper, Dubuque newspaper editor and sports author, writer of a forthcoming biography of Berwanger. “Not just because he was the first Heisman recipient but because [of] how he played the game—tenacious and tireless, and playing both ways every game”—and “how he lived his entire life.” Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Chicago Half Marathon (September 13, 2009)

Hyde Park, Running No Comments »

finish10What does it mean when it’s easier to run 13.1 miles than it is to get to the starting line? When the race is the Chicago Half Marathon, with 20,000 runners arriving in Jackson Park, not far from the proposed epicenter of the 2016 Olympics, and the CTA seems to be running less buses on the one route that will take folks to the parking-challenged area, it doesn’t bode well for the city’s global aspirations. Oh well, maybe they handled the U2 concert that night better, since the bus rerouting for that event was reasonably well communicated. Never mind that Soldier Field is easily accessible via multiple modes of public transit and offers ample parking. Thankfully the race started late, as cars emptied their passengers a mile away, and hundreds of runners converged on the starting line after the appointed time. Many even had time to pee in the parking lot of the nearby Chicago Park District building, till the park workers starting shooing runners away. Too bad the portable toilets were completely inaccessible from the west side of the starting mass.

It was that kind of day, where the scale always threatened to overwhelm the event, but in the end never did. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Greg Kot/57th Street Books

Hyde Park, Lit, Literary Venues No Comments »


Honestly, do you really need to hear once more that the music industry is, uh, changing? That much you already know. What you might not know is exactly how artists developed new ways to funnel their music to the public, how fans themselves became mouth-to-mouth (or file to file) distributors and live music has become even more essential in the marketplace. In essence, how boomboxes and CD players gave way to laptops and the Internet. Chicago Tribune music critic and co-host of “Sound Opinions” Greg Kot chronicles this progression in his new book, “Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music,” which hits shelves this week. To achieve a greater understanding of where exactly the music business is at the present-plus, with all probability, where it’s headed-Kot’s analysis can work as a textbook. Now if I could just figure out how to open this .rar file…(Tom Lynch)

Greg Kot discusses “Ripped” May 27 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.

Museums Review: Harry Potter: The Exhibition/Museum of Science and Industry

Hyde Park, Museums No Comments »

harry-potterMuggles across the country have already booked their ticket for “Harry Potter: The Exhibition,” which made its much-ado’d world premiere at the Museum of Science and Industry on April 30. This well-oiled showcase features more than 200 beautifully crafted costumes and props from the Harry Potter film juggernaut. The temporary space is packed with iconic movie artifacts presciently salvaged from the films’ production, including Harry Potter’s glasses, wand and the Golden SnitchTM. The museum staff dons black robes and faux English accents to further submerge guests in a fantasy realm. Noise is sure to be an issue, with jittery children riding fanatical adrenalin highs and promos blasting from screens in every corner. This is less a museum exhibit and more a Warner Bros. marketing attraction. Much like Planet Hollywood, it is a chance to ogle memorabilia from the films. Because it was created by Warner Bros. Consumer Products, “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” makes little mention of the literary phenomenon on which the films were based. J.K. Rowling’s name appears fewer times than Robert Pattinson, the swoony actor who played Cedric Diggory and has since gone on to “Twilight” fame. In fact, the only time the books—instead of the movies—make an appearance is at the end…in the gift shop. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Harry Potter: The Exhibition” runs through September 27 at the Museum of Science and Industry, 57th and Lake Shore Drive.

Reading Preview: S.L. Wisenberg

Hyde Park, Lit, Literary Venues No Comments »


Adapting her blog to full-fledged book, local author S.L. Wisenberg transforms her illness memoir into a fiercely engaging and often very, very funny account of her battle with breast cancer. The title, “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” should be the first clue that Wisenberg wasn’t prepared to linger in an overly sentimental region and play to readers’ fears and Lifetime-movie expectations. She claimed “Bitch,” she writes, because “Babe was too young and Vixen was already taken.” Presented in a diary format, the piece is, at its core, a 160-page staring match Wisenberg has with herself. Doctors, diagnosis, medication, chemo, surgery—sure, it’s in there. The most devastating offerings aren’t found in the cold facts that are beaten into our bodies by health magazines and prescription-pill commercials, but rather under blog entries with titles like “How Not To Tell Your Class About Your Breast Cancer.” (Wisenberg, Jewish, deftly adapts the wit of Woody Allen as well.) But, like the best of the savage memoirs, it’s doused in hope, and as readers, we share a most important reward in the end: life. (Tom Lynch)

S.L. Wisenberg discusses “Adventures of Cancer Bitch” May 6 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.