Street Smart Chicago

Chicago Manual 2015: Only at Chicago

Education/Training, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park No Comments »
Image from book titled Building Ideas, featuring architecture on the University of Chicago campus, published summer of 2013. (Photo by Tom Rossiter/The University of Chicago)

Image from book titled “Building Ideas,” featuring architecture on the University of Chicago campus, published summer of 2013. (Photo by Tom Rossiter/The University of Chicago)

I was a first year in the College in 1979, in my first quarter, taking Ralph Lerner’s Common Core social science course called “Political Order and Change.” A small class of maybe twenty students, we sat at desks aligned to form a large hollow rectangle, with Professor Lerner in the center of one end.

We were reading Plato’s “Republic” and I was fascinated, even though it was written thousands of years before the sci-fi novels ands sports biographies that had occupied my attention up through high school. Our professor really brought its ideas to light in our class discussions and I was in the early stage of a transformative intellectual awakening. I showed up one day and took a seat at the corner near the professor. Sitting between us was another older guy I did not recognize. Professor Lerner started the class by introducing our guest, a friend of his who’d been visiting him in his office and had decided spontaneously to join our conversation that day. His name was John Paul Stevens, then a relatively new justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Yes, there I was, all of eighteen years old, discussing the very foundation of justice with one of its most powerful advocates in the world. This, I figured, was the way my life was going to be from now on. Book chat with leaders of the free world and all that.

Only at Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Buildings Studies: Theory and Praxis

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KA apt

The author and her friend Andrea outside her Hyde Park apartment, circa 2001.

By Krisann Rehbein (MA ’02)

I’ve made a career out of my own curiosity. Fourteen years ago this week, my interest in the lives of buildings began. It started with my own story but the university and the world changed my perspective a thousand degrees.

For the year leading up to graduate school at the University of Chicago, I ditched my apartment and relied on the good graces of friends to save on rent. It became a joke not to invite me over or I’d stay a month. Two weeks before the start of fall classes, my boyfriend moved me into a cheap apartment on 53rd and Blackstone and I finally had a space of my own. Days later, he broke up with me. Just days after that, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11.

My apartment was my refuge. Everything I needed was inside: a radio, a vintage red reading chair and ottoman, and books stacked on the floor. The only view was of a surface parking lot that didn’t bother me because it let in lots of light. Sometimes, I looked at the two windows of my apartment from the outside and thought of how nondescript they looked. My life was inside.

The World Trade Center building itself thrust architecture into the middle of an international conversation. Structural failures were analyzed. The cladding of the steel support beams and building codes of 1973 debated and technology of that day compared to the present.  Drawings of evacuation routes appeared in the newspaper. Section diagrams displayed the relationships between the floors and showed us how the elevators worked. Eventually, we learned what caused the building to completely melt into the ground.

The building’s design and the lives inside were unavoidably linked.  Read the rest of this entry »

South Woodlawn Avenue: Metamorphosis, Not Apocalypse

Education/Training, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park No Comments »

By Karl T. Muth, MBA ’10

The University of Chicago is one of the few American institutions that is better-known, better-respected, and better appreciated by those one encounters abroad; in Juba, South Sudan, in a sweltering football stadium on the day South Sudan became a country, the man next to me, spying the phoenix on my cufflinks, smiled and introduced himself, “I studied in Hyde Park, too.” Ironic, then, given our institution’s enormous reach, that my UChicago story happens over a seventy-five-year period safely within the ambit of a one-block radius. Our family’s history is inexorably intertwined with three times the world nearly ended while we watched, and adapted, on the 5800-block of South Woodlawn Avenue. It is where our family’s gone to transform for three generations, each graduate like a sea turtle clumsily flapping toward freedom after maturing in an egg buried in the sands of 57th Street Beach.

As far as my grandmother knew, the world might have ended by the time she reached Hyde Park. An Anglo-Chinese refugee after Japan invaded His Majesty’s Overseas Territory of Hong Kong, she came to live in temporary immigration and refugee intake facilities constructed on the Midway and on Woodlawn itself by the U.S. military. Later, she moved into International House. She made the most of this time, studying for a graduate degree (like many studying during the war years, she received her AM after the war), integrating into the wartime immigrant Chinese community, and finding new romance in a new country with my grandfather, a polyglot diplomat-turned-entrepreneur. Read the rest of this entry »

Doing it For Themselves: Age and Class Insularity Among the U of C Crowd

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By Michael Workman

It’s not long after the start of last year’s academic year. Another cold night, another slog out into the autumn chill, then a long ride cross town to check out a new art and performance space in Hyde Park. I’d heard about it through some mutual U of C friends that overlap with the North Side DIY youth spaces I’ve been frequenting, like Slag Palace and Kill Your Demons (KYD collective) and tonight, sitting on a Green Line, still slightly stoned, then slogging out on the pavement and the haul east across the park until I end up at Transit, yet another new art-slash-performance space that I have to take three buses and two trains to get to and it’s a long slog from my perch in the Lincoln Square neighborhood south to Hyde Park. Still, the feminist folk punk lineup is in my wheelhouse, and I’m interested in checking it out. Eventually, I locate the address through some iteration of turning around and around, staring at the little blue GPS dot flashing on my phone, trying to figure out what direction I’m facing because I honestly can’t tell, and after walking a few blocks around in their entirety, I end up roughly back where I was when I started out, except I’m standing in front of the address I’m looking for. Somehow. Yep, I double-check, this is it. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago, Earth

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Cover by Talya Modlin

Cover by Talya Modlin

As we prepare to launch our experiment in the future of cultural globalism, Newcity Brazil (read more about it at, we’ve developed a much deeper understanding of the challenges as well as the rewards of being “a stranger in a strange land.” And while travel is a transformative way to reshape our understanding of the world in which we live, the very city around us is full of such experiences as well, with resources ranging from institutions like Instituto Cervantes, the Goethe Institut and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, to our friends and neighbors, many of whom enter our lives from an entirely different point of origin and enrich us so much more for the experience. And so, on these pages, some of the city’s finest—the world’s finest—novelists, poets and journalists share a slice of their experience. Enrich yourself. (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »

Half and Half and Wholly Human: Searching for Meaning in “What Are You?”

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Nina Coomes and sister in Japan

Nina Coomes and sister in Japan

By Nina Coomes

“What are you?”

The first time Chicago asked me this question, it was out of the mouth of an inquisitive twelve-year-old boy. It was the first day of school at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary. I was the New Girl, wearing blue jeans, white ankle socks and a teal sweatshirt that says “SOCCER CHICK” down the arm because I figured nerds don’t wear sweatshirts with sports words on them. The school yard was riotous–a far cry from the orderly lines of yellow-capped students filing into a Japanese first-grade classroom, even further still from the soft siphon of school bus to hallway introduced to me when my parents first moved us from Japan to rural Illinois.

Boys flung backpacks over the black iron fence, their too-big t-shirts flapping like seagull wings as they hurled themselves onto trampled grass. A flock of girls with gold earrings swarm by the double doors licking Hot Cheetos dust off manicured fingers. Parents crowded nervously around the asphalt where we were supposedly lining up by grade, shouting warnings, farewells, admissions of love in languages I had never heard before.

“No, really, what are you?”

I recalled the question being posed, and examined my options.  Read the rest of this entry »

Devon Avenue Sampler: Quilting the Urban Diaspora

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DevonAvenueSampler/Laura Kina

“Devon Avenue Sampler” Acrylic paint on hand sewn quilt 53 x 77 in. 2009

“Devon Avenue Sampler” features vintage and contemporary street signs and imagery from my West Rogers Park Chicago immigrant neighborhood where Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all live. This all-American urban South Asian/Jewish corridor is lined with jewelers, ethnic grocery stores, bakeries, spice shops, restaurants, colorful sari shops, travel & tour services, cell phone/electronics/luggage shops, beauty shops advertising eyebrow threading and mehndi, and a baseball field. I have sewn patchwork canvases of dark blue fabrics and denim reminiscent in form to Japanese indigo boro quilts to reflect my own mixed ethnic heritage in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Be Baltic Be

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By Lina ramona Vitkauskas

I, Lithuanian-American, a flexed flax,
Sanskrit buttress of bridles, buttermilk,
& mead. I, Soviet weaponry, Finn
fingers, brass Russina sex, German march,
bedded in miles of jaws & arthropods;
sterlings, stork, & calendula; I, nova
& novena of all my fathers, conjured from vapors of cigars.

Do not believe or include me,
allow me existence below larch forests
& seas. I, your town fool, burlesque
body, egg strands of impossibility
against Lituane lips. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tea Souls: The Russian Drink of Choice Is Not (Always) Vodka

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Illustration: Elena Rodina

Illustration: Elena Rodina

By Elena Rodina

When people hear that I am from Russia, they often jokingly (or very possibly not) ask me whether I drink vodka for breakfast. Or, more seriously, they ask whether everyone in Russia drinks vodka all the time. Vodka has become a national symbol of my country, along with bears and cold winters. This, however, is a gross misconception.  I do not drink vodka for breakfast. In fact, the truth is that vodka is not always the alcoholic beverage of choice; many of my acquaintances prefer whiskey or wine. But there is another drink that truly does deserve to be placed on the Russian flag and carried with pride in its universal acclaim. That drink is tea.

When I was in college, a friend of mine told me a story. She spent her summer in the United States, working as a member of the kitchen staff at an expensive East Coast resort. Upon her arrival she met two other Russian college girls working in the resort’s kitchen and the girls quickly became friends. A couple weeks later their boss gathered all the kitchen staff together and announced that he suspected a serious theft occurring on the premises. He had discovered that tea, served in bags and displayed at the dining room, was disappearing with a frightening speed, and believed that one of the workers was stealing boxes of tea in order to resell them later, or do god knows what with them. No one confessed to stealing the tea, so the boss declared that from that day on everyone would be searched upon exiting the kitchen. Once the measure was taken, the boss felt assured that he dealt with the problem in the most efficient manner. But the tea kept disappearing. He started paying attention to the tea section in the dining room, circling it like an eagle, watching everyone who was approaching it, and he finally figured out what was going on. During the breaks, when kitchen staff sat down to snack and have drinks, Russian girls were heading directly to the tea section, making themselves cups of hot tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks. Besides, they would use two bags instead of one per cup, unsatisfied with the strength of the bagged Earl Grey. They would often have several cups of tea per break. It was the first time in the history of the resort when a limitation on the amount of teabags consumed by kitchen staff was issued: no more than two per day. Read the rest of this entry »

Where Soul Meets Body: My Half India in Chicago

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I was standing on Devon, between the intersections of Washtenaw and Talman, when I saw my favorite aunt from India. I was staring at the valiant K from the Kamdar Plaza sign, the Indian grocery store that stood like the sun behind her. The K was wittily designed to look like it was made out of a woman, the arms of the K representing her sari. As my aunt pulled me into one of her beanbag hugs, I noticed the massive crowd that had amassed behind her as if it was Diwali; bright hues of orange and lilac garments filled the streets, the clean white of the men’s traditional frock peeked through like marshmallows atop a sea of M&Ms, and street vendors passed around fresh sugarcane juice. I looked at my aunt, the kajal on her waterline as black as wet coal, and asked her how it could be that she was here in Chicago. “Haven’t you heard, my dear?” she said. “Chicago is half India now!”

That was the dream I had two weeks following my return from India, after having lived there for two years.

I spent the moonlit nights in India tracing the “I love America” I had scribbled onto the wall beside my bed my first week there out of a child’s pencil I had sharpened with a razor. My bitterness toward being there at the time was as sharp as that razor. But like most tantrums at seven, it dissolved as quickly as sugar in hot chai.    Read the rest of this entry »