Richard Krzyzanowski reflects on life in the Windy City: street art love affairs, architecture and personality, and the best tamales that you will ever have.
It’s the only place I’ve ever called home. And even though I don’t technically live within the city limits, and I haven’t for most of my life, when people ask where I’m from, I say Chicago. What I can say, though, is that it’s my kind of town.
It’s the type of place where you can get lost in history, architecture, art, music, performance, sports and myriad other diversions without necessarily getting lost in the hustle and bustle of the city. There are neighborhoods where the bars are always full and the drunk college kids are loud. There are spaces of quiet refuge where green things grow and people produce their own food. Sometimes, the spaces of refuge are on the same block as the bars.
There are ways to blow an entire month’s pay on a single night’s entertainment, but you can walk the streets in some neighborhoods and simply admire the graffiti. In a neighborhood called Wicker Park, in particular, there is a story, in pictures spray painted on brick walls, of a torrid love affair between two graffiti artists, Chito and Cholita. They have been on-again, off-again lovers for some time. Cholita broke up with Chito because he cheated on her. He was sorry. So to win her back, her put her face up all over the neighborhood. He finds a space, often a spot on a wall that is recessed from the street; a spot that he knows she will see, but may be hidden from those who don’t know where to look. He paints portraits of her. Most look like anime with giant eyes and cartoon features, but they are all clearly the same woman. When she sees them, she will modify them. It is called a tag-back, from what I understand. She sort of “writes back” by playing off of his art. She makes it her own through co-creation. It feels very old-fashioned and vulnerable in its public secrecy.
On the South Side, in a neighborhood called Pilsen, the A-Frame rowhouses sit on lots that are 25 feet wide by 125 feet long. In some parts, the ground floor apartments sit below street level because the houses pre-date the modern sewer system. Instead of digging into the ground, the level of the street was raised. This neighborhood isn’t what you would call the high rent district. Oftentimes, empty liquor bottles and spent food wrappers wind up blown into yards that require staircases to enter.
The old houses that live on these streets require efficiency from their tenants. They don’t tolerate clutter. There is no space for the superfluous. Even the neighborhoods themselves join in this requisite efficiency. If left outside without being locked up, a possession is considered free for the taking. The residents develop a certain neighborly protectionism. It feels like we say, “I like you. You’re my neighbor. Let’s be civil and talk and smile and help each other out. But don’t touch my shit.”
The dining in Pilsen has not been paralleled by that of any other neighborhood or city that I have visited to date. Every morning, regardless of weather or season, from about the time the sun comes up until the product is all gone, a woman (or maybe more accurately, a group of women) vend homemade tamales from a wheeled cart that sits at the corner of 21st and Damen, just outside the parking lot of the Chase bank. They go for 75 cents apiece. In more northern neighborhoods, they go for triple that, but taste only half as good. They are filled with pork and love, then smothered in red sauce (hot) or green sauce (hotter). If you get there early enough, there will still be champurrado left to go along with your tamales.
The combination of pork, love, hot sauce, and warm, chocolate-based liquid is the medicine that chases away the headache and bad decisions from last night. During the warmer months, stands selling flavored snow cones, fresh fruit cups, and bags of pork rinds are found up and down the sidewalks. Refrigerated carts containing the frozen delicacies called palletas roam the streets ringing their bells. Pickup trucks with beds full of produce are parked at various corners selling their wares for prices far below what the markets charge.
Unlike the city of Chicago itself, the suburbs are a place of lifelessness. It’s where young people go to have kids and figure out what it’s like to believe that Old Country Buffet and Ruby Tuesday is an experience about which to talk. I’ve lived there most of my life, never on purpose. An acute form of depression is bred there. It causes people to buy big cars, bigger homes and more televisions than they need or can afford. There is a constant hurried anxiety that permeates the atmosphere. Most people are late for something. The others, too stoned to care.
Photo credit: Flickr / bryce_edwards