Riotous Restaurants

An early discovery in my time in Chicago – probably before I even lived there – was Gulliver’s Pizza (2727 W. Howard Street, Chicago), just across the border from Evanston.

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver’s lets you know something’s going on before you even walk in the door. The front facade of this totally ordinary one-story building is festooned with architectural ornament of all kinds – sculptures, brackets, ironwork, lamps, columns, and more. Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Inside, the place is a riot of lamps and woodwork.

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver’s opened in 1965 as a partnership between restauranteers Jerry Freeman and Burt Katz. The name came from Katz’s affection for the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels. The independent-minded Katz soon left, starting a series of other pizza joints around town (with likewise literary-themed names). Freeman stayed and grew the business, expanding into the storefronts next door as they became available. The architecture bits come from the late owner’s collecting habits, as I was told by the staff, and were obtained from antique shops as well as buildings slated for demolition.

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Gulliver's Pizza, Evanston

Mr. Freeman passed away in 2006, but Gullivers continues to this day.


An all-too-late discovery, coming only in my last year or so in the city, was Walker Brothers Original Pancake House (153 Green Bay Road, Wilmette IL).

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers is a Chicago institution, the kind of restaurant that always has a line out the door on weekend mornings. That line moves quickly, though, and once you’re in you’ll be treated to mountains of comfort food, fresh squeezed orange juice, and a stunning interior.

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

While Gulliver’s goes for the overwhelming look of an antique shop, Walker Brothers has a more refined if not restrained aesthetic. Wood and stained glass panels separate rooms and diners. There is a unified emphasis on an early 1900s Arts and Crafts style. It is claimed around the internet that the look dates to the filming of the 1980 Robert Redford flick Ordinary People at the location. Certainly not all the stained glass is vintage, though much of it is, if not of verifiable heritage. In common with Gulliver’s, no info on the history of individual pieces is available.

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Ironically for a “Chicago institution”, Walker Brothers is actually a franchise restaurant. Opened in 1960, the restaurant combined the local Walker Brothers Snack Shop name with Portland, Oregon’s Original Pancake House chain. This was back in the days when franchise outlets were allowed to have a bit more personality; there was also a Walker Brothers Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today, the pancake house is one of over 100 “Original Pancake Houses” around the country, but still a unique place, beloved by thousands. Locals Phil Donahue and Bill Murray have been among its repeat customers.

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

 

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

This is certainly the first time – and likely the last – that you will find food on this blog. It’s just too good to leave out.

Walker Brothers Original Pancake House

Careful, though. You’ll have a heart attack just looking at it.

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Living walls of art

Go to the 3100 block of W. 36th Place – between Kedzie and Albany – and you’ll find a display of public art unlike any other in the city.
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This elaborately detailed, fantastically complex composition is one of dozens – perhaps hundreds or thousands – that, over the last decade,  have graced Chicago’s Aerosoul Walls – home of Chicago’s biggest and best collection of graffiti art.

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Standing at the corner of 36th Place and Albany – a dreary industrial zone south of the Ship & Sanitary Canal – the otherwise undistinguished Crawford Steel Building is Ground Zero for the Chicago graffiti community. Here, aspiring and prominent taggers practice their art, devising and executing larger-than-life works in the open air.

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The display is ever-changing; new works are constantly underway, layered over the old.  Quite a few works had vanished between my first visit, in May, and my second, in early July. Photos posted a few years ago on local discussion boards show works that have all since vanished.

Each wall is “owned” by a group of particular artists, whose works are not to be painted over; violators will find their own work quickly painted over.

The most common subject of a tag is the artist’s own adopted name, often stylized beyond legibility. The message can be difficult or impossible to decipher. No matter – the art is in the craftsmanship and the creativity. Cartoon figures often augment designs, such as an appearance by Dragon Ball‘s Kami…

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…and a rabid Ewok from Return of the Jedi nearby in the same composition.
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The influence of the Aerosoul Walls extends well beyond the Crawford Steel property. One rule of thumb about graffiti artists – they have no interest in staying inside the lines. Give them an officially designated canvas and they will inevitably fill it up and move beyond it, as St. Louis learned when it invited taggers to decorate its industrial floodwalls some years back, and got tags on vacant historic buildings downtown.

So it is here – except that instead of damaging historic architecture, here taggers have bombed a group of run-of-the-mill industrial buildings. Several anonymous buildings on the same block, facing the  emptiness of the railroad tracks, are heavily slathered with layers of tags. These solid walls of graffiti are highly visible from passing Amtrak trains, which is how I first became aware of the place.

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These more obscure locations tend to invite works of lower quality, as well as somewhat diminished respect for the better paintings that are done there.  A piece may last for several years, or only a few months or weeks. Technical craftsmanship and artistic originality are no guarantee of survival, though they sometimes help. More useful is getting your tag into a spot that’s harder to reach – above the nine-foot reach of the typical tagger, for example.

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There are elements of gang activity to some of the tags – though most gang tags lack the artistic quality of dedicated taggers’ work.

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I will make a half-hearted concession that this work is illegal and, essentially, is vandalism. Certainly, Crawford Steel is furiously vigilant in their efforts to prevent this lawless scourge from infecting our fair land:

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Notice to Spray Painters: The City of Chicago has made it illegal to spray paint any walls with or without the permission of the property owners. In order to adhere to this law, please do not spray paint anywhere on Crawford Steel’s property. Thank you for your cooperation. March 2002

But I can’t say it really bothers me much. Truthfully, about the worst outcome I can see here is that this area acts as a prepping ground for writers to tag other walls elsewhere, with perhaps less harmless results.

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I have seen works of far lesser craft and quality enshrined in museums. The Crawford Steel building looks much better with its ever-shifting array of artworks than it would without them. The adjacent buildings cannot be said to have any artistic merit – why shouldn’t they be used as a giant canvas? In my opinion, the city should have places like this – designated tagging grounds, places where artists can express themselves and stretch their creativity unencumbered. In this depressingly drab industrial section of town, it is a breath of fresh air and one of the few sources of beauty.

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For good or ill, the graffiti valley on either side of the railroad tracks represents an outpouring of the community’s voice – a chorus of souls striving to be heard. Perhaps I’m putting a benign spin on a malevolent force – but in the aggregate, I find this collection of tags to be overpoweringly wonderful.

A Biker’s Guide to Riding Metra

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I’ve spent much of 2011 taking my bike on Metra trains daily, so I feel qualified to offer up some tips for anyone considering taking a bicycle on Metra:

1) Check the schedule! Before you leave the house, make sure you’re heading for a train that allows bikes (basically, everything except morning rush hour heading into town, and evening rush hour heading out of town.)

In particular, make sure it’s not a blackout date – Metra is terrible about publicizing bike blackout dates. If you don’t do your homework, your only warning will be when the conductor barks “NO BIKES!” at you on the platform, leaving you with only seconds to either lock your bike on the platform and leave without it, or skip the train entirely.

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2) Bikes are last on, and last off. Wait till everyone else is on the train before boarding. Wait till everyone else is out of the passenger compartment before rolling out. It’s the rules, and it’s just plain polite. You’re likely to whack someone with a pedal or handlebar if you’re in the middle of a crowd of people getting on or off. Don’t worry – the train will not leave without you.

3) Have a bungee cord with you. They’re incredibly cheap at Target or Walmart. The rules require you to strap your bike to the bottom rails. I see bikers routinely using U-locks, chains, or cloth straps for the same purpose, but it’s incredibly awkward and time consuming – particularly annoying when someone else needs to put their bike on top of yours.

4) Unless you’re going to the end of the line, stay with your bike. Or at least pay attention to it. People with bikes are constantly getting on and off, all up and down the line. If you reach your stop and haven’t been paying attention, you may find another bike on top of yours. Likewise, your bike might end up blocking someone else’s.

5) Take 3 seats only – park all the way back. The handicapped/bike/luggage area contains 5 fold-down seats. A bike can easily fit on top of only three of them, if you push it all the way against the compartment wall (toward the door.) It’s rude and thoughtless to take up 4 or even 5 seats when three will do the trick – but I see it happen all the time.

Also, tuck your bike tight against the seats. The pedal that’s against the car wall should go under the rail so the bike is upright and fully against the wall.

6) Don’t block the aisle. For better or worse, a lot of people choose to move around and between cars right before reaching a stop. Bikers who have just unstrapped their bike often stand in the middle of the aisle waiting for the train to stop, oblivious to people in the aisle behind them.

7) Listen to the conductor’s instructions. On the trains, they are God, and what they say goes. Yes, sometimes some of them are assholes, and that sucks. But arguing with them won’t help. Seriously – I’ve seen it tried.

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And while I’m at it, a couple of tips for non-biker passengers:

1) Move for the bikers. If you’re in the folding seats, the biker has the right to boot you out. Don’t complain, don’t grumble, don’t be an ass about it – in fact, you shouldn’t even have to be asked. There’s dozens of seats on every car, but only one place where bikes can go. If you see a bike coming on board, be gracious and move to another seat. Is it fair? I don’t know, but that’s the chance you took when you sat on the folding seats. There’s a sign right there announcing it.

2) Don’t hang out in the vestibule. The vestibule is for people getting on and off the train, and you’re in the way – especially for people trying to haul a bike out the door.

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Parking Meter Wasteland

I present here a short overview of the strange landscape alternately known as the Parking Meter Zoo and the Parking Meter Wasteland. Though Chicago blog The Expired Meter has already done a fantastic job documenting this surreal story, I have to get my own two bits in, if only to post a few of the unearthly images that have resulted from this strange landscape.

March 2008:
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The area in question is on the lower near west side – just north of the Pilsen rail yard embankment, just west of Ashland – in an area adjoining the Illinois Medical District. These utterly empty streets, an urban prairie including Wood Street, Paulina, 13th Street and 14th Street, were a popular parking spot for medical center employees.

Well, you can’t have people parking for free, can you?! Fortunately, the local alderman rode to the rescue, having the city install 1200 parking meters on completely empty streets. “Problem” solved – nobody parks there anymore!

March 2009:
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Awaiting the hordes of workers who decend on the urban prairie every day
Awaiting the hordes of workers who decend on the urban prairie every day

If you wanna go nowhere, you're gonna have to pay.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate for free or cheap parking. “Free” parking is one of the great lies of American development, and a principal generator of sprawl. Parking requires land, infrastructure and maintenance, all of which have economic value – and so you always pay for parking somehow, whether through higher retail costs or higher taxes. “Free” parking is one of those tricky sleights-of-hand that American corporatocracy is so good at – an illusion that helps to diffuse and hide the true costs of the automobile, and thus enables all the attendant damage that has been done to American cities over the decades.

But – the point of a parking meter is to keep traffic moving throughout the day, so that shoppers and people on business can reach local stores and businesses. It’s so people don’t just plonk their car down all day in a spot that other people need to use.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and speculate that this site does not face that kind of competition.

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September 2011:
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Now what’s this? Where’d the meters go?! Why, they took the thousands of brand-new meters out again… to replace them with the new meter boxes!

But of course, even that may not last, since they’re dropping a new CostCo grocery store on part of the site, whose description includes all the vacant land shown here. I seriously doubt Costco will build without a sizable parking lot, and I will be surprised if they don’t want to take out at least part of one street.

IMG_7395a So let’s recap. The city and its parking meter company (LAZ Parking) have:
* Installed thousands of meters on empty land
* Ripped out the meters and installed pay boxes on the still-empty land
* May have ripped out some of the pay boxes to remove the streets they were on

I mean, are they high or what??

By way of history – these empty blocks were chock full of houses (and one large industrial building) a hundred years ago. The near West Side had a rough reputation when the Illinois Medical District was founded in 1941; by the 1960s, eminent domain was being used to gobble up properties in the area. Today, only a few faint foundations remnants and porch stairs remain to indicate that a neighborhood once stood here.

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat

One of Chicago’s great cultural treasures, in my irreverent opinion at least, is the band Mucca Pazza. Billing themselves as a “circus-punk marching band”, this group of 30 musicians and performers employs all the trappings of a high school marching band, including their own mini-squad of cheerleaders, but with a wild abandon that represents what high school band might have looked like if the teacher had left and never come back, and the most energetic students took over running the show.

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011

Mucca Pazza does indeed march during their shows, and dance, and spin, and run about through the crowd in every direction. At any moment you might get a cheerleader waving pom-pons in your face or a 5-second guitar solo played almost for your exclusive benefit. Some of the musicians wear amplifiers, with helmet-mounted megaphones on their heads, broadcasting their sound in one particular direction, and perhaps sending it to different areas of the crowd like a rotating tornado siren as they turn about. Groups of horn players might position themselves in different areas and play back and forth across the crowd. A trombone player might need the space between you and your neighbor for his instrument’s slide. The show you get depends on where you are, and will be different for every member of the audience.

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011

The band’s energy is frenetic, and improvisation is everywhere. It’s enough to make any standard rock band look dusty and tired.

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011

I happily bought their album, but listening to a recording on speakers cannot remotely compare to the experience of being surrounded by musicians playing their hearts out and having a blast doing it. And there’s no cheerleaders, either.

Mucca Pazza at Tour de Fat 2011