My night began with a poetry slam and ended six hours later with a spirited bossa nova session a mile away. In between came a soothing stew and spring rolls at a trendy noodle joint, plus a shake of the leg at the zany Big Wig lounge, where patrons boogied amid beauty-parlor chairs and mannequins with coiffed hairpieces.
Here in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood, I felt a world away from the heart of downtown and Michigan Avenue, Chicago's so-called Magnificent Mile of upscale shops, restaurants and tourist-friendly sights a few miles to the northeast.
And that was the point. Not to snub downtown, but to really experience this city, I found it also pays to venture beyond the shadow of the Sears Tower and into neighborhoods away from the typical tourist zones. During my last visit I explored five areas outside the Loop, the downtown business district. To the north, I wandered Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village and a predominantly gay enclave nicknamed Boys' Town. To the south I found Bronzeville, a largely African-American neighborhood full of golden history, and the Mexican-flavored Pilsen, where brightly colored murals gleam by day and high-energy mariachi parties light up the night.
These five areas by no means represent a comprehensive list or a "best of" ranking. Indeed, depending on one's preferences, other neighborhoods hold the promise of higher culture, better shopping or prettier views--parts of town such as resurgent Printer's Row and tony Lincoln Park.
Instead, most of the neighborhoods I visited tend to be more on-the-fringe and grittier than the most popular tourist spots. And it may take an adventurous spirit to appreciate their funky charms and historic relevance. One of them, Bronzeville, is on the city's dicey South Side, known mostly for its crime and urban blight.
But these neighborhoods are a celebration of authentic Chicago and a reminder of its diversity. Ask West or East Coasters to identify the nation's biggest melting pots, and they're likely to say New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many would be surprised by 2000 Census figures showing Chicago's racial minorities add up to about 69%, higher than even the City by the Bay.
All five neighborhoods I explored are easy day trips for those who still prefer to use downtown as a base. A short ride by cab or on the El, the city's elevated train, will provide a cultural palette that, in the hands of the right person, paints a richer portrait of the Windy City.
My night in Wicker Park started at Mad Bar, where emcee Crystal launched the regular Monday poetry slam with a shake of her blond locks and a shout of spirited verse. A dozen or so others followed: blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. They were dudes and chicks in their 20s and 30s, holding forth about dating, pets, hangovers and racism.
Afterward, a few poets and I strolled around the corner to Hi Ricky, where I wolfed down a steaming bowl of Malaysian laksa noodle soup and a crisp green salad. Then it was on to Big Wig, where clubbers let their hair down in a salon-themed space, and Empty Bottle, a "supreme funk parlor" on the neighborhood's southern fringe, where a Brazilian band wound down its third set.
By the time I crawled down the street to my bed-and-breakfast, I had no doubts that Wicker Park is one of the city's hippest residential districts. Even my B&B;, House of Two Urns, captured the funky spirit. For $82 to $132 a night, guests get a double room in a 1912 building that melds Victorian antiques, contemporary art and an Art Nouveau stained-glass window from which the inn gets its name.
According to the Wicker Park & Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, the boundaries of Wicker Park are Bloomingdale Avenue to the north, Western Avenue to the west, Division Street to the south and Ashland Avenue to the east. Bucktown is the neighboring district to the north.
Milwaukee Avenue cuts diagonally across Wicker Park and serves as the main drag. A daytime stroll proved that the diverse night life is matched by eclectic architecture, a mix of modern low-rise buildings and homes constructed by wealthy German and Scandinavian immigrants in the late 1800s.
Locals who are up in time for breakfast (or lunch) flock to the Bongo Room, favored for its lighthearted mood and health-conscious menu. I also checked out Una Mae's Freak Boutique and Recycle, two trendy Milwaukee Avenue retailers, where racks were filled with retro fashions. And then there's the neighborhood's namesake, the actual green space named Wicker Park. This five-acre triangle near Damen Avenue and Schiller Street was donated to the city in 1870 by brothers Charles and Joel Wicker. It's a comfortable place to laze away an afternoon over a book.
Wicker Park's daytime pleasures eventually yield to night's. At Cafe Absinthe, exposed brick enhances the cool urban decor as the trendy crowd dines on grilled ostrich with avocado chimichurri, or cranberry-walnut chicken roulade with a potato-sweet potato mash.
The club scene here is one of the most vibrant in the city, yielding acts such as alternative rockers Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair in years past. One of my stops, Mad Bar, closed after my trip. But the funk and house still have bite at Red Dog, where the lights are low and the music is just right for dancing.
I was ambling down a street less than a mile southwest of Wicker Park when I spotted gilded, onion-shaped domes rising majestically. The 13 domes belonged to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, modeled after the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev and among the most elegant places of worship I have visited.
The sight was a fitting entree into one of Chicago's most enduring ethnic neighborhoods. Ukrainian Village was settled by immigrants in the early 1900s, and their descendants' presence is still evident in storefronts adorned with Ukrainian signs, radio shows broadcasting in the native tongue, and bakeries and markets stocked with pirogi, dumplings and other specialties. I grabbed a bite to eat at cozy Sak's Ukrainian Village Restaurant, where the chef whipped up succulent stuffed peppers and potato pancakes.
The boundaries of the neighborhood are nebulous, but the core can be defined as the area south of Division, east of Western, north of Huron Street and west of Damen. A walk took me back to Kiev, the capital of the former Soviet republic, which I visited half a dozen times as a Moscow-based reporter in the late 1980s.
Three interesting churches are within walking distance from one another. Architect Louis Sullivan designed the one farthest north, the modest 1899 Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral. Sullivan founded the Chicago School of architecture, and his "form follows function" credo influenced a generation including Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, brick walls covered with stucco form a structure that resembles the provincial churches of the parishioners' homeland.
St. Nicholas, the one with the 13 shimmering domes, is the grandest of the bunch. The church was built in 1915, restored in 1975 and spiffed up again in 1988, when mosaics were added.
Two blocks south stands Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church. Above the entrance, a magnificent two-story mosaic shows St. Volodymyr and his mother, Olha, blessing followers in the Dnieper River in 988. Inside, the elaborately painted domed ceiling is just as impressive.
There's Roscoe's Tavern, where the dance floor draws a young gay crowd. And Gentry, a piano bar attracting older gentlemen. Plus Sidetrack, the hottest hangout in the neighborhood, where music videos flash over a buffed, gym-and-tonic crowd.
But here on Halsted Street, ground zero of gay Chicago, I found a lot more than just partying. Along with the clubs, the restaurants and the quirky shops hawking rainbow T-shirts, there were other signs that the blocks between Belmont Avenue and Irving Park Road have become the official heart of the community.
Some changes have been gradual: More condos and houses along the tree-lined side streets are now owned by gay men and lesbians. And one is more likely to see same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand on Halsted as well as neighboring thoroughfares such as Belmont and Broadway Street.
But one of the most symbolic changes happened a couple of years ago, when the city of Chicago spent $3.2 million for street improvements that included 20 Art Deco-style, rainbow-colored pillars lining Halsted.
"It's a pretty safe area with a strong gay identity," said Sukie de la Croix, who runs occasional tours of gay Chicago.
Many Chicagoans consider Boys' Town just one part of a larger neighborhood known by several monikers: Lakeview, Wrigleyville (after the Chicago Cubs' baseball park, which sits in the center) or Andersonville. Gay and straight folks alike are drawn to Lakeview, bound by Irving Park Road to the north, Ashland Avenue to the west, Diversey Parkway to the south and the lake on the east. Like Wicker Park, it's gentrified in parts but still has its hip and edgy elements. Too-cool coffeehouses and boutiques boasting handmade stationery or Martha Stewart-esque decorator items share the streets with used-record shops and grunge-wear emporiums.
A mixed crowd mingles in places such as Ann Sather Restaurant, best known for its wonderfully fluffy cinnamon rolls. It's a gay-owned restaurant, but customers care less about who runs the place than they do the meatballs, potato sausages and other Swedish fare.
Over on Broadway, appropriately enough, the About Face Theatre produces works exploring "gay and lesbian lives, histories and experiences." The past season included "Bash," a piece about gay bashing written by Neil LaBute, director of the films "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors."
From the North Side, jump south past downtown to Pilsen, the largest Mexican-American community in the Midwest. When developers announced plans to gentrify parts of the neighborhood, local artists protested the best way they knew how: They painted a mural.
Spread across a building on Bishop Street just off 18th Street, the artwork is a kaleidoscope of bright colors. It depicts the late labor organizer Cesar Chavez and an activist carrying a poster charging developers with "ethnic cleansing."
About two dozen such artworks, painted over the past few years on storefront walls, have infused Pilsen with south-of-the-border spirit. Along the main drag, 18th Street between Damen and Halsted, the bright murals are visual reminders of residents' cultural roots, as does the sound of Spanish being spoken outside diners, bakeries and busy corner markets.
Pilsen, originally a gateway for Czech immigrants starting in the 1870s, took its name from the town southwest of Prague. An increasing number of Mexican Americans began settling here in the early 1960s. And thanks to lower rents and loft spaces, it has become home to bohemian artists and the gallery, theater and shopping scene that tends to spring up where they do.
But it was the murals that I found most captivating. As soon as I stepped off the El, my eyes fell onto scenes of street life painted in bright blues, greens and yellows along the 18th Street Station walls.
"Murals are our way of talking to the people," said Carlos Cortez, a Pilsen artist. "You can reach more people with them than you can on a canvas, which will probably end up in someone's private collection."
The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum on 19th Street showcases artwork and runs programs that celebrate and preserve Mexican culture. The center retells the lives of notables such as Frida Kahlo, the subject of a photographic exhibit running through Oct. 7.
It was fitting that I found contemporary art decorating local hangouts such as Restaurante Nuevo Leon on 18th Street, where Mexican music on the jukebox made the mood festive. (The tortilla soup and chicken mole made me smile too.) Cafe Jumping Bean, a friendly place down the street, turned out to be a hangout for neighborhood artists.
The last stop on this tour was farther south, deep into Chicago's South Side.
Many visitors-and a lot of locals too-shy away from the South Side by day and avoid it completely at night, and with good reason. Those who do venture there usually head for places such as historic Hyde Park or Robie House, the revolutionary structure credited with making Frank Lloyd Wright famous.
But a ways away, I found myself in a different scene. Muslim women were chattering with Baptist churchgoers, the scent of collard greens and fried catfish wafted from a kitchen, and the music of John Coltrane filled the hallways. Folksy and spirited, Bronzeville's 1st Bed & Breakfast created an atmosphere that I imagined to be reminiscent of the heyday of this largely African American neighborhood.
"This was once one of the liveliest parts of Chicago," said Pamela Johnson, owner of the B&B.; "I'm doing my part to help revive that spirit."
Bronzeville, formerly called Black Metropolis, dates to the early 1900s, when prominent African American-owned businesses and cultural institutions created a city within the city, a place where blacks did business with other blacks in response to race restrictions in other parts of town.
When the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper distributed in the South, extolled life in the Windy City, the Great Migration that followed brought tens of thousands seeking a freer life and industrial jobs in this neighborhood, running from about State Street to Lake Michigan, between 26th to 51st streets.
These days, Bronzeville is an intriguing mix of faded grandeur and urban decay, of statuesque graystones and corner chicken joints. I walked along one of the main drags, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, to 39th Street. Sidewalk plaques celebrated the city's famous African Americans, including poet Langston Hughes, who wrote a column for the Defender, and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who played in Bronzeville clubs.
The neighborhood is full of other reminders of the black culture that once thrived here. I stopped at Pilgrim Baptist Church, at 33rd and Indiana Avenue, where Mahalia Jackson used to sing. Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler designed the building in the 1890s as a synagogue for Chicago's oldest Jewish congregation. Pilgrim Baptist made the building its home in the 1920s, but Sullivan's terra-cotta panels with foliage designs remain, as do Stars of David inlaid in the woodwork.
The building at 3763 S. Wabash closed as a YMCA in the late '70s, but its history lives on. Completed in 1913, the YMCA provided lodging and job training to African Americans during the Great Migration. In 1915 historian Carter Woodson founded the Assn. for the Study of Negro Life and History here, thought to be one of the first groups devoted to African-American studies. The building, vacant for years, recently reopened as a neighborhood recreation center.
The fact that these historic sites have been reborn were a reminder that Bronzeville hasn't totally lost its luster. At Pearl's Place, a restaurant at the Amber Inn on South Michigan Avenue, the decor was basic but the fried chicken and other Southern cooking kept diners sated. I also checked out the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street, home to some of the best blues acts in town performing in an authentically smoky, slightly run-down space.
And musical inspiration of a different sort rang out at the First Church of Deliverance at 43rd and Wabash. The gospel choir raises the roof--a roof, fittingly enough, designed by Walter T. Bailey, credited as Chicago's first African-American architect.
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Guidebook: Neighborhood Ramblings
* Getting there: To Chicago's O'Hare, nonstop service from LAX is available on United and American. To Midway from LAX, nonstop service is available on American Trans Air. Restricted round-trip fares for both begin at $248.
* Where to stay: Swissotel, 323 E. Wacker Drive, 60601; telephone (800) 637-9477 or (312) 565-0565, fax (312) 565-0540, Internet http://www.swissotel.com. Every room overlooks Lake Michigan, Navy Pier or the downtown skyline. Published rates for a double start at $149 per night, but we paid $109 through http://www.quikbook.com.
Hotel Burnham, 1 W. Washington St., 60602; tel.(877) 294-9712 toll-free or (312) 782-1111, fax (312) 782-0899, http://www.burnhamhotel.com. Boutique hotel in a National Historic Landmark building near sculptures. Published rates for a double start at $299 per night, but the hotel's Web site occasionally offers rates under $150.
Allerton Crowne Plaza Hotel, 701 N. Michigan Ave., 60611; tel. (312) 440-1500, fax (312) 440-1819, http://www.allertoncrowneplaza.com. Centrally located. Double rooms start at $189.
The Four Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Place, tel. (312) 280-8800, is generally considered the poshest hotel in town. The Drake, 140 E. Walton Place, tel. (312) 787-2200, is a beloved landmark. Nice but less expensive is the Millennium Knickerbocker across the street, 163 E. Walton Place, tel. (312) 751-8100, operated by the same folks who run the Biltmore in L.A.
One source for room discounts is consolidator http://www.hotrooms.com, tel. (800) 468-3500 or (773) 468-7666, fax (312) 649-0559. Caveat: $25 fee for cancellations.
* Where to eat: See story on page L15.
* For more information: Chicago Office of Tourism, Department of Cultural Affairs, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago, IL 60602; tel. 877-CHICAGO (244-2246), http://www.ci.chi.il.us/tourism.