O-Issue 2013: Chicago’s South Side

The neighborhood we call home is rife with culture, food, and things to do.

By Ajay Batra

Maybe you don’t quite see it now, but there will be many moments in your future when the persistent, healthy need to get the hell out of Hyde Park will strike you. You will no doubt be told many numbers and colors this O-Week—such as 2, 6, 55, red, green, and blue—that will aid you in fulfilling that very need.

“But what if I don’t want to go the Loop or the North Side?” you may wonder. First of all, that is an excellent question. Secondly, there’s no need to thumb frantically through your O-Book for the answer: Not only is it not there, it’s also right under your nose. Chicago is your new city, but the South Side is your new home, and you’d be silly not to get to know it.

From the mid-19th century to WWII, the South Side was a burgeoning industrial hub. Steel, meatpacking, and manufacturing drew huge immigration to neighborhoods south of what is now the Loop. Formally stretching from Bronzeville down to South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing, the South Side quickly became home to working-class Irish, Italian, and Eastern-European immigrants, as well as African Americans leaving the South.

Consequently, the South Side has a long history of cultural plurality—one that is particularly evident in its rich artistic tradition. Richard Wright’s Native Son, James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle are must-reads for a South Side history that spans neighborhoods and nationalities. Oak Woods Cemetery—just a few blocks south of campus—is the final resting place of writer Ida B. Wells, former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, sprinter Jesse Owens, and UChicago physicist Enrico Fermi, and is very much worth a trip. The diverse array of names on the headstones serves as a fascinating, if eerie, reminder of how far some have travelled to become South Siders.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Hyde Park itself was the hub of an artistic movement which loosely mirrored the Harlem Renaissance and coincided with the prominence of writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Burroughs, and artist Gordon Parks. It was also at the center of the nation’s first home for black-owned record labels. Chicago blues, R&B, and soul music flourished through the 1960s, with the famed “Record Row”—the spiritual precursor to Detroit’s Motown Records—just north of the University on South Cottage Grove.

Today, owing to industrial flight from the city, the South Side is less densely populated. It is predominantly African American—over 90 percent, by most estimates. Many noteworthy attractions in the region pay tribute to the history and artistic achievements of the South Side’s majority community. For one, you must visit the DuSable Museum of African American History, just steps from campus on the edge of Washington Park. Also worth a look are the South Side Community Art Center, the nation’s first black art museum, and the Bronzeville Children’s Museum, which is still the only African-American children’s museum in the U.S., and for which you are not too old.

There also remain a few ethnic neighborhoods on the South Side. Chinatown, straddling Armour Square and Bridgeport, features the renowned Chinatown Mural and the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, which houses a permanent exhibit on Chinese immigration to the Midwest. Pilsen, once largely Czech, is now a majority Latino neighborhood. Attractions include the National Museum of Mexican Art, as well as the always delicious (and cheap) Nuevo Leon Restaurant.

If the CTA is all you have at your disposal, some of the best eats in the city are just a stone’s throw south of Hyde Park. Ride the #3 south to Soul Vegetarian for a paradoxical paradise of vegan soul food; or take the #4 down Cottage Grove to Barbara Ann’s, open til 3 a.m. on weekends, for the hot links you’ve been waiting for all these years. (While the Maroon is always in favor of hot links, our endorsement of riding the #4 after midnight is decidedly less enthusiastic.) And be sure to head a few blocks south of Barbara Ann’s to Dat Donut if, like any rational human, you’ve always wanted a donut the size of your face. If you’re still not full, you can catch the #87 bus just south of Dat Donut and take it west to the Original Rainbow Cone at 9233 South Western Avenue for their signature orange sherbet–pistachio-vanilla-cherry-walnut-strawberry ice cream combination.

Now, most of you will be here for four years. By all means, do Wicker Park, do the Loop, do the Mag Mile if you must. But remember to make time for the South Side—for your new home, where there’s something worthwhile wherever you care to look.