November 14, 2003

The unknown virtues of 53rd Street

Most University of Chicago students, specifically those who live in dorms, don't get off campus much. If they make it to Powell's or Salonica's, it's an accomplishment. Maybe they go down to the Co-op or the Snail on their way to the Point, but Shoreland is usually where the line between "us" and "them" begins. At the small private school I attended, the "townies" were anathema to us "preppies," usually well-off kids from Montreal or international students. Fights were common, and going downtown in your uniform (which was mandatory in town, even after the school day was over) would almost always lead to some insult yelled in guttural Quebecois French. Here at the University of Chicago, it's a whole other story. Local businesses are generally glad to have student patronage, and, in general, the University is looked on favorably by the Hyde Park community. This is due in no small part to the efforts of the administration to integrate the University into the local neighborhood. However, all their efforts stop once you get past the Shoreland┬Śnot that one would expect the University to attempt to win over the farther reaches of Hyde Park. That part of the neighborhood has little meaning to the University, because students rarely go there. The lack of University presence in these areas is part of what makes them so interesting.

It is a shame that so many students, even those in the Shoreland and Broadview, tend to ignore the 53rd Street area. How many of you have been to the park with the tennis courts, huge pond, and fountain? Have any of you ever gone to the Caring Closet, a bona-fide thrift store run by a Christian charity? For those of you bored with the relentless hipness and high prices of Belmont, try going to a real thrift store. Where else nearby can you experience the joys of sifting through hideous florescent outfits from 1989 to find the perfect Weezer-esque grey mohair sweater, the one that says "I like emo" as nothing else can? How many of you have eaten genuine Caribbean jerk chicken out of the back of a brightly painted van with food warmers built into a door on the side? It's sold by an elderly man with an accent so mellifluous it's worth the price of the chicken alone just to hear him speak. Need a Radio Shack? They've got one. Need "$400 worth of credit in under an hour!?" Yup, you can get that too. Semi-shady used computer parts store? Located on an unobtrusive side street, it's perfect for those of you addicted to adding more gigabytes, or whatever it is people add to their computers. There's a wonderfully seedy Chinese restaurant that puts way more effort into its food than its d├ęcor. Everything in the restaurant is red and dimly lit, except the food, which is actually pretty good. For those with more corporate tastes, there's Borders, Starbucks, and Hollywood Video. Hollywood Video is an important landmark because it is perhaps the only video store in existence that carries an excellent little slice of cinema called "Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter: The Musical." I'm not joking; it's really good. Especially when Jesus drowns a vampire (don't you need to stab them through the heart or expose them to daylight or something?) and then bursts into song and is joined by people in Day-Glo '60s flower print dresses who then begin to line dance. It's like an acid trip on film. Speaking of which, Kimbark Liquors, a U of C staple, is actually on 53rd Street, further down in Kimbark Plaza, as is the wonderful Ceders of Lebanon Restaurant. There is also Ribs n' Bibs, Ragin' Cajun, the original Noodles Etc., and Giordano's.

And let's not forget the jewel of 53rd Street (some would even say of all Hyde Park), Valois Cafeteria, pronounced Val-oyes. This is quite possibly one of the best places to eat in the world. It always smells like really good food being fried with lashings of grease, butter, pepper, salt, and ketchup. The walls are painted in beautiful murals of Hyde Park, and the ceiling is a blue sky with clouds. You stand in a line that sometimes goes out the door, and then order food that you watch being cooked. The atmosphere is that of a really big, really nice kitchen. It's cheap, and you can get basically any combination of Middle American food you can imagine. Breakfast at Valois is always the best. Something about that place is a magical hangover cure; probably the high-octane coffee and smoking section. Plus, Reverend Jesse Jackson is a frequent customer, and is known for being really friendly and schmoozing with the other diners.

53rd Street is not homogenized and watered down so that students won't get scared, like so much of Hyde Park, and, indeed, like most areas around college campuses. Sure, there are nasty parts, homeless people, and lots of stern-looking cops driving around. The University hasn't put rigorous pressure on the city to "clean up" 53rd Street. But the world is not all tree-lined streets, townhouses, and posh used bookstores. In the world at large, there is real life going on, and in Hyde Park, it's on 53rd Street.