Story and photos by Kristine Sherred
A hookah lounge, a bakery, a cooperative housing center, an arts society, a fashionable sports bar serving alligator. Together, this unlikely consortium calls the few blocks along Milwaukee Avenue, just south of Division Street, home. Like so many Chicago neighborhoods, remnants of the past mingle quietly, if rancorously, as the residential and commercial makeup of the area seems to constantly shift and evolve.
Amanda Scotese, a former Rick Steves’ tour guide and researcher, leads walking tours of Noble Square and Wicker Park, imparting more than mundane construction facts to support these transformative theories. Scotese created Chicago Detours in 2010 as the name implies – to introduce visitors to the gems of the city’s neighborhoods and to alter perspectives for locals in their own backyard. Her “Loop Interior Architecture” tour, for instance, explores a church nestled in between skyscrapers, compares the timeless Italian Village to the modern Chase Tower, and skips through the Pedway.
New to the company this year, the Old Polonia meets Neo-Bohemia walking tour adds food to the fun, spawned from successful music tours combining Scotese’s quintessential storytelling approach. Chicago Detours, she says, “thinks of history not as a snapshot but as a changing and living thing.”
The Old Polonia portion of the tour hovers around the city’s “Polish Downtown.” This expanse of Noble Square, tucked into the greater West Town neighborhood, has sustained one fulcrum of its neighborly tradition: the behemoth Roman Catholic landmark at 1118 N. Noble St. Even the church website remains Polish.
On a recent afternoon, Scotese welcomed a small group to the plaza, in view of Holy Trinity Church’s portico and Corinthian columns and baroque cupolas. She informs her guide-goers of the church’s hidden iron skeleton, the first of its kind at the time of construction in 1906.
“Tiffany was beat by the makers of this stained glass at the 1893 World’s Fair,” she says.
Once the foundation of the Polish-Catholic community in the first half of the 20th century, the congregation dwindled from a few thousand mainly Polish-speaking members to a mere 50 by the 1980s, thanks in large part to the Kennedy Expressway displacing residents and encouraging migration to the city’s outskirts and suburbs. Today, the priest says about two thousand members frequent mass, which is still conducted mainly in Polish. Bittersweet in retrospect, the church’s proximity to the highway entrance at Augusta keeps the congregation alive – and perhaps also sustains the stuck-in-time Podhalanka restaurant across from the Division Blue Line.
After a quick cookie break at Lovely, the “shabby chic” bakery that opened the floodgates for that trend when they opened in 2007, Scotese leads her guests up Ashland to Authentaco* (recently shuttered). Picante owner Felipe Caro rejuvenated a former La Pasadita with soft handmade tortillas, elotes with a kick, and huitlacoche quesadillas made the traditional way, with cheese folded into a single tortilla.
“That’s cayenne [in the elotes],” says Caro. “It’s good for the system!”
Of course the stretch of Ashland from Division to Chicago has boasted numerous taquerias over the years, but perhaps none pinpointed the cultural shift as acutely as Authentaco.
The neighborhood near the Ashland thruway transformed from Polish in the first half of the 20th century to Hispanic in the 60s and 70s, explains Scotese. La Pasadita (the second incarnation, marked by its bright yellow facade, but the last one standing) opened in 1976 on the west side of the street; El Barco and Veneno de Nayarit near Augusta have been around for over a decade; plus a handful more churn out tacos and gorditas farther south near Chicago Avenue. But Caro, who also owns the late-night taco and burrito joint Picante at Division and Damen, billed his 2014 venture with all the right buzzwords: chef-driven, farm-to-table, tortillas a mano. The huitlacoche and nopales menu options, stuffed inside their delightful a-la-minute masa tortillas, allowed that mantra to deliver.
The business was successful, Caro insists, but living up to high standards of quality and consistency “is a lot of work.” From the cost per pound of meat for the carne asada to the challenges of foolproof training, he chose to go with his gut. In this case, that gut wants “a burger joint done right.”
Caro says he’ll return the retro building to its roots (the failed burger chain Snappy Service System originally constructed the white-tiled shack) with quarter-pound burgers, loaded fries, and milkshakes made with Wisconsin dairy. He’ll reincarnate Authentaco within Picante 2.0 — the bigger, alcohol-licensed space he leased at 2018 W. Division St., the former home of Delish Diner — and transform Picante into its former self: a hot dog shop.
“It feels right,” vows Caro. “Like a Swiss clock, everything is rolling together as one.”
That the contemporary taqueria model apparently failed in this location, so near a Blue Line station and a busy triangle of buses and bikes, is a testament to the difficulty of running a restaurant for more than a couple of years, let alone a decade or near a half-century.
Scotese leads her tour-goers just around the corner to Division, where Podhalanka has endured for more than 30 years under the maternal eye of proprietor Helena Madej. The worn sign hanging above the doorway beckons cops and curious passersby with the promise of sweet blintzes and crisp potato pancakes. You must be curious – a faded Polish restaurant in the middle of Wicker Park? – and you must want pierogi.
Inside the restaurant, Madej greets the group with steamy cabbage soup and promptly returns from the kitchen in back with platters of pierogi – cheese and potato, sauerkraut, and mushroom. Familiarity with Chicago dive bars yields the same nostalgia: a long dark bar, reddish amber lights, knick-knacks, plants. A round rack of postcards features the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) without a Bean in sight.
Scotese then pulls us across the street to the Polish Triangle itself, the miniature park formed by the intersections of Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland with perhaps the least frequented stairwell to the Blue Line. It’s not much. Wicker Park’s “dirty doorstep,” as some call it, is more often recognized as a magnet for pigeons, the displaced, and a few taxis. Ever notice the bronzed type wrapped around the base of the fountain? One Yelper has. “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart,” Nelson Algren penned in Chicago: City on the Make published in 1951. The fountain was erected in his honor in 1997, as the park remained forever Polish.
In 2007, The Reader interviewed Zygmunt Dyrkacz, the Polish owner of Chopin Theater, who spent years urging the city and Wicker Park/Bucktown’s Special Service Area community group to spruce up the park. He even met with Studio Gang Architects, whose offices now reside in the National Polish Alliance Building at 1514-20 W. Division St.; the art deco landmark was officially protected by the city’s historical commission in 2014.
A couple of years later, the park looks a wee bit better. Tuesdays in the Triangle, organized by the Polish Triangle Coalition, bring music and dance to the public space. The wig store still stands, but Sweetcakes Bakery closed in February; one can also indulge in Burger King, an Aldo outlet, Evil Olive, and Sea Dog Sushi. There is no longer one definitive cultural signpost that defines the gateway to Wicker Park.
“The triangle used to just be plastic bags blowing around with a few drunk guys and cab drivers, but now it has more activity,” admits Scotese. “As far as maintaining the neighborhood’s heritage, I’m not so sure about that. Chopin and Podhalanka are hanging on to the neighborhood’s roots, but beyond that I would imagine most development will not be concerned with it.”
The new construction at 1611 W. Division boasts the advantageous locale on its website; it even has a pretty nice picture of the Polonia Triangle (though it neglects to mention the “Polonia” part) from an eleventh story vantage. But its choice of nearby dining supports Scotese’s theory – from Alliance Bakery to Bangers & Lace, The Shambles to Jimmy John’s – that forthcoming ventures might only look forward.
This being a cross-cultural city walking tour, we hop down that Triangle stairwell to the El for a quick trip north to the renovated Damen station. (One day, if Drykacz gets his double-decade wish, the Division station will get a facelift, too.)
Past the Stan’s Donuts that used to be the Polish stalwart The Busy Bee; past The Violet Hour, in the larger, grassy triangle of Wicker Park – the subject of everything from “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti to Richard Lloyd’s cultural treatise, Neo-Bohemia – Scotese points out invisible changes that make the park the community center that it is today. Around the corners, the beauty of Wicker Park has withstood the neighborhood’s artistic evolutions. Those big, fenced-in mansions with green grass, well-kempt flower beds, and towering trees near Hoyne and Schiller belonged to wealthy brewers, earning the strip the nickname Beer Baron Row.
A glimpse of the Russian bathhouse where Trenchermen now sits serves as another example of reuse and redevelopment. By the 90s, Scotese says, Wicker Park showed no signs of slowing down as the “hipster” neighborhood of Chicago with – believe it or not – the addition of a Starbucks at the Six Corners and a Real World season.
With a glazed Stan’s Donut in hand, the LA mini-chain run here by longtime Chicagoan Rich Labriola, we cross the always bustling intersection to the Noel State Bank: since 2012, a bright, fancy Walgreens replete with a Vitamin Vault that sanctifies the “transition from old Polish neighborhood to hip, young neighborhood,” says Scotese. (She notes that this particular area of Wicker Park was more Scandinavian and German.)
Stuffed with food spanning generations of stylistic differences and knowledge most area residents could never imagine, we thank our guide and head back to the intersection, to the El, to the streets, feeling the pulse of the city around us.
Algren said it best: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
*Due to Authentaco’s sudden closure in July, the tour will now stop at the 40-year-old La Pasadita at 1140 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago Detours‘ Old Polonia & Wicker Park Walking Tour (with food!)
Begins at Holy Trinity Church, 1118 N. Noble St.
Fridays through September 15
11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Tickets: $45 (food and gratuities included)
private group tours available