Out of the Loop in Chicago

By Gary Lee
Sunday, September 10, 2000

I kicked off my night in Chicago's Wicker Park by spilling half my guts in a poetry slam at the Mad Bar, a Damen Avenue hot spot. Six hours later, I let go the other half in a spirited bossa nova session at a "supreme funk parlor" called the Empty Bottle. In between came soothing Asian stew and spring rolls at a trendy noodle joint called Hi Ricky and a shake of the leg at Big Wig, a zany lounge decorated with beauty-parlor chairs and hairpieces.

You won't find that kind of atmosphere on Michigan Avenue.

Not to snub the Magnificent Mile--or any other of the world-renowned cultural and architectural attractions of the Windy City. But I found that to really get to know Chicago, it pays to venture beyond the shadow of the Sears Tower and into the hangouts favored by locals.

Wicker Park, for all its neon pizazz, is just one of many Chicago-area neighborhoods with their own enthralling character. There's Mexican-flavored Pilsen, where by day I gazed at brightly colored murals splashed on brick walls everywhere, and at night happened into a high-energy mariachi party. Oak Park, where a concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright homes and Hemingway pilgrimage sites took me on an absorbing sojourn into Americana. African American Bronzeville, strongly reminiscent of New York's Harlem. In the end, I focused on six neighborhoods, including gay Boystown and the evocative 32-square-block Ukrainian Village. At every stop, amiable Chicagoans made this traveler feel as at home as Joe from down the street who wanders by every morning for coffee.

My reports--which include recommended lodgings, restaurants and night spots in the neighborhoods, as well as insider's tips--are below.

Oak Park

Frank Lloyd Wright's wife called him Mr. Wright. He so loathed the plain house next door that he built special blinds in his own home to block the view. He went out of his way to honor natural habitats so much that he allowed a tree to grow right through his hallway.

After a day in the storybook suburb of Oak Park, I learned bits of trivia--and a lot more--about America's best-known architect.

Slow-moving Oak Park, a half-hour ride on the elevated train from the Loop, is a world apart from the imposing skyscrapers downtown. Land of a wonderfully preserved collection of houses styled in the Queen Anne, Prarie and classical revival traditions, it could not have been a more fitting backdrop for a sojourn to the roots of two American icons. (Ernest Hemingway is the other native son).

At the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where the architect lived and worked for two decades, what struck me most was his canny use of light, enclosed spaces within rooms, and delightful nooks and crannies everywhere. Later, I wandered about the neighborhood where he designed more than two dozen homes. I picnicked in the park named in his honor and ended the day at a chamber music concert at the Unity Temple, another Wright creation.

There is a cottage industry of Wright-related attractions, including tours of the Moore-Dugal home and the Unity Temple, which architectural critics rank among his most attractive buildings. I passed on the organized ventures in favor of a self-guided stroll, with the help of a map from the Oak Park Visitors Center, down Forest Avenue, along Chicago Avenue and around the surrounding blocks. Fourteen Wright creations are concentrated here, mainly residential homes that blend well into their manicured settings.

Were Oak Park not also the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, it would have been an all-Wright day. But fond memories of "The Sun Also Rises" and other Hemingway works led me to the Victorian house where the writer was born and to the nearby Hemingway Museum, which displays his childhood diary and other memorabilia.

GETTING THERE: Oak Park is nine miles west of the Loop. It's about a $20 cab ride from downtown, or take the CTA Lake Street El train or Metra West Line train.

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