Thursday, June 15, 2006

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Note: This series posts in chronological order.
Please scroll down to " Tasty Sub. Gone for Good?"

The Dumpster Diary

The Dumpster. It's just a steel box on squeeky wheels, right? But if you've been rudely awakened by that hollow thud, screeching push into place, way too early delivery of a dumpster on your block, your first reaction is probably unprintable. Post caffeine on your way to wherever, you take a quick glance at which buildings' contents will be the beneficiary this oversized, uninvited alarm clock and depending upon your point of view, you'll probably have another reaction. It seems almost everyone who sees a dumpster does.

If you happen to be a homeowner, you probably view a dumpster or two in your neighborhood as a symbol of progress which in turn might lead to an increase in your property value. Life is Good and off to work you go. Of course everything changes when you get home and open your letter from James , in which case you most likelymade one of these and you probably attended one of these. Yup, when it rains it pours. Another?

Apartment renters might have a different view than the homeowner and see the dumpster as a symbol of unplanned development and a free market run amok in our neighborhood, gobbling up all the available rental apartments. Taggers view dumpsters as they do everything else: just another blank canvas. The architecture buffs and preservationists among us, would rather see a dumpster than a crane because a crane usually signals a tear down which virtually guarantees another one of these. Realtors and developers look at dumpsters as an indication of a healthy real estate market.

Some of us view the dumpster as a convenient place to hide things, while still others view it as an opportunity to meet, find stuff and have a snack. And in case you thought this was just some evolutionary adaptation of life in N.Y., Chicago recycles too.

So, as you can see, a lot of us have different perspectives and various corresponding reactions to The Dumpster. Is anyone right or are they all wrong? All I can say most definitively is that, although I greatly appreciate the philosophy, I have to draw the line on dining.

There is a purpose to all this silliness because I've come across more than a few dumpsters on my "Hit the Street" tour of Rogers Park and it's made me wonder just how many there are in our neighborhood?. Is one area cluttered with more dumpsters than others? Is there one on your street?

The point of it all is to find out what I don't know about our neighborhood. It's an excuse to get out of the house, talk to people and be curious about the small things that go unrecognized and unreported, the stuff you know only if you live on a particular block and report my findings in this ongoing series. Maybe we'll have some fun and learn a thing or two about little corners of Rogers Park we never seem to get to..

Saturday, June 03, 2006


The Dumpster Diary:Popeye's Sees the Light

I think a lot of us are creatures of habit. You find some items on a take out menu that fits the bill and that’s what you order: every time. Heck, no use being disappointed when you’re starving and too tired to cook. Maybe you have a favorite store you go to on a certain block and that’s the only store you visit; every time.

Well, that’s how it went for years whenever I would get that certain craving that nothing else would satisfy and when my body screams Popeye’s, it just can’t be anything else. And of course that means having it right away and the closest Popeye’s to NOH is on Howard Street just west of the Metra tracks. This particular store was always a compromise for me because for my money, the best Popeye’s is on the northwest corner of Ashland and Irving and I’ve gotten a little spoiled. So up to the door I jog fully expecting to see the impossibly long line that always seems to exist, no matter what time of day it is.

You see, the people who work here somehow, somewhere along the way, have completely forgotten the original concept behind fast food.

But today, there was no line and when I stepped to the register, I realized that…….I was at the register and none of the faces behind the counter looked familiar.
Long story short, there is a completely revamped management team, the food comes fast and correct and the restaurant is getting a revamped roof. I’m not sure if the new roof allowed them to "see the light" at Popeye’s HQ or what but if you happen to like Popeye’s, it might be worth a shot now.

Now that I had this belly bomb resting comfortably and being in an adventurous mood, I decided to walk around this northwest corner part of Rogers Park that I honestly can't remember ever walking before. There never seemed a reason to but that's changed because there are some cool little shops on this stretch of Howard. I turned south on Winchester from Howard and I saw these two blue dumpsters immediately. They are right across the street from one another in front of two, handsome vintage buildings and it appears they are being gutted.

7520-24 North Winchester
When you walk around eastern section of this little off the beaten path neighborhood you'll be reminded of how our city looked B.H.D. (before hyper development); that odd mix of styles I immediately admired about Chicago when I moved here 20 years ago. Handsome and elegant brick 6 flats and courtyard buildings with lots of limestone detailing next to a wooden single family next to a four plus one. There are also some beautiful commercial buildings mixed in.

This neighborhood is bounded by Ridge Ave., Howard Street, Clark Street to the east and the fence on the northern edge of Potawatomi Park. The north- south streets are Wolcott, Winchester, Custer, Damen, Seeley. Elmwood and Hoyne.

7511-13 North Winchester
Just west of Clark are a row of charming little wooden single family homes and my favorite is the one adjacent to the Metra tracks. It has a double lot and a garage that looks like it dates from the 1940's but I'm partial to old houses and double lots.

Start walking west on Birchwood, Fargo and Jarvis and you step back in time. Block after block are stately 3, 6 flat and courtyard buildings that remind you that Howard Street was once a destination spot for all of Chicagoland. There isn't a new building to be seen except for the row of new townhomes at Ridge and judging by the number of dumpsters I found, it appears that isn't about to change.

What's Happening on Howard?

Things are starting to get interesting on this stretch of Howard and what impressed me the most in speaking with the shopowners was the comaraderie and sense of community they share, even though techinically some of these shops are on the Evanston side of Howard. They share information and most go to both Evanston and Rogers Park community meetings. All report a significant increase in police presence since the beginning of the year and a coordinated effort between Evanston and 24th District patrols.

The new shops seem to have opened overnight if you weren't paying attention and I wasn't. My partner actually told me about Apple 2 which is a boutique that offers salsa lessons every Saturday night. There's Nia's Cafe which is owned by Carmel and Angela has open mike on Friday night and live bands on Saturday. Total Access Internet Cafe is totally wired for connectivity and computer training and offers internships to students of Gale Academy.

Gary Fuschi.

Friday, June 02, 2006

An Architectural Snapshot of the Neighborhood

2000-2002 West Birchwood

7526 North Seeley

7641-43 North Seeley

7514-16 West Damen

7341-43 North Seeley

2000-2002 West Birchwood

2001-2003 West Fargo

2033 West Jarvis

7515-21 North Seeley

Note: Some Dumpsters are Behind the Buildings Pictured

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Some Stories Behind the Storefronts

Apple the Second: Maria and Stanley

Although their women's fashion shop Apple the Second, is on the Evanston side of Howard Street, Maria and Stanley Von Medvey are at the center of the positive changes that are occurring along this northwestern edge of Rogers Park. They seem to know everyone and everything that is going on. They make it their business to. Not in an intrusive way but in a cooperative, neighborly “what can we do to help you” manner that is reminiscent of a small town. It is refreshing to find people who will offer whatever help they can to whoever needs it and expect nothing in return.

They exemplify an old fashioned work hard, get an education, community oriented philosophy and although they are beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they are anything but selfish with their success. Most of my time was spent with Stanley and since The Evanston Roundtable did an article that was focused on his wife Maria, I’m sure she won’t mind if this story will be mostly about him.

Stanley emigrated from Poland over 20 years ago and as most immigrants, landed here with practically nothing except the clothes he wore and his architecture degree. He describes his first apartment, which happened to be at The Broadmoor, as a tiny hole in the wall. Even though it was difficult working odd jobs to support his pursuit of an engineering degree which he eventually obtained, he has nothing but great memories of his time spent in Rogers Park. And now that he has combined his architecture and engineering background as the basis to form his own company, all he talks about are his plans to give something back to Rogers Park and this own efforts in the resurgence of Howard Street. He talks about it all the time with an enthusiasm and conviction of someone who is on a mission.

When he was finally able to scrape the cash together, he purchased a building on Howard Street some years ago at a time when most people would agree that the neighborhood was not the safest place to make a sizeable investment. The building which has several retail storefronts and apartments on the second floor and located at 745 West Howard Street, was in terrible condition and most of the stores and apartments were empty. He immediately started renovating the entire building from top to bottom utilizing his design and architectural expertise. He did all the work himself, even designing the interior of Maria's Apple 2the Second store so that the merchandise in one showroom could be easily moved aside to transform the space into a dance studio where salsa lessons are taught to couples.

Today, the entire building is complete, all the stores are leased and the apartments are completely renovated with top line appliances and finishes. When you hear about appliances and quality finishes of course it sounds like an advertisement for the latest condo development but the apartments above the storefronts in Stanley’s building are rentals and they are going to stay rentals. He rents his apartments not to the highest bidder but to students, artists, musicians and otherwise creative people who have a difficult time finding quality, affordable housing. That’s one of the ways he gives back to our neighborhood. He remembers how difficult a time he had trying to find an apartment when he was struggling and he thinks there should always be a place for creative people to live in our neighborhood. Stanley has a vast network of friends who apparently think the same way he does.

One friend is negotiating the purchase of a well known building here in Rogers Park and the plans are to renovate the apartments and keep them as rentals for students and artists. He has plans to turn the existing, empty storefronts into galleries and a café. As soon as the contracts are signed, I'll introduce you to him.

Not long ago, Maria and Stanley just happened to meet an antique dealer who was just thinking about relocating her business to Chicago. In no time flat, they sold her on the resurgence of Howard Street, suggested an empty storefront across the street from them and with Maria’s background in antiques and Stanley’s enthusiasm for Rogers Park, they introduced her to the landlord, connected her to all the wholesale contacts she needed and in a few weeks her new shop will open. And that’s how it is when you talk with them; you believe.

Meet them and you are introduced to the neighborhood community development corporation; neighbor style.

There is a modest, almost embarrassed pride in the significant and purposeful effect they are having on their neighbors, their tenants and on this particular stretch of Howard. These are only a few of the endless stories I heard from them both and unlike folks you sometimes meet that talk the good talk, Maria and Stanley walk the good walk everyday.

And when lunchtime came around during one of our visits, of course Stanley had the place for me to go.

Tomorrow: Deta's Cafe

Gary Fuschi.
Deta's Cafe: Deta

I don't often travel on Ridge. It happens to be one of my least favorite streets in all of Chicago so I never noticed Deta's before. Too bad for me because I've been missing out, big time.

Apparently many others have not, judging by her success in the 4 years that she's been open and by the many business cards visible under the glass counter at the register. Deta's is one of those little word of mouth places that will have your friends indebted to you forever once you let them in on the secret.

Deta's Cafe opened about the same time that many Americans were "Atkinizing" themselves to a lifetime without bread and a lot of other essential carbohydrates that our bodies just happens to need. So while the rest of us would no longer risk being seen at The Corner Bakery ordering that sourdough bagette, Deta's business was prospering very nicely by selling a bread based specialty. You see, Deta's signature specialty is burek, a stuffed pita that happens to be a national favorite in her home country of Montenegro and whether you're calorie watching or not, you just 'gotta have one.

Sitting in Deta's Cafe is like sitting in someone's kitchen who loves to cook. There are about 10 chairs around a few small kitchen tables and a few small booths. It's smells good, it's cozy and you can see everything that's being made. And though she's had no prior experience owning or operating a restaurant, like most people who have a passion, it just sort of works out.

Deta saved her money and sent her daughter to the United States 4 years before she arrived and worked for six months in a supermarket before deciding to open the cafe. Against all conventional wisdom and her friends advice who warned that she would never open her restaurant, she rented the small storefront at Ridge Ave. and just started cooking recipes her grandmother and mother had taught her. She works long hours, buys all her ingredients fresh every day and has carved out a little niche for herself and her devoted customers. One such client, who apparently has deep pockets has offered to trademark her name, expand the concept and open Deta's Pitas all over Chicago.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

After talking awhile, I asked Deta if I could watch her make her trademark burek's and she cheerfully agreed and brought me into her small, country style kitchen. She explained the process as she went along and in between instructions she quietly, almost inaudibly chanted, "See, this is my pita. This is my pita." It was her mantra.

Here's how she makes her burek's.
Roll out the dough.

Spread the meat, cheese, spinach or potatoe filling along the edge and cut out the center.

Enclose the filling in a tube of dough.

And place the tube in the small metal pan and cook for twenty minutes or so.

Her experience in Rogers Park and the ties she has to all the people she's met has changed her plans somewhat. She originally wanted to just retire soon and move back to her country permanantly, moving back into the house she left over 10 years ago. But she has so many freinds here now and she has such an admiration for our country and the opportunities it provides, she thinks she'll spend half the year here during the warmer months.

There are lots of stories behind the storefronts in our town. People who work really hard and contribute in their unique way to the colorful fabric that is Rogers Park. I chose to write about Deta and Stanley because they were so different from one another; Deta is quiet and unassuming, almost shy but proud of her children and her accomplishments. Stanley, on the other hand has an outgoing personality that can hardly be contained in his six foot frame. Yet, as different as their personalities are, they share a similar history and the same journey. The immigrants' journey.

And in a year where the word "immigrant" is spoken in almost vulgar tones, here are two such people who traveled from another country to our neighborhood, have worked hard and invested in our neighborhood and are making a difference in this corner of Rogers Park.

Deta's Cafe is located at
7555 North Ridge
773 973 1505

Gary Fuschi

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tasty Sub: Gone for Good?

Many of our commercial corridors seem to share at least one thing in common: a business or building that is owned and operated by people who do not seem to care, that are magnets for troublemakers and whose owners stubbornly refuse to clean up their act despite the negative imapact their businesses have on the surrounding neighborhood.

Morse Ave. has the now infamous "Block building" whose owner has steadfastly refused to attend CAPS meetings and properly monitor his tenants. Howard Street has Eddy's Food Mart, who until this spring was a central location for almost everything illegal on Howard. .
This western stretch of Howard Street from Clark to Ridge is unfortunately, no different in this regard because this struggling commecial corridor is home to Tasty Sub.

Mention the words"Tasty Sub" in this part of Rogers Park, to people who are genuinely concerned about their neighborhood and facial expressions range from the furrowed brow to downright eye-popping anger. Tasty Sub is and has been a problem business for years. and a thorn in the side of both residents and police.

The shopkeepers I spoke to when I was researching the area for this series had nothing good to say about Tasty Sub, it's food, the management and the persistant negative impact this business continues to have on an area that is desperately trying to shed the image of an unsafe business district. Many wondered out loud how the business "might be removed" or "forced to shut down," describing Tasty Sub as the "last domino" that needs to fall.

Tomorrow at 7PM, The Zoning and Land Use Advisory Committee meets to discuss several new and old items on the Agenda. According to the 49th Ward website posting, the building that Tasty Sub is located in, is scheduled to be demolished and "Gus Rizakos and his architect, Irene Zemenides, will present the proposal to build a four-story 25 unit, mixed use building containing three storefront spaces" in it's place. They are also seeking a Zoning Amendment from B1-2 to B1-3, for the 2001 West Howard Street building.

Obviously, the $64 thousand dollar question is.
"Will Tasty Sub return to occupy one of those storefront spaces once the building is complete, or is Tasty Sub Gone for Good?"
This proposal is sure to meet with lots of interest from area neighbors and business owners alike.

Gary Fuschi