Rogers Park, My Kinda Something

It’s been a whopping ten years since I moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.  This is significant inasmuch as I moved a LOT as a younger man and resided in a number of parts of the city, albeit mostly on the north side.  My relatives used to make fun of my vagabond ways, chiding me for their frequent need to update their address books.  Of all the parts of Chicago I’ve inhabited, I’m not sure Rogers Park is my favorite.  It’s just where I ended up.


Seeing as I’m likely staying in Rogers Park for at least a little while longer, and that ten is a good round number, I thought I’d review the neighborhood. 


At one point, a local publication called Rogers Park the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago.  The consensus cited a near equal mix of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos.  This was celebrated.  Of course, I’m all for diversity, but—to echo a bit of Walter Benn Michaels’s ideas without making this an either/or—diversity is not enough.  A healthy mix of cultures is fantastic, but it’s not like they always get along.  When I moved to the area, I was told which parts were the ones to avoid, where this gang resides, which bars are hotspots for the other gang, where the college kids hang out, where the hippies congregate.  Anyone who knows Chicago knows that we’ve long been a segregated town, and Rogers Park is not different.  More diverse than Lincoln Park or Austin, sure, but here we’ve got a segregated neighborhood within a segregated city.


But we are diverse.  One can walk down Clark Street and find tacos, tortas, burritos, and tacos.  Sheridan boasts a used bookstore, a small café near a Starbucks, and a few bars, one of them a slashie!  A new microbrew pub just opened, along with a few trendy restaurants that seem nice.  I wouldn’t know.  These days, my favorite place to eat is my kitchen.  It’s the one place in America where bacon isn’t served on everything.  The walk from the train to my apartment brings me in contact with students from the university and the private school that, in the last decade, have both swallowed up a chunk of the neighborhood.  I look forward to 2027 when the area is renamed Loyola-Waldorf. 


Rogers Park is a patriotic neighborhood.  This 4th of July was as rowdy as ever with just as many idiots blowing things up.  I don’t know that I heard as many gunshots as last year, but maybe I’m less skilled at distinguishing between pistols and fireworks than I thought.  After July, one doesn’t hear so many bangs and blasts, but our commitment to our city and country remains strong.  At one point, we boasted more bloggers than any other part of the city.  Almost all of these blogs were political in nature and run by conspiracy minded weirdoes, angry cranks, or just those wonderful vigilantes armed with police scanners and fuckloads of weapons. 


I should note that sweeping generalizations about my ‘hood are likely bullshit.  I know this, as I live on a particular street that is perhaps unlike any other in the area, thus I ought to assume that life on, say, Farwell or Howard or Lunt might be unique.  But if I look at my street as a sort of microcosm of Rogers Park, I can make a few assumptions and declarative statements.  So let’s take the dog for a walk and see what my street has to offer.


Up the block is a house with a porch swing, as if this were fucking Georgia.  To make matters stranger, the man of the house likes to sit on his porch swing and play the banjo.  This might be charming, but the guy seems to know only a few notes and chords.  That or he’s practicing his scales at a snail’s pace.  Either way, it makes for dull listening.  He’s no Earl Scruggs, but we all have to start somewhere.  Until recently, the woman across from him would practice her violin.  If one were to walk past at the right time, they’d be privy to a war of the instruments, a sort of free form avant-garde piece for banjo and violin. 


While walking my dog, I often meet other dog owners.  Some of them are also parents of human children.  Plenty of families on my street.  And college kids.  Before 8:00 PM, the street can feel like a sort of small town with kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks and riding bikes recently liberated of training wheels.  After 9:00, the scene shifts to a college party with the requisite marijuana smoke and inane chatter.  Almost all of the apartments and homes are adorned with vegetation, some of it purposefully planted and cultivated.  Urbanites do love their postage stamp lawns.  Sometimes they get their lawns fertilized for free courtesy of dog owners with lax attitudes regarding cleaning up after their pets.  Over the years, I’ve gotten good at spotting dog shit, a skill acquired after more than one shoe got soiled and had to be hosed off. 


My street has its share of wildlife.  I’ve spotted raccoons, opossum, a bat, a falcon, and many oddballs shuffling home after a night out.  Rogers Park may be ground zero for oddballs, actually.  Slightly touched, I call them.  Like the guy who walks down Sheridan with his pants around his ankles, angrily cursing at... well, I’m not sure.  Life?   The barflies at Bruno’s and Cuuneen’s; the shuffling, crushed residents of assisted living homes; the bearded, aging hippie who partied a little too hard in the ‘60s and sits in The Coffee Shop singing and laughing at his acid flashbacks; the whack-job on Columbia who told me my dog was the devil; I love them all.  Except when they piss me off.


Rogers Park boasts a healthy immigrant population.  Specifically, I’m thinking of the Eastern European men who congregate at Starbucks to drink endless espressos, chain smoke and chat in their native tongue.  They may not be oddballs, per se, but they are a community, one that seems impenetrable, as do most of the insular societies within the neighborhood.  I once met a friend at the bar formerly known as Jarheads.  We were happy it had reopened, though the old owner, a marine who ran the bar for other veteran marines, was no longer in control of things.  In his place was an preternaturally patient woman who let some of the new regulars hurl peanuts and insults at her.  Shortly after that display, a rival gang strolled in.  The bouncer—a scrawny kid in way over his head—did his best to insist that one group sit at the east end of the bar and the other stay west, but that distance proved too short for comfort, especially considering my drinking buddy and I were in the middle.  We'd wandered in where we didn’t belong.  But we stayed for another round, then got out before the tensions boiled over.  A narrow escape from a scene that was not ours. 


But you know what—it could’ve been our scene if we’d gone back the next day.   We might’ve become regulars.  It seems possible.  It’s just a matter of showing up.  However gritty or dangerous, Rogers Park is open to you.  We’re not Canaryville; we don’t shun outsiders.  Rogers Park is welcoming.  Still, the gentrification isn’t necessarily embraced. 


On that: I didn’t grow up here, so it’s not for me to bemoan the changes the area has undergone.  I’m more an amused viewer of the banter between long-time residents and the condo owners who, after their first summer in the neighborhood, realize Rogers Park has problems.  Then they take to Facebook groups, blogs, and Twitter to complain about the crime.  I’m always curious to know if they bothered to do a minute’s research before buying.


Then there’s the New 400, a movie house for those on a budget.  Of course, you get what you pay for—no stadium seating here.  But the place does serve drinks, which is helpful in the summertime when the movies inevitably suck.  Watching leather-clad men and women pretending to be comic book heroes is certainly a lot easier with a few whiskies. 


Of course, no discussion of Rogers Park would be complete without mentioning the beaches.  Ah... the beaches.  A wonderful expanse of sand, water, and sky perfect for long walks and laying out during those short months when the weather permits such indulgence.  I tend to stick to beaches near my part of town, as the closer one gets to Howard, the weirder things get.  I believe a sheep’s head was found on the far north beach.  I’m leaving that area the hell alone.  I can deal with the noise and sex workers and dealers and other urban realities packed tightly within that bit of the city on the edge of Evanston, but a decapitated animal’s head is too much for this citizen. 


Oh right— the Heartland Café.  I used to have issues with that place.  The food has gotten a lot better, but my first trips were a disappointment, partially due to the wait-staff that were pained to do their job in the face of their greater artistic callings.  Yes, you’re a painter/actor/musician/poet/sculptor, but since you’re currently wearing an apron not spattered with paint, could you get my fucking sandwich?  I was also annoyed when the Café asked for donations after admitting that they don’t understand how banks work and have mismanaged the place for years. But, again, that’s not been the case as of late.  The new chef is a lot better than the last one, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the business seems to be doing better.  After moving here, I quickly came to understand that the Heartland Café is a landmark, a long loved treasure here in the center of the neighborhood.  It represents a certain element of the area, the politically charged, leftist, soy and incense element.  I dig all of that, save for the incense. 


But I would be remiss if I didn’t state again that my favorite place to eat food, drink tea, and swill booze is my apartment.  It's also my favorite movie theater and library.  So long as it stays in Rogers Park, so will I.  Sadly, it’s a private spot that only lets in a few privileged individuals.  We’re a bit exclusive.  Sorry.