Park(ed) Bait: Iconic Chicago lakefront bait shop remains in limbo

Park Bait remains closed on the Chicago lakefront at Montrose Harbor.

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For weeks already, Park Bait has been ready to go at Montrose Harbor on the Chicago lakefront; it will finally reopen Friday, Aug. 7. Credit: Dale Bowman

Park Bait is ready to go at Montrose Harbor, except for no customers as the shop remains closed.

Dale Bowman

Plexiglass shields the counter. Directional and social distancing signs are in place. Hand sanitizer awaits customers to the right of the counter.

Park Bait is ready to go, except no customers.

Since Chicago’s lakefront was closed on March 26 by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Park Bait, a Chicago Park District concessionaire at Montrose Harbor, has been shut.

“[Her son Cory Gecht] said, `This virus has made you a girl,’ “ Stacey Greene-Fenlon said in one of many recent conversations. “ ‘You’re crying and cooking. I just can’t do this Mom.’ It gets to you after a while.”

Greene was literally born to this as the daughter of the late Willie Greene, who took over Park Bait, the iconic urban lakefront bait ship, in May of 1958. Greene believes Pete Barry began the shop as Barry’s Bait in 1934 or ‘35.

Park Bait at Montrose Harbor in July, 2020. Credit: Dale Bowman

Park Bait at Montrose Harbor remains closed.

Dale Bowman

All she wants to do is get back to work, she’s not a denier of the pandemic.

“People talk about this like it is the flu,” she said. “Do you ever know someone who died of the flu?”

Her personal count is staggering: 65 acquaintances had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 20 died. She knows many people with her gift of gab and life dealing with thousands at the shop.

“I get every aspect of this,” she said. “I have seen a lot. I don’t regard this as a hoax or a joke, but we need to find a way.”

That’s work reality.

“I take it seriously, but being in a small business, I can control my environment and should be open,’’ she said. “Especially if you are allowing people to escape to the lakefront.”

The lakefront was fairly successfully locked down until the days following the looting spree on May 30, then, for all effective purposes, the lakefront reopened for those able to walk or bike in. Yet, rather gallingly, concessionaires were forced to remain closed.

Stacey Greene-Fenlon is ready to go, except for Park Bait remaining closed. Credit: Dale Bowman

Stacey Greene-Fenlon is ready to go, except for Park Bait remaining closed.

Dale Bowman

That’s one of several galling points.

“I’m the only bait store in America who ain’t making bank,” said Greene, who sees the unprecedented spike in fishing during the pandemic.

She sees that small businesses like hers got screwed during the shutdown while big box stores, such as Walmart, stayed open.

“In my business, and for what I do, this a different situation: Small businesses are built to handle this,” Greene noted. “I’m essential.”

Immigrants, who still use Uptown as an entry point and fish for sustenance, depend on Park Bait. Nearby residents depend on the shop for pet food.

“Nobody ever had that much control over me in my life,” Greene said. “And nobody ever will again. I have been doing some thinking over the table.”

Emotions come in waves.

“There’s days I sit in here and say, `Bye Felicia,’ “ Greene said. “I don’t think I cried this much in my whole life.”

On Friday she had a discussion with her 39th Ward alderwoman Samantha Nugent that felt productive.

“If I have to sit at City Hall, I will sit there,” Greene said. “This is what I know. I love my job. I miss my people.”

On a brutally hot Thursday afternoon, a refreshing breeze blew off Lake Michigan behind Park Bait.

“This has been my backyard for 54 years of my life,” Greene said.

It was time.

A cryptic sign hangs on the door of the closed Park Bait at Montrose Harbor. Credit: Dale Bowman

A cryptic sign hangs on the door of the closed Park Bait at Montrose Harbor.

Dale Bowman

CHICKS

The names of Monty and Rose’s three fledged piping plover chicks were unveiled Saturday at Montrose Beach: Hazel (in honor of South Side environmental activist Hazel Johnson), Esperanza (hope for a better future) and Nish (for indigenous people who lived in the area before Europeans arrived). Click here to read more.

WILD THINGS

Spotted my first monarch butterfly on my wife’s milkweeds Thursday. Heard my first dog-day cicadas Saturday night.

STRAY CAST

Fishing Canada’s Great Slave Lake or Walt Disney World Resort?

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