STEINBERG: Where to go next? Book bird-dogs intriguing Chicago spots
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Englewood is a long way to go for a cup of coffee. But I like coffee. So when I heard about Kusanya Cafe, a coffeehouse at 69th and Green, I decided to slide over for a cup.
Most Chicagoans never go to Englewood for any reason. They associate it with murder, not coffee. But even the worst neighborhoods are also just that — neighborhoods — and I figured, if people can live there, I can visit.
Inspiration came from a book called “111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss,” published by German publisher Emons Verlag. That aspect is what initially caught my attention; I hoped to smirk at some foreigner’s wildly mistaken impressions of Chicago. The book arrived from Germany; alas, it was written by Amy Bizzarri, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who lives by Logan Square.
“I have a severe case of wanderlust,” she told me. “But I can’t go to India, so I go to Devon Avenue. It’s my way of traveling. I feel I know a lot of hidden corners of city.”
The Chicago volume is one of dozens of “111 Places” books Emons sells, featuring the hidden charms of cities from New Delhi to Berlin to Istanbul.
“I saw the New York edition and thought, ‘I’m the perfect person to write this for Chicago,'” Bizzarri said.
She’s right; she is. It’s hard to pull off a book like this. You don’t want to be too familiar. No point alerting folks to Wrigley Field. But you don’t want to be too esoteric either.
Bizzarri succeeds. She finds the sweet spot, visiting many worthwhile Chicago treasures, ranging across the city and the spectrum of culture: music, museums, shops, restaurants. She hits many of my favorite obscure places, including the Sky Chapel atop the First United Methodist Church, with its bas-relief of Jesus pondering the skyline of Chicago circa 1952, and Red Square Spa, the former Division Street Russian Baths. The book is illustrated by creative, colorful pictures snapped by Chicago photographer Susie Inverso.
A few places struck me as too well-known: the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle in the Museum of Science and Industry, for instance. And a couple are too obscure: The School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts is whimsical, but it isn’t somewhere you visit but somewhere you enroll. If anybody reads this book and decides to become a cobbler, I’d love to hear about it.
Quibbles aside, the book’s main value, for me, will be as a tip sheet, bird-dogging intriguing places I’ve somehow never heard of and now can visit. Chicago Honey Co-op? Big Monster Toys on South Racine? I’m on my way.
Of course I had to tote up how many of the 111 places I’ve already visited: 49. Fifty after I got off the Green Line at Halsted and 63rd, walked six blocks south, gazing apprehensively around at indifferent passersby as I stepped gingerly over weedy, crumbling sidewalks, then entered the cheery, high-ceilinged, exposed brick interior of Kusanya Cafe, 825 W. 69th St., and ordered a medium coffee for a wallet-friendly $2.
Kusanya is more than a coffeehouse. It’s an art gallery and community space used for everything from Saturday morning yoga classes to wine tastings. It was started four years ago by Phil Sipka and like-minded Englewood residents interested in, as he put it when he sat down at my table, “changing the idea of what the neighborhood is for the people who live here.”
And maybe even changing it a little for the people who don’t. Walking back to the L, I stopped at Baba’s Food Mart a few doors down, a typical inner-city corner store, and asked about Kusanya.
“I eat from there every day,” said Vernon Monroe, Baba’s manager. “I go get my bagel, my doughnut. It’s given old people a place to go. Old people, young people. Everyone goes there. They roast their own coffee. They squeeze their orange juice. Fresh. Every day. Every day.”
Walking up Halsted to the L station was a very different experience than covering the same ground an hour earlier had been. Just a city street with people on it.