The South Side of Chicago is typically viewed as a large monolith, plagued by gang violence and poverty. It’s an easy narrative to sell in our hyperbolic culture, but it’s one that so regularly leaves out the voices and stories of the actual people who live and work on Chicago’s South Side. In order to break down these preconceived notions, we joined Eric Williams and his 9-year old daughter, Sage, for a walking tour of the places that make the South Side home for them.
1. The Silver Room, Hyde Park
Williams founded The Silver Room, a gallery, retail store and event space that focuses on local and communal art. The jewelry and clothing that line the shop are mostly from Chicago artists while the gallery features a rotation of South Side artists. Each summer, The Silver Room organizes a block party with performances from up-and-coming local musicians. Three years ago, after facing gentrification and a rapidly changing neighborhood, Williams decided to move the shop from the North Side’s Wicker Park to Hyde Park. The impact on the community is clear. The Silver Room feels like a gathering place for South Side artists who normally wouldn’t be given this platform.
“It’s a big deal for a lot of people, the store is reflective of the community. This kind of spot helps to build the community and it fits better here than it did in Wicker Park. The events go hand in hand with the merchandise we sell,” said Williams.
He continued, “There’s a focus on Chicago artists. We’ve always been local, but in the last few years it’s been hyper-local. There’s a lot of pride in local artists. People should realize that there’s beauty everywhere, the aesthetic of The Silver Room is reflective of people in the community. You don’t have to go too far to experience this type of culture.”
2. Currency Exchange Café, Washington Park
Founded by artist and activist Theaster Gates in 2014, the Currency Exchange Café is a particularly unique spot in Washington Park. Signage from the original currency exchange can still be seen above the shop’s bookshelves. Gates transformed an economic drain on the community into a cultural hot spot that provides families and artists with a place to come together. The shop focuses on the exchange of “intellectual and cultural contemplation,” which owner Gates believes is true currency.
“The neighborhood had never seen a spot like this,” explained Williams. “It’s a really good place where you can meet up and have some good food. My daughter and I come here a lot. It’s a cultural place. A family place.”
“I like the pancakes!” exclaimed Sage, “I never thought I’d like veggie sausage either, but it’s good.”
3. Sweet Water Foundation, Washington Park
Emmanuel Pratt founded the Sweet Water Foundation in 2009 as a sustainable farm. Sweet Water Foundation’s massive farming practice and regenerative placemaking model are hugely important to the Washington Park neighborhood it calls home. The Foundation focuses on the development of safe spaces that transform the ecology of once-blighted neighborhoods.
Williams explains, “Pratt does hydroponics and farming. It started off with sustainable farming in the middle of the city and now he’s morphed it more into talking about youth leadership. He uses food, farming and carpentry as a vehicle to talk about leadership. The kids come into the shop and learn about all these skills.”
4. Mosque Maryam, South Shore
Mosque Maryam is the headquarters of the Nation of Islam. The building is a towering figure in Chicago’s South Shore. The spot is particularly important for Williams, “In my early 20’s I started coming here a lot, I liked that the message was about doing stuff for yourself and self-reliance.”
He continued, “Because of Mosque Maryam, I went to the Million Man March. They said, ‘You should go back to the community and do something,’ so I opened The Silver Room.”
The Mosque’s focus on doing good work within the community no matter your religious affiliation became a driving principle for Williams. “I’m not Muslim.” Williams explained, “The message was mostly important. It was the first time I saw black men who were put together. It was a different kind of vibe for me. Promoting education and community, I enjoyed it.”
5. Majani, South Shore
It’s no secret that large portions of Chicago’s South Side are considered food deserts. Residents in many areas have few options for groceries or dining. Majani, a vegan restaurant in South Shore, has been working to change that.
“I started coming here when they first opened up,” said Williams. “My sister lives down the street and there’s not a lot of choices around here. It’s a lot of junk food, fried food, and I heard about this alternative place they opened. It’s healthier food in the neighborhood that was vegan but still flavorful.”
While many wondered if a vegan restaurant could survive on the South Side, Majani has been a hit in the community according to Williams. “I came and tried it and it was great. The place is good. I’ve seen people I never would’ve thought would be in here, people who actually live in South Shore. They get to try something they’d normally have to go to the north side to have.”
For a deeper dive into South Side culture, tune in to The Chi on Showtime.
Ashley Ray-Harris is a Chicago-based pop culture expert and freelance writer. Her work looks at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and modern culture.