The Root Cities: Sweet Home Chicago

Courtesy of Flickr user Manufacturer
Courtesy of Flickr user Manufacturer

In Dreams From My Father, President Barack Obama writes eloquently about why he chose to make Chicago his adult home. The city has traditionally been the political and economic capital of black America, while New York's Harlem has held the mantle as its cultural capital. More black U.S. senators have come from Chicago than anywhere else — in fact, three out of the four who have served post-Reconstruction. From Johnson Publishing Co. to Johnson Hair Care, various iconic black companies were founded in Chicago.


The Windy City offers culture, entertainment and fabulous cuisine. A trip usually surprises visitors: It's clean, and a real city that boasts a gorgeous lakefront. With world-class museums and theater, Chicago also boasts one of the most dazzling skylines in the country. Shopping is world class, too.

And let's not forget Oprah. She single-handedly transformed the West Loop from skid row into a fashionable neighborhood. Don't be embarrassed to take part in a typical tourist pastime — go ahead and take a picture in front of the gigantic "O" sign in front of her Harpo Studios. Much easier than scoring a pair of Oprah tickets.

However, there's more to Chicago than Oprah, Michael Jordan and Al Capone — the names most associated with our fair city (pre-Obama, of course). Chicago is diverse, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Polish, Korean, Chinese, Irish, Indian and Pakistani immigrants, among others. There is much richness to be explored in this city of neighborhoods — even if locals tend to stick to their own enclaves, thanks to long-entrenched, de facto segregation.

One of the best bars in Chicago is the Violet Hour, situated in the trendy, boho Wicker Park community. The speakeasy boasts homemade cocktails that sometimes shoot fire. A sign in the bathroom instructs patrons that no Cosmos, Grey Goose or light beer will be served. There's no sign outside the faux-boarded-up building. And there's often a wait on weekends, so go across the street to Big Star for tacos. Wicker Park is crowded with boutiques and high-end chain stores — not to mention lounges and cafes.

For clubby night life, the Funky Buddha Lounge, Red Kiva, Underground, Lumen and Flatwater top the list. The Shrine has featured nights showcasing everything from house music to Afro-pop to old-school hip-hop concerts. If you're still not finished partying, Betty's Blue Star Lounge stays open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays. The Darkroom spins classic hip-hop. If you want to hear house music and see how Chicagoans step in the name of love, go to the Dating Game. If a laid-back night of drinks with friends is more your speed, the Wit Hotel, C-View and Epic offer rooftop drinks.

Chicago is definitely a foodie town, with a slew of celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless and Graham Elliot. The City of Big Shoulders has evolved from its meat-and-potato stockyard days, but a steak from the iconic Chicago Chop House is a must-have. Blackbird is considered to have some of the best food in town.


In the Pilsen neighborhood, Nuevo Léon serves up delicious Mexican fare. Sushi Wabi is one of the best sushi spots. Japonais and Vermilion are always consistent with their respective fusion food. For wonderful wines, cured meats and an outdoor patio, Juicy Wine Bar can't be beat. If you're a history buff with a hankering to drive through the old stockyard area that Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle, stop at Amelia's for lunch or dinner.

Chicago has several art districts around town. G.R. N'Namdi Gallery and Gallery Guichard are black-owned galleries that have funky events and openings. Thespian lovers should catch a show at Congo Square, the theater that received a blessing from the late August Wilson. The Black Ensemble Theater and eta Creative Arts Foundation are well-respected theaters.


The DuSable Museum of African American History is the first of its kind in the country. Lee's Unleaded Blues — a block from eta — is where real music aficionados venture out of downtown to hear authentic blues. The lofty Living Room Lounge is for jazz lovers of all ages. The South Side Community Arts Center once nurtured Gordon Parks and Archibald Motley. Swing by the Chess Records museum.

Also on the South Side is Izola's, a soul-food restaurant open 24 hours. On Saturday mornings, rub elbows with judges, former Harold Washington political appointees, politicians and black folk in the know. Izola makes cameos working the cash register.


Historic Bronzeville used to also be known as the Black Belt, the South Side area that African Americans were restricted to living in before housing desegregation. Drive along King Drive and see the stately graystones. Markers note where Ida B. Wells lived and the home of Robert S. Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender. The Bronzeville Visitor Information Center is chock-full of information about the area. This is the same neighborhood that provided the setting for Richard Wright's Native Son.

After Bronzeville, breeze through nearby Hyde Park. Drive down 51st Street, the thoroughfare a few houses from President Obama's home. A police barricade prevents onlookers from getting too close. But you can get a glimpse of his mansion from the leafy trees.


A few blocks away is Louis Farrakhan's mansion, where Fruit of Islam are posted up as security. Go to the independent 57th Street Books, which bills itself as Obama's bookstore. Get breakfast at the no-frills, cafeteria-style Valois. For dinner, eat at Park 52 and listen to live blues and jazz next door at the Checkerboard Lounge.

There's nothing like summertime Chi. It's the best time of year to visit. Myriad free festivals go on between May and September. The Taste of Chicago puts every other city's food festival to shame. On the South Side, the Bud Billiken Parade is an annual back-to-school tradition along King Drive. Anyone thinking of running for office rides in a motorcade to pay community homage. The drill teams, music and ornate floats keep this tradition going. Chicago is a soulful city, and as a visiting friend pointed out, it always smells like barbecue in the summer.


No visit to Chicago is complete without a trip to one of the dozens of Harold's Chicken Shacks, scattered mostly on the South Side. I recommend ordering four wings with mild sauce. Be prepared to pay an extra 30 cents for "extra," "heavy," "plenty" and "a lot." That's code for people wanting more of that tangy mild sauce.

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for Chicago Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter.