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Oz on the Vermilion: How the Illinois Prison Town of Pontiac Became an Arts Center

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57 Chev Route 66Editsmall

By David Witter

Walk through downtown Pontiac and you are greeted with the black-and-white of a terrier, tilting its head to hear the RCA Victor megaphone, the classic red of the Coca-Cola logo, a bright yellow ’57 Chevy pointed down Route 66, and a grey and blue shark bursting out of the sidewalk, all painted bigger than life on the sides of buildings.

Six years ago, the town may have suffered the same shuttered fate as many small industrial and farm towns. But instead of pinning all their economic hopes on the orange uniforms of the nearby Pontiac Correctional Center, or the rust on many factories, Pontiac was saved by a rainbow of colors from artists’ brushes. Read the rest of this entry »

Following the Gray Ghosts Trail Home: The Long Arm of Civil War in Central Missouri

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The Gray Ghosts Trail panel “Callaway County Men at War” was dedicated at the Callaway County Courthouse with the help of local law officers, firefighters and first responders on Sept. 11, 2012./Photo: Don Ernst

The Gray Ghosts Trail panel “Callaway County Men at War” was dedicated at the Callaway County Courthouse with the help of local law officers, firefighters and first responders on Sept. 11, 2012./Photo: Don Ernst

By Martin Northway

More than 150 of us are gathered in front of the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton, Missouri, to share a community landmark: dedication of our eighth and final local interpretive panel on the Gray Ghosts Trail Civil War driving tour through central Missouri. It is warm and clear, and seating in the closed-off brick street fosters the atmosphere of a country wedding.

The theme of the panel is “Callaway County Men at War.” Its thumbnail biography features a local Civil War and Reconstruction hero, a county sheriff killed by vigilantes in whose honor three-dozen uniformed law officers and firefighters pass with muffled tread in front of Civil War re-enactors to open the ceremony.

This is a project that has occupied years of effort. I am surrounded by friends and even relatives, almost none of whom I knew when I returned to the ancestral home of my dad’s family a dozen years before. I could not then have predicted this result, but I had after all come here for connection, and I enjoy the jibes thrown my way by speakers who understand not only the event’s significance but its importance to me. It is like being alive at your own wake; it is not so bad.

I vividly recall wheeling my U-Haul truck west through St. Louis from Chicago, suddenly facing mounds of black clouds roiling from the southwest, threatening to muscle out the calm sky north of I-70. It was as if God himself was troweling the frescoed sky. I laughed at the unexpectedly familiar: the southern three-fourths of Missouri is the top of the South climatically, storms liking to ride the Gulf current from Texas and Oklahoma, while weather in the top tier of counties arrives on the prevailing northwest wind, as in the upper Midwest, or Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Stealing Flowers from the Dead: A Summer-Long Graveyard Shift

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Photo: Matt Wade

Newport, Rhode Island/Photo: Matt Wade

By Pat O’Brien

I desperately yanked on my weed whacker’s rip cord in a pathetic attempt to rev its internal mechanics. In between pulling the cord and pumping the rubber primer button, I’d quickly glance around the graveyard to see if the other guys were staring at me. My shoulder ached when I noticed Brooks making his way around granite markers and gravestones to reach me. I acted like I was inspecting the motor to appear competent. Brooks grabbed the weed whacker out of my hands and, without uttering a word, pulled the cord in a rapid succession until it wheezed itself stable. Only my first day on the job and any hope of conveying an outdoorsy manliness floundered off into my weed whacker’s smoke plumes.

It was the summer of 2009 when I started working for the St. Charles Cemetery District. Weaving in between headstones on a riding lawn mower, whipping overgrown grass into submission and trimming unruly hedges certainly wasn’t on my list of possible job preferences. But when a mutual friend and nephew of the cemetery superintendent told me he was leaving and there’d be an opening on maintenance crew, I lazily took the platter-served employment offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Street Art Summer: Touring the Great Outdoor Graffiti Gallery

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IMG_6465By Kevin Coval

The most vibrant and innovative art galleries you will see in Chicago this summer are in the streets. Our city is in the midst of a graffiti and street art renaissance due to the daring, increased risks artists are willing to take to make and a cut back from City Hall on their graffiti-blaster program. Pieces, throw-ups, tags, wheat-pastes and street installations exist and run for a longer period of time. Rather than splotches of brown for stretches on the avenue, you might be able to catch a new generation of young artists vying to shape Chicago’s public visual culture. Walk through alleys, peep boarded-up storefronts, abandoned factories, rooftops, water towers, under overpasses, forgotten former industrial areas. Spots the city has abandoned, artists reclaim, use as canvas, make fresher and more beautiful.

This summer, rather than—or in addition to—visiting the white boxes of a museum, wander the city ablaze with color, letter and message. Look out for prolific writers (graffiti artists) AMUSE, VENOM, WERE, SEGE, TREX, FACT, NOTEEF, street artists Penny Pinch, Tararchy, Dont Fret, ORYX and the conspicuous, gorgeous murals of Ruben Aguirre, Hebru Brantley and Miguel Aguilar and his Graffiti Institute crew, just to name a few. Read the rest of this entry »

Doggin’ It: Nothing Finer Than Sausage Slinging in the Summer

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Vienna Beef

Vienna Beef

By Eric Lutz

In summers throughout high school and college, my friends and I worked at a hotdog stand called Voo’s—a mobile cart at an upscale outdoor shopping mall in the suburb where I grew up. From 8:30am to 5:30pm every day, we’d hang out, eat sport peppers and listen to ball games. Then, our boss—the eponymous Voo—would pay us eighty dollars cash from the register, plus whatever tips we earned which, on a good day, amounted to about twenty bucks a piece. It was—and remains—the best job I have ever had.

Amid the pretensions of the uppercrust mall, we were a kind of populist oasis where the low-wage mall employees and the bored shoppers could find reprieve from the carefully manicured shrubbery and high-end shops.

Most of these people were cool. There was the goateed Apple Store guy who ate probably six hotdogs per week. The fun couple that operated the roasted nut stand nearby. Even the Polish security guard who hurled insults at us as he sped by on his Segway found his way into our hearts. Read the rest of this entry »

Sun Tight: How to Work Summer Fashion on a Winter Body

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By Isa Giallorenzo with illustrations by Josh Crow

Summer fashion. Winter body. What can we do to look good and fresh when those pesky extra pounds just won’t go away? These local style savants got you (un)covered.

Nikia Jefferson, fashion blogger (
I would recommend wearing dresses in light, breathable fabrics, like cotton and jersey, that skim the “problem areas.” Then accessorize with a wide elastic belt, to cinch the waist and accentuate feminine curves. And don’t get stuck in the all-black rut. As long as the fit of the clothing is good, you can take more risks when it comes to color. Also a high heel always helps to elongate legs and improve posture, which is always flattering and slimming. Find the perfect shade of nude and you will have a shoe that pairs well with a multitude of outfits and takes you through the entire season. Read the rest of this entry »

Hitting the Streets: A Romp Through Underrated Chicago Neighborhood Festivals 

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Chosen Few DJs Picnic

By Keidra Chaney

I recently consulted Google with the search term “Neighborhood Festival Capital of the World” to see if such an accolade existed. If it did, surely it would be awarded to Chicago, right? What other city can literally boast at least one (but more than likely more than one) neighborhood festival every weekend of the year from May to August? It’s no surprise that we do summer festivals right in the Windy City; it’s our reward for enduring our cloistered winter existence for four to six months out of the year.

However, it’s nearly impossible for one person in Chicago to experience all that Chicago has to offer in the way of neighborhood fests, and while some festivals are institutions (Northcenter Ribfest, Printers Row Lit Fest, Northalsted Market Days, West Fest, the list goes on) a few newer, under-recognized, and just plain under-loved fests get lost in the crowd. Read the rest of this entry »

The Gentlemen of Washington Park: Sledging in the Pitch at the South Side’s Cricket Mecca

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imageBy Josh Kovensky

Cricket is a gentlemen’s sport. Requiring patience, skill, and knowledge of sporting minutiae, the British propagated it across their empire, infusing the local cultures with an athletic outpost of the British “stiff-upper-lip” mentality.

And then there’s real cricket. The brutal bat-and-ball sport that you find in the alleys of Bombay, along the beaches of the Caribbean, on Australian news channels and in the South Side’s very own Washington Park. Yes, each weekend, from May to September, Washington Park hosts the Midwest’s largest cricket league.

Although the Washington Park cricketeers are almost entirely South Asian, they, as one player told me, “come from all walks of life.” And, despite the incongruity of the University of Chicago’s ivory towers on one side and the grit of Englewood on the other, the teams are driven to their cause. Shankar, a bowler for the Chicago Mavericks, told me that players arrive at 8am to set up and often leave at 6pm once all the games are over. To play on both days of the weekend: “you have to be committed…or single.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fishing Hooked: Have You Entered Chicago’s Sport Fishing Derby Yet?

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Daley Fishing 1By Charlie Puckett

In 1970, Mayor Richard J. Daley told the Chicago Tribune that he wished to see the day when Loop workers fished in the Chicago River during their lunch breaks. During his twenty-one-year tenure as mayor, Daley adored rigging fishing tackle as much as his detractors relished in his gaffes as they tried for years to catch him for a different kind of rigging.

Today, a smaller city may have fewer potential anglers that could be tucking their ties into their shirts for a lunch-time cast, Daley’s dream is still a dream and the Chicago River water is probably the cleanest when it’s shocked green on St. Patrick’s Day, but the surrounding Lake Michigan waters have fared well due to years of politics that aim to give Chicago a healthy urban fishing culture and anyone interested in access to the classic arcadian hobby.

Many are surprised to hear that we have salmon, that they are big, and that they fight like mermen when on the line. You don’t need a boat—they run right off of the shore beginning each spring and you can catch them, eat them, or throw them back and then lie to an entire El car about how big it was because your phone was dead and you couldn’t take a photo. Every year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks approximately 865,000 salmonids in Lake Michigan—species that most will associate with Alaska, British Columbia, expensive grocery receipts, waxy taxidermy decor or your grandfather’s only story: Chinook “King” salmon, Coho salmon, lake trout, rainbow trout and brown trout. Read the rest of this entry »

Cruel Summer: Against Estival Romanticism

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cruel-summerBy B. David Zarley

Droplets of water, glistening, tiny misshapen jewelers’ loupes clinging desperately to and summarily highlighting rebellious curls of hair darkened and weighted by moisture, falling from eyelashes, caressing clavicles and iliac crests, running along lines, be they bust, thigh, abdominal or other; nights as warm as the days, trees aflame with the phosphorescent backsides of fireflies; ice cubes and ceiling fans sweeping across naked bodies; hideously pink baseball gloves and grotesquely crude cartoon characters with gum-ball accoutrements; opaque delicacies the flavor of citrus and the shape of a shark, with the color of electricity, and the blooming of a powdered and pinwheel shaped delicacy known as the sugar waffle; these estival pleasures aside, summer is the most acerbic of all months. Read the rest of this entry »