May 14, 2016
By: Brigitte Treumann
While I was considering this and future Perennial Biker stories, I thought it might be good to remind myself (and everyone who will read them), that my brand of roaming in Chicago – along with its associative ruminations, choices of focus, and pictures – is entirely personal, impromptu, and freewheeling. No attempt at duplicating architectural/historical/foodie tour guides is either tried or desired, but the oft-used phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are,” beautifully describes my forays and the pleasure I take in them.
Taking advantage of these first warm and sunny spring days, I decide to ride to Ravenswood, one of Chicago’s older neighborhoods. It was founded in 1868 as one the city’s first planned suburbs and became part of the City of Chicago in 1889. An electric streetcar line – sometimes when I ride along, I can see bits of metal track poking through the potholes – was established in 1890. Before exploring Ravenswood’s many and diverse attractions – old churches, art galleries, antique markets, artisanal whiskey distilleries and breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants – I head for Ravenswood Avenue, one of my favorite streets in Chicago. It runs parallel and on both sides of the Metra track from Belmont in the south to Rogers Park in the north. It is now, with its beautifully landscaped street gardens in full spring bloom, also one of the most charming. Neighborhood volunteer organizations have ingeniously made the most of the space between the street and the aggradation of the train tracks by creating a park and garden-scape worth visiting throughout the year.
Along the avenue, late nineteenth century clapboard houses alternate with substantial early twentieth century brick buildings, formerly small manufacturing centers and warehouses. Many have been transformed into elegant condominiums or funky spaces for art galleries, antique markets, and exotic furniture stores. For example, Koval, Chicago’s first distillery since the mid 1800s of whiskey and many other spirits and liqueurs, has an attractive store and showroom – as well as the distillery itself – in refitted older brick structures.
A friend of mine, Jayson Lawfer, a superb potter and owner and director of the Nevica Project, a gallery and art forum which occupies an attractive – and expanding – first floor space in a former chandelier factory. He explains that the lovely name, Nevica, is of Italian origin meaning falling snow, with the connotation of accumulating and what we may call “snowballing.”
This is exactly what is happening to Jayson’s enterprise. He has a highly successful online gallery and just opened a gallery in Kansas City. He focuses on contemporary fine arts and crafts, representing, among others, the best potters from around the globe. His collection of Japanese pottery is truly astounding. Jayson is kind enough to show me three of his treasurers, superior examples of yunomi, or teacups.
From left to right, the first one was made by Shoji Hamada, one of the most famous of Japanese potters and Living National Treasure (a honorific designation for an important intangible cultural property). The second shown in the picture is a masterpiece by a student of Hamada, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who was designated the Second Living National Treasure. The third elegant vessel was fashioned by Ken Matsuzaki, the brilliant and highly successful student of Shimaoka. Japanese potters describe their pottery as “reminiscent of rocks and landscape.”
From the sublime to the hilarious, I stop for a quick snack at Pauline’s breakfast place on Balmoral and the Avenue. Little did I know I would share my outdoor space with three magnificent parrots, either perched on the shoulder of their owner, sharing his breakfast, or at the edge of a specially designed conveyance, a cross between a perambulator and carrying device – you might call it a “parrot-mobile.”
Refreshed, I head a block east to Hermitage Avenue, one of the more distinguished and elegant streets in Chicago, beguiling in this season with its flowering trees and impeccably manicured colorful front yards and flowerpots. In my own estimation, it runs a close second to Ravenswood Avenue, though very different in character. A residential thoroughfare and proud of its many historical mansions, it’s fun to ride along and think that Carl Sandburg lived here around 1914 and wrote his most famous poem “Chicago” at this place. It was published for the first time in 1914 by one of the finest American literary magazines, Chicago’s own Poetry Magazine. I am also interested in the Episcopalian Church, All Saints, at the corner of Wilson and Hermitage. It is the oldest wooden church in Chicago. After many years of neglect, the community raised sufficient funds to renovate and restore this amazing structure to its former Victorian glory, a unique example of the so-called Stick architecture.
I make one more stop on Hermitage Avenue to visit the Midori Market, discreetly tucked away in the annex of the Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church, built in 1872. Midori Market is a unique shop that sells high quality fair trade goods, including jewelry, decorative items, and consumables. It also continues a service of repairing jewelry and watches, which is how I came to know the affable owners and cousins, Cheryl Kato and BJ Fukawa, in their previous establishment, Frank’s Jewelry, on Clark Street. My dear friend, Bunny Douglass, and I would entrust our best pieces that needed some TLC into the capable hands of Cheryl and BJ. We were thrilled to find them again in their present, and most pleasant, location.
Cheryl and BJ told me that RFUMC is a merger between Ravenswood UMC and Christian Fellowship UMC, formed by Japanese Americans who relocated to Chicago from internment camps during and after World War II. BJ mentioned with great affection her grandfather, who was among those who settled in Chicago.
A long day comes to an end and I definitely feel in need of sustenance and a libation. The place where I might find all of that is the River Valley Ranch & Kitchens, a Ravenswood go-to place, where mushrooms rule supreme.
It is a successful and welcoming combination of an indoor farmer’s market and a cozy restaurant that serves wholesome, intensely flavored dishes made exclusively with local ingredients – above all, mushrooms – from farms in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. I think of William Cronon’s marvelous book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, while chatting with RVR’s very amiable manager, Jimmy Ray. He regales me with the history of the place, the mushroom ranch in Burlington, Wisconsin, and a delicious small plate of roasted acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, spinach, kale, lion’s mane mushrooms (only to be found in Wisconsin), goat cheese, and bacon lardons.
A sip of Chicago-brewed artisanal American Pale Ale, called Free Bird, from the Begyle Brewery, also in Ravenswood, gives me just the right energy to ride home. Who knows, I may become a mushroom hunter. The season for morels is on.