BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
The season for long, leisurely bike rides is quickly coming to an end. Not that I stop using my trusty bicycle for short excursions or to run most of my local chores—in fact, unless it’s really snowy and black ice lurks under a thin layer of snow, I ride throughout the winter. When it’s above 30 degrees, I might even pedal into one of the proximal parks, checking out the river, communing with those cheerful ducks who love hanging out by its banks. They seem to have struck a mutually respectful and convivial relationship with flocks of Canadian geese that strut and nibble ceaselessly at whatever greenery is left. I know late autumn is here when wild geese fly in arrow-formation above my house, honking as they soar.
The next best thing to biking is walking, and this crisp weather is perfect for a metropolitan ramble. And so I decide to explore the area that Daniel Burnham called “the gateway from the west into the Loop,” now well-known as the West Loop.
I am, of course, somewhat familiar with the area, mostly because I have friends who like to meet at one of the many “edgy” (what does that word mean?) restaurants on Fulton or Randolph Streets. West Loop boosters rave about the foodie scene, outdoing themselves with lavish praise for the latest, upscale (read expensive) fusion-inspired, cleverly lit, open-spaced eateries.
But man does not live by bread alone, and I want to learn more about the area and its history that is so quintessentially Chicago: constantly changing, evolving, reinventing, and highly dynamic. A friend introduces me to Tom Besore, an expert on Chicago history who organizes walking tours throughout our city’s neighborhoods (no competition, more like a kindred spirit). We meet for lunch in a very pleasant, down-to-earth joint, the Green Street Smoked Meats and Sawada Coffee, on—where else?—Green Street, just off Randolph.
In order to get into the mood—the spirit of the newly emerging West Loop—I take public transportation: the Red and then Pink Lines to the Morgan Street CTA station. It is one of the first renovated, redesigned CTA stations (2012) and a stunning architectural monument, designed by Ross Barney Architects, all in the West Loop’s new “persona.” A pair of four-story gleaming towers, sheathed in glass and perforated stainless steel, encase the station, and a dramatic glass skywalk connects the platforms. There are awesome views of Chicago’s skyline from the bridge and it’s fun to photograph—a wonderful spot from which to descend for to wait for the train!
Walking along Morgan Street towards my lunch appointment, I notice many older, now-boarded-up warehouses, former meatpacking plants and other light industry buildings. Construction crews are at work, and tower cranes are much in evidence. Prominently so on the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, at the corner of Washington and Carpenter, which will become the new national headquarters of McDonalds. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Mayor Emmanuel said that this is bringing “an iconic American brand back to Chicago–the most American of American cities.”
Tom Besores and I speak about these changes in the West Loop and the tension between preservation of a previous era (its plant and warehouse buildings from the late-19th through the early-20th century) and contemporary, highly dynamic economic development. He recommends I take a look at some of the more prominent examples of early industrial architecture, warning me that most of these structures have been converted into very desirable loft-like apartments and office buildings. I head for what used to be the Fulton Cold Storage Building on Carpenter Street that is now the Chicago headquarters of Google. As can be expected, it’s all glass and steel, with wide-open interior spaces, and its world-famous hallmark, the red, yellow, blue, and green ‘G’ cleverly inserted into the entrance.
I am taking a mid-afternoon break to meet with my friend Sylvia Maldonado in what is now called Venue One, an impressive event space located in the old Richter’s Food Products Factory, that specialized in making so-called “health sausages”! The building is considered Chicago’s best example of Deco-style factory design. And, fortunately for us, the developers left the basic Art Deco architecture intact. The architect, H. Peter Henschien, was well known as a designer of meatpacking plants throughout the 1920s and ‘30s.
Thoughts of my paternal grandfather arise in this neighborhood and in this building. As an ambitious young German banker and merchant, he lived and worked from 1902 to 1907 in the United States, working in St. Louis and New York. He was eventually hired by Ogden Armour to represent Armour Meatpacking Company in Europe, with headquarters first in Antwerp, where my father was born, and then in Frankfurt/Main. The intriguing twist to this tale is that Ogden Armour first offered him an executive position here in Chicago, but my grandparents decided to eventually return to Europe, and later to Germany. What a strange notion, though, my father might have been born in Chicago, become a Chicago boy, and then . . . too weird to consider—the stuff of Time and Again. But who knows, grandfather Heinrich might have wandered around in the West Loop to check out a potential move to Chicago in its manufacturing heyday.
But “back to the future,” as they say. Sylvia and her family have strong ties to the West Loop. Her father, Avelino Lee Maldonado, founded La Criolla on West Randolph Street in 1957, originally as an importer of spices. He began by selling Adobo out of the trunk of his car to local bodegas. Over the years, the company grew to be a major importer-packager-distributor of authentic Hispanic food products, including spices and seasonings, beans, pastas, flours, olives, and honey. Since I love to cook, I have a fine selection of La Criolla spices (the turmeric is one of my favorites). The company remains true to its roots as a family business and its tenet “La Criolla, El Orgullo de su Olla, the Pride of your Cooking!”
Besides consulting for her family’s business, Sylvia has started a new venture, not necessarily spice-related (or maybe it is!) called Breathe bar. No, it’s not yet another new-fangled drinking establishment—of which there are quite a few in the West Loop, where martinis are served in treasure trove boxes, emitting vapor and strange aromas—but an “urban sanctuary for meditation and wellness.” At the moment it functions like a moveable feast; the sanctuary can be anywhere, in a popup tent, in a discrete space of the Venue One, or wherever it is feasible. Everyone is welcome to learn and practice the life-giving art of breathing. I can attest to its calming and yet invigorating power. A search for a more permanent space is underway, though I think the tent is a wonderful option. Breathing: the spice of life!
Since I still want to catch a glimpse of the Christkindlmarkt at Daley Plaza, a popular and charming Chicago tradition, I head east on Adams Street, catching a glimpse not only of the historic Old St. Patrick’s church at the corner of Adams and Halsted, but also of the Route 66 sign above the traffic light. This uber-American road started here at this crossing or very close by, going all the way to Los Angeles.
Thus steeped in Chicago history, I reach Daley Plaza. The smells of Bratwurst and Gluehwein wafting in the air welcome me to the many little stands with their festive and decorative merchandise. I stop at Bienes Honighaus from Augsburg, where two smiling young men sell all sorts of wonderful honeys and everything related to bees: beeswax, bee candles, bee beauty products, soaps made with honey. It’s impossible not to buy something! And so I do—a bag full o’ honey pots, soaps, and White Fir honey.
I cross to Rosemarie’s, and its Austrian-made glittering and shimmering Christmas tree decorations. I can’t resist choosing a golden heart and a multicolored glass sphere, two more additions to my already capacious collection of tree ornaments.
Finally, before I make my way home to my cozy, leafy, and now-snowy neighborhood, I take with me a Lebkuchenherz (gingerbread heart) with its cheerful sugar-frosted greeting “Frohe Weihnacht”—Merry Christmas—a wish I share with all of you.