Chicago off the beaten path

One of my favorite things about living in Madison is its proximity to the Windy City. I’ve been to Chicago several times and I’ve hit all the typical tourist attractions like the Art Institute, Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, and the Sears Tower (side note: I will never call it the Willis Tower, sorry).

Having already gone to these places (and loving them) I wanted to dig deeper and go further off the beaten track. My typical approach to travel is based on my passion for the people so whether it be near home or somewhere far away I want to be immersed in the community and pretend I’m a local for the day.

On Saturday I roamed the neighborhoods of Chicago and the Pilsen neighborhood quickly became my favorite. Largely Hispanic and predominantly Mexican, there’s a treasure waiting to be found around every corner. There were heaps of vintage shops, bold murals, and authentic Mexican food and deserts from the taquerias and panaderias that lined the street.

One of my first finds was the National Museum of Mexican Art, a lesser-known Chicago attraction. I really loved the exhibitions on display as they were so lively and colorful it reminded me of being back in Central America. In general, I think I prefer this kind of art over those that are more abstract, maybe because every way you look at it there’s some sort of story being told that you really don’t need to infer what the artist is trying to tell you. Plus, admission was free and you can’t beat that. Here are two of my favorites:

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Most striking, though, were the streets lined with bold, colorful murals – an art that seems to be disappearing in the States. I was particularly captivated by a house that sits on the intersection one block before you get to the museum. This piece was painted by Hector Duarte called Bulliver en el pais de las Maravillas – or Gulliver in Wonderland. It is supposed to represent the struggling Mexican immigrant.

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Although it was Hector’s house and art gallery I don’t think he minded the photo shoot my parents and I had outside his place.

As my friend Jesse says, “This one represents every 90s rap video.” He is so right.

As my friend Jesse says, “This one represents every 90s rap video.” He is so right.

me

I wish street murals weren’t such a dying art breed because they speak to the history and characteristics of those living in the neighborhood. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say it could actually attract people and bring in business if it was included as part of the thriving arts gallery movement in Chicago. Take note, you Chicagoans!

No matter where I go I always buy a souvenir, usually something like a piece of art or a corny postcard to remember the place by. On this trip, my souvenir came from Irv’s Bike Shop – a mom and pop shop that’s been in the Pilsen neighborhood for more than 40 years. Given I only live 5 miles from work and Spring is just around the corner, I’ve resolved to start commuting to work via bike.

A few years ago I bought an adorable pink bike with a basket on the front (total 60s fan girl) but for longer commutes it just doesn’t cut the deal. So, I’ve been on the hunt for a used road bike in good condition (and one that doesn’t break the bank). Irv’s came highly recommended from an avid biker I work with and I have to say it’s the least pretentious bike shop I’ve ever been to.

Over the course of my time there people came in and out, some for tune ups others for bike shopping and still others just to chat with the store manager. Everyone was friendly and very helpful and stuck to showing me bikes that met my needs and price range. Something my Dad taught me growing up is that a warm smile and friendly banter can go a long ways, which seems to always work in my favor. The store manager gave me $25 off my bike and threw in a free cart so I could attach a basket on the back. I walked out of there with new digs and a helmet for $200.

On my first spin around the block I momentarily forgot how to ride a bike. Embarrassingly enough I ran into the store window. And then into the stairs down the street. You know the old phrase, “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn you never forget?” Well, not for me! I need a little practice before I get on the road so Bobby and I took it out for a test spin today over lunch. Isn’t it gorgeous!?

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To round out my trip I just HAD to check out Bookman’s Corner. It’s a fire hazard waiting to happen, with books stacked from floor to ceiling. Half of them aren’t even on shelves and you have to be careful when you pull one book out because about four others come crashing down. The front of the book store can be hard to miss if you aren’t looking for it but the store has been selling used books “rare, medium and well done” since the early 1980s. It’s ridden with character and worth a trip just to listen to the owner banter with the customers. A writer and reader’s dream, it’s definitely a place you could easily spend all day in. You’ll find small treasures and unbeatable prices. Just make sure you take a Lorazepam before going in. Also, there is a massive sign in the front that says no photos. Obviously, rules are made to be broken.

bookmans

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Filed under art, biking, Bookman's Corner, books, Chicago, Hector Duarte, Irv's Bike Shop, murals, museum, National Museum of Mexican Art, travel

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