Chicago is in the throes of change on every corner. Politically, we have a more progressive body that is hopefully moving in a more desired direction; deindustrialization and gentrification are jolting forces hitting both North, West and South Side communities; displacement and business turnover is common, creating massive neighborhood change.
Logan Square has become incredibly susceptible to all of this: not only is it experiencing rapid gentrification and displacement, but its reputation has shifted over the decades. Our mayor now lives here, and we have some of the “hottest” bars and restaurants in the city, and great architecture and a rich history… but with that comes pieces that have been lost to the community.
Belt Publishing’s new book “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook,” edited by journalist Martha Bayne, features short essays, poems, articles and photo essays that capture the city’s change and personal stories of just about every Chicago neighborhood. The stories reflect the city’s change by diving into the identity of each neighborhood from a personal perspective and with a deep love of how place influences a person. The collection varies from notable journalists, creative writers, poets, historians to photojournalists who all came together to tell their Chicago story.
Logan Square’s story is written by Nicholas Ward, a writer who moved to the neighborhood in 2006 and then floated in and out for about five years. As someone who was in the service industry for nearly 18 years, Ward viewed Logan Square through that lens, particularly his experiences working at the now-closed Johnny’s Grill (where Young American sits).
Ward, who now lives in Edgewater and is the booking manager at Young Chicago Authors and a company member with the storytelling collective 2nd Story, by no means tries to encapsulate all that Logan Square was or is becoming, but shares his own experience of immense change through the lens of the best burger on the square, at Johhny’s, a longstanding symbol of the community’s food scene and culture that most people remember with dear nostalgia.
To celebrate “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook” and its Oct. 9 reading at Rosa’s Lounge (3420 W. Armitage Ave.) featuring Ward and other writers from the book, LoganSquarist sat down with the former Logan Squarite at Reno and talked about the new book, the change and displacement of Logan Square and what still remains. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
LoganSquarist: How do you feel coming back to Logan now to visit and see its changes?
Nicholas Ward: It’s jarring. I think when people will talk about gentrification, they talk about what they have lost. I wouldn’t say that I’m one of the people who lost anything. I think people who came before me who are from this neighborhood, who couldn’t afford to stay or felt like the neighborhood was unrecognizable for them who and were not white have not had the same access as I did. But it is jarring.
How did Johnny’s Grill shape your view of the neighborhood?
I was sad when Johnny’s closed—the first time and the second time. I had that relationship to that place, however brief; it was a really, really beautiful summer. When you have those moments of high intensity and a sort of good crew of people that you’re working with, that I think created a lasting image. But that sadness was for a moment in time.
Do you feel like that changed your relationship to Logan Square?
It’s a good question. I don’t know. My friends I talk about in the story moved to Minneapolis and finally sold their place. So the relationship now is purely commerce-driven, in a way.
In your essay, titled “Logan Square: The Best Burger on the Square” you touch on memories, businesses that are no longer here, gentrification and a place you used to call home. How did you capture it all in one essay?
There’s been so much spilled about gentrification, so much devoted to this conversation. Martha [Bayne] said this too when we were editing. It subsumes everything to the point where so much is either misunderstood, or forgotten, or not investigated. Natalie Moore [reporter and writer at WBEZ] has written about this a lot. Like, in some ways—and I don’t mean this as an insult—making everything about gentrification misses the forest for the trees of the fact that, like, it’s really hard to [live] in the city, and neighborhoods of color are being dis-invested all the time. So if we are talking about who benefits from what’s been added, we also have to talk about what’s been lost.
Also also knowing that I’m not urban planner or a journalist, so the only way that I could do it was to funnel it through my own experiences. I really don’t want to speak on behalf of the neighborhood, particularly on behalf of people [who have been displaced].
What does the Guidebook say about Chicago neighborhoods and culture that you don’t really hear from other media?
My experience reading the guidebook is I read it fast. I’m so happy to be part of it. So many essays were about things that had been lost. That feels very Chicago and how I’ve come to understand Chicago. And lots of people love to talk about what’s been lost and love to hold long memories. It [represents] that old Chicago joke, like when Chicagoans meet each other, they ask where they went to high school. That’s what the book says to me—we hold long memories here.
I wish I’d had that this book when I moved to Chicago. I think for me, it took me a long time to really get to know the city; sometimes I still feel like I don’t. It’s also useful for reminding people who are maybe looking to move here or visit to see Rahm Emanuel’s “New World-Class” metropolis, how much more there is [that] we need to hold onto as much as we possibly can because the whole city is a world-class metropolis—the actual people who built the city with their hands won’t be able to live in it.
Despite the changes Logan Square is experiencing, do you see elements that have remained the same?
I went to school in a small town and I was just so excited to move to a city. Sometimes when I come here
I just remember that excitement. Lula was here, they’re still here. Cafe Con Leche was smaller but they’re still here, and El Cid. And some liquor store that now has a bar in the back… Oh, Crown Liquors.
Catch Ward read an abridged version of his essay at the Oct. 9 reading at Rosa’s Lounge (3420 W. Armitage Ave.) along with Bayne and five other writers.
Featured photo: Zach Yontz