Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Block 37 — still cursed, but now serving snacks

     In the pantheon of urban development nightmares, there is really only one city block that can be described as famous or, more precisely, infamous: Block 37.
     Notorious as “cursed” and “a boondoggle,” the area bounded by Randolph, Washington, Dearborn and State sat mostly empty for 20 years, poorly masked by various half-efforts to hide its yawning vacancy in the heart of the Loop: an ice skating rink; an arts and crafts festival.
     In 1996, a book was published about the doomed efforts to make something take hold there. Ross Miller’s, “Here’s the Deal,” deemed it a “fiasco,” cataloging years of lawsuits and protests over the “gold-plated hole in the ground.”
     Finally, in 2009, a four-story mall opened.
    Then the trouble really began: bankruptcy; more lawsuits; 70 percent vacancy.
     It says something about the outer Neptune orbital ring of Chicago consciousness the north half of the block occupies — CBS Studios is on the southern part, lifting the curse there — when the idea of actually stepping into an establishment on Block 37 never crossed my mind until Monday, after I noticed the Doughnut Vault’s distinctive cornflower-blue 1957 van parked on the sidewalk directly under the Dearborn entrance to what is boldly (or foolishly) called “Block Thirty Seven Shops on State.” 
     If Block 37 exerts a repulsive force on profits and customers, the Doughnut Vault is the opposite, exerting a magnetic, indeed, mesmeric, power. I bought a doughnut even though I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want one.
     I was chatting with Derek, the guy in the van, when a frantic publicist, seeing my notebook, waylaid me, insisting on personally escorting me that instant into Block 37. It all happened so quickly, it was a little discombobulating, as if a hatch opened in the Bean and a gnome yanked me inside. I would have preferred a bit of ceremony, the way buses entering Jerusalem will pause to let the occupants weep and sing and pray.
     The mall has been open four years, but the second floor has the raw feel of a space opening next month. There is one store.
     Otherwise, a corner of the vacant second floor has been taken over by Nosh, the pop-up food fair that has been appearing at farmers markets like the Green City Market in Lincoln Park and in Logan Square.
     "It's a little slow," admitted Aaron Wolfson, owner of Chicago's Dog House, shooting for a Hot Doug's vibe with exotic franks. I tried the $8 smoked alligator sausage with caramelized onions and sweet chili sauce. Mmm. Another high point was Lindy's Chili, which you normally have to haul yourself to the South Side to experience.
     "We've been doing it a long, long time, so we've got it down," said Rich Wierenga, who owns "the best two" of Lindy's seven Chicago-area outlets, and who showed the proper South Sider's contempt for those north of Roosevelt Road. "It's interesting," he said, of selling chili in the Northlands. "We get a lot of requests for vegetarian chili." By "interesting" he means, I assume, "disgusting in a way that instills me with amusement and contempt" since Lindy's, open since 1924, does not sell vegetarian chili and never will.
     The various restaurants, caterers and full-time pop-up food purveyors won't all be there every day; they rotate. For instance, the Doughnut Vault van is not coming back. So there probably isn't much point to reviewing each of the various booths. Karl's Craft Soup ladled out an interesting smoked-pumpkin bisque, apologizing for failing to master the expected heating technology - one assumes they're fixing that. Gayle Voss has an interesting backstory. She represents Prairie Pure Cheese at farmers markets and found herself next to a Bennison's Bakery booth selling bread. Nearby, fresh butter, and thus was Gayle Grilled Cheese born.
     If you do go, after eating your fill, make sure you wander up to the third floor to gaze respectfully on the expanse of closed stores, noting the brave, sad mural showing the busy, successful food court that isn't there.
     Visit soon. First, Nosh (open 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) disappears Dec. 13. Second, there is no reason to assume the block's woes are over. One expects a sulfurous hell mouth to open up next, sucking the building down, or a meteor to hit, or some other kind of strange, nowhere-else-but-here calamity. Nothing should be surprising at this point.
     What Block 37 needs is not pop-up food, but an exorcism. Get Bishop Paprocki up here from Springfield. If he can cast out the demon of tolerating gay people, then a simple city block that somehow ran afoul of the Great Karmic Wheel and became accursed by fate should be a snap.


  1. Sad.,.looks like the Century Mall in Lincoln Park...probably only a matter of time before that and block 37 are turned into Walmarts.

  2. This is what happens on occasion when you tear down classic buildings to put up modernistic schlock like the Block 37 monolithic building. They should have at least left it as a skating rink, or half of the Christkindlmarket. You know, stuff that people actually frequented......

  3. I still miss the ice skating rink. What a great lunchtime break and attraction for tourists.

    1. I loved the skating rink too! It was so festive and holiday-y and just plain fun. And I'm someone who plays hockey recreationally, so I got plenty of ice time elsewhere - it was still fun to meet friends with skates in hand to go skating at Block 37.

  4. In the late 1980s, I was working at the Citizens Utility Board, which had offices at 108 N. State. We got kicked out in 1989, I think. I believe the city even used their right of eminent domain to evict us. Seemed so pointless, even then. Been waiting ever since to see what was so important they had to kick out paying tenants and demolish a perfectly useful office building. Still waiting.

  5. Block 37 was demo'd in no small part to eliminate physical reminders of Chicago's history of political corruption. Notorious restaurants frequented by corrupt aldermen, cops, mobsters, etc. were located on Dearborn conveniently close to City Hall/County Building, and FBI wiretaps and bugs in the places helped bring down a number of pols. I've always found the block therefore emblematic of Chicago's tendency to obliterate its history in general: the projects, the Coliseum, Michael Reese, Prentice, etc. The cursed nature of the place just emphasizes that you cannot escape history no matter how many bulldozers you call in.

    1. I think Bill is talking about Mayor's Row here. I recall someone pointing out the booth that was reported to be bugged. Go subHeads.

    2. The restaurant was Counselor's Row, the table was known as the "First Ward Table". It was bugged by the FBI.
      At the table were Aldermen Fred Roti, Bernard Stone, State rep John D'Arco Jr. & Pat Marcy. Marcy didn't hold public office, but was the boss was Marcy.
      All but Stone were indicted.
      Roti & D'Arco were convicted, Marcy died during the trial.
      I have long believe that Stone was a FBI informant & unindicted co-conspirator, which infuriates me because all office holders who are unindicted co-conspirators should be required to resign from office, forfeit their pensions & be banned from office & the civil service for life! Stone was a really corrupt & whackjob alderman for about 17 more years.

  6. Bill -- well said. I wanted to work into this -- but couldn't figure out how—that I was there when the McCarthy Buildling burned. There's probably a story somewhere with my name on it. I'll have to look for it.


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