Sunday, March 29, 2009

Regional Rails: Pols Partially Pay for Planned Projects

posted by Richard Gill

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (aka South Shore Line) went into the bond market to acquire 14 new Highliner commuter coaches. They should begin running between South Bend and Chicago sometime this spring.

Illinois is to receive $230 million in earmarked funding under the recently approved federal appropriations act. Now, 230 million ain’t hay, but don’t look for the rail transportation portion to actually build much very soon. Much of the funding can be regarded as seed money for proposed projects, or just enough to keep them alive. It may not even pay for the engineering costs. In some cases, the money will simply back-pay for work already completed. Insofar as Hyde Park is concerned, one earmark will help pay for a disappearing act.

Here's a look at the portion of the money that is earmarked for transit and railroad works around Chicago.

CTA CIRCLE LINE: The bill designated about $8 million for a project estimated to run the $1 billion range. Combining both new and existing routes, this line, as presently conceived, would create a CTA rail loop about 15 miles long, running roughly along State Street on the east, Archer Avenue on the South, Ashland Avenue on the west, and North Avenue on the north. It would intersect almost all transit and commuter rail lines entering downtown Chicago, facilitating travel in an outer zone without requiring backtracking through the central business district. In concept, the Circle Line is not a bad idea, even if it was hatched during the tumultuous reign of former CTA president Frank Kruesi. A number of foreign cities -- London, Madrid and Seoul among them -- have similar lines. Olympics transit needs or not, good luck finding money to implement this controversial project amongst the pressing requirements just to maintain and repair the existing system.

CTA BROWN LINE: The funding provides $30 million for capacity enhancement on the Brown (Ravenswood) Line. This is not "found" money. It's money that was guaranteed years ago, when the project started. The full project cost is around $530 million. By extending station platforms, the project allows CTA to operate eight-car Brown Line trains instead of six cars. This expands capacity by a third, without the cost and congestion of additional trains. Completion is expected at the end of 2009.

CTA RED AND YELLOW LINES: A five-mile Red Line extension with four new stations ($285,000) and a two-mile Yellow Line extension with two new stations ($237,000). Place-holding dollars that won't even begin to cover the engineering.

FOUR METRA EXPANSION PROJECTS: A total of $24 million is allocated for four "New Start" projects. That amount of money will cover a small fraction of the cost of any one of them.

  1. The Suburban Transit Access Route (STAR line) would run along the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (acquired by Canadian National Railway in January 2009) from either Chicago Heights or Joliet, in a broad arc to Hoffman Estates, and then down I-290 to (or at least toward) O'Hare. This (questionable, in my opinion) project resulted from Metra winning a funding tussle over CTA (No, they can't always just get along.) Ridership is iffy (self-propelled single diesel railcars would be used), and CN doesn't want it on their tracks.
  2. The Southeast Line would run between downtown Chicago and Crete, Illinois, primarily on Union Pacific rails. I won't bet on this one happening. It's on one of the busiest freight lines in the area and it is laced with at-grade crossings of other railroads. A dispatcher's worst nightmare, this will also be a really costly project. Maybe it was proposed as a political balm.
  3. Union Pacific Northwest Line: This is not a "new start", but the money comes from a federal New Starts account. It's a capacity enhancement of an existing line between Chicago and Harvard, Illinois -- signaling, crossovers, relocation of yards. Worthwhile, I believe.
  4. Union Pacific West Line: This is also a capacity enhancement. The existing line runs between Chicago and Elburn, Illinois. Included are signaling, crossovers, and construction of a third main track around a major freight yard to relieve train interference. An essential project, in my opinion; the line as presently configured is pretty much at capacity. Some of the money may be partial payment by the feds pursuant to a commitment to fund this project.

Admit it–-all your life, you've wanted to know what's inside the control cab of a commuter rail car. Here's the cab of a new South Shore Line Highliner.

GRADE CROSSING SAFETY: The bill provides $475,000 to the Illinois Commerce Commission for public education on safety, and for enforcement initiatives. Probably money well spent since there is no way to eliminate or grade-separate all of the rail-highway crossings in this state.

NEW AMTRAK CONNECTION AT GRAND CROSSING: This is the disappearing act, for it would reroute Amtrak trains off the Canadian National lakefront line through Hyde Park and onto Norfolk Southern at about 75th Street (assuming Norfolk Southern is agreeable). But the $1,900,000 allocation won't do it. The bridge work alone will cost several million, and there are some operating issues that will have to be resolved with Norfolk Southern and Metra's Rock Island District. If this goes through and Canadian National ceases operation on its lakefront line, the CN tracks would probably be removed. (For more on the CN tracks in Hyde Park, click here).

Note that the Metra and Amtrak projects involve mostly freight railroads. Metra must negotiate both operating access and service agreements with the freight lines that own the track. On the other hand, Metra owns and operates the Electric Line that serves Hyde Park and environs, and the line is free of freight. For those who live and work in the neighborhood, this is fortunate indeed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Federal Earmarks Include Promontory Point

posted by Elizabeth Fama

There was an interesting nugget you might have missed in the Tribune last week -- a piece of news that's pertinent to Hyde Park. It was about the earmarks slated for Illinois in the $410 billion Federal spending package approved on Monday, March 16, by the Senate. (There's a detailed breakdown of all the Illinois pork here.)

Apparently, four million dollars will go to the City of Chicago's Shoreline Project "for reconstruction consistent with a Project Cooperation Agreement" (which probably refers to the Memorandum of Agreement between the City, Park District, and Army Corps of Engineers).

The interesting take for me on this bit of news is: what the heck will $4 million cover? It'll fund maybe one study and one community meeting, that's what. Do you think that's what they intended the money for? Is it going to cover Horace Foxall's third-party review?

The erosion of soil under a section of revetment (seen at the top of this post) likely weakened the root structure of this tree at Promontory Point.

To get a better perspective on how insignificant four million dollars is, consider this: the Shoreline Project covers eight miles. Of these eight, 5.8 miles are completed. So far the total bill has been $354 million. Of that total, $192 million were Federal dollars.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but if the construction costs are the same (meaning no fancy limestone or nothin') to fix the remaining shoreline, the Feds would have to kick in $72.8 million, and the City would have to contribute $61.5 million. With numbers like those, four million is a rounding error.

(I just threw this one in to remind you how sweet it is that it's spring.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wait Until Dark @ Court Theater

posted by chicago pop

For anyone who lived in Hyde Park at any point during the last century, the Court Theater's current production of Frederick Knott's Broadway thriller Wait Until Dark may seem strangely familiar. Con-men and break-ins to seedy rental apartments, why set a play with these elements in 1960's Greenwich Village? Woodlawn and 53th Street circa 1987 would have done just as nicely.

In fact, minus two dead bodies in the bedroom and slightly more bohemian neighbors, the two locations might have been interchangeable.

So seeing Wait Until Dark at Ellis and 55th produces mixed sensations of recognition and artifice: this is a familiar tale of mistrust and fragile human connection in an unstable urban environment, a tale of much of inner-city America throughout the postwar period.

And yet the tropes of film noir and theatrical suspense seem to require settings and character types that aren't associated with Chicago's real-life noir: down-and-out screenwriters in Hollywood or fashion photographers in the Naked City. So the neighborhood viewer may bring her own uncatalogued noir recollections to the theater, and experience their eerie reenactment in a different geography and a slightly conventionalized world.

Knott's play is a piece of theatrical craftsmanship, its plot as intricately designed as the cramped set on which it is performed. A chipper, extremely intelligent, and blind housewife is married to a man whose ability to manipulate vision --as a fashion photographer -- is his livelihood, in what might strike some as an improbably virtuous domestic union. As a favor to a stranger, the husband serves as a "mule" and transports a doll full of heroin back to New York where it is to be innocently delivered to its owner.

That doesn't work out, and Susy Hendrix, the blind housewife, is left alone in the apartment with the doll while a small-time hood, Roat, schemes to intercept it with the help of two affable con-men.

Audrey Hepburn as Susy in Terence Young's
Wait Until Dark (1967)

To emphasize Susy's defenselessness, and to amplify our anxiety on her behalf, the first characters to enter the stage, and her apartment, are the two con-men, followed by Roat, who decides that the trio are going to use their wits rather than violence to retrieve the doll. So begins the play-within-a-play, in which the audience from the beginning knows more and can see more than the heroine, who by dint of her charm and intelligence must maneuver herself out of her trap.

I can't recall being as frightened by the action in a theater piece as I was by the climax of Wait Until Dark, which fans of modern psychological thrillers such as Silence of the Lambs must recognize as a significant precedent in terms of technique (a woman and her tormentor trapped in the dark) and effect (terror). Certain advantages of a stage production, such as total control of light and sound, make the physical reality of blindness -- which Susy uses to her strategic advantage throughout the play -- more visceral than is possible on film, making the production worthwhile even for those acquainted with the 1967 screen adaptation.

The cast are all new to the Court. Norm Boucher and Aaron Todd Douglas lend appropriate physical heft -- while remaining likable -- to characters who carry switch blades and brass knuckles, while John Hoogenakker as the sadistic dandy Roat is far more menacing despite his slender frame. Emjoy Gavino as Susy is as remarkable in her physical understanding of blindness as for her ability to make such an extraordinarily intelligent "housewife" as Susy persuasive. Erin and Molly Hernandez share in their portrayal of Gloria, the 9 year old neighbor girl who delivers clever and well-timed comic relief.

The drama is ultimately a contest of wits between Roat and Susy, played out through a set of intermediaries, until the two must finally decide the contest face to face. "You've thought of everything," Roat laments near the end of the final contest. Any Hyde Park PhD should hope they are as quick on their feet and as sharp under stress as the keenly empirical, pattern-recognizing, and strategic housewife from Greenwich Village.


Wait Until Dark
by Frederick Knott
Directed by Ron OJ Parson

March 5 -- April 6 2009
Court Theater
5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Golden Oldies: Old Co-Op Reviews from Yelp!

posted by chicago pop

Communities are based on traditions, and traditions are based on stories. The death of the Hyde Park Co-Op in 2007-2008 is a story that is destined to live on in song, myth, and legend; to be passed down from mother to daughter and father to son; to inspire blind, anonymous poets in the crafting of epic cycles of poetry, folk ballads, blues riffs, and maybe even a straight-to-video screenplay.

So in the spirit of the valiant WPA ethnographers, musicologists and folklorists who roamed the back-roads of Appalachia in the 30's to find and record the remnants of American folk music -- an endeavor which it should be noted produced no economic stimulus other than the employment of a few academics, but which resulted in what is unarguably a cultural treasure trove -- we have surfed over to Yelp! where a record of past reviews of the Hyde Park Co-Op is still on-line, as if frozen in time.

So that you may begin to compose your own folk ballad, I present you with our top picks.

From "Allison B.":



Seriously, between the high prices, looming bankruptcy, and elitist attitude?

Go with God.

And God? If you are listening, please bring us a Trader Joes or Whole Foods or that other organic-y Sunflower or whatever the name is. You know. Thanks.

From "Elisabeth A.":
This place is a f***ing abomination. Their prices are insane & their produce rots the day after you buy it. Their meat leaks like a bloody nose. And, get this: their scanners have been down for the last 3 or 4 weeks, so you actually have to write the prices down on a little piece of paper while you shop so that the cashier knows how much to rip you off. Oh, my god. I hate the co-op. I drive all the way up to Roosevelt to shop at the Jewel because giving the co-op my money just makes me mad.

OK, I'm giving them an extra star because their bulk section is pretty sweet and they carry 9 different kinds of capers. And they fixed their scanners.

And here's a closing, solid analysis from "Andrew C.":
The Co-op needs to close as soon as possible.
If you own "shares" in the Co-op, please sell them to expedite its demise.

1) The meat area often smells rotten. The floor in that part of the store is sometimes sticky. I don't know if they're actually violating health codes, but if not, we need new health codes.

2) The management is abysmal. I was once on a group-purchasing account at the coop, and they made numerous billing mistakes, which they refused to deal with until I yelled at them.

3) The prices are shameful. Tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and organic produce are significantly cheaper at Whole Foods, which is notorious for high markup.

The co-op suffers the same problem as many other "community" organizations: No one in the community cares enough to participate in such a tedious, unnecessary undertaking. As a result, the only people left to run it are sanctimonious, closed-minded pensioners who end up blaming the community for their failures.

The the co-op only survives because it has a monopoly on groceries in a neighborhood with high population density and low car ownership. I feel like a chump whenever I shop there, but until Hyde Park Produce opens at 53rd and Kimbark, I have no other choice.

For a selection of deeper cuts, check out the rest, then let the legend grow.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maravilla's Restaurant, on Lake Park

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Maravilla's is open on Lake Park and 55th, in a storefront of the Deco Arts Building. The owner, Carolina Cossyleon, is in the process of obtaining a liquor license (margaritas, here we come!).

The old Maravilla's in Harper Court (which also has a liquor license) will close up shop in June, according to the waitstaff. The University is clearing out Harper Court tenants while it waits for responses to the RFP (request for proposals) that it released in November of 2008, along with the City of Chicago, to prospective developers.

The restaurant is small inside, with a bar (not quite visible in the back, right, of the photo above), four booths, and six tables. The food we ordered was OK. We had nachos, tacos, enchiladas, and a tostada. There are also breakfast items on the menu, as well as sopes, soups, tortas, burritos, and hamburgers. I'd prefer it if they offered black beans in addition to refried pinto beans, and some sort of vegetable sides. What we ate (at least this time around) was on the order of food from Chipotle, without the free-range-chicken guarantee. The guacamole, however, was excellent, and aggressively spiced.

The new location seems like it could be good for college-student walk-bys, although I wonder if that will change when the Shoreland closes. In general, the staff said, business has been good.

Maravilla's Restaurant
5506 S. Lake Park Ave.
(773) 955-7680
Monday through Saturday, 10 AM - 11 PM
Sunday, 11 AM - 10 PM
Hyde Park and Kenwood delivery service.

Chicken tostada, nachos, guacamole, refried beans.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Orly's: 30 Years and Still No Concept; Treasure Island Puts in a Soda Fountain

posted by chicago pop

A piece of paper floated to my doorstep the other day, a promotional menu for the restaurant once known as Orly's, but now apparently the "Hyde Park Barbeque & Bakery."

Now admittedly, this new name, which exists only on the menu, tells you more about what to expect there than the other, superceded name, which carried the symbolic baggage of an air terminal redolent of jet fuel in the fields south of Paris, unless you happen to be more familiar with one of the great names of Israeli tennis.

All fine and good, but didn't this place put out a similar promotional menu a year or so ago, when it was converting itself into an old-schul delicatessin? There were the bagels, pomoted on this blog until they were outclassed by the competition from Zaleski and Horvath, and there was the overhauled menu with home-made corned-beef, matzo-ball soup, kreplach, and knishes.

It turns out The Restaurant Formerly Known as "Orly's" has gone through multiple mutations over the 28 years of its existence. Even the name of the restaurant's owner changes spelling as one voyages back in time and through the Herald archives (David ShOpiro, SApiro, or ShApiro).

Mutability may be a source of inspiration among romantic poets, but is it good for restaurants? Let's review the history of Orly's, starting at The Beginning, when the Herald proudly reviewed the new establishment in 1981.

Walk into Orly's and you feel that Hyde Park is a place where exciting things are happening, that you don't have to go to the North Side to find out what is current in dining. A complete redecorating job on the first floor of the Mayfair Apartments has produced an elegant Art Deco interior with heavy black mahogany tables, brass railings and hurricane lamps, lots of palms and fresh flowers and inset tanks of tropical fish. White Naugahyde upholstered booths, roomy tables, light rock recordings and a bright, active ambience spell comfort plus fun. From servers wearing Izod shirts and introducing themselves by first name through cutesy menu terminology ("One Helluva Burger") and "health" ingredients to elaborate fruit-ice cream cocktails, everything is almost slavishly obedient to current trends. Owner David Shopiro designed both the interior and the menu himself, and currently supervises both dining room an kitchen at lunch and dinner— a superhuman task.

Orly's Server ca. 1981
That was Concept #1, which was greeted by a rave review from the Chicago Maroon. Then came concept #2: in 1991 , Orly's completely "revamped its menu," "providing Hyde Park's only gourmet, low-calorie, low-cholesterol meals," focusing on "Mexican, Japanese, Italian, Polynesian and Israeli dinners."

Concept #3 came in 1995, when Orly's diversified a bit by adding "the most spectacular salad bar Hyde Park has ever seen," and a complementary Asian vegetable stir fry bar.

Concept #4 followed shortly thereupon in 1996, when Orly's ditched the tightly focused Japanese, Italian, Polynesian, and Israeli menu with attached Asian vegetable stir fry bar to concentrate on Southwest cuisine. This is most likely when the Sonoran murals went up (the Sponge Bob fish tanks set into the walls date to Concept #1, and blend nicely with the arid, desert wall paintings). Orly's began sprinkling its print ads with lots of words like "huge" and "massive".

Two years into Concept #4 (1998), Orly's became "JalapeƱo's" until a revolt of "old Orly's" regulars resulted in Concept #5, a return to Orly's from Concept #3 in 2002.

So bearing in mind that Concept #5 is really Concept #3, Concept #6, a "Corner Bakery style cafe in Hyde Park," arrived in 2006, when Orly's owner realized that opening a bakery and selling "focaccia and bagels" "was a no-brainer," and Orly's cooks were sent for one month to train at the California branch of a New York bagel-eria and started making the bagels that we reviewed on HPP in 2008. (There was also talk of an "oatmeal bar").

Which makes the Hyde Park Barbeque and Bakery Concept #7

So there you have it. A little bit of something for everybody.

In other news, we see from a Treasure Island ad in the Chicago Tribune that a soda fountain is coming.

It's things like this that will help make the onset of the Great Recession bearable.

chicago pop ca. 1981

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Parker's Pets

posted by chicago pop

Our roving reviewer recently dropped into the new pet boutique in Hyde Park, Parker's Pets. From an admittedly dog-centric perspective, we both agree that Parker's Pets is a needed amenity, and helps prevent the somewhat isolated retail island on 55th between Kenwood and South Ridgewood Court from fading into gray shabbiness. (Cat and other pet owners feel free to offer your opinions on things we have overlooked.)

Parker's Pets presents an excellent selection of premium foods, toys, and clothing, with its food selection singled out by our reviewer as the best in Chicago. Less strong are the merchandising and service, which may strike visitors as drab and indifferent, respectively. Prices are in line with competitors, though not with Internet options. For some shoppers, the prices may be compensated for by a neighborhood delivery service, in addition to the simple convenience of a centrally located pet store in Hyde Park.

Parker's Pets shines in its selection of pet foods that you can't get at the supermarket, such as Merrick, Solid Gold, Wellness, Fromm's, and others. They offer a substantial selection of fresh-baked treats for dogs, something hard to find outside of specialty pet bakeries. Frozen raw meals are also available. Equally strong is the selection of clothing, clever toys, and useful gear. Our reviewer made a point to note that Parker's Pets keeps Lupine brand leashes in stock, the sturdiest and best guaranteed leash in the business.

In terms of merchandising, the layout and displays are utilitarian, and do not convey the same sense of boutique artistry evident on entering Zaleski and Horvath MarketCafe, or the spare but elegant arrangement of bicycle paraphernalia at Tati's custom frame shop. While the service is not objectionable, we hope that with time the energy and passion behind the Parker's Pets venture comes through more.

All in all, though there's certainly room for improvement, Parker's Pets is a welcome and quality addition to the neighborhood.

Parker's Pets
1342 E. 55th Street
Hours: Mon 12-6; Tues - Fri 11-7; Sat 10-6; Sun 12-5