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Kitchens of Wicker Park

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Something like 900 people were enthusiastic enough about touring rehabbed homes in Wicker Park to plunk down $8 for a ticket to the Wicker Park Greening Festival house tour. About 200 of them were so enthusiastic they bought green and cream Wicker Park T-shirts.

We didn't buy a T-shirt. We went to Wicker Park to see worn facades of Chicago brick, Victorian porches, mansard roofs, gargoyles, delicate bannisters, wrought-iron gates, decorative moldings, gabled dormers, stone carvings, intricate trim, pedimented cornices, fluted columns, third-floor turrets, denticulated lintels, leafy corbels, classical dentils, and stained-glass windows. As at most parties, though, we ended up spending most of our time in the kitchens.

Nancy Stark's was one of them. Her kitchen stretched the width of her compact frame house on West Evergreen. Countertops glistened; the afternoon sun slanted through miniblinds, turning the breakfast nook with its modern chairs, white table, vase, pitcher, and placemats into a perfect Architectural Digest tableau.

"The man really did have a sense for traffic patterns, where to put things," she said, referring to the interior designer who had helped convert the small house into a comfortable living area, kitchen, office, and bedroom. "When the previous owners purchased it in 1979, there were two families living here," she said, explaining that "here" was only 1700 square feet of floor space.

Pointing out the window looking out on the strip of dirt between the house and a new wooden fence, she said she hoped to have a garden ready next year. In the alley in back some kids were working on a beater.

"There's a lot of separate communities in the same geographic area," said Stark, who commutes to work in Libertyville and moved to Wicker Park about a year ago. "I guess what I like most is the feeling of camaraderie. I know the people who fix cars out back, the neighbors, and we help each other out."

Stark's house has none of the gaudy ornamentation or well-worn brick that makes a walk through Wicker Park such a pleasure. But it was the day after the heavy rains, and the bright sun and clear sky made the crisp frame exterior look great.

Our next kitchen was two blocks north on LeMoyne, in Laszlo Koneor's brand-new apartment. The graceful red-brick building he lives in is something like 100 years old, but it was in such bad shape when he bought it that he had an entirely new interior built.

Because Koneor had just moved in, the apartment was exceptionally bright and airy; ceiling lights and sunlight alike illuminated stark walls. The kitchen was also white; white and spotless. It was unnaturally spotless, in fact, since the dishwasher wasn't plugged in yet, and Koneor had been washing dishes in the bathtub.

As he got us a glass of wine Koneor told us of the horrors of rehabbing--"a fiendishly, cleverly designed form of masochism. Bankers would rather loan millions to South American countries, where they know they'll never get the money back, and you have to persuade them to loan $10,000 to taxpaying American citizens, convince them that you'll put in sweat and blood, and pay it back three times over, because that's what a mortgage is.

"The thing about rehabbing is that it's labor-intensive. Labor's expensive in this country, so it ends up costing almost as much as new construction. In a new building you can expect the two-by-fours to be straight and at right angles; here, the building's settled and shifted for 100 years, so everything has to be custom-fitted."

In spite of the detailed work, Koneor's contractors had managed the job in only three months. Then he moved in, just in time for the heavy rains. "Yesterday, when we had this incredible rainstorm, my neighbor called me in the morning and told me, 'Your backyard is a pool.' I said, 'What else is new?' And ten minutes later he was out there with a pump, pumping the water into the catch basin."

Koneor told us he hoped the Greening Festival would encourage more people like that neighbor to move to Wicker Park. "They're trying to show that this is a nice neighborhood, they're trying to attract some decent people."

Two blocks east and two blocks south, Eula Fields was worrying that she might never get her kitchen finished. She was talking to us in a low voice while a preacher gave a sermon before about 75 listeners in the basement of the Chicago Missionary Society Evangelistic Center ("A Daily Ministry to the Lost to the Hungry to the Sick to the Broken Homes") at Damen and Evergreen. The listeners were young and old; black, white, and Latino; struggling young families, elderly women, and the truly destitute. They come for the free food distributed every Saturday at 3 PM, or, as Eula Fields put it, "food for the spirit and the body."

For two years now, she told us, the society has been giving away clothes, bread and cheese, and condensed milk and canned goods to needy Wicker Park residents. "I have two ladies working here who said they were often hungry before we started. Now, they never go hungry anymore."

But Fields wants to serve hot meals in the future. She's trying to open a full soup kitchen, but it's a big project, since the society's time and funds are all donated. "Oh, say a prayer that we can set that up," she said, shortly before she went to deliver her weekly inspirational talk.

At the podium, she asked the listeners for testimonials to Jesus. An elderly man stood up, ragged, but with a firm gaze, and lifted his arms high, nodding his head, saying nothing.

"You're just saying you love Jesus," said Fields.

"I do," said the man.

She finished with a prayer. "Thank you, Lord, for the food before us, just a little snack for now, but we hope to be able to serve you a full meal soon."

Returning to our table, she told us the church was built in 1887. "A year ago the place was in real bad shape. We have a lot left to do, but it's presentable, it's clean." The society had recently repaired the floors; the next project was repairing the stained-glass windows in the nave.

Just before the food was handed out in bags, three little Puerto Rican boys went to the podium and sang a song. Then they came over to our table.

"We want to be pop stars," said Joseph, nine years old, "but we don't know where to get started. Can you get me a job?"

Fortunately, nine-year-olds can have short attention spans, and he was gone with his friends, his bag of food slung over his shoulder, before we could think of a good explanation why not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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