When writer Jason Diamond grew up in Chicago's north suburbs, he couldn't wait to escape. But after a couple decades in Chicago and New York City, his latest essay collection brought him back to the burbs. The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press) examines the culture, history, and distinctly American art that forms outside-but-adjacent to city life. Diamond writes in the book's intro: "I never looked back—until I did."
Today, Diamond lives in Brooklyn and visits Chicagoland often. From North Shore mansions to Wilmette pancake houses, he talks to us about his top suburban spots—some still standing, and some living only in memory.
Megan Kirby: Most haunted place?
Jason Diamond: The Schweppe Mansion. You know Schweppes, like the soda? It's probably one of the last grand old North Shore mansions. It's always coming up as the most haunted real estate listing in America. Charles Schweppes killed himself in there. He left a note, and it's so weird. "I've been up all night, and it's terrible." That's all the note said.
Best spot to hit the mosh pit?
I used to go to shows at the Arlington Heights Knights of Columbus. There's this Instagram account that's been up for the last few months of old Chicago flyers, and it's all shows that I went to. In Crystal Lake, they had a nature center that I remember in the mid- to late-90s was booking punk shows. It makes me feel kind of funny and old. Knights of Columbus is the greatest spot in the world—besides Fireside.
Best olfactory memory?
In the grand scheme of Jewish Chicagoland upbringings you were either closer to Northbrook Mall or you were closer to Old Orchard. And I remember, there was this one dark corner of Northbrook where the tobacco store was. Everything in the mall was super bright and lit up and then there was this dark little corner. And it smelled so nice. It smelled like Masterpiece Theatre or something. I went back and tried to find it, and I was like, "Oh, they really made this mall nicer." They really shouldn't have done that. They should have just let it rot like the other malls.
Best spots to revisit?
I definitely go to the Lake Forest library and the Skokie library. The Lake Forest library is just so cozy and so beautiful.
I try to make it to the Walker Brothers pancake house in Wilmette as much as possible. I like to go when it's snowing because it reminds me of taking rides with my grandfather. If you're ever been there—and there are other Walker Brothers—but this one especially has a lot of Tiffany glass. It has a real fern bar feel to it. I could see it, in the 80s, turning into a late-night club when everyone was done getting pancakes. That's one of the places I always try to go back to, just cause it connects me back. I'm really cool—I go to the library and I go to the pancake house.
The best spot to almost die?
The Polar Dome [in East Dundee]. I used to play hockey there a lot. It was in Santa's Village. It was such an odd place for a hockey rink, but so incredibly cozy. I remember the boards by the Zamboni were a death trap. The ice was sunken in one corner, but if you survived, the hot cocoa after was great.
A dearly departed spot you miss the most?
Barnum & Bagel. Anybody who spent any time in Skokie probably knows it. I think about it every single day. v