From a landmark White Castle to a model town to a collection of giant sculptures—see it all on the Metra Electric District line | Staycation | Chicago Reader

From a landmark White Castle to a model town to a collection of giant sculptures—see it all on the Metra Electric District line 

Adventure aboard the commuter train

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click to enlarge Rainbow Beach

Rainbow Beach

ruimc/FlickR

I'm an unapologetic rail fanboy for the Metra Electric District line and the wonderfully diverse communities it serves throughout the south side and its outlying suburban communities. With the $10 weekend pass in hand, you can travel through the south side and suburbs and northwest Indiana: to a bird sanctuary, an early burger palace, a town that a railroad car manufacturer built, and a brewery that pays homage to the late Chicago artist Ed Paschke.

Let's first step off the train at the McCormick Place station. No, we're not going to the National Restaurant Association convention, but rather the expansive McCormick Bird Sanctuary, six acres of prairie grass that cover a massive parking facility. Installed in 2003, the sanctuary is a place for weary avian travelers during their migrations: during a single spring day here in 2004, birders counted 1,000 sparrows. Take a moment to wander the grounds and note that the pond's water circulation system is powered by solar energy. It's a landscape of soft touches amid an aggressively hard-scaped environment.

I have no idea if any migratory birds ever fly a few blocks away to White Castle #16 on Cermak Road. I don't know if they care that this fast-food pioneer transformed the industry by offering a standardized product and a spick-and-span dining experience. It doesn't matter—it was never for them anyway. Today this tiny faux castle is one of my favorite official landmarked structures. It's actually a bit baffling that it received the designation at all considering the propensity to build big, bright, and shiny new buildings in this rapidly changing area that is referred to by breathless boosters as McCormick Square. But you'll have to walk across the street for a sack of square beef patties; the building is now home to Chef Luciano Kitchen & Chicken.

click to enlarge South Shore Cultural Center - KEVIN ZOLKIEWICZ
  • South Shore Cultural Center
  • Kevin Zolkiewicz

Hop back on the train and make your way along the South Chicago branch to the South Shore stop. A short walk away is the South Shore Cultural Center, which is better known to Chicago cinephiles as the music venue where the Blues Brothers make their triumphant voices heard loud and clear. I rather like that you can stroll through this former private club's grounds and buildings as if you were living your own life of leisure. There are art classes on offer, plus the Parrot Cage Restaurant (the training kitchen for students at the Washburne Culinary Institute), and a nine-hole golf course for duffers.

A 15-minute walk will find you at the northern edge of Rainbow Beach Park. Today its 142 acres are a space for beach parties and baseball games. There's also a remarkable field house designed by the architect David Woodhouse. The relative calm here belies the fact that for decades white neighborhood residents physically attacked any African Americans who dared set foot on the beach; the space was finally integrated in 1961 after a series of "wade-in" demonstrations. It remains an important place for quietude, but it's also a space to consider Chicago's difficult legacy of racial segregation and urban change.

Take the train back north to 63rd Street, and then grab a southbound train to 111th Street (Pullman). I've always loved Pullman. There's something so terribly organized and orderly yet completely maniacal about it. As I've walked around through its well-thought-out public spaces, I've imagined the frenzy of activity that once found thousands of people coming together to make the celebrated sleeping cars that would zip along outward from Chicago to dozens of other cities around the United States. In our time, things are much more placid here.

The best way to take in the expanse of George Pullman's vision is to walk over to Arcade Park and admire the grandeur of the Hotel Florence (named for his daughter) and then the terraced row houses on the eastern edge of the park. It is a nice introduction to the overall aesthetic that dominates the community. You might also walk over to the Market Hall building, where residents could once buy fresh produce and meats.

Then wander by the nearby visitor information center that houses the Historic Pullman Foundation and the Pullman National Monument office. There's a selection of interpretive exhibits and a small selection of local postcards. When I talked with the National Monument's office superintendent, Kathy Schneider, she told me that the National Park Service is hoping to open a visitor center in the nearby Clock Tower by 2020 in conjunction with community partners on the south side.

After stopping to meditate on planned communities, head back to 111th Street, then walk under the Metra tracks and down South Front Avenue to Argus Brewery. Serendipitously, the brewery is housed in the former Joseph Schlitz distribution stables (yes, the beer that made Milwaukee famous), a connective bit of built environment fabric that knits together these two enterprises from the 19th and the 21st centuries.

The folks at Argus even offer an homage to the celebrated north-side artist Ed Paschke with their Paschke Pilsner. I think of it as a bit of hoppy cross-town rapprochement that you can wash down while taking one of their Saturday tours.

When you finally reach the end of the line at the University Park station, you might ask "Where am I?"

click to enlarge Illinois Landscape No. 5 by John Henry at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park - DONNY HARDER JR.
  • Illinois Landscape No. 5 by John Henry at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park
  • Donny Harder Jr.

You're close to Governors Highway and University Parkway, so if you guessed that you are close to an institution of higher education, you'd be right. A ten-minute walk will take you to the first of 29 sculptures set amid 100 acres of prairie. The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University might be one of the least-known public art installations in the south suburbs and perhaps the entire state.

"Mark di Suvero is the reason we're here," Jeff Stevenson, director of the sculpture park tells me. The abstract expressionist sculptor came to what became the Governors State University campus in 1968 and spent two summers here crafting new works. His Yes! for Lady Day, installed in 1971, was the first permanent piece added to the park.

As you walk around the grounds, you'll find works by Mary Miss, Martin Puryear, and Tony Tasset, notably Tasset's Paul (2006). The sculpture depicts a rather exhausted-looking Paul Bunyan in a space curiously devoid of all trees. It's a fine place to give pause and reflect on the journey, perhaps with a book in hand.   v

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