On the way home, I’ve got the Buick really moving — 75 mph easy — when a black blur with shiny rims nearly clips my front bumper, sweeps across three lanes and zooms into the distance.
It makes me smile. The Idiot 500 — my beloved Dan Ryan — is back.
Only it’s wider, smoother and without a single pothole. Twelve minutes. That’s how long it takes to get from downtown to 95th when you’re keeping up with traffic. As I hit the Bishop Ford, it dawns on me that this means farewell to Stony Island — my alternate route downtown during nearly two years of construction.
Growing up in the south suburbs, Stony Island was a street that a lot of folks avoided because it ran through a rough part of the city, where counter girls at the best places to grab a quick bite took your order from behind bulletproof glass.
Over the years, the wide thoroughfare from Hyde Park to 95th has cleaned up considerably — not that I would’ve known much about that until the Dan Ryan makeover forced me that way.
But after countless trips downtown, I can tell you Stony Island gives you a peek at neighborhoods — Calumet Heights, Pill Hill, Avalon Park, Grand Crossing, Park Manor, Woodlawn and South Shore — that are pure grit.
You’re rolling through parts of town where people don’t go unless they have to — where folks still hustle to get ahead. Sometimes right on the street.
Every day can be an adventure. Get caught at the light at 95th or 79th and you’ll see guys hawking all kinds of stuff — fruit bags, roasted peanuts, candy, bottled water, tube socks, face towels, bean pies, flashing fake teeth or Sponge Bob balloons.
And at Smart Thrift, a junk store in the Skyway ramp’s shadow, guys fill the parking lot with all kinds of loot at 9 o’clock every morning and pack it away at 9 o’clock every night.
The guy who runs the place (when I asked his name he said to call him “Mudd”) says having all that stuff outside grabs attention — like a “little Maxwell Street market everyday.”
Most of what’s for sale there comes from unclaimed storage spaces and foreclosed homes. The place is a treasure hunter’s dream. Or if you’re on tight budget, it’s the spot to get a VCR, exercise machine, spare tire, china hutch, 10-speed bike, fashion wig, high heels or a busted office chair for cheap.
There’s a fair share of boarded up business, seedy hotels and vacant lots littering Stony Island, but the avenue has it’s jewels, too.
A couple blocks away from Smart Thrift is an unofficial South Side landmark — the 1941 Buick sedan atop Ellison Auto Parts.
Owner Paul Fields opened the shop in 1962, back when Stony Island was still “automotive row” and Ernie Banks had a dealership down the street.
Why did he put the old car on the roof?
“So people would ask me why I put it there,” Fields says. “That, and it makes it easy to give directions.”
The bullet holes in the Buick’s doors tell you about the neighborhood struggles.
“I used to have trouble with people throwing snowballs at it,” Fields says. “As the neighborhood got rougher, people started shooting instead.
Fortunately, I was never in the car when it happened.” And just east of Stony on 79th is the New Regal Theater, a city landmark by architect John Eberson, who said the building design was inspired by a Persian incense burner he found at an antique market.
Head north a bit and there’s the Mosque Maryam, the Nation of Islam headquarters, which is so beautiful a reporter pal of mine says it’s worth getting frisked at the door to get a look inside.
Hungry? There’s plenty of grub on Stony Island, and most places don’t bother with bulletproof glass anymore. You can get a delicious piece of salmon at BJ’s Market, sample tasty soul food treats at the Soul Queen’s buffet. There’s enough fried chicken joints for you to visit a different one every night, and the not-so historic site of the South Side’s first Starbucks.
If you prefer to make dinner yourself, a stop at the Moo & Oink — Stony Island’s premier butcher shop — is a must. You can get juicy chicken breasts for 89 cents-a-pound, and some tasty baby back ribs that cook up nice on the grill.
And so many drivers stop to pick up a six-pack at Kenwood Liquors — which boasts on its billboard “No gimmicks. No advertising. Just the cheapest, lowest and least expensive prices in the world” — there’s almost always a beer-run traffic jam at 87th Street during the evening rush.
“Some people have told me they think the Stony Island route still isn’t a bad idea for getting to the museums or the lakefront or to avoid traffic when there’s a S
That makes me feel better about getting back on the Ryan.
I’m not saying goodbye to Stony Island.
Just, see you later.