Some neighborhoods have it all, and some neighborhoods have very little, but only one Chicago neighborhood, Greater Grand Crossing, has Stephanie Hart and her Brown Sugar Bakery.
There, every day you can get cupcakes the size of small children's heads and cakes that look like something out of their sweet dreams.
And on many evenings — such as this Thursday at 7 p.m. — you can also experience salonlike entertainment events featuring local poets and musicians.
“It is such a vibrant neighborhood filled with so many talented people,” says Hart. “I started meeting them when they came in to buy things and just got to talking, and thought what a wonderful thing it would be to host live performances, to showcase them and this area.”
A smart and ebullient personality, Hart holds forth at 328 E. 75th St. “This has been a great addition to the street,” says Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, a son of a Chicago mayor (Eugene), lifelong resident of the neighborhood and, to hear Hart tell it, an aficionado of the bakery's “carmel” cake.
“There are certain Chicago neighborhoods that unfairly have been given a bad image, and part of my job is to transform that image,” says Sawyer, whose ward also includes the Park Manor, Chatham and West Chesterfield neighborhoods. “This street had been stagnant for so long, and this is all part of its reinvention. There is vitality here that is easy to see.”
He is right. The 300 block of E. 75th St., for nearly 60 years home to Lem's Bar-B-Q (“BBQ as God meant it to be,” commented one Zagat reviewer), has seen businesses come and go, but there is now a palpable and heartening sense of stability, a neighborhood binding through creativity, commerce and community.
“It is the street that drew me here,” Hart says. “The history here. I was made to feel so welcome.”
Hart was raised in Detroit, where her grandmother, a native of Mississippi, filled the family home with sweet smells and loaded the kitchen table with cobblers, egg custard pies, sweet potato pies and a variety of cakes. All were made from scratch.
“My grandmother (who died in 1997) could take anything and make it her own. She knew how to enliven the flavors with things so appreciated in our African-American history and heritage,” Hart says.
Hart moved to the Chicago area in 1977 and worked for many years in the technology field, running her own business for two decades. “But I started to re-create many of my grandmother's recipes — she never wrote anything down — and got pretty good at it. I wanted to share.”
In 2004, she opened the first BSB a few blocks to the east on 75th Street, moving into the current space in 2007. The items are chalked on a board behind the counter, and on any afternoon people arrive in a steady stream for enormous slices of such cakes as “carmel” (the store's best seller), coconut, yellow chocolate, double chocolate and the “Porgy & Bess,” plus cupcakes, pies, cobblers, cookies, brownies, bread and banana puddings.
You can never be sure what will be available because everything is made by hand earlier in the day. But you can always order ahead at their website.
Frequently people pull off the Dan Ryan Expressway a few blocks west and get some cupcakes to go.
“I live up north but work far south,” says Dan Davies, an accountant. “I just started to come here and thought I would get my two kids something special when they did something special. Problem is, I buy four cupcakes but wind up with only three by the time I get home.”
The place has free Wi-Fi, so some people are tempted to settle in for a few hours in the room filled with chairs, couches, artwork and earth tones.
That's where I met Tanya Aboukier one afternoon. Her husband, Eddie Elkhatib, has owned one of the block's oldest businesses, A&S Wine and Spirits, at 308 E. 75th St., for more than 20 years (it's been there for 30). In its stylish decor and wide and sophisticated selection, A&S flies in the face of the shabby image many may have of South or West Side liquor stores. This shop would not seem at all out of place if it were plunked down at the tony corner of Halsted Street and Armitage Avenue.
“We think of ourselves as part of this vibrant and sophisticated community. We are not in the business of selling half-pints and candy bars,” Aboukier says, adding that A&S hosts special events including wine tastings from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
Hart had been listening to Aboukier talk and was smiling. After advising a customer to get a “turtle” cupcake, topped with a swirl of caramel, chocolate icing and chopped pecans, she begins to mention all the other businesses on the block, gradually expanding her verbal tour a few blocks in each direction.
“There is Looks & Style right next door, and down the street is Soul Vegetarian East and …” she says.
She mentions many more places. I say go have a look, or a listen or a bite.