Greater Grand Crossing acquired its name after an 1853 train accident occurred at the intersection of two competing rail lines, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway and the Illinois Central Railroad. What was open swampland and prairie gave way to development that hosted waves of European immigrants from the British Isles, Germany, Sweden, and Italy. As with the surrounding neighborhoods, Greater Grand Crossing had become a predominately middle-class, African-American community by the 1950s. At its heart is the 75th Street commercial district, also known as “Renaissance Row”, which runs from S. Cottage Grove Ave. to S. Michigan Ave. The neighborhood is home to some of the South Side’s most beloved locally owned businesses, innovative community organizations, historic park spaces, and rows of quaint, bungalow-lined residential streets.
A Great Day in Greater Grand Crossing
A good way to begin taking in the neighborhood is sampling some of its rich cuisine. Tucked into a relatively small storefront space, 5 Loaves Eatery is a welcoming and charming breakfast/brunch spot on 75th Street. From the Southern style catfish nuggets, salmon croquettes, and fried chicken to the standard breakfast items such as pancakes and omelets, the family owned eatery provides superb food with great service.
To work off a bit of breakfast, an excursion to either Oak Woods Cemetery or the Auburn Park Lagoon makes for a unique Chicago experience. In addition to the beautiful grounds, Oak Woods Cemetery is the resting place of such historic luminaries as Jesse Owens, gospel-originator Thomas A. Dorsey, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, founder of Ebony and Jet John H. Johnson, suffragist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, and the first African-American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. Civil War buffs can visit the Confederate Mound, a mass grave of over 6,000 Confederate soldiers who died at the Camp Douglas prisoner camp.
Formerly a marshy wetland, the 8-acre Auburn Park in the nearby Auburn Gresham neighborhood is worthwhile for a leisurely walk or fishing spot.
Perhaps the most popular sit down lunch option, Original Soul Vegetarian has been a family owned, neighborhood destination for over three decades. The pioneer vegan/vegetarian institution offers a wide range of healthy dishes and meat free versions of soul and comfort food staples. The attached Eternity Juice Bar has a nice selection of shakes and fruit and vegetable drinks. Fans of Original Soul Vegetarian can also visit their recently opened location Vegan Now! in the French Market downtown.
For a post meal dessert, Brown Sugar Bakery delivers a variety of delicious choices. While known for their cakes, the cupcakes, pies, and cookies all hit the spot. As a sign of the bakery’s increasing popularity, it was selected to open a second location at Navy Pier’s new food court, along with other local Chicago eateries.
Further east down 75th Street, The Woodshop is another neighborhood stalwart and must-see. Now in its 5th decade, the custom frame and cabinet shop also houses an impressive art gallery featuring works by African-American, African, and Caribbean artists.
An additional artfully crafted space to meander through is the Stony Island Arts Bank. One of several deteriorating structures in Greater Grand Crossing repurposed by the Rebuild Foundation, the former savings and loan bank at 68th and Stony Island is now home to among other cultural artifacts, the Johnson Publishing Archive, the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides, and House Music legend Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection. The rotating exhibitions and building tours have been drawing a steady stream of visitors since its reopening in October 2015.
Back on 75th Street, a visit to Greater Grand Crossing would not be complete without stopping by Lem’s Bar-B-Q. Family owned since 1954, the 75th Street location, which opened in 1968, is currently Lem’s sole brick and mortar operation. The legendary institution is often credited with establishing Chicago style BBQ and well-known for its rib tips, hot links, and distinct sauce.
For a late evening option, the eta Creative Arts Foundation is a great venue to enjoy theater productions pertaining to the African-American experience. Founded in 1971, the non-profit also showcases rotating artists in their gallery space and facilitates training and performance opportunities for both youth and adults.
Likewise, Rebuild Foundation's Black Cinema House offers engaging programming several evenings a month. The film screenings and discussions take place in a repurposed Anheuser-Busch distribution facility.
Since 2006, the Gary Comer Youth Center has been providing wide ranging extracurricular activities and educational support for youth in the neighborhood and the greater South Side. Housed in an award winning building designed by John Ronan Architects, the center also hosts the South Shore Drill Team and special events throughout the year. In addition to the state of the art facilities, their large Youth Education Garden across the street on S. Chicago Ave. serves as a hands-on resource to complement the horticulture and culinary programs. To learn more about enrollment, special events, and volunteer opportunities, visit here.
The Take Away
Experiencing the vibrancy and appeal of Greater Grand Crossing in person immediately disaffirms some commonly held misconceptions. While not minimizing the recent uptick in violence and steep, economic disadvantages experienced by many residents, a visitor to the neighborhood can expect welcoming, friendly interactions with people working at the businesses and organizations as well as fellow patrons. From our conversations with several community members, we noted a reoccurring concern and frustration with the mostly exaggerated fears that outsiders possess in regards to visiting Greater Grand Crossing and the surrounding neighborhoods. With so much to offer, the neighborhood is just as deserving as any other of exploration for those coming from far and wide and nearby locals alike.