CHICAGO — My night began with a poetry slam and ended six hours later with a spirited bossa nova session a mile away. In between came a soothing stew and spring rolls at a trendy noodle joint, plus a shake of the leg at the zany Big Wig lounge, where patrons boogied amid beauty-parlor chairs and mannequins with coiffed hairpieces.
Here in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood, I felt a world away from the heart of downtown and Michigan Avenue, Chicago's so-called Magnificent Mile of upscale shops, restaurants and tourist-friendly sights a few miles to the northeast.
And that was the point. Not to snub downtown, but to really experience this city, I found it also pays to venture beyond the shadow of the Sears Tower and into neighborhoods away from the typical tourist zones. During my last visit I explored five areas outside the Loop, the downtown business district. To the north, I wandered Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village and a predominantly gay enclave nicknamed Boys' Town. To the south I found Bronzeville, a largely African-American neighborhood full of golden history, and the Mexican-flavored Pilsen, where brightly colored murals gleam by day and high-energy mariachi parties light up the night.
These five areas by no means represent a comprehensive list or a "best of" ranking. Indeed, depending on one's preferences, other neighborhoods hold the promise of higher culture, better shopping or prettier views--parts of town such as resurgent Printer's Row and tony Lincoln Park.
Instead, most of the neighborhoods I visited tend to be more on-the-fringe and grittier than the most popular tourist spots. And it may take an adventurous spirit to appreciate their funky charms and historic relevance. One of them, Bronzeville, is on the city's dicey South Side, known mostly for its crime and urban blight.
But these neighborhoods are a celebration of authentic Chicago and a reminder of its diversity. Ask West or East Coasters to identify the nation's biggest melting pots, and they're likely to say New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many would be surprised by 2000 Census figures showing Chicago's racial minorities add up to about 69%, higher than even the City by the Bay.
All five neighborhoods I explored are easy day trips for those who still prefer to use downtown as a base. A short ride by cab or on the El, the city's elevated train, will provide a cultural palette that, in the hands of the right person, paints a richer portrait of the Windy City.
My night in Wicker Park started at Mad Bar, where emcee Crystal launched the regular Monday poetry slam with a shake of her blond locks and a shout of spirited verse. A dozen or so others followed: blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. They were dudes and chicks in their 20s and 30s, holding forth about dating, pets, hangovers and racism.
Afterward, a few poets and I strolled around the corner to Hi Ricky, where I wolfed down a steaming bowl of Malaysian \o7 laksa\f7 noodle soup and a crisp green salad. Then it was on to Big Wig, where clubbers let their hair down in a salon-themed space, and Empty Bottle, a "supreme funk parlor" on the neighborhood's southern fringe, where a Brazilian band wound down its third set.
By the time I crawled down the street to my bed-and-breakfast, I had no doubts that Wicker Park is one of the city's hippest residential districts. Even my B&B, House of Two Urns, captured the funky spirit. For $82 to $132 a night, guests get a double room in a 1912 building that melds Victorian antiques, contemporary art and an Art Nouveau stained-glass window from which the inn gets its name.
According to the Wicker Park & Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, the boundaries of Wicker Park are Bloomingdale Avenue to the north, Western Avenue to the west, Division Street to the south and Ashland Avenue to the east. Bucktown is the neighboring district to the north.
Milwaukee Avenue cuts diagonally across Wicker Park and serves as the main drag. A daytime stroll proved that the diverse night life is matched by eclectic architecture, a mix of modern low-rise buildings and homes constructed by wealthy German and Scandinavian immigrants in the late 1800s.
Locals who are up in time for breakfast (or lunch) flock to the Bongo Room, favored for its lighthearted mood and health-conscious menu. I also checked out Una Mae's Freak Boutique and Recycle, two trendy Milwaukee Avenue retailers, where racks were filled with retro fashions. And then there's the neighborhood's namesake, the actual green space named Wicker Park. This five-acre triangle near Damen Avenue and Schiller Street was donated to the city in 1870 by brothers Charles and Joel Wicker. It's a comfortable place to laze away an afternoon over a book.
Wicker Park's daytime pleasures eventually yield to night's. At Cafe Absinthe, exposed brick enhances the cool urban decor as the trendy crowd dines on grilled ostrich with avocado chimichurri, or cranberry-walnut chicken roulade with a potato-sweet potato mash.