Local Flavor: A Selected Bibliography

August 23rd, 2018

In Local Flavor, Jean Iversen chronicles the histories of eight legendary Chicago restaurants that shaped the city's neighborhoods, and she shared a bibliography of books that continue to shape experiences of Chicago. Jean Iversen discusses Local Flavor on Sat. 8/25 3pm at 57th Street Books.

Native Son, by Richard Wright - I hesitate to include Richard Wright’s classic book on this list, as it’s commonly heralded as one of the twentieth century’s most epic novels. But it begs mentioning as one of my essential Chicago reads, as Native Son has influenced not only my writing but my life. Whenever I read it, I can’t help comparing its setting in 1930s Chicago with present-day Chicago. How have we progressed? How have we fallen behind? The need for inquiry only reinforces the significance of works such as Native Son, which deftly illustrates the state of race relations during a particular time in Chicago’s history with poignancy and razor-sharp honesty.

Never A City So Real, by Alex Kotlowitz -
In this collection of short essays, Kotlowitz profiles people who exemplify the scrappy, underdog, resilient qualities of native Chicagoans. I reread this book while writing Local Flavor, not just to enjoy these captivating stories, but with the feeble hope of being influenced by such muscular, lean, writing. Kotlowitz’s ability to bring people to life on the page is an inspiration.

Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories, by Reginald Gibbons -
I bought this book at then-Printer’s Row Book Fair, now Lit Fest, or some other name that my brain refuses to grip, like the latest name for what I will always refer to as the Hancock. What I love so much about this collection of poems and stories centered in Chicago is that I feel as though I’m reading about my city in these pages. As I read about a “city block of close-set brick two-flats” and “elevated trains, shrieking and drumming, lit by explosions of sparks” I moved through Chicago’s streets through my eyes and the words of a talented, nimble writer.

There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz -
Yep, another Kotlowitz title. The book published in 1991, around the time I moved to Chicago to attend college. I guzzled down Kotlowitz’s story of a young family struggling to survive in the Henry Horner Homes on Chicago’s West Side, and I was amazed this world was mere miles from my Lakeview neighborhood. This book significantly transformed my perspective of life in Chicago’s many government-subsidized housing developments at the time (most have since been demolished). It continues to inspire readers to consider the real-world circumstances that inform a person’s viewpoint.

High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, by Ben Austen -
Bookstores are places where I will part with an entire week’s salary if left to my own whims and devices. I have recently learned, however, to tame my impulses, as I simply ran out of room in my home for more bookcases. So it was, in this context of newly found self-restraint, that I entered a bookstore one day in 2018 and eyed High-Risers. It practically shouted at me the moment I entered the store. I immediately approved the purchase of this title and brought it to the counter, dwindling shelf space be damned.

You won’t find a more thoroughly researched account of Chicago’s public housing history than this book. Austen spent seven years writing and researching this history of Cabrini Green, which is told through the accounts of several different Cabrini-Green residents and members of the community.

I lived in River West, which neighbors Cabrini, for several years, and watched the demolition of the development. I’ll never forget seeing the last high-rise demolished; the façade had been ripped off, exposing all the apartments inside. Standing at Division and Halsted, I could see   the walls in each of the apartments. They were all painted in vivid, bright colors. It was an eerie sight: destruction and demolition and this startling palette of bright yellows, greens, blues, and oranges. The cheery paint colors were a reminder that, while violence and strife persisted outside, families loved, laughed, and lost inside those walls.

About the author: Jean Iversen is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and communications specialist. Her latest book, Local Flavor: Restaurants That Shaped Chicago's Neighborhoods chronicles the histories of eight legendary Chicago restaurants and illustrates their significant impact on the development of the city's neighborhoods. She is also the author of BYOB Chicago, a definitive guide to the vibrant bring-your-own-bottle dining scene in Chicagoland. Her articles have been published in Crain's Chicago Business, Time Out Chicago, Daily Herald, and others.

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