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Always A Bridesmaid. Never A Bride

Haresh Shah

When I first moved back to Chicago and needed a handyman to help me with installing my sliding shower door and the ceiling fans, I found Antonio Luna on Yellow Pages. Remember those brick heavy door stoppers? Though he tells me, now most of his new clients come from Yelp! Times they’re a changin’J. A Puerto Rican, he grew up in Humboldt Park  – practically right around the corner, though he now lives farther north of here in Roger’s Park. He remembers the early days of his countrymen occupying the near north-west neighborhoods of Chicago – containing of Wicker Park, West Town and pre-dominantly Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park – the area mainly sandwiched between the high flying Puerto Rican flags made of steel pipes, firmly posted on the east at North Artesian and on the west at North Mozart Avenues, arch over West Division Street aka Paseo Boricua (Puerto Rican Walk). The reason the flags are made of steel is to honor thousands of Puerto Ricans who came from the island between  1946 and 1966 to work at Chicago’s steel mills. The masts are 55 feet tall and the flags span 56 feet across Division Street. Each of them weighing 30 tons and can withstand 75 miles an hour winds.

When a couple of months ago I mentioned to Tonio about my Down Division project, I had no clue how Division Street has a history not only of the crime and the gang warfare, but that Paseo Boricua, mere five houses south from where I live was the hot bed of the political unrest and riots forty some years earlier. Tonio begins to reminisce about how he witnessed the riots of June 12 -14, 1966. The day when the Puerto Rican Day Parade that began on State Street downtown Chicago – all joyous and colorful, broke out into the devastating riot on Division Street at Damen Avenue, in reaction to the Chicago cop Thomas Munyon, having shot in the leg the Puerto Rican young man, Arcelis Cruz.

The years  that followed saw more of the unrest with the gang warfare and the political tensions over the U.S. control of Puerto Rico. The mid seventies saw a spike in violence with bombings and years of protests.

Something I could hardly begin to fathom, having watched the Puerto Rican Day Parades of the last ten years and how they all have been peaceful fun and frolicking. People milling around and dancing in their vibrant multi-colored outfits, dressed up in Puerto Rican motifs – hundreds of Puerto Rican flags flying, hoards of families watching the floats filled with celebrants draped in flamboyant folkloric costumes, followed by a large fleet of awesome vintage automobiles followed by hundreds of motor bikes vrooming their powerful machines. The happy noise and the revelry. Proud Puerto Ricans and other locals alike watching or marching in the parade, big happy smiles plastered over  everyone’s faces.

I mention to Tonio what I had heard about the gang the Latin Disciples and how they would disrupt and terrorize.

‘I may even have been one of those gang members.’

‘Were you a Disciple?’

‘No, I was a part o the rival gang, the Latin Kings.’

Seeing that I was still trying to process the information, he adds a disclaimer: You know, I was just in my teens and it was one of the things you just did when you’re that age – you know, when you’re that young, you want to belong. A brief pause later, he continues: Never participated in any of the riots or shoot outs. I was not that colorful a person in my teens. Always a bridesmaid never a bride.’ And I believe him because Antonio I know is a gentle soul and doubt if he could even kill a fly, let alone hurt innocent people!

And I got married at seventeen and had three children in the following six years – my oldest  son is fifty years old now. He refers to his wife of the time as “the mother of my children”. Since then he is very happily married to his current wife, Lucia.

He continues with a distance look in his eyes: I still remember the riots breaking out on Division Street during the Puerto Rican Parade. There were armies of police and shootings. The cars were turned over and burned. Forty five buildings on fire.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Illustration: Mural on N. Campbell Street at Division




When I sailed back to the US in the fall of 1975, I drove cross country from New York to California. During my stop over in Chicago, I ordered a glass of white wine at a neighborhood bar. I almost fell off my chair when the bartender asked:  straight up or on the rocks? Who would have known that forty some years later, we would have a sophisticated neighborhood shop specializing in quality wines? Filled with the passion and the devotion of likes of Joe Dalton.




Home Away From Home

Haresh Shah

Via Carducci la Sorella opened on Division Street in the summer of 2007, just eight months after I had returned to Chicago after nine years living in Prague. I discovered the place almost immediately during my routine daily walk. It was a sweltering 90+ degrees (30 + celsius) day and as I was walking past the crowd sitting outside, I suddenly felt an urge to take a break. I stopped for a glass of Chardonnay, and stayed for a plate of their down home delicious pasta. If my memory is not failing me, I was greeted by the Bulgarian beauty Marianne who tended the bar as well played occasional hostess and was also the manager of the restaurant. I was served by Carlos (Perez), who just celebrated his eleventh birthday with the restaurant.

It was like love at first sight. Since then it has become my home away from home, so much so  that I have taken there every overseas visitor, every family member and every friend. The reasons are obvious. The food and service are consistently great, the ambience is cozy and intimate. And totally relaxing because as opposed to majority of restaurants in the United States, who thrive on “turning over” tables, at Carducci you never feel hurried out of there. Thus making it the place most conducive for long drawn out meals and animated conversations. Must have something to do with the 61 year old owner – the first generation Italian, Giovanni Scalzo.

Often confused with the actor Stanley Tucci, Giovanni is his own man. In my observation, he is the man with iron fist in a velvet glove. The man with good business acumen and sternness, he is also kind and considerate. No wonder, in a business with the most turnover of human resources, majority of his staff has been with him since the very inception of he restaurant. Because I treat them well, says Giovanni with pride and modesty.

His family ties in the States go back to the early 1900s, when his uncles came to America under Il Richiamo sponsorship. Soon as they landed in New York, they were given Green Cards so that they can start working right away. While other uncles went to Omaha and onto Des Moines, Iowa, uncle Benny came to live in Chicago. Giovanni, born and brought up in what is defined as the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria is the picture post card pretty region of southern Italy with its beaches and mountains. It is also renowned for its rustic regional cuisine.

Giovanni came to this country in 1971 as a teenager and lived with his uncle Benny in the predominantly Polish and Italian neighborhood, at the time concentrated around Pulaski and North Avenue. He enrolled at the Orr High school, majority of students there were Latinos and Blacks – only 10% of the pupils were whites, made up mainly of the Polish and the Italians.

While going to school, he took a job as a dishwasher at the local Vito’s Pizzeria on West North Avenue. The owners Frank and Nick taught Giovanni basics of sauces and also how to carve meat and shared other practical tips on making a pizza. At some point Nick decided to move on to open a new place and offered Giovanni his 50% of Vito’s. At the time Giovanni was also enrolled at UIC to study Architectural Design. But he loved the restaurant business and eventually dropped out of the school.

As he happily flipped pizzas, he met his future wife, Jennifer Marie Castillo, a teletype rep who lived in the building next to the pizzeria and would come frequently to treat herself to a slice. They got married in 1984. Their daughter Alessandra was born in 1991. She is now 27 years old and is to be married next year. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Ever entrepreneurial, Giovanni opened North Avenue Cut Rate Liquor at North and Austin. While he was busy working at Vito’s, someone torched the liquor store, burning it down to the ground. Pragmatically, he decided it was time to move on. In 1984 he opened a restaurant called Papacini in the western suburb of Maywood, close to the Loyola Medical School. The place became extremely popular with the students.

But Giovanni had always loved the Lincoln Park neighborhood. It reminded him a lot of Italy. Especially the areas around Halsted and Diversey Parkway. Not too far, there was a hot dog stand on Fullerton near Southport. He bought the place from the previous owner. Across the street was a small place called Restaurante Stefani. He opened there the first Via Carducci in 1996, named after the street he grew up on in Calabrian village Adami. A classic mom and pop operation in which Jennifer played the dual roles of the hostess as well as the waitress. Giovanni assumed the role of the chef with only one assistant cook helping him. After the first write ups in Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine, he started getting a lot of walk in traffic. The success of Fullerton site prompted him to open a second location.

Giovanni had always liked the stretch of Division Street and the very spot where he would open second Via Carducci. The allure of the location between North Wolcott and North Damen Avenue was it’s thriving neighborhood with it’s young demographics, and yes, the wide sidewalks. Every European’s dream of owning a restaurant with a spacious outdoor sitting. I would often drive by and stop my car across the street to look at the café that was here, which was up for rent, and then there was also Milk & Honey next to it as it still is. A Chicago cop owned and still owns the building, but Giovanni was able to work out a mutually beneficial long term lease with the owner.

He went to work and put in two hundred thousand dollars into renovating the space to make it as cozy and home like as it is today. To the original name Via Carducci, he added la Sorella, which means the sister – to honor the wonderful home cooking of his mother and her sisters – his aunts. Their group photo hangs on the western wall of the restaurant. The place took off to a great start. We were busy right away. Reminiscing, Giovanni continues: Back in Italy, Dad worked a farm which grew produce and we had a vineyard. Mom baked bread. We had chickens in the yard and we ate fresh eggs. Because of my childhood relationship to the nature and the produce, it comes naturally to me to give to my guests the best of what nature has to offer and to “feed back.” Spoken like a true Italian Mama!  

© 2018 Haresh Shah

VIA CARDUCCI La Sorella, 1928 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60614 ● 773 252 2244



Does anyone remember those brick heavy yellow pages? The Google of the days in not too far of a past. That’s how I found an all rounder handyman who grew up around Division Street. An eye witness to the 1966 Division Street riots.




Haresh Shah

Because, that’s where I live!

Because it’s the street where I go for my daily walks. Something I started doing on January 1, 2000 while still living in Prague. On that first day of the millennium, my friend Jan Heemskerk and I took a walk deep into the woods near his home in Alkmaar, Holland. Walking is one of he best ways to stay in shape, proclaimed Jan. I took his words to the heart and since then that’s what I have been doing to stay fit. As refreshing as it was walking into the woods, plodding through the mud soaked trails and soaking up the fresh air, I basically am a city creature. Having born and grown up in  Mumbai, walking along the sea shore is an activity every Mumbaiwallah undertakes soon as the sun goes down or at crack of the dawn. The practice I  have continued all through my life, be it in London or in a little village of Schutterwald in Germany’s Black Forest. Jan’s bon mot added a whole new dimension to my casual strolling.

I moved back to Chicago in October of 2006, and in Division Street I found a perfect “trail” to keep pounding the pavements. It is a long, straight and broad street with the widest sidewalks of any city in the world that I can think of. It stretches for 16 miles (28 kilometers) from Lake Michigan in the east to Oak Park and beyond to Thatcher Woods in the west of the city. The stretch I must have walked hundreds – thousands of times lays between North Maplewood and North Ashland/North Milwaukee near Nelson Algren Fountain, commonly  known as the Polish Triangle, the area once also referred to as Polish Downtown and Polish Broadway.  

Because it is the street made notoriously famous by Nelson Algren’s National Book Award winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm and also Never Come Morning. You can almost feel the ghosts of Algren’s downtrodden and desperate characters still haunting Division Street and its surroundings – the places they once inhabited.

Because my memories and the relationship to the street go back to my early days in Chicago to the summer of 1968 and four years that followed. Because I prowled the eastern stretch of Division at Rush and State streets with my Time Inc. buddies in now what have become to be the landmarks such as Mothers, Shenanigans and Butch McGuire’s – the late late night bars and discos. All three of them  still exist and are thriving fifty years later. Even though I no longer hang out at those locales of my youth, mere a dozen blocks west is where Division comes to life on a stretch between Milwaukee/Ashland on the east and Western on the west. The  places like Inn Joy, Fatpour and Boundary counter balance the indulgence and decadence of young and wanna be young. Not to mention a whole slew of excellent restaurants and cafes that dot the strip.

This is the stretch that has become a part of my day to day life in the last eleven years. Roberto  Clemente High School and Saint Mary’s Hospital are only a stones throw away on Division from where I live. It bursts into life as early as six in the morning with the pungent aroma of coffee wafting in the air from one of at least a dozen cafes that jolt you awake with a shot of caffeine and freshly baked croissant and pastry. At seven pops open the store front physical therapy center Athletico. Then small convenience shops, and Nature Yoga Sanctuary. Chase and other banks start their day at nine. Come around ten’o clock, open all boutique shops. An hour later all  restaurants and some bars. Whatever has remained shuttered up until then, springs to life at five and the good times begin to roll. Batch by batch, life unfolds and in similar fashion folds back just like opening and closing of lotus.

Walking is how I get the sense and the sights and the sounds and the smells of  what makes each one of those places what they are. It is how I find new places – run into people – some of them over and over again, Many of them I don’t even know names of, but we exchange greetings – buenos dias and como estas Papi? Or simply a Hi. There is certain amount of recognition and familiarity in seeing the same faces over and over again. Walking is how I discover new restaurants and cafes. New shops. New buildings coming up and being torn down. Experience first hand the transformation of the street that seems to be in a constant motion.

Although there is Division Street in Chicago, the title of this book is metaphorical. Wrote Chicago legend, Studs Terkel in his prefatory notes to his book Division Street AMERICA, back  in 1967. So now fifty one years later – metaphorically speaking, Division Street still embodies down home America.

And because, because, because…

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Next Week

Via Carducci la Sorella

My home away from home – the restaurant I discovered during my daily walk the very week it was opened and has since then become my all time favorite. What makes Via Carducci click is Giovanni Scalzo – and his amazing journey through starting out as a dishwasher at a pizzeria to becoming one of the most successful restaurateur on Division.






A Self Defined Weirdo

Haresh Shah

One Strange Bird is many things. It’s a gift store containing of unique handmade what I call a whole bunch of useful useless things. Things you can totally do without, but why should you? As you enter, there is a whole wall full of handmade greeting cards priced at five dollars and  more, then there are displays of handmade jewelry, purses, t-shirts that jump at  you with messages such as Yes way Rose, Someone in Chicago Loves Me, Be Silly, Be Honest, Be Kind. Coffee mugs, handmade with Chicago skyline and Wicker Park motifs. They have custom made baby clothes and they hold BYOB art and craft classes for adults in which you can bring your wines and beers and learn how to paint or create handmade objects. And they have don’t BYOB kid’s art classes as well as several kid’s camps all through the year. You can see enough stuff as you walk past their double width glass store front, your eyes are treated to a whole slew of interesting tidbits that you can’t help but nudge the door open and enter to browse. What got me in was their sign on the door: Come in, WE ARE AWESOME. And when they are closed, the flip side of the sign says: Sorry, we’re CLOTHED.

All the time that I have stopped by and walked past the store, so far I have bought all of three products – a couple of unique greeting cards and an expensive cork screw, which was on sale. Even though I am always on the look for something unique, something special, whether or not I buy it depends on whatever I end up buying “finds me”. That is most of the time. Normally I don’t exactly go out looking for things, especially books and greeting cards – but I like to browse. And then suddenly the product finds me, tugs at me and then the price is hardly a factor. Other than the fact that handmade and as unique as the products are at in One Strange Bird, most of them are geared towards women and kids. And yet, I often stop by – just to chat.

As of this writing, June of 2018 – friendly as can be – always smiling and pleasant Nicole Northway owns and operates the store. She is an artist, entrepreneur, teacher and many other things, among them a great conversationalist.  It’s delightful to chat with Nicole and talk about things and about her daughter Emerson and I talk about my blog Playboy Stories and my daughter and her family in Portland, Oregon and all. And how this precocious young woman started her first venture at 22 selling hand made t-shirts and her own art work while she still lived in St. Louis, Mo. She came to Chicago in 2008 to earn her MFA from the University of Illinois. She started her first store called Etsy Shop back in 2009, and then for the self defined “weirdo”, more appropriately called One Strange Bird in 2011, both on North Avenue near Western. In 2013, She  moved to the current location on West Division.

As I browse her shop and see t-shirts and coffee mugs and tell her:

‘I wish you would have a coffee mug or a t-shirt which says Humboldt Park on it. I would buy it in a nano-second.’

‘I don’t think it would sell, because even the people who live there, never want to admit that they do.’

‘Well, I live in Humboldt Park and I am proud of it.’

‘We lived in Humboldt Park too, and all that shootings and all. We had two guns in the house.’

I tell her  that has all changed enormously since I moved here eleven years ago. Even though during the first few years it was not unusual to see impromptu shrines pop up around trees in memory of the ones shot down – it is now getting rarer and rarer. Though just a couple of weeks ago I saw such a shrine for a young man called Taco, Live For Ever, and a year or so ago, there was someone killed right outside the Mexican fast food restaurant, Guerreros in plain sight of the people inside dining or picking up their food! But still! Rosa, the owner’s daughter who works the kitchen tells me matter of factly I saw it with my own eyes a man being shot down right there – pointing at the spot on the side walk right outside the place.

Curiously, the next morning, I was sitting outside of Letizia’s sidewalk, telling the barista Cara about the shooting of the night before, I noticed a young couple with two kids sitting at the table close by. When they got up to leave, the man of the group walks up to me and asks:

‘Were you there at the shooting last night?’

‘No I just heard the gunshots. I live a few houses north of there on Maplewood.’

‘Be careful for the next few days. Especially late in the night. Just in case. It was a gang related shooting and some of them may well return for revenge.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I am a cop, and was there last night.’ Instead of flashing his badge, he lifts his shirt and I see a gun tucked at his waist under his pants.  But still!

‘I’m glad it’s changing.’ Says Nicole. Yes indeed. So much so that Alex, my neighbor across the hall even bought a t-shirt emblazoned with colorful Humboldt Park on his chest!

Come August 1, 2018, I am going to miss stopping by and talking to her, but when you are born with the name like Northway, you’ve got to keep moving upward and onward. Ironically, she is moving south to Florida. Touché! But the comforting fact is, the shop is being taken over by – in Nicole’s words “New Mama!” Emily Gloekler, with whom I have had a brief encounter when I saw Nicole working on the t-shirt press and enthusiastically walking up to her – I am so happy you’re here. To which the woman sitting at the table on the right quipped  – well, thanks, who am I? Chopped liver? Excuse me! Hope not. Gives me hope that soon as Nicole leaves, there will be Emily to carry on the creative spirit.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

One Strange Bird, 2124 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 -773 276 4420


Next Week


Before moving on to the next story, thought I share with you what it is about Division Street that has me so fascinated that I would want to devote so much time and energy to really sit down and write about it.








The Day of Rosie

Haresh Shah

Only three more hours to go before this year’s Do Division closes. I have already picked up some green chicken curry from Thai Lagoon for dinner, but my heart is set on one more serving of the delicious Ćevapčići, grilling a few blocks east at the Do Division fest. I’ve had one the day before. Normally in Balkan restaurants it is served on a bed of rice, but at the fest they are served on a pita bread doused with onions, Greek cheese and their own red sauce. My mouth is watering and I just can’t settle for the green curry. So I put on my sneakers. What I am dreading and even disdain is them expecting you to donate $10 to access the festival strip. But my craving is greater than my dread and disdain. It’s a beautiful spring evening in Chicago. I walk and watch people walking to and fro from the fest. Everyone looks happy. A bit euphoric even. As I approach the south west side of the passage leading into the fest, a middle aged black man  leads me in with a bowing gesture, you look so cool, walk right in. And so I do.

I had thought now with only less than three hours to go the crowds must be thinning out. Nope! There were more people now than there were yesterday afternoon. Everyone is brushing shoulders and squeezing through crowds. All the bars and the shops and the restaurants are totally bursting at the seam with people. I manage to cut through the crowd and find the Ćevapčići stand. First I walk over to the Goose Island beer stand, get a plastic glass full of their perfectly chilled brew and then join the line for Ćevapčići. I find myself a corner by the long table set up on the sidewalk by the sports bar Inn Joy. Rest my beer there and slowly savor my Ćevapčići. And I watch people milling around.  The swarming crowds moving in a slow motion like gentle waves of Lake Michigan on a calm day. They are moving up and down and the sideways. Everyone yields with a smile and or courtesy, no one is going anywhere special, just back and forth within those two short blocks – grabbing hot dogs and hamburgers and whatever junk food, and washing it down with the brew. People are standing, a whole bunch sitting at the edges of the sidewalks, clusters of them talking and shouting and creating a lot of commotion that adds to the wafting sounds of the two bands playing at the both ends of the street.

Totally satiated and feeling happy like a pig in the mud, I cross the street and start walking back slowly. Past Mr. Kite’s and past Nando’s and stand right in front of Letizia’s and Enoteca Roma. And instead of exiting, I linger and watch the band play at the western end. There are about six band members, young men, probably in their mid-to late twenties. The lead singer is good looking African American with his hair done up like a nest over his head. The white man singing with him has thinning wisp of blondish hair on his head. The lead singer’s voice has a certain timber in it, the kind that stops you in your tracks. They are all swinging sideways. And the crowd in the front of the stage is dancing.

I am fixated on a  young girl – probably sixteen, swinging. She is swaying her upper and lower bodies pivoted from her non-existent bare waist. Her hair is billowing with every shake of her head and her boobs are bouncing up and down and sideways with every thrust. And her butt follows the rhythm as her short legs move swiftly to keep up with the tempo. And when she bends  forward, her little backpack of a purse swings with the motion. She is pretty of course and a bundle of energy. Small, no taller than 4.5”(approx. 1.4 meters). Someday she will probably be as wide as she is tall. She is a smaller version of one of Botero’s paintings. Made of the soft  curves that have no sharp angles or straight vertical lines connecting her spongy round and round limbs. But right now, she is what she is. A  ball of fire. A temptress incarnate.

The band begins to play the next song. My view shifts to the band and its members and the vigor with which they are all dancing and swaying. And the young girl picking up on their moves. I look back and forth and then get a bit teary eyed. I will never be able to move like that again. I think. I am on Prednisone, and the drug seems to make me overly emotional and wistful. But before I really break down, I am transplanted back to Munich and into the Yellow Submarine – the disco in the basement of the Holiday Inn in Schwabing, and  I am dancing  fast with Karen, never getting tired, never getting off the floor and then dancing slow with Donna Summer before she became DONNA SUMMER. And then I think of the Tengente and Why Not and Alte Pinakothek – all those night spots I prowled during my years in Munich between 1972 and 1975. So what if I no longer can swing like that without risking hurting my back or cracking a bone or pulling a muscle? Every dog has his days and I have had mine. This evening belongs to Rosie – she looks half Latin and I just decided to give her a name.

© 2108 Haresh Shah


ONE STRANGE BIRD – it is a store like no other, filled with handmade objects that you can do without, but why should you?