Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nana Restaurant's South Side Concept

Omar Solis stands on the roof above Nana restaurant at 33rd and Halsted and looks out over blocks of underdeveloped real estate. Some of the Halsted storefronts are vacant, but all of the rooftops are unused. He’s envisioning a network of small gardens – on rooftops and squeezed into side lots -- all growing herbs and produce for his organic restaurant downstairs, and maybe for other restaurants as they arrive.

The Solis family has been in the restaurant business in Bridgeport for 50 years and 3 generations, since Omar’s grandfather opened Tacos Erendira. Family members were a little skeptical when Omar and his brother Christian first proposed opening a new restaurant featuring organic and locally grown foods. They said it sounded like a north side concept. “That just fueled our determination,” Omar says. “It made us more thorough about what we were doing.”

When Nana opened for brunch a year ago, lines waiting for a table formed out the door. In its first year Nana has expanded into a second storefront, hired a chef and added a dinner menu designed to be constantly changing with what is fresh and locally available. The dinner crowd has grown more slowly, but the food has gotten rave reviews. Locally grown organic appears to work as a south side concept too. Though Omar says when they have a large dinner reservation, half the party still shows up looking for a restaurant at Halsted and Belmont first.

Now, Omar is already a little restless anticipating his next project. He’s been approached by potential partners about bringing Nana to other neighborhoods. He says he’d never really imagined himself pursuing the family restaurant business, he’d always wanted to work for a greater cause. It was only as he’d read about problems in the commercial food industry that he found himself circling back to restaurants. He wants to follow “the concept” -- a sustainable restaurant tied in to the local seasons and fostering a local farm economy -- beyond the neighborhood where he grew up.

But there is still plenty to do in Bridgeport. And Nana has worked out to be something of a development lab. In its first year, Nana teamed up with a class of IIT students to develop potential environmental enhancements, including schemes for adding solar power to the roof, recycling waste heat from the kitchen and converting used cooking oil to fuel the Nana-Mobile, which makes the restaurant’s deliveries.

But the simplest project has been to grow the restaurant’s herbs around the outdoor seating, and Omar hopes to multiply that to rooftops and city owned vacant lots next season. “It’s still a science project at this point,” Omar says. “We have a lot to learn, but we’re looking at using about 15,000 square feet on vacant land, and other buildings my family owns.”

At the same time, he has been trying to put the storefront behind the restaurant to good use. Originally, he had hoped to lease the 1,600 square foot space, but has been frustrated by lack of proposals backed up by written business plans. As the summer drags on, Omar has had some ideas for opening another business in the space himself.

He has so far resisted persistent suggestions from one interested party that he capitalize on relationships with the 30 plus local farmers who already supply the restaurant, to open a badly needed little green grocery. In fact, I am that interested party – it broke my heart when the Egg Store closed, and Halsted Foods could use some back up in the fresh produce department. But Omar is right that the grocery business is notoriously tough, especially in a tiny format. He is considering other restaurant concepts that might build off Nana’s existing kitchen instead.

Meanwhile, one of his neighbors has been building out another new restaurant behind the curtains in a storefront across the street. Omar says that when he asks, the owners have been vague about what kind of restaurant it will be. But he is enthusiastic about potential synergies as Halsted Street wakes up.

For a long time, he says it seemed like property owners on Halsted were hanging back, waiting to see what would happen. Now, new businesses are percolating and the Bridgeport arts scene has been getting press. As owners of neighboring business bring clients to Nana for lunch, Omar has been floating the idea of a new business association to help them cross-fertilize.

“If you look at Wicker Park, or Lincoln Park, they have very active business associations. And I think that’s a weakness in this area, there’s a disconnection among local businesses. There is power in numbers, but we can’t capitalize on that if we don’t really talk to each other."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Notes from the Sidewalk

Early morning walking up Morgan Street, just before 7 am -- there’s a family out in the street making a scene. A young woman, so hysterical she seems drunk, or otherwise out of her mind, is screaming at a man -- she says she loves him, she says he beat her, she’s got a bloody nose.

But his nose is bloodier than hers is. He doesn’t say much, he kind of staggers in the background, he looks baffled and helpless.

His other woman is a big blond. She’s got her kids out with her in the street. She’s screaming “You’re fucking stupid!” And the younger woman screams “I am NOT STUPID!”

The big blond screams “He didn’t beat you, you beat him. Look at how you beat him, in front of my fucking kids, you crazy bitch!” As I get closer, she grabs the younger woman by the hair and tries to hit her head against a parked car.

I hover for 30 seconds, I should intervene, but what should I say? (“Come on now, you’re both upset... ”) They ignore me.

The blond is telling the other woman to leave, but the other woman is wound up and wants to keep going. She retreats a few yards down the block, out of reach of the blond, who’s probably stronger than she is fast. And she screams and sobs from there “I love him!”

And the blond keeps screaming “In front of my fucking kids! In front of my fucking kids!” over and over as I walk away.

I find this garden on 29th Street, behind the park in Stearns Quarry. I love these tiny trellised gardens you see packed into people’s sunken front yards, or in the narrow space alongside a house – constrained on the ground, they grow upwards.

This little house has gardens on all sides. While I am admiring them from the alley there is a rustling in the foliage, and a big, gentle dog comes out, and then a frail old man in khaki slacks cinched around his waist with a belt.

I compliment him on his garden, and he seems to understand me, but he doesn’t speak English, or if he does, his accent is so heavy I can’t understand. He looks like he might be Italian. Finally, he fumbles among his trellises and hands me a green squash through a gap in the fence. I thank him, he nods, and I leave him there.

I’m hoping he’s not alone in that house behind the gardens, having outlived his friends in a neighborhood where he never learned the language, when I arrive in the park at Stearns Quarry, and I'm surprised to find the paths are crowded with elderly Chinese.

They are out to take exercise before the heat sets in. Some walk briskly, they swing their bent arms from the shoulder, or they raise their arms and do clapping exercises. Some practice walking backwards, up the gently sloping paths, or they just stroll reflectively in the company of their friends.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good Faith and Persistence

God’s Closet has been closed since June, and the process of reopening it occasionally seems like an object lesson in how hard it can be to cooperate with other people. Though Rich Albrecht is confident it is ultimately proof of better things, and he’s probably right more often than people admit in the planning meetings.

I make these observations as an interested party. God’s Closet is a ministry launched by Bridgeport’s First Trinity Lutheran church 11 years ago to provide clothing to those in need. I started attending First Trinity myself some months ago. I’m not sure why -- I hadn’t been a church-going believer for years before I walked in there, and I’m not sure I qualify now. But the place exerts a weird appeal.

The church at 31st and Lowe is physically imposing, but inside on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 odd attendees struggle with the hymns. It works out okay, because our feeble voices are greatly augmented by a rollicking 6 piece band. The vocalist, Anais, occasionally scolds us to sing along with her on the hymns. (We are singing! You can’t hear us, but we are!)

I’m not sure any of the band members first showed up because they wanted to go to church. A lot of them first came to play at The Orphanage, a performance venue hosted in the church’s old school building. Some of them live in apartments on the church property. But on Sunday mornings they fill that sanctuary, and the sound lifts your heart.

While it's numerically unprepossessing, the congregation draws people from all walks of life, including other denominations, like Catholics and Pentacostals. Pastor Gaulke, or Pastor Tom as he is more often called, is young, this is his first congregation out of seminary, and he seems to like rapport during the service – people call out to him, and he’ll incorporate what they say as he goes along.

Ever since St. Bridget’s was closed in 1990, First Trinity has been the oldest Christian congregation in Bridgeport. Its endurance has been something of a marvel. Urban congregations declined everywhere in the 1970s, but First Trinity endured additional tribulations, when a charismatic pastor turned out to be abusing the youth.

Some members fell away in the scandal, others migrated toward the suburbs over the decades and were never replaced. The congregation had been without their own pastor for 12 years, before they hired Pastor Tom last year. He says when he first arrived, others in the synod told him they had thought First Trinity in Bridgeport would probably just die away.

But it didn’t. And more admirable than the congregation’s persistence is the fact it didn’t turn inward, or retrench. Immediately after the scandal, church members decided to convert from the conservative Missouri Synod to embrace the progressive ECLA. And in the years since then, as their numbers, and budget, were shrinking, they turned outward toward the changing neighborhood around them.

Partly, they were motivated to rent their real estate. But having tenants has brought other good things. Now they host a long running chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, and two other small churches, who use First Trinity’s chapel and the kitchen for services on Sunday afternoons. They began leasing out parts of the school building as apartments, and new tenants launched the Orphanage music venue, which seeded the creation of the church band, whose members have become leaders in Bible Study and other church activities. God’s Closet, the clothes ministry, occupies another classroom in the former school.

Hiring Pastor Tom last year, after 12 years without one, was a significant step forward from survival mode. Pastor Tom says when he started, First Trinity drew a significant stream of young people, but they were more transient. They were drawn to the church’s accepting environment as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. In the year he’s been there every Sunday, the base of people who come more consistently has grown.

Rich Albrecht is First Trinity’s Associate Pastor, he’s served First Trinity for 30 years. He coordinated the supply pastors who preached every Sunday during the vacancy. Now that Pastor Tom has arrived, he mans the office – he is the one who answers the office phone when people call for assistance, which is pretty much every day.

Rich takes the church’s mission to serve its neighbors very personally. He picks up medication for the housebound, gives rides to the elderly, or helps find apartments for people forced to move. He is also willing to let interruptions dominate his day to a degree most people would not tolerate.

If a young man he’s watched grow-up under unsteady influences calls Rich to ask for a ride to pick up his first paycheck, Rich sees it as an opportunity to nudge him to open a bank account on the way home, an opportunity easily lost if he doesn’t respond right now.

Rich is adamant that God’s Closet is one of First Trinity’s most important ministries, and he is impatient to see it open again. For a decade, it has provided clothing to people who most need it – after an apartment fire for instance, or because the kids outgrow their clothes every year.

But managing it is a struggle against chaos. The volume of donations is overwhelming. Some of them are clean, necessary items like warm coats, school uniforms, and work attire – even prom dresses. But they are mixed with an equal volume of dirty t-shirts, polyester slacks and clothes of deceased relatives that no one wants, but that the heirs can’t bring themselves to throw away.

Everyone agreed the accumulation of giant bags and bins of unsorted stuff made it hard to operate God’s Closet in a dignified way. Though once it had been shut down for a thorough reorganization, it became clear no one really agrees on the most efficient way to do it. In fact we don’t have consensus that efficiency is an important goal.

Our first efforts to sort were overwhelmed by continuing donations. So we advertised a big clothes give away to clear out the bulk of unsorted stuff. The response was inspiring – about 150 people came to clothe kids that are growing, find work clothes for new jobs, restock closets ruined by recent flooding. I think we’ve all emerged re-committed to reopening God’s Closet for good this fall. If we don’t do it efficiently, we’ll do it the way First Trinity does everything else, by persistence and good faith.