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‘Third Places’ Forced to Evolve as Coronavirus Ravages Bars and Coffeeshops

COVID-19 threatens an important Chicago institution: our homes away from home

A person behind bars.
Old Town Ale House owner Bruce Elliott feels trapped by the pandemic.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

It’s been five months since I darkened the doorway of any one of my habitual neighborhood joints. Instead, I’ve spent at least an hour each week on my front stoop, with a glass of wine from a bottle I bought at the bar down the street. As COVID-19 forces the rolling closure of city dwellers’ third places — the taverns, cafes, no-frills eateries, and other spaces apart from home and work, where we go to build community over a bite or a cold beer — we’ve improvised, in parks, yards, and driveways, through windows and on screens.

“Stoop Bar” has its drawbacks. It needs almost daily cobweb removal, and our porch’s shoddiness requires patrons to lean on the vinyl siding, which digs into their backs like a corrugated washing board. On the other hand, it’s always open, shoes are optional, and the people-watching is second to none. I’ve seen arguments play out between roommates over everything from loud throat clearing to “intentional” door slamming. I breached “hello” status with one neighbor after I held up my glass to him as he walked by with an armful of sodas. I exchanged phone numbers with another; now we bring each other essentials when we run out. When friends drop by Stoop Bar, I like to set out individual bowls of Jays potato chips and light votive candles.

In the sense that I’m a more active neighbor with “eyes on the street” — a phrase author, journalist, and activist Jane Jacobs coined in 1961 to stress the importance of vibrant street life to sustaining neighborhood safety and community — it’s a good thing. But I miss the feeling, the regulars, and the very air inside my urban living rooms: specifically, the well-worn corner bars I love popping into on the way to or from somewhere, where $20 still goes a long way and drinkers of all ages and backgrounds sit elbow to elbow.

It’s been over a century since the so-called Spanish flu hit Chicago with a vengeance in the fall of 1918, killing 8,500 in two months. To slow the pandemic’s spread, the health commissioner halted public dancing (yes, you hell-raising kids read that right); closed theaters, skating rinks, movie houses; and eventually banned all public gatherings. He never closed bars and restaurants, though, because people had no way of storing fresh food at home.

“It’s a curious situation that I’ve been thinking a lot about,” says beer historian Liz Garibay, who founded the nonprofit Chicago Brewseum. “Historically, we gravitate to drinking establishments and even non-drinking establishments to be with other people during times of crisis — whether personal, citywide, nationwide, or international. We have to stop and think and be with the people or environments that give us comfort, and bars have just been those places for so many who live in cities. It’s so unique in that we’ve been unable to do that.”

Pre-COVID-19, you might find Garibay bellied up at the seminal Old Town Ale House a few nights a week with her bike locked up out front. These days, she runs Brewseum Zoom meetups out of her apartment every couple weeks, where she’s made the porch her third place, thanks to the long-overdue purchase of grown-up patio furniture. She keeps tabs on her fellow Ale House regulars on Facebook: “most of the old timers have it,” and Twitter: “where my brewery people live.”

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order and ban on indoor dining and drinking on March 16, Ale House manager Tim Polk and co-owners Tobin Mitchell and Bruce Elliott closed for four months to carry out costly renovations, in part to keep up with COVID-19-era requirements — fixing up the floors, installing double-hung windows and a new ventilation system. Before then, Elliott can’t recall the Ale House being closed for even one day in the 15 years they’ve owned it — much less in the 49 years he’s been drinking there (it opened in 1958).

A person leaning against a light post in front of this bar.
Old Town Ale House is a Chicago classic.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
Bruce Elliott poses with portraits of movie critc Roger Ebert, TV host Anthony Bourdain, and Chicago journalist Irv Kupcinet.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

“There’s nothing evenly remotely comparable to this,” Elliott says. “Since Tobin and I had the bar, we’ve had a few times where the electricity went out, so we just ran the bar with candles. I don’t even recall us even shutting down after 9/11. We just turned on the TV, people came, and there was a lot of lively discussion. In fact, I think those are the times when people really need a bar most.”

The Ale House reopened on July 15 only to close again a week later, as a spike in COVID-19 prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to close bars not serving food. Ownership is optimistic that the bar can survive, but Elliott worries about the future of this category of joints and the characters who populate them.

“Bars perform an incredible function — as important as any Chicago institution,” he says. “There are certain people that the bar is their social life, that’s where they come. Maybe they’re kind of lonely or they don’t have family, or they are new in town, or they have character flaws or quirks.”

He describes himself as one such “unusual personality” for whom the bar makes up the bulk of his social life, but being 80 puts him squarely in the category of people who shouldn’t be in bars. A prolific painter (famously of irreverent nude portraits of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — both of which hang in the bar), writer, and reader, Elliott doesn’t mind being mostly confined to home. However, he’s lost interest in drinking his typical Ale House order of Bud Light over ice, which he calls a Polish martini.

It’s not just local bars that anchor Chicago’s neighborhoods. During 26 years in business, Cafe Jumping Bean has become a hub for the tight-knit neighborhood of Pilsen. Beyond a coffee shop offering caffeine and Wi-Fi to students and bringing families and coworkers together over lunch, the Jumping Bean has been a youth baseball team sponsor, gallery, and performing arts center. When the coronavirus ground the city to a halt, owner Eleazar Delgado knew he had to keep some semblance of the cafe alive for his shaken staff and community. It didn’t take long for customers to gather again, though it looked a little different.

“We have a bench outside on 18th Street, where people started sitting with their laptops,” Delgado says. “We also saw people having meetings at the curb, or standing at the corner, or they’d move a mile away to the patio at (sibling coffee shop L’Cafecito Jumping Bean). One day, I’ll never forget, I pulled up here at lunchtime and saw easily five cars parked and regulars were just all eating in their cars.”

The cafe’s proximity to the National Museum of Mexican Art has helped make it a tourist attraction in recent years, but these days it’s “100 percent the neighborhood” that’s lifting it back to almost 90 percent of pre-COVID-19 revenues. One morning in May, employees arrived at work to see a huge poster affixed to the front door, thanking them for staying open.

“We haven’t been able to give back like we normally do; now it’s coming back at us,” Delgado says.

The exterior of a cafe with folks sitting outside.
Cafe Jumping Bean in Pilsen is learning to adapt.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Folks ordering from a coffeeshop
Customers at Cafe Jumping Bean can order coffee and food, but they can’t stay.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood was among those hit hardest by the double whammy of COVID-19 and looting following protests of the killing of George Floyd that happened while he was in police custody. For months, residents have faced abysmally restricted access not just to local food, but to places offering some guise of normalcy.

“It’s bad,” admits Donnell Digby, a Chatham native and director of the Woodlawn, a community incubator with an event space, internet cafe, podcast studio, and rotating rooftop pop-up restaurant. “A lot of places are boarded up, businesses are not coming back; it’s hard to find an ATM in the community. We’re slowly getting grocery stores back online, and it’s getting back to somewhat operational, but it’s a slow drive.”

As a kid, Digby’s third place was sprawling Tuley Park, where he’d spend summer days swimming and playing pickup basketball. After living in the South Loop for 10 years, he moved back to Chatham with his son and opened the Woodlawn in 2018 to fill a void, creating a community hub people could walk to.

When the city went into lockdown, Digby, like Delgado, acted fast to keep his staff of about 10 employed and to offer residents a (socially distanced) third place. Even as the Woodlawn took a 50 percent sales hit, Digby purchased personal protective equipment for staff, upped security, and installed garage-style windows with soundbar systems that enabled customers to walk up and order food to go with still “a sense of service.”

Just as the new-look Woodlawn hit its stride, the civic unrest came.

The space sustained minimal exterior damage compared to many businesses, and only closed for a few days. “Immediately after, there were literally lines around the corner,” Digby says. “We could not keep people away.”

He’s gotten more inventive, especially since reopening the rooftop, where the Woodlawn features restaurant pop-ups from the likes of Uncle Joe’s Jerk, yoga classes, and weekly live band and DJ performances for small, socially distanced groups and those tuning into accompanying live streams. On Juneteenth, the Woodlawn sprawled into the lot across the street to throw a socially distanced party with jump rope contests, dancing, singing, and a movie shown on a large-screen TV. Revenues are on the upswing, thanks in part to the huge social media push for Chicagoans to support Black-owned restaurants, Digby says. “It was an outpouring of love and community support,” he says, and a reminder that “this thing we call ‘SummertimeCHI’ is still real.”

For a SummertimeCHI still gripped by a pandemic, toggling between necessary, shared isolation and the pull of human connection, the third place won’t look the same anytime soon. Maybe it’s catching up over a plate of jerk nachos atop the Woodlawn or in the grass at Tuley Park. Maybe it’s on a bike, taking a solo ride up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, like Garibay did a few weeks back, or at the Jackson Park Golf Course, where Elliott occasionally plays with a longtime Ale House bartender, who shares sightings of regulars around the hood.

As Garibay points out, it’s the people who make the third place, even more so than the environment.

For me, while the weather holds, it’s on the creaky wood steps of Logan Square’s finest stoop bar — drink in hand, companion a few steps below, and eyes on my little corner of the city.

Cafe Jumping Bean

1439 West 18th Street, , IL 60608 (312) 455-0019

Old Town Ale House

219 West North Avenue, , IL 60610 (312) 944-7020 Visit Website

The Woodlawn

1200 East 79th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 902-2470 Visit Website
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