This week the Chicago Reader offered a feature story on the plight of the Heartland Café. It seems that the Rogers Park institution is having significant cash problems due in part to the economy and access to reasonable loan terms. Not to mention that perhaps many of us have taken it for granted, assuming it would always be there. It may be that the management team is not the most sophisticated as owner Michael James eludes to in the article, but I come to praise Caesar and avoid having him buried.
I find it interesting that some businesses, perhaps particularly restaurants and cafes take on a persona of their own and seem to exist beyond the scope of their owners whose role becomes more that of caretaker. These rare institutions (for lack of a better term) are housed within a building but exist also as a community. Patrons contribute to the ambience and become players in the theater of life upon the stage that the institution provides. In fact Michael James says in the Reader article that the Heartland functions as a kind of community center. To say that the Heartland is a restaurant is to reduce it to the simplest terms. The Heartland is a place but it is also a state of being that most people recognize even on their first visit. It is performance art with a decades long run.
For some of us who have been visiting the Heartland, well, since its inception, it is our first apartment, it is our old friends, it is in my case my first business that was just down the street on Glenwood, it is our youth, it is our optimism, it is our hope for the future. I find comfort knowing that the Heartland is there because after about 30 years it is still serving up strong brew to young minds. Politics aside I am referring to a place that encourages artistic thought and diverse community.
My love and admiration for the Heartland is not purely nostalgic, though in a rapidly changing world and in a city with a strong tradition for tearing down the old to make way for the new, the Heartland is a touchstone for many who have wandered in and found a welcoming sense of place that is closer to a public park then it is to a mere restaurant. Young people and those with an artistic or political mission still seem attracted to this spot on the planet. Yes I find comfort in the fact that it is one of only a handful of places in the city that looks pretty much as I remember from my youth. Though fashions have changed the people look ageless and eerily familiar.
Here are some ideas, Read the Reader article to understand the problems or visit heartlandcafe.com. Owner Michael James is open to expert advice if you have it to offer. He suggests that access to favorable long term financing would help, if you have the proper connections. If you are in Chicago just go have lunch or dinner sometime in the next 14 days. Cash flow always helps. If you have friends in Chicago encourage them to do the same. Imagine if a thousand returning patrons showed up in the next month and spent $15 or $20. Retweet this article or spread the word in your own way.
A few years back when I met a friend from High School and I told him I lived in Roger Park he said, “Oh! That’s where old hippies go to die.” Oddly I took that as a compliment. Don’t let this old hippie die. Do what you can to help the Heartland.