We got an unusual assignment the other day: Choose any western suburb, spend a day there and find some news stories.
We quickly chose Berwyn. Surely there could be no place in the Chicago area with more possibilities for quirky stories than this city of 56,657 residents.
What did we find? Berwyn delivers plenty of comical idiosyncrasies, yes, but also a lesson for other Chicago suburbs full of immigrants.
Some background. Berwyn occupies less than 4 square miles just south of Oak Park, birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and site of the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes. What genius has Berwyn spawned? The city’s closest equivalent to a Hemingway novel might be the Spindle, a 50-foot-tall spike that impaled eight 1970s-era cars in a shopping-center parking lot until its 2008 demolition. Instead of Wright’s architectural gems, Berwyn has an estimated 200 blocks of aging bungalows.
Berwyn has had its share of corruption scandals too but, if notoriety is the measure, the city still falls short. Just east stands Cicero, the town made famous by Al Capone. If anyone has made Berwyn famous, it’s Rich Koz, the Me-TV horror host known as Svengoolie, who refers to “beautiful Berwyn” the way Johnny Carson once mocked “beautiful downtown Burbank.”
Humble as it may be, there’s something special about Berwyn. That something is a creative spirit, and it goes far beyond a fledgling arts scene that city boosters talk up. On our daytrip to Berwyn, we felt the creativity at mom-and-pop businesses and nonprofit organizations. We suspect it has something to do with an immigrant entrepreneurial culture — Berwyn is now 60 percent Latino — and a willingness on the part of many to embrace the city’s newcomers.
To see what we mean, consider just three Berwyn treasures.
The World’s Largest Laundromat has no shortage of things to brag about. And its manager, Mark Benson, has no qualms about doing the bragging.
Benson says the laundromat, rebuilt after a 2004 fire, has 157 washers and 144 dryers. It provides entertainment with 16 flat-screen televisions, an eight-foot-tall bird aviary, a children’s play area, an Internet café, and free performances by clowns and magicians. It feeds its customers with a deli-style vending area and, on some evenings, free pizza. It heats its water with 36 rooftop solar panels.
And now Benson can boast about something else. He has started helping his customers, most of whom have roots in Mexico, get answers to questions about U.S. legal status and the ever-changing U.S. immigration enforcement landscape.
Last fall Benson contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which agreed to dispatch agents to run an information table during peak laundromat hours. The agents have now done so on three occasions.
The questions have ranged from how to get a tourist visa for loved ones back home, to the application process for getting work papers under President Barack Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” policy.
“We advertised it but we saw it as a service to our customers,” Benson said. “You’re here on a Saturday for two hours doing your laundry, and you can get those questions answered while you’re here.”
Berwyn’s version of Ellis Island, in other words, is a laundromat.
When Guadalupe López expanded her tiny Chicago-based business to a Berwyn site in 2003, it seemed like she had the city’s main drag all to herself.
And, when competitors sprang up, her Flamingo’s 2 Ice Cream Parlor at 6733 W. Cermak Road kept humming along — and kept expanding its already-dizzying array of nieves, as Mexicans call their ice creams.
Many of the flavors are fruit-based. Most of them are highly unusual if not unique. All of them, López says, are hand-stirred by members of her family.
We couldn’t count all the flavors but López says her Berwyn shop now offers 130. It didn’t take much arm-twisting to convince us to sample a few. We started with a spicy treat called “Devil’s Pineapple.”
Then it was a sweet granular creation called “Parmesan.” Next we tried “Guanábana,” made with a melon-like tropical fruit that is nearly the size of a basketball. Then it was “Chango Zamorano,” named after a cheese typical of a western Mexican town. Then “Roasted Coconut,” “Golden Dates,” “Granola” and on from there.
Our editors didn’t promise we’d lose weight on this assignment.
With so many unique offerings, it’s hard to believe López’s business could be fighting for its life. But she says Flamingo’s has taken two big blows. The first was the economic downturn. The second was a new competitor just a couple blocks down the road. La Michoacana, a chain of bigger and brighter ice-cream shops, opened up last spring.
How does López plan to survive? “What we have to do is just add more flavors!” she said. “We have to find more rare fruits!”
That had us wondering where she could possibly squeeze in flavors beyond the 130.
“I have freezers in the back,” López assured. “If you want to taste a flavor that I don’t have in front, I’ll just go and get a little scoop and you can taste it.”
“But I’m going to stay with fruits,” she added. “I’m going to stay with everything that is natural. I want the children to have the same thing as the grownups but just a little bit more colorful. In a couple days, I just go to sleep and come up with another flavor.”
Cecelia Bacom has all sorts of small sculptures and paintings in her office. Some you might find at a Hallmark store. Others look handmade. But each seems to have a common theme: strong mothers.
Bacom, who heads the midwifery program at PCC Community Wellness Center, is celebrating the results of a hearing that could be the final bureaucratic hurdle in the way of Illinois’s first birth center outside a hospital.
A PCC proposal for the birth center went before the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board, an agency that regulates medical construction. That board voted unanimously for the project Tuesday afternoon.
PCC, a nonprofit chain of federally funded clinics in neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side and nearby suburbs, is planning the birth center to be part of its clinic at 6201 W. Roosevelt Road in Berwyn.
“Hospitals are not necessarily the best, safest or cheapest place for women to have babies,” said Bacom, who lives just a few blocks from the clinic.
The facility would give women who cannot afford a home birth another option for a homelike setting and reduced chances of medical interventions such as cesarean sections.
Bacom says each birthing mother would get a pair of midwives devoted fully to her during shifts of at least 24 hours. The care would be much more intense and personal than what a maternity operation such as Prentice Women’s Hospital typically provides. The PCC center would serve women with low-risk pregnancies and refer others to a hospital nearby.
The PCC birth center would be the first fruit from 25 years of lobbying and organizing by Chicago-area midwives and their allies.
“For the midwifery community, this is a landmark,” Bacom said.
They pushed for a 2007 state law that allows up to 10 birth centers in the state. They spent years longer hammering out the administrative rules.
They overcame stiff opposition from groups representing Illinois physicians and hospitals, including the Illinois State Medical Society and the Illinois Hospital Association. Those groups did not fight the Berwyn proposal.