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Book Review: Secret Chicago

Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and ObscureJessica Mlinaric. St. Louis: Reedy Press, April 1, 2018, Trade Paperback, 216 pages. 

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

Recently I was asked to give a talk at the Chicago Cigar Society. Huh? What’s that and where could such a group possibly gather in public? 

About the same time, I fortuitously came across a copy of Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, by Jessica Mlinaric. Right there, on page 182, was the answer to some of my questions. Iwan Ries, a tobacco company at 19 S. Wabash Avenue, operates the Loop’s only smoking lounge, grandfathered in because the business was founded in 1857. That makes Iwan Ries America’s oldest family-owned tobacco shop! The lounge has three beautiful rooms lined with carved, wooden paneling and filled with leather chairs scattered around under sparkling chandeliers. And it’s located in Louis Sullivan’s oldest surviving building.

These are the kinds of things you’ll discover as you read about the unusual, yet fascinating, places that Jessica Mlinaric profiles in her intriguing new book. 

This extremely readable book will introduce you to turtle races in a bar called Big Joes; trapeze lessons at Aloft Circus Arts in a former evangelical church; an iconic, 14-foot-tall, bespeckled Indian sculpture that advertises, of all things, an eye clinic; and Plant Chicago, a “vertical farm” focused on energy conservation and the constructive reuse of waste products. This nonprofit is home to sixteen (and counting) sustainable food production businesses, including a brewery—if we can include beer as food. 

Even if you think you know Chicago well and are familiar with some of its out-of-the-way haunts, you would be surprised to learn from this book about many more hidden gems, quirky attractions, and lonely landmarks that have stayed below the radar—until now. You may have heard of Dunning, the long-shuttered Cook County insane asylum on the northwest side, but did you know that 38,000 unnamed souls remained buried on the former grounds? You may have walked down the wooden-block alley behind the Archbishop’s Residence on State Parkway, but did you know that in 1891, a full 62 percent of Chicago’s 774 miles were similarly paved with wood? You’ve heard that Mies van der Rohe designed much of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus, but did you know that IIT’s Ed Glancy Field was used to train Michael Jordan, Madonna, Tom Hanks and other famous people to play baseball? 

Ever since moving to Chicago from Cleveland eight years ago, Mlinaric has been captivated by the amusing, offbeat, perplexing, and even cheeky things she encountered while walking and biking around the Windy City. Her curiosity led her to start listing these oddities, with the intent of investigating and writing about them later for her blog and freelance articles, which have appeared in the Chicagoistand other publications. 

“I expected to just check things off my list, but the list kept growing and I kept modifying it,” she said in an interview. “I would add new things that friends would mention and drop other things that turned out to be less interesting or inaccessible to the public.” 

Yes, Mlinaric is still keeping that list, and we hope it will lead to another book, since this, her first book, is clear, concise, and engaging. In addition, she shot the photographs, including sixteen color photos in the middle of the book, all of which help to illuminate the often-mysterious subject matter.  

True to the spirit of her book, Mlinaric will launch her new book on May 6, 2018, from 2-5 pm at The Drifter, one of the sites she profiled in Secret Chicago. This hideaway is in the basement of The Green Door Tavern, which was a speakeasy during Prohibition. If you attend, you’ll surely learn the meaning of the tavern’s name. But don’t worry if you feel a little disoriented by the way the building leans, “a tilt that’s been disorienting drinkers for nearly 150 years,” Mlinaric wrote. “Just select a cocktail from the list printed on tarot cards and enjoy the night’s entertainment.” On the night of the book launch, that may or may not include The Drifter’s usual offering of burlesque, magic and sword swallowing.


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