Going Down in Flames

Matt Farmer and the Blue State Cowboys


This was recorded way back in early 2018, but Trump is timeless…

The Heartland Cafe — R.I.P.

42 years: blink and you’ve missed it

The current owner of the Heartland Café, Tom Rosenfeld, put the property up for sale in August of 2018. Back then, one possibility was that the building would remain and the Heartland might continue as a tenant. However, Rosenfeld just announced that they were progressing toward a sale but with the new owner planning on a new building. Rosenfeld went on to say they were scouting new locations, but his wording was sufficiently vague and tentative that someone as naturally pessimistic as myself would assume Rosenfeld will take the money and instead support his original passion: organic farming — which, after all, can’t be any more profitable than the restaurant. The Heartland’s last day is said to be December 31.

Considering how large and ugly the new buildings along Morse Avenue are, I’m not looking forward to whatever replaces the Heartland building.

For those who are not from around here, the Heartland Café was only sometimes adequate as a restaurant. Much more successfully, it was a performance venue, a gallery, a community center and a political institution in Chicago’s 49th Ward. In the 21st Century (and maybe for some years earlier), it was also quite frankly a tourist trap for folks looking for hippies or (more likely) remembering having been one back in the day.

The Heartland was established in 1976 by Katy Hogan, Michael James and Stormy Libman, the idea allegedly inspired by a mescaline trip. Hogan, I know, was the daughter of a leader in the IBEW. James had been a leader in the Students for a Democratic Society, participating in their Jobs Or Income Now community organizing project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Libman and James were married. James had also been involved in publishing an Uptown neighborhood underground newspaper, Rising Up Angry. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Hogan and Libman had been involved with the paper as well, but I never asked nor do I have a masthead to consult.

James continued the tradition of Rising Up Angry by publishing, at irregular intervals, The Heartland Journal. It shared Rising Up Angry’s psychedelic underground style, albeit rather more accessible for reading… as befits an older and less intoxicated audience. James and Hogan also began a weekly radio program, “Live from the Heartland“, featuring political and cultural topics in an interview format. If I remember correctly, you can also find videos of most of the programs on YouTube.

Over the years, the Heartland Café took over the other businesses in the building (a bar and a theatre) as well as the venerable No Exit Café after it had moved a few doors south of the Heartland along Glenwood.

When Tom Rosenfeld took over, my impression is that he hoped running a restaurant would be synergistic with his organic farming. The Heartland always had a general store that sold condiments, books, magazines, novelties and such. Rosenfeld reduced the food service area by switching the restaurant room with the general store and turning the general store into a mini Whole Foods. I think it was a clever idea except for all the competition.

The CTA retaining wall along southbound Glenwood Avenue between Greenleaf and Lunt is devoted to what is essentially a block long commercial for the Heartland.

Remembering the No Exit Café. Photo by Roman.

Interestingly, the murals begin by commemorating the No Exit Café. As an institution, the No Exit actually began in Evanston. I don’t know when it moved to Rogers Park. When I moved to Rogers Park, it inhabited a large store front at the corner of Lunt and northbound Glenwood — which is to say east of the CTA tracks while the Heartland is west. I’ve forgotten when but sometime around the turn of the century the No Exit moved to a smaller location west of the tracks on Glenwood. After a while, it became more of a theatre venue than a coffee house. The No Exit finally gave up the ghost in early 2018. Now it is Le Piano.

Presumably also a folksinger. Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman

I don’t recall Charlotte Goldberg, but I worked with Tobey Prinz as a tenant organizer when I first moved to Rogers Park. She was a leader in the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. I learned I was not particularly good at being an organizer.

The original name of her group had been something like the Rogers Park Committee Against Unemployment and Inflation. If that sounds like something out of the 1930s, you’re on to something. Think of it as a generational thing. It became the Tenants Committee because, it turned out, landlord / tenant disputes was the most pressing issue for most people in Rogers Park. The neighborhood really owes a lot to the Rogers Park Tenants Committee and to Tobey Prinz. The rest of Chicago as well: 49th Ward Alderman David Orr and the Rogers Park Tenants Committee were lead players in passing the Tenants’ Bill of Rights ordinance. Through a merger or two, the Rogers Park Tenants Committee lives on as Northside Action for Justice.

Yes, Obama kicked off his campaign for the U.S. Senate at the Heartland Café. Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman
Mural credits. Photo by Roman.
The entrance to the Heartland in its last days. Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman

Note that the building is setback from Lunt Avenue. This is a fairly common feature in Rogers Park, maybe other neighborhoods, “to guaranee generous front yards and a consistent appearance of a block.” This was from the 1920s when it was assumed the plot(s) would be single family housing. You can find out more at “Anatomy of a Small Urban Plaza: Jarvis Square“.

Photo by Roman.

I must admit that in the past several years, I’ve only eaten at the Heartland a few times a year, even though it’s only a few blocks from my apartment. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to their bar. And I’m not sure that I’ve been to the No Exit this century. Mostly, I just don’t have the money for it, and I’d rather cook than be served. Still, I’m going to miss the Heartland, mostly because I’m not sure what it will mean for the neighborhood, including my ability to live here, and what it will mean for politics in the 49th Ward.