Updated: January 5, 2014 6:17AM
In the pantheon of urban development nightmares, there is really only one city block that can be described as famous or, more precisely, infamous: Block 37.
Notorious as “cursed” and “a boondoggle,” the area bounded by Randolph, Washington, Dearborn and State sat mostly empty for 20 years, poorly masked by various half-efforts to hide its yawning vacancy in the heart of the Loop: an ice skating rink; an arts and crafts festival.
In 1996, a book was published about the doomed efforts to make something take hold there. Ross Miller’s, “Here’s the Deal,” deemed it a “fiasco,” cataloging years of lawsuits and protests over the “gold-plated hole in the ground.”
Finally, in 2009, a four-story mall opened.
Then the trouble really began: bankruptcy; more lawsuits; 70 percent vacancy.
It says something about the outer Neptune orbital ring of Chicago consciousness the north half of the block occupies — CBS Studios is on the southern part, lifting the curse there — when the idea of actually stepping into an establishment on Block 37 never crossed my mind until Monday, after I noticed the Doughnut Vault’s distinctive cornflower-blue 1957 van parked on the sidewalk directly under the Dearborn entrance to what is boldly (or foolishly) called “Block Thirty Seven Shops on State.”
If Block 37 exerts a repulsive force on profits and customers, the Doughnut Vault is the opposite, radiating a magnetic, indeed, mesmeric, power. I bought a doughnut even though I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want one.
I was chatting with Derek, the guy in the van, when a frantic publicist, seeing my notebook, waylaid me, insisting on personally escorting me that instant into Block 37. It all happened so quickly, it was a little discombobulating, as if a hatch opened in the Bean and a gnome yanked me inside. I would have preferred a bit of ceremony, the way buses entering Jerusalem will pause to let the occupants weep and sing and pray.
The mall has been open four years, but the second floor has the raw feel of a space opening next month. There is one store.
Otherwise, a corner of the vacant second floor has been taken over by Nosh, the pop-up food fair that has been appearing at farmers markets like the Green City Market in Lincoln Park and in Logan Square.
“It’s a little slow,” admitted Aaron Wolfson, owner of Chicago’s Dog House, shooting for a Hot Doug’s vibe with exotic franks. I tried the $8 smoked alligator sausage with caramelized onions and sweet chili sauce. Mmm. Another high point was Lindy’s Chili, which you normally have to haul yourself to the South Side to experience.
“We’ve been doing it a long, long time, so we’ve got it down,” said Rich Wierenga, who owns “the best two” of Lindy’s seven Chicago-area outlets, and who showed the proper South Sider’s contempt for those north of Roosevelt Road. “It’s interesting,” he said, of selling chili in the Northlands. “We get a lot of requests for vegetarian chili.” By “interesting” he means, I assume, “disgusting in a way that instills me with amusement and contempt” since Lindy’s, open since 1924, does not sell vegetarian chili and never will.
The various restaurants, caterers and full-time pop-up food purveyors won’t all be there every day; they rotate. For instance, the Doughnut Vault van is not coming back. So there probably isn’t much point to reviewing each of the various booths. Karl’s Craft Soup ladled out an interesting smoked-pumpkin bisque, apologizing for failing to master the expected heating technology — one assumes they’re fixing that. Gayle Voss has an interesting backstory. She represents Prairie Pure Cheese at farmers markets and found herself next to a Bennison’s Bakery booth selling bread. Nearby, fresh butter, and thus was Gayle Grilled Cheese born.
If you do go, after eating your fill, make sure you wander up to the third floor to gaze respectfully on the expanse of closed stores, noting the brave, sad mural showing the busy, successful food court that isn’t there.
Visit soon. First, Nosh (open 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) disappears Dec. 13. Second, there is no reason to assume the block’s woes are over. One expects a sulfurous hell mouth to open up next, sucking the building down, or a meteor to hit, or some other kind of strange, nowhere-else-but-here calamity. Nothing should be surprising at this point.
What Block 37 needs is not pop-up food, but an exorcism. Get Bishop Paprocki up here from Springfield. If he can cast out the demon of tolerating gay people, then a simple city block that somehow ran afoul of the Great Karmic Wheel and became accursed by fate should be a snap.