(Originally written in early 2016 for a certain Chicago publication which paid the kill fee rather than run it. Their loss, the blog’s gain.)
One particular place sums up Rogers Park for me: Cunneen’s bar, at the northeast corner of Devon and Newgard. In the twenty-seven years I worked there, I learned how few people recognize that cross street. It only runs for a half mile between Devon and Pratt, and so is as obscure to most Chicagoans as Rogers Park is remote.
Back in the proverbial day, Cunneen’s was defined against another tavern across Devon, Connolly’s, owned by a precinct captain and so the hangout for the Regular 49th Ward Democratic Party crowd. Cunneen’s was, according to one barfly I knew who never darkened its door, “the hippie bar.” Word on the street was that customers played chess as well as pool, and the music was more likely to be classical or jazz rather than classic rock or Irish.
Nonetheless, a one-of-a-kind clock featuring the stern visage of Mayor Richard J. Daley overlooks this Lakefront Liberal crowd. The ability to perceive irony is practically a prerequisite for being a regular.
The clientele, regular and stray, expresses the diversity of the neighborhood: white, black, Latino, Asian; neighborhood lifers, immigrants from Ethiopia, Bosnia, Poland, or Ireland; Loyola and Northwestern students; straight and all along the GLBTQ spectrum; teachers, letter-carriers, city workers, suit-and-tie types along with retirees and the not-so-gainfully unemployed.
Cunneen’s continues traditions of the old-time saloon, largely lost in contemporary Chicago bar culture. It’s a post office and library as well as a spot to booze, as regulars get packages shipped there, and leave books behind the bar for the bartender to deliver to whoever’s reading it next.
When a regular has a death in the family, it’s not a question of whether the bar will be represented at the wake, it’s a question of how many cars will be needed and who the designated drivers will be.
Since Cunneen’s (thankfully) lacks a kitchen, customers bring in food from all over Rogers Park and, by extension, the world. Cuban sandwiches from La Unica, burritos from El Chorrito, noodles from Thai Spice. Pizza from Villa Palermo or JB Alberto’s, subs from Capt’n Nemo’s, beef patties from the Caribbean-American Baking Company.
Such a bar culture ultimately depends on the personality of its owner, and there’s no one more laid-back than Steve Cunneen himself, as he takes a laissez-faire attitude towards pretty much everything except White Sox baseball, which (2005 excepted) makes him rageful.
When my shift was over, the trash taken out, the coolers stocked, the cash counted, and the chairs up on the tables, we’d sit and have a drink and talk about the doings in the bar, politics, or baseball. When it was time to go, he’d sometimes say, no matter what the ring: “Well, it was a good day. We got away with it again.”
That Cunneen’s has gotten away with being itself since 1972 shows how thoroughly the place and its people are Rogers Park.