The Heartland Always Wanted to Be More Than a Restaurant

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(With construction ready to start on the land once occupied by the Heartland Cafe, Loyola University Chicago student Luis Mejia Ahrens looks back at the origins of what was both a cultural and culinary touchstone both for Rogers Park residents, and people all over the city.)

On the last day of 2018, the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park closed its doors for the very last time.

After being a staple of the Rogers Park community for more than 40 years, the owner said that changing times and rising maintenance costs led to the sale of the building, which has since been demolished to make way for a 5-story commercial and residential development.

When the final stone came down during its demolition last April, it marked the end of a four-decade legacy of being a hub for community engagement and free expression.

Providing “wholesome food for the mind and body” was the mission goal for the Heartland Cafe in the mid-1970s according to former owners and co-founders Katy Hogan and Michael James.

“There was no healthy food place comfortable like a diner,” said Hogan. “Diners were all over the place back then and they all served things like hamburgers. Call it deluxe and they throw in a plate of greasy fries. There was nothing made from scratch”

Long time activists and friends, James and Hogan wanted a place in Chicago to provide a healthier alternative. As political activists, a steady source of income was not quite available, but they pooled their savings—somewhere around $4,000—and opened the doors of the Heartland Cafe for the first time in 1976.

From the beginning, the heart and soul of the Heartland lived within Hogan and James themselves, moving the Heartland from just another neighborhood eatery, to a more intimate enterprise. It was business where the customer felt like they themselves had a personal stake in the history of the Heartland.

This focus on the community was there even before the restaurant formally inaugurated.

“As we were gutting the place, our doors were always open,” remembers Hogan. “People would come in asking how we were doing and ask when we would open. We’d just put down our hammers and start talking to them.”

As Hogan’s and James’s little restaurant began to receive attention, and with the importance of community engagement firmly set, the Heartland developed its own identity, setting three important tenets as the foundation of its purpose:

  1. To serve good, wholesome food;
  2. To provide a positive work experience, and;
  3. To become a center for information, community, and activity.

The Heartland Cafe had become a choice gathering space for young minds and different groups to meet and organize without fear of censorship and judgement. It became a welcoming environment for anyone that walked through its doors, regardless of their sex, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. Within the confines of the Heartland, all walls were torn down. This extends to more than just metaphorical barriers, for the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room was also removed, further advancing the idea that any customer walking through the doors of the Heartland Cafe was welcomed to a greater family.

Enveloping all three of these key foundations was a desire to motivate people to go forth politically. This was then moved to a more general desire to encourage people to do good in their lives, but a spirit of political action and activism was always present within the corner of Glenwood and Lunt. This political awareness paired with the welcoming environment of the Heartland made it popular with grass roots movements, most notably being the place where a young Barack Obama started his Senatorial campaign in 2004, and even welcoming such guests as Harold Washington.

The permanent closing of the Heartland Cafe has left a hole in the history of Rogers Park. It had become a staple in the community, being the main watering hole for many, and a second home to others.

At the very least, Rogers Park lost a gathering space for residents.

“There aren’t a lot of cool spots around,” said Eileen Katona, long-time resident of Rogers Park. “I would think that young people would like a place to hang out like the Heartland. Even us old people like to go out in a while.”

The passion the Heartland Cafe had for its community is still present with its founders. Hogan and James both agree that the loss of the of the Heartland is sad for both them and the neighborhood, with James even saying it is still an “open wound.” But it was this very connection and strong ties to the community that makes their pain almost worth it.

The last owners of the Heartland Cafe, who purchased the restaurant from Hogan and James in 2012, have proposed the idea of re-opening the Heartland at a secondary location sometime in the future. Until that day comes, however, the memory of the Heartland Cafe still lives on with the once-loyal customers.

“I think the Heartland is missed by all who were part of it,” said Hogan. “But it is all of you who miss it; you are the Heartland. All of you embody it.”

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