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Books

Hit the streets: Jessica Mlinaric’s new book takes readers on a scavenger hunt across 17 Chicago neighborhoods

CHICAGO -- Writer and photographer Jessica Mlinaric wants Chicagoans back on the streets.

The last time we heard from her, it was 2018 and she was revealing tidbits of Chicago information, like where one can sunbathe on a Lake Michigan shipwreck and where one could ride in one of Chicago’s only manually operated elevators — all details found in her book “Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.”

The Wicker Park resident and urbnexplorer.com blogger now has a second book, “Chicago Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for Chicago’s Hidden Treasures,” — one that seeks to help readers explore the city and unlock the hidden gems in its neighborhoods.

Mlinaric said she “wanted to come up with a way for people to engage in the city again, in a safe way.”

“All of the places that are featured in ‘Scavenger’ are things you see outdoors,” Mlinaric said. “We just wanted people to be able to get together outside safely, and enjoy the city. Just writing the book last summer, it was so nice for me to be able to get out and explore other neighborhoods again, and remember everything that’s out there in Chicago — all the different communities, restaurants and small businesses to support and things to see that we didn’t really get to enjoy for a little while.”

The book enlists readers in an interactive mission to explore 17 neighborhoods — from Rogers Park to Pullman. Readers have to decipher rhyming and visual clues that lead them to sites and locales imbued with history. Grouped by neighborhood and organized by suggested routes, there are 342 spots for viewers to discover — revealing public art, city oddities, less-known museums, overlooked historical markers and more.

Take the Pullman neighborhood, for instance. Mlinaric takes readers through the company town built in 1881 for employees of the Pullman Palace Car Co. Readers start their tour of the area, notable for its labor history, at the famous clock tower (now the visitor center); they go under the Metra train line viaduct to see public artwork that speaks to said labor history; and then go by the Queen Anne building, the exhibit hall with a vivid mural, a horse’s head, a place of worship and a building that was once the Pullman area’s hospital. Don’t forget to take in the war memorial and the shared gallery space that doubles as affordable housing for artists to live and create.

The Tribune spoke with Mlinaric about adventuring in Chicago with her book at our side. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You were surprised to learn how easy it is for Chicagoans to stay in their neighborhood bubble. Do you think this book will turn the tide?

I hope so. With it coming out in the spring, hopefully that will be good timing for everybody to get out and enjoy the city again. I’m thinking people can take their kids out or go out with their friends and challenge each other to see who can get the most places in one neighborhood. Or just do it by yourself. Keep the book in your car. And, if you’re driving around and you need something to do, just take it out because it’s spiral-bound, so it’s more like a workbook. It’s really meant to be used; there’s places for notes in there. Take it out and hit the town.

I hope there are things people will recognize right away and some things they’ll discover that they didn’t know about. Chicago is so big, there’s plenty of places that people who lived here forever have never been, so challenge yourself to go see something new. Go check out a different community. Talk to people across town. That can be a big deal.

Q: How did you land on which of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods to include in the book?

I got a mix of neighborhoods from around the city, from the Northwest and South sides and also the Loop. I wanted to choose places where there was a concentration of points of interest close to each other so it would be easy enough to either walk or bike or drive from place to place in the neighborhood. And the places that I picked are either something that’s visually exciting or interesting, maybe something historically significant or just really meaningful to the neighborhood.

Q: How hard was it to select photos for clues without giving it all away?

I took all the photos in the book. There’s 342 places and some of them were challenging to try to get a photo that wouldn’t give it all away. But it’s meant to be a hint. If you’re nearby and you’re looking for it, it’s supposed to hopefully tip you off to make sure that you know you found this.

Q: How hard was it to write every clue in rhyme? You managed to rhyme ‘restored’ with ‘forbs.’

I learned that word. I am not a poet by background. I’ve never tried to write in rhyme before so I wasn’t sure I could do it. I took a day and a few ideas and sat down and tried to make it work. It was fun; about 350 clues in rhyme, I was feeling a bit like Dr. Seuss. Once I chose the sites, I thought about what do I want the reader to know about them? Why did I choose it, why is it historic or significant and then a little description of where they can find it so they know what they’re looking for. I took those keywords and then just tried to find rhyming combinations with them. I hope that they make sense to the readers. I was talking in rhyme for a while there and I think my husband thought I was losing my mind.

Q: Is the next step to cover all the city’s neighborhoods?

That would be fun. If I could just keep doing them and eventually cover all of Chicago. Because as much as I learned about Chicago, I always end up with more questions and more things to research and go check out; people to talk to. You can never really do all of Chicago, but it’s fun to try though.

Q: What is the unique thing you found in your travels. Were you surprised by anything?

Some of the things that surprised me: Learning about the stories behind some of the public art that you see. If you’ve been by the lakefront, there’s that totem pole near Belmont Harbor, and that’s based on an earlier work that used to be in Chicago. And different restaurants like Pilsen’s Carnitas Uruapan has been there since 1975. Or Lutz Cafe in Lincoln Square has been there since 1948. I think that’s so special. ... To learn about how certain things have been there as communities have changed and grown over time.

Q: How long does it take to go through a neighborhood on this city scavenger hunt?

I would say to budget about a day for each neighborhood. I am fully aware and expect people to Google or do whatever you have to do on your phone and find it. If you’re just out and you see something, or you’re having brunch and you’re in one of the neighborhoods in the book and you’ve got it handy, just go out and do it.

I am going to have a little contest on my website for everyone who wants to really dig in and solve all the clues. I’ll have some prizes. ... Take a picture of each site and upload it on my website. And you’ll get points (there will be a leaderboard). And that’s for anyone who wants to do it “Amazing Race” style. You can certainly be a little more casual about it. Just go out with your family, friends, colleagues at work for a team-building exercise.

Q: Is there a lot of overlap or some overlap from the first book to the second? Maybe former readers can connect the dots with the second book?

There is a little bit of overlap. I would say if you’ve read the first book, you’ll have a bit of an upper hand on this one. But the first book, “Secret Chicago,” was more background on each place, more information and photos and things. Whereas this book is me giving you all the information about a place; I’m kind of pointing you in the direction and you’re discovering it on your own.

Q: Was there any neighborhood that really sparked your interest?

I’m excited to get people down to Pullman because it’s pretty unique that we have a national monument here in Chicago. I think a lot of people haven’t made the trip down to visit and they have a new visitor center, and the administration building has been redone since last summer.

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©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 18, 2022 4:00 AM.

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