A few days ago, I stood at the bed where Ernest Hemingway entered the world. The tour guide for the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum told my group of five that upon Hemingway’s late night birth, his father marched in the streets, blowing his trumpet for the whole Oak Park neighborhood to hear. The life of Chicago’s most famous writer had begun.
Hemingway’s Chicago has disappeared over the last century. The need to live in the suburbs to avoid the putrid smell of death from the stockyards has given way. Now the scent of chocolate often permeates the city center due to Blommer Chocolate factory. Perhaps Hemingway would have stuck around in the Chicago of 2018. Throughout the more than hundred years, Chicago rebuilt from the great fire and fostered a vibrant cultural scene that might have convinced a young Hemingway to stay, rather than escape to Paris so early in his life.
That’s just a thought experiment though. More tangible a question would be — can Chicago convince the next writing hero of the city to stay.
Last week, I attended a panel called “Don’t Move To Brooklyn: Living a Sustainable Writing Life in Chicago.” The recent National Book Awards fiction finalist and Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai moderated the conversation. As you can guess from the title — the panel made a convincing case for Chicago as the premier writing city. I left excited about the possibilities and the potential of this place (and with plans to read Makkai’s lauded novel, “The Great Believers”).
Of course, to actually enter any writing community here, you first need to, well, write. And, like exercise, the act of getting words on the page can be painful, no matter how great the payoff ultimately feels in the end.
A good writing space can lead to — good writing. So, finding your writing space is a necessary step on your path to becoming the next Hemingway or the next Makkai.
With that in mind, I have created this list to recommend five writing spaces in the city. I stuck to spaces located in what I’m considering “central Chicago” — the area immediately surrounding the horizontal stretch of the Chicago River.
I chose this area for a few reasons: The Loop and River North mostly consist of terrible spaces to write — offices, expensive shops, steakhouses etc. — and therefore the recommended spots can serve as respites. The centrality and prevalent CTA lines make this area accessible to the majority of the city. And I live in Marina City right at the cross-section of Dearborn and the river, so I frequent these spots myself.
Before getting into the list, I should admit that my “ideal writing space” is just the cheap desk in my apartment. You don’t need to go somewhere special to write. But if you feel like playing the part of a capital “W” — “Writer” in the city — I think these “clean, well-lighted places” will serve you well.
1. Chicago Athletic Association’s Drawing Room
What: The second-floor “lobby” space of the Chicago Athletic Association’s hotel. The gigantic room has a mix of comfortable chairs along with table space more suitable for hours of work.
When: Open M – F, 7 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Where: 12 S Michigan Ave.
Why: I believe this has been the most viscerally impressive room I’ve seen while in Chicago (save for Frank Lloyd Wright’s home studio in Oak Park). That this room rarely gets busy and has particularly fast Wi-Fi makes the place feel mythical. Elaborate wood carvings line the walls. Beautiful furniture dots the room. Multiple fire places add to the feeling that you’re working in a castle.
Cost: You’ll have to order something. But the drinks — coffee, tea, etc. — aren’t too expensive.
2. Harold Washington Library Center’s Winter Garden
What? The top-floor atrium space for The Harold Washington Library. A mix of trees and tables occupy this sunlight-filled room.
When? Open M – Th, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. / F – S, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. / Su, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Where? 400 S State St.
Why? You have to strain to see any signs of nature in the Loop. Even sunlight can be hard to come by given the shadows of the skyscrapers. But with this atrium’s height off the ground and its central location, the Winter Garden offers you a chance to feel like you’re on top of the world, while also being surrounded by reminders of the natural beauty that can come from underneath all the cement.
Cost: Free. But sometimes the library doesn’t set-up many tables, so you might struggle to get a spot.
3. Freehand’s Café Integral
What? A coffeeshop next to the lobby for the Freehand hostel. Couches and tables fill a multi-room space with hip decor.
When? Open M – S, 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. / Su, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Where? 19 E Ohio St.
Why? You’re basically out of luck if you’re in River North and looking for a hip place like the kinds of places you’d find somewhere off the Blue Line. Café Integral still falls on the “bougie” spectrum versus a truly hip place, but it definitely tries to look cool and mostly succeeds at that. It tends to play good music too.
Cost: The drinks are so expensive, but nobody will bother you to keep ordering more.
4. 3 Greens Market
What? A large coffeeshop with quirky decor. Besides featuring numerous tables to work, this place also has a small putting green, a full buffet and doughnuts from the nearby Doughnut Vault.
When? Open M – F, 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. / S – Su, 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Where? 354 W Hubbard St.
Why? I found the furniture choices to be impressively strange. I did become annoyed when I realized the place’s ping-pong table doesn’t get used for ping-pong and instead serves as a work space, but so be it. You’re trying to write, not practice your forehand spin.
5. Pops for Champagne’s Watershed
What? A basement bar that serves a range of local beers and spirits. This low-key underground space acts as a contrast to the upstairs bar where you can buy a ~$1,000 bottle of champagne.
When? Open T – Su, 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.
Where? 601 N State St.
Why? During the week, Watershed rarely gets busy. None of the chairs lend themselves that well to solo work, but if you find a friend, you could command one of the private wooden booths along the stone wall. Or you could do that by yourself if you have no shame.
Cost? Compared to the menu upstairs (and the typical menus in River North), drinks are pretty cheap. You can get a Schlitz for $3 and it even comes in custom glassware.