New Nando’s makes dream come true for young South African artist

By Taylor Hartz | Staff Writer

October 9, 2017

Tulsha Booysen never thought she would leave Africa. A recent high school graduate from Cape Town, South Africa, the young artist had never traveled outside of her home country, and neither had anyone in her family. Then this summer, Booysen received a call that she would soon be boarding a plane bound for Chicago. 

The trip was sponsored by Nando’s, the South African Peri-Peri chicken restaurant with 12 popular locations in Chicago, and 1,200 more worldwide. When Nando’s decided to open a new Chicago flagship store on Michigan Avenue, they held their usual “Hot Young Designer Contest,” to find an aspiring artist who could design the new restaurant’s centerpiece. Booysen, 19, was the youngest contestant to ever win the Nando’s competition. Her “CanBeam Chandelier” design for a 21-foot chandelier made of over 7000 aluminum cans was unveiled Sept. 4 at the opening of Nando’s Michigan Ave. store.

Booysen entered the contest while she was still in high school, and said she was inspired to use a material that would otherwise go to waste. The installation she designed is a chandelier-style light fixture made up of more than 6,500 repurposed alumni cans, painted in bright, bold colors and strung together.

“There are so many of them, and I thought I could make them into something,” said Booysen, who collected cans from local vendors and shop owners around Cape Town when creating her prototype.

Tracy Lynch, one of the judges for the Hot Young Designer Contest, said the use of aluminum cans really stood out to the judges. Lynch said she admired Booysen’s “need to work with discarded cans that she saw being used creatively by other Southern Africans,” and “also appreciated that Tulsha saw the manufacturing process as an opportunity to create work for others in her community.”

Surrounded by the vibrant designs of South African artists in her own community, Booysen said she has dreamt of becoming a designer since she began taking art and design classes at her high school. Goals of becoming a professional designer felt far off for the student, who said she never thought she’d see one of her designs on display this early in her career.

“It’s been absolutely unbelievable,” said Booysen.

When Booysen was notified that she won the contest through a phone call with Nando’s, her eyes filled up with tears as she was told that she would visit Chicago Aug. 21 – 25.

“I held my brother and we cried,” said Booysen, who said the opportunity to visit the U.S. and explore Chicago has been “unreal.”

Melinda Nettelbeck
, Design Director 
for Nando’s, said they flew Booysen to Chicago for the unveiling because “it was important to us that she be able to experience it first hand, hopefully seeing it as an opportunity to truly dream big.” The young artist helped with the final installation, spent time in Chicago interning with the Aria Group and getting to know the engineering side of the studio, and was able to speak with locals about her design and its creation.

“Our hope is to encourage and nurture the young and talented designers based in Southern Africa,” said Nettelbeck. “We wanted to provide her with opportunity and exposure, both important parts in laying a foundation for a career in design.”

Booysen made a prototype of the chandelier that was recreated in a larger scale here in Chicago, with Oak Park architecture group Aria Group Architects overseeing the full-size creation.

In the U.S., Nando’s restaurants display more 

than 865 pieces of original South African Art; worldwide, the restaurant showcases over 21,000 unique pieces. 


Ice fishing in DuSable Harbor

The best wintertime fishing holes in Chicago are about eight inches wide. Cut by hand into the Lake Michigan ice, they offer robust leisure, healthy sport and tasty filets to a community of dedicated anglers who count DuSable Harbor among the finest spots around.

“You can come down here and do something in the middle of Chicago that most people wouldn’t think of,” says Chris Ranney, a DuSable regular who grew up fishing near his childhood home in Pilsen. “We have access to some of the most beautiful stuff in the city down here.”

Fishermen John Lazarich and Chris Ranney at DuSable Harbor

Illinois Resident Fishing Licenses cost $15 per year. Winter access to the docks of five Chicago Harbors — Belmont, Burnham, Diversey, DuSable and Montrose — is available from Thanksgiving through March by way of a $6 Pier Pass.

Pier Passes are essentially the passcodes that open certain gates to the docks in the harbors. Henry’s Sports, Bait & Marine at 3130 S. Canal, (773) 835-1531, is Chicago’s exclusive distributor.

Ranney fishes from Chicago to Milwaukee year round. When he hits DuSable in the winter months, he arrives before sunrise with a sled full of angling gear in tow.

“I like to drill a lot of holes because I trout fish as well as perch fish out here.”

He uses a motorized 51 CC Eskimo Auger to get through the ice. It retails for about $400, cuts an eight-inch hole and looks like a knee-high red corkscrew topped with a two-handled pull start engine. For the thrifty sportster with time and muscle to spare, he recommends a hand auger “for about sixty bucks.”

Either way, he explains, the threshold should be at least eight inches wide because “you need an eight-inch hole to get some of these fish through.”

Most anglers agree that the ice should be at least three inches thick to provide safe fishing. According to Steve Palmisano, who co-owns Henry’s Sports with his brother, Tom, “We need three days of five degrees or colder to get the lake to freeze.”

Saturday morning at DuSable Harbor

The Palmisanos, who learned to fish near their family’s Bridgeport home, took over the 64-year-old business from their father. Like many enthusiasts, they combine information from others in the community with their own methods to determine the ice’s thickness.

During the mid-January heat wave, Steve explained that, “I’m still getting a confirmation that we can step out on the ice.” The store also provides daily fishing forecasts for customers.

Back on the harbor, Ranney relies on a “little network of people that’ll let us know when to come down and chop a hole.” After getting the good word, he uses a “spud bar” to test the thickness beforehand.

A spud bar is a long rod of steel that measures about four feet in length with a hammer-type end. It is used to strike the ice and, ideally, create a certain sound that indicates proper thickness.

“When you’re testing ice thickness, you’re going to spud your way out, and as you go, you’re going to get used to what a ‘thunk’ is,” he explains. “If you don’t hear the right thunk, or your spud goes through that ice, it’s not safe.”

Other essential gear includes creepers, which are basically cleats or cleated shoes “so you don’t break your neck,” and, of course, rods.

Ice fishing rods are much shorter than their warm-weather counterparts. Averaging about two feet long, the size allows greater movement within fishing shacks, on bucket perches and over small openings in the ice. Ranney demonstrates the advantage by explaining, “you’re standing over a hole,” then backing a few feet away and saying, “you don’t want to be over here.”

One of Ranney’s perch from a Saturday outing at the harbor

For bait, Palmisano recommends waxworms, which are the larvae of wax moths. “The fish are more dormant,” he explains. “They’re not really eating as large quantity, so smaller-type bait would be suitable.” Fathead minnows are another good option, he says.

When the fish are caught, all of the anglers who spoke to New Eastside News say they prefer to eat them.

Ranney likes to  fry his catch in a pan with Creole batter. His fishing buddy, John Lazarich, likes to coat his with panko.

“Japanese breadcrumbs,” he says. “You know, season it up with a little salt and pepper. If you’re going to panfry it, you can use butter. Deep fry it in oil. Little Old Bay seasoning is always good.”

Palmisano enjoys “doing the Mexican way.”

“Fresh cilantro, tomato on a wheat tortilla, seasoned bread crumbs,” he says. “They’re very tasty.”

Honoring firefighter Walter Watroba

Although four decades have passed since firefighter Walter Watroba sacrificed his life while protecting the city from a fire on the West Side, his memory is honored every day by Engine Co. 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr.

The fire station next to the Aqua Tower dedicated a bronze plaque to Watroba during a touching ceremony on Nov. 22. Among the 100+ attendees who paid their respects were CFD Captain John Jakubec, CFD Chief Jeffrey Lyle, Fire Fighters Union Local 2 President Thomas Ryan, 19th Ward Alderman Matt O’Shea, Engine Co. 13 gardener David Sudler and several members of Watroba’s family.


The extended family of Walter Watroba

Engraved with a description of Watroba’s heroic struggle, the plaque complements a bronze sculpture created in his name and dedicated to all fallen firefighters in a memorial garden at the front of the station.

Retired Engine Co. 13 Captain George Rabilea was a driving force behind the memorial’s construction.

“We’ve seen people from all over the world coming to look at the memorial and to take pictures, and it’s time that we have something there to let them know what it’s there for,” he explained.

Before recounting Watroba’s struggle in his opening remarks, Alderman O’Shea compared the firefighter to another great American hero. “It is fitting that we should honor Walter on the same day that John F. Kennedy lost his life,” he said.

Watroba became trapped underneath a coal conveyor that had collapsed upon him as he fought a multiple-alarm fire inside the former Commonwealth Edison generating station at 1111 W. Cermak Rd. in 1976. He remained conscious for most of the time that paramedics attempted to free his right leg from the machinery, O’Shea explained.

After struggling for more than seven hours, they decided that amputation was his only hope for survival. The procedure took place in darkness while Watroba was still conscious.

During this time, the Alderman explained, Watroba’s greatest concern was for his fellow firefighters. “Is everyone alright?” he asked.


Retired Engine Co. 13 Captain George Rabilea

Karen Wysocki, the eldest of Watroba’s three daughters, was among the family members in attendance. Wysocki remembers her father as a dedicated family man who “always had some exciting stories.”

On the morning that her father lost his life, she was a 15-year-old girl getting ready for high school. She learned of the tragedy when her grandmother called to say that Watroba’s name had been mentioned in a report about a large fire that she heard on the radio.

“It’s just a really touching tribute that they have that outside,” she continued, “and displayed so beautifully, too.”

The ceremony ended with a meal donated by a number of local restaurants and vendors, but not before all who were present honored the sacrifice of several other firefighters. Captain Jakubec and Chief Lyle announced the names of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice, and a bell was rung in memory of each one.

Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Marathon madness

New Eastside runners describe the inspiration to compete


On Sunday, October 9, the streets of Chicago will once again be inundated with tens of thousands of eager marathon runners as the city celebrates another year hosting the popular 26.2-mile foot race. Though participants come from all over the world to experience the energy and excitement of the Chicago Marathon, our own New Eastside is home to some dedicated and inspiring marathon hopefuls. Each runner has a unique and purposeful story that ignited the courage to start this journey. These are just a few of the many stories that comprise the fabric of this year’s participants.



Paula Almeida, a resident of the New Eastside’s Coast, began running a few years ago for exercise. She has run two half-marathons in Brazil, her native country.

marath01“I always thought marathons were for crazy people and could never picture myself doing that,” Almeida says. But her father, an avid runner and marathoner, convinced her to enter the lottery for this year’s Chicago Marathon, which would be her first. They both were selected for entry, which Almeida took as a sign that this was the year to run it.

“After a few weeks, I embraced the challenge as a personal accomplishment for overcoming my limits and set up my mind to do it.” Almeida began training with Chicago Endurance Sports (CES). “The encouragement of the group helps you believe in yourself and overcome your limits every week with a lot of support from the coaches, pacers and other runners,” says Almeida.

As she enters the final weeks of training, Almeida is focused on preparing her mind. “It is amazing the power that our mind has on our body, and how our body adjusts and develops when you believe it and follow the training.” Come race day, Almeida aims to keep her pace and finish strong. “I look forward to crossing that finish line and accomplishing something that ten months ago I was sure that I could never have done.”



North Harbor Tower resident Walter Boza is a marathon veteran. With seven marathons under his belt, three of them in Chicago, he is no stranger to the challenge of running 26.2 miles.

marath03Boza runs with a group from CARA on Saturdays, which meets in Lakeshore East Park by Mariano’s. In September, CARA hosted a 20-mile training run, a “dress rehearsal” for race day. Boza says that though he struggled between miles 16-18, he was able to pick up the pace at the end, and he’s confident that he’ll finish with a smile.

Running five days a week, Boza follows his own unstructured program. “I’m strict about long runs,” says Boza of his training, but during the week he runs solo. “I have a time goal, “he says, “but I reassess every day.”

Boza hopes to run a 3:45 marathon on October 9, which stands as his Personal Record set at Chicago in 2009. “But my real goal is to finish with a smile.” Following Chicago, Boza is looking forward to running with his eight year old daughter, who recently joined “Girls on the Run.” They plan to do a 5K in November.



Lisa Aggarwal, who lives in the Parkshore, will celebrate her birthday on marathon Sunday by running through our beautiful city with thousands of spectators honoring her with cheers and encouragement. “I figured this would be a unique way to celebrate,” she says.

marath02Aggarwal has been a runner for a decade and has completed the Soldier Field Ten Miler three times and the Rock N Roll Half Marathon twice. As a proud native Chicagoan, she’s ready to tackle the Chicago marathon, which is the only marathon on her radar.

The road to the start line hasn’t been perfectly paved for Aggarwal. Three weeks into training she suffered a foot injury that sidelined her for seven weeks. She’s back in action though, and hasn’t let the injury stop her.

Aggarwal is training with CES, and she’s also raising money for the Children of the Crossroads Foundation. “I’ve watched many friends run the Chicago Marathon over the years, and I look forward to my turn running it this year! My husband and two daughters always cheer me on during races, so I most look forward to seeing them on marathon day.”



Local resident Raman Kansal will be attempting to complete his fourth marathon in Chicago on October 9. “Being born and raised in Chicago, this marathon is extra special to me as it allows me to experience so many of our unique neighborhoods, including Lakeshore East,” he says.

marath04As a child, Kansal suffered from severe asthma and could barely run half a block without coughing and wheezing. Over the years, his asthma has gotten much better, and he credits running with this improvement.

“I joined a local running club (CES) to help with the training and seeing my fellow club members complete the marathon is my primary goal.” He’s also excited about seeing all the people coming out to cheer and support the runners; Chicago has the most fantastic spectators!

When he’s not running, Kansal enjoys spending time with his niece and nephew in Maggie Daley Park. “It is, by far, their favorite park in the city!”


Good luck to all the runners on Marathon Sunday! And if you’re not personally logging the miles that morning, spectating is a great way to join in the fun. As residents of the New Eastside, we have easy access to nearby cheering zones. Get out there and clap your hands, ring a cowbell, offer a smile or simply stand on the sidelines and stare in awe as the runners make their pilgrimage to the finish line. Congrats, runners. Now go get those medals!

— Angela Gagnon

CFD Battalion Chief Linda Parsons retires

Before retiring from the Chicago Fire Department last month, Battalion Chief Linda Parsons supervised four fire stations, including Engine Co. 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr.

In the course of her 30-year career, she had entered blazing tenements, crawled through smoky rooms, and fought hundreds of fires. But the most frightening experience she can recall took place in the safe and flameless confines of Engine Co. 1 on 419 S. Wells St.


Battalion Chief Parsons’ retirement party at Engine Co. 13. Photo: Daniel Patton.

“One of the scariest days of my life was walking into the fire station for the first day of work,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘they are not gonna be happy to see me because I’m a woman.’ I was scared.”

She had a point. Although she had performed “very well” during the entrance exam a year earlier, she had heard nothing since then, except for the voice in her head that kept reminding her, “they’re never gonna call.”

Over the next three decades, Ms. Parsons would achieve the highest rank in the CFD’s Fire Suppression and Rescue Division. Besides the station on Columbus Dr., she also supervised the one that had scared her on her first day of the job.

“It ended up being a wonderful career for me,” she says.

She applied to the CFD in 1986, after a relative suggested that she take the Fire Department’s entrance exam. At the time, she was studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology and lifeguarding at 63rd St Beach. She figured it would be an interesting experience, but probably not much more.

“I was in college,” she remembers, “but I did not have a vision for myself.”

During the exam, they treated her no differently than any other applicant. “Like a ‘next-in-line,’” she says. Afterwards, she continued on with her life. “Something in my head said, ‘okay, that’s done.’”

But Linda Parsons never forgot the way that her relative had described a career with the fire department — “it’s a great job, if you’re interested.” She believed that the words were true because the one who had encouraged her was her aunt, Lauren Howard, the first female fire fighter ever hired by the city of Chicago.


CFD Battalion Chief Linda Parsons. Photo: Daniel Patton.

When the department called and offered her the position a year later, she thought “Oh My God!” and said yes.

She dealt with the fear of her first day like a pro. “I pretended all is well and I reported for duty and I walked in and they were pretty darn decent to me,” she says. “Before long, I was one of the team.”

Although it turned out that her initial fears were genuine, they had nothing to do with her gender.

“Anybody who walks in, they’re skeptical of until you prove that you’re not lazy and you’re ready to do whatever is called upon you to do.” she says. “If you show up and work hard and you do your job and you’re friendly, it’s gonna go fine.”

She also learned that she was a good fit for the job. “I had been a lifeguard for five summers and I was always involved in sports, so it came naturally to be a fire fighter,” she explains. “Five of us get on the engine or the truck and we work together and it’s physically demanding.”

She went out on a lot of alarms at Engine Co. 1, which mostly serves downtown Chicago, but she saw very few fires. That changed when she moved to a different station further south. “I got a pretty darn good amount of fire experience,” she says.

Over the next several years, Ms. Parsons was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain of a station on the north side. Along the way, she made one of the most important discoveries of her career: she really enjoys fighting fires.

“It’s exciting to crawl through a completely smoky house with your air tank on and find the fire,” she says. “You just follow the heat. You feel the heat, yeah, and go further, closer, to where you sense the heat. There’s a glow and you’re like ‘it’s over here!’”

As Battalion Chief, a rank she attained about four years ago, she missed the hands-on excitement of fire fighting, but still considered herself part of the team.

“Although I am in charge, I have always had respect for other opinions on things,” she explains. “They’ll be investigating inside and relay information to me.”


Battalion Chief Linda Parsons with her daughter Lillian and husband Dave. Photo: Daniel Patton.

Chief Parsons lives on the north side of Chicago with her husband, Dave, and her eleven year-old daughter, Lillian. Besides spending more time with them, she plans to volunteer at Animal Care & Control, an animal shelter on Western Ave.

She remains a big proponent of women in the fire department, especially those who are willing to “work hard, to sweat, and, you know, get dirty.” But she is also quick to point out that the world has changed since she joined the department.

“There’s a more modern mindset where this younger generation is used to women in non-traditional jobs,” she says.

“Younger generation,” she repeats. “It’s weird for me to say that, weird for me just to think all of a sudden my whole career is winding down. But I don’t feel that old.”

Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Fanatiks Crew thrills with talent, strength and humor

Shameer, Solo, and Aaron — the charismatic native Chicagoans of the Fanatiks Crew — dazzle crowds with high-flying acrobatics, colorful humor, and impeccable showmanship on Michigan Avenue nearly every day of the week.

Accompanied by a drum-n-bass track in front of the Wrigley Building, their performances generally begin with a standup routine that pokes fun at racial stereotypes while generating enthusiasm for the physical feats to come.

“When the beat drops, everybody must clap, rhythm or no rhythm,” Aaron informs the audience. “So white people, follow the black person next to you.”

As the crowds swell from dozens to hundreds, the Crew begins mixing aerial somersaults and acrobatic leaps with requests for donations.


Shameer, Solo, and Aaron. (Photo by Daniel Patton.)

The banter transforms into a call and response that keeps the audience laughing with contagious spontaneity. But, as Aaron explains, it’s all part of a well-rehearsed act.

“We have a script,” he says. “We use trigger words when we perform live.”

The humor is designed to underscore the Crew’s optimistic philosophy.

“We represent H.I.P.H.O.P.” he continues. “Healthy independent people helping other people.”

Aaron is a former Jesse White Tumbler who founded the Fanatics Crew a decade ago. He met Solo and Shameer through connections in the athletic, dance, and tumbling communities.

“I saw him street performing when he was sixteen,” says Solo, a former high school basketball and football player who wrestled for Iowa State. “It was the coolest thing ever.” Solo was the one who introduced Aaron to Shameer.

Shameer had been a dancer for 13 years when he learned the side freeze — “a plank where you hold yourself up with one hand” — and decided to add his groovy gymnastic finesse to the Crew.

“We were breakin’ and started doing shows and it just worked a lot better,” he says.

For the grand finale, Aaron leaps over six audience volunteers while completing a full sidways rotation in mid-air.

The feat not only lives up to the hype that precedes it, but also proves that the members of the Fanatiks Crew practice what they preach.

The entire performance is peppered with declarations about the trio’s commitment to hard work. Though they are taken seriously, the boasts never distract from the entertainment.

“We’re about fun and having a good time,” says Shameer.

Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Artist Jani Bodell brings New Eastside to life on canvas

In 1996, Jani Bodell chose not to purchase a “really cool” poster because she and her husband were about to spend a lot of money remodeling their home in the Western Suburbs. The decision helped launch her artistic career.

“It was, like, a Toulouse Lautrec,” she remembers. “I thought, you know, it can’t be that difficult to reproduce.”

Today, she paints originals, re-creations and a variety of portraits — including dogs as well as people — from her New Eastside home. The work is sold online and in galleries throughout Greater Chicago.

Wielding a technique that she had developed with the help of her mother — an artist who taught semiprivate art classes in the family’s Chicago Heights home — Ms. Bodell not only made a striking re-creation of the Lautrec poster, but she also began selling similar works in a River North gallery.


“Hanging Out” by Jani Bodell

“A friend told me about this place called Penny & Gentle in the Merchandise Mart,” she explains. “They had artists who would reproduce Picassos, Rembrandts, whatever. The first one I sold was Lautrec’s Ambassador.”

It wasn’t long before she developed her own clientele.

“A friend of a friend approached me and said, ‘I’d really like you to do a Mary Cosset of two little blonde girls on a beach.’” Ms. Bodell explains. “She said, ‘Just make the girls dark-haired.’ It turned out great.”

Over the next several years, her commissions grew to include paintings of people’s homes and traditional landscapes of the French countryside. Many of them were completed for Pour La Maison, a gallery in Naperville.

Her repertoire grew during the same time, and last year a portion of it literally went to the dogs. From the corner of an apartment overlooking the lake in the Harbor Point Tower, where she moved last April, Ms. Bodell has developed a canine oeuvre that has gained popularity throughout the neighborhood.

“I do dog portraits,” she explains. “I love watching them come to life.”

Consulting with owners and, if possible, meeting their four-legged loved ones before committing anything to canvas, she portrays man and woman’s best friends in works that range from realistic to “fun and funky.”

“I always recommend a little bit smaller for the more realistic dog because you can put it anywhere — a shelf, a wall, the kitchen,” she explains. “If it’s more contemporary, we can go larger.”

The inspiration came by way of her dog walker, AJ, who made a suggestion one day when he came to pick up her two-and-a-half-year-old Cockapoo, Ellie.

“He said, ‘you have to do dog portraits,’” Ms. Bodell explains. “There are so many people in our area who have dogs. They love their dogs as much as they love their kids.”

Ellie is much too mischievous to sit for a portrait — “she’s like a two-and-a-half-year-old puppy,” says Ms. Bodell — but she critiques her owner’s work in a way that only a dog lover can understand.

“I’m sitting on my sofa and she starts barking at my easel,” explains Ms. Bodell. “She walks over, looks at it, and walks away. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received on my painting.”

Although Ms. Bodell’s husband passed away from Leukemia in 2009, her best friend lives right next door and she suspects that her children — a college-bound daughter and a college graduate son — will be happy to visit.

“My kids both walked into the apartment and they’re like, ‘oh yeah, we could live here.’”

GEMS World Academy Chicago’s new Head of School

When Kim Wargo decided to take a hiatus from her doctoral studies at Tulane University and teach a grade school writing course in the mid-90s, she quickly learned one of the most valuable lessons of her life. “I thought I was going to be a college professor,” she explains. “I took all my PhD exams and was ready to defend my dissertation, but I realized that I loved teaching and working with kids.”

So began a career path that would include leadership roles with some of the oldest and most respected college preparatory institutions in the nation. In 2016, it led to GEMS World Academy Chicago, where Ms. Wargo was named Head of School in April.

“It’s the work that I love, but a different context,” she says. “It is a new school.”

Likewise, she feels that the role has come a long way as well. “Head of School has changed a great deal over the past century,” she says.

Wargo_KimHeadshotGEMSaweb“You still have an affinity for the classroom — I certainly do — but there is also great responsibility for the day-to-day operations of a large organization, an independent school.”

Among the factors that prompted her to move was “the opportunity to be a part of building a school rather than leading a school that’s been around for generations.”

Before arriving at GEMS, Ms. Wargo headed three separate all-girls schools that were founded more than a century ago in the grandest neighborhoods of San Francisco, New Orleans and Dallas. All of them wield nearly perfect college acceptance rates and impeccable traditions.

Although GEMS’ commitment to learning is similarly high — “academic rigor is incredibly important,” Ms. Wargo notes — the culture that complements it is being shaped in real time. Since the school was designed to expand one grade per year beginning with the first class that enrolled, the oldest of its 220 students are now in seventh grade. According to Ms. Wargo, “they see themselves as pioneers.”

“Our kids show the excitement of building a school,” she explains. “They are contributing to something that will last after they are gone. It’s a really wise way to build a program.”

It also frees them up to embrace the multiculturalism and technology that are becoming essential components of modern life.

“Our job is a lot deeper than making sure kids are prepared academically,” says Ms. Wargo. “Schools have to be a lot better at identifying and determining what kids need to be successful, to see that part of their mission in life is to make a difference in the world around them.”

Besides equipping students with iPads and laptops “almost from the beginning,” GEMS maintains a commitment to international education and a campus where “kids are skype-ing and teleconferencing with people all over the world.”

A recent project challenged students to determine which books would appeal to children in Malawi. In May, a Harvard University researcher visited to explain the importance of multilingualism.

“The point of the project was to study the cognitive benefits of learning a second language,” she explains.

GEMS also takes advantage of New Eastside’s location to help students understand beyond “the four walls of the classroom.”

“Chicago is a destination city,” says Ms. Wargo. “People travel all over the world to visit places nearby. We can get there in a five-minute walk.”

Likewise, she and her family have settled in the neighborhood and seem ready to accept everything that the city has to offer. “We made a family visit in February during what I think was the coldest weekend of the year,” she says. “It’s such an amazing place.”

This fall, GEMS will add 120 new students to its population. In 2020, it will graduate its first high school class. Preparing them for college is a task for which Ms. Wargo is supremely equipped.

“Admissions weighs on the minds of parents and students as they enter junior and senior year,” she says.

“We will offer college counseling for families and make it as meaningful as possible for students so they don’t feel battered by the process.”

Among the thousands who she has guided through the transition is her daughter, whom “has been in school with her mom for her entire life” and will be matriculating at Bowdoin College in the fall.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Urban Realtor Vickie Liu calls New Eastside home for 40 years

In 1977, Vickie Liu immigrated from Keelung, Taiwan to Chicago’s New Eastside. On the drive from the O’Hare Airport into the city, she saw snow for the first time in her life.

It was, to her surprise, black from exhaust and pollution. When she arrived at Harbor Point Tower to join her husband, a student at UIC, she discovered a neighborhood that was little more than an empty plot of land. She stayed for 40 years.

“I love Chicago,” she says. “There was deserted train track, two buildings, nothing. So I live here forever and then we see the changes. It’s all very good.”

IMG_1922web2Ms. Liu has plenty of reasons to love the city. In the four decades since her arrival, she and her husband have raised two successful daughters — one who graduated with a law degree from Harvard, another with an MBA from Kellogg — and they have also helped each other through three fulfilling careers.

At the time she moved here, Ms. Liu was a senior manager in marketing analytics with China Airlines. After her husband completed his studies at UIC, he attended dental school at Howard University and then opened a practice in Bucktown. When the landlord who owned the building where he held his practice hinted that she might be selling the property, Ms. Liu took action. Unbeknownst to her, it would eventually mark the start of a stellar career in real estate.

“It was a rental,” she explains. “Not very stable. So we went to buy 2152 N. Damen Ave. It was a three flat down the street.”

Since she lacked the funds for the complete down payment, she formed a partnership with a friend who lived next door at 400 E. Randolph. “He is an attorney,” she says. “We each put in $10,000. We just worked out a successful investment.”

Ms. Liu retired from China Airlines in 2002, but continued to “do some investment with friends” for a few years.

“I find it interesting,” she explains. In 2005, she earned her real estate license and started selling full time with New Eastside’s Urban Reality, where she has been ever since.

Last month, Chicago Magazine named Ms. Liu to their list of five-star realtors for the fifth time in the past six years. The award is determined by customer votes, a fact that gives Ms. Liu “a good feeling.”

“They have a good appreciation, so they treat me well,” she says. “They refer friends. That’s how I expanded my business.”

In an average year, Ms. Liu completes hundreds of transactions. Many of them involve properties in New Eastside, an area that she finds easy to sell.

“I say this is a hidden gem,” she explains.” “I’ve lived here forty years and I will tell you why. And then I tell them the story… You know, the Magellan… this great investing, developing.”

Although she believes that the River Walk and the Wanda Vista Tower may make the “hidden gem” a little more obvious, Ms. Liu finds nothing wrong with the neighborhood’s increasing popularity. After all, she got into the business by buying in Bucktown long before what she calls “the Bucktown boom.”

“Long story short,” she says. “I got it for 120k. I sold it for, like, 400k.”

Contact Vickie Liu at or (312) 946-9999. Search for local homes or read more about Vickie at

—Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Working in the sky over New Eastside

The architecture of the New Eastside may shape the neighborhood’s skyline, but window washers make it really shine. The squeegee-wielding glass-tenders who hang from the Aon tower, Aqua, Fairmont, Hyatt Hotel and several more local buildings are trained and employed by Corporate Cleaning Services, a company founded by a tireless entrepreneur.

CEO Neal Zucker was inspired to get into the window washing business by an epiphany that appeared before him in downtown Chicago in 1994. “I was walking around and I saw that there was a lot of glass around,” he says.


Corporate Cleaning Founder / CEO Neal Zucker

At the time, he was a trader pursuing a Kellogg MBA who wanted to avoid the road typically travelled by his peers. “I just knew, sitting in those classes, that I was not going to be an investment banker,” he remembers. “There’s so much more.”

So he “bought into” a housekeeping and window washing business. “I lived in a building and there was a need to hire housekeepers to clean the corporate apartments,” he explains. “It filled that need.” As the company grew, he increasingly focused on the window washing service.

Today, Corporate Cleaning Services is the largest window washing company in Chicago. “We have over a hundred window washers and a very diverse portfolio,” Zucker says. Roughly 1,200 properties rely on the company to wash their windows and perform interior cleaning operations.

Besides the top shelf properties in New Eastside, Corporate Cleaning handles the Hancock, the United Center, the Willis Tower and a list of condominiums, high-rises and universities that reads like a who’s who of architectural greatness.

Zucker’s enthusiasm for the company’s success is matched by a devotion to the “amazing staff of hardworking people” who make it happen. He is quick to point out that Corporate Cleaning is the largest employer of union washers in Chicago and one of the largest employers of Latinos in the city. Above all else, he seems proud to protect them.

“When we say safety’s our priority, we mean it,” he says. The company not only employs a safety manager — which is somewhat rare in the industry — but it also exceeds requirements prescribed by the government’s Occupational Safety Hazard Authority.

Executive Director of Operations Oralia Castañeda oversees this over compliance. She knows ropes and harnesses like a veteran, and hopes to hang from the side of a building for her first time this summer. She came to Chicago from Rockford for a career in law, but something about the company’s culture intrigued her.

Working in the window washing business.

“We thrive on each others’ success,” Castañeda explains. “That goes for the entire team. I know every single one of the window washers by name. I know the story behind them.”


Efrem Salas prepares to clean windows 225 N. Michigan Ave. Photo: Robert Stockwell.

Two in particular, Ernesto Rodriguez and Efrem Salas, were featured in a commercial for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

It shows them preparing and descending from the top of BCBS’ New Eastside high-rise on E. Randolph St. — another one of Corporate Cleaning’s customers — while a narrator explains why Anthem Health Insurance is so good for hardworking people.

According to Salas, he was “a little bit nervous” the first time he hung from the side of a building.

“But now I can do it,” he laughs. “It’s easy for me.”

Salas immigrated to Chicago from Zacatecas, Mexico, seven years ago and got the job at Corporate Cleaning with the help of his brother.

In conversation, he speaks with impeccable grace and kindness, a manner that filmmaker Nadav Kurtz found to be common among the company’s employees while making “Paraiso,” an award-winning 2012 documentary about window washers.

During production, Kurtz grew close to three of the men and their families. “I felt really welcome and comfortable,” he remembers. “They were always trying to buy me tacos and stuff.”

The footage of “Paraiso” is no doubt breathtaking, but the theme is even more powerful: “This is a film about guys who work really hard and take care of their families,” Kurtz explains.


Erenesto Rodriguez prepares to descend the Blue Cross Blue Shield building.

As it turns out, these guys work hard for other peoples’ families as well. Twice a year, Corporate Cleaning’s window washers entertain patients at Kolmer Hospital and Lurie Children’s Hospital by wearing superhero costumes while scaling the exterior.

Immediately after the inagural event, says Castañeda, they started figuring out how to have more interaction with the kids on the next trip down.

CEO Zucker, who spends much of his success serving on boards for charitable organizations, could not be more pleased with the way business is going.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Corporate Cleaning Services · (312) 573-3333 ·

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