‘We’re happy to be neighbors’: The Storefronts of 1226-1234 W. Loyola Ave.

Following the announcement of the closure and eventual demolition of the businesses at 1226-1234 W. Loyola Ave., Kristin and Nathan Abhalter-Smith, Maggie Roche and Roberta Schmatz continue to impact the Rogers Park community.

At the end of December, Loyola acquired the property at 1226-1234 W. Loyola Ave., impacting three local storefronts — Roman Susan Art Gallery, Edge Art and Archie’s Cafe, The Phoenix previously reported

As each business grapples with the impending reality of Loyola’s intention to tear down the building, their stories continue to reflect the enduring charm of the Rogers Park community.

Among Maggie Roche’s collection of pieces are flowers made from Coca-Cola bottles, metalwork from Haiti and a blue donkey piñata named Joe. (Hanna Houser / The Phoenix)

‘I was trained by the Jesuits — and where are they now?’ 

Before Maggie Roche moved into what is now her Edge Art storefront in 2012, the block of 1234 W. Loyola Ave. — which had no street lighting — was entirely dark. 

Committed to enlivening the space, Roche and her son bought light bulbs for the store’s exterior to be kept on overnight — a small but effective way of brightening a community.  Soon enough, Roche was receiving “thank you’s” from locals who felt the area had become less “dreary,” Roche said. 

“I was trained by the Jesuits — and where are they now?” Roche said, referencing Loyola’s purchase of the property. She graduated from Loyola in 1966. 

Central to Roche’s canon is the cultivation of equitable art exchange and a social justice mindset birthed from her time at Loyola. Lined with metalwork from Haiti, paintings from Mexico and sculptures from Guatemala, her workspace presents a cultural patchwork with echoes of a globalized world. 

Among the collection of pieces are flowers made from Coca-Cola bottles, eccentric cake toppers and a blue donkey piñata named Joe.

“I have a weird taste,” Roche said. “Just because you haven’t seen it before doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it before. If I’ve seen it before, I’m not interested.”

Each of the works featured in Roche’s store are bought from outsider — or self-taught — artists, many of whom don’t have visas or are mentally or physically disabled, according to Roche. 

At 80 years old, most of the pieces for sale at Edge Art came from street vendors Roche engaged with throughout her years of traveling, Roche said. 

Roche took over the Edge Art space after being alerted of its availability from neighboring store owner Roberta Schmatz of Archie’s Cafe. The two were both parents of children attending The Chicago Waldorf School, which relocated out of Rogers Park in 2017. 

Prior to maintaining her storefront, Roche taught at Ray Graham Training Center High School — one of three Chicago schools for people with mental disabilities. Her experience working with artists of various abilities is what drove her prioritization of artwork made by outsider artists at Edge Art, Roche said. 

“These are all untrained people with just really good ideas,” Roche said. 

Standing before her former university, Roche said she will fight to preserve the vibrancy of her storefront — a steady beacon for the Rogers Park community, even as the lights begin to dim on 1226-1234 W. Loyola Ave. 

An outlier amongst the chain stores nearby, Roman Susan offers a free space for community members to bond over art. (Daphne Kraushaar / The Phoenix) 

‘I think art is an essential part of being in a community’

Nestled below the upper apartments is a place with only one rule — trust the artist. 

It’s a place where a man can sleep with a plant tied to his hand in the name of performance art. It’s a place where a woman can display portraits of her family’s life in Mexico. It’s a place a couple thinks of as home. 

It’s a place with a future now made uncertain.

Akin to Harry Potter’s room under the stairs, Roman Susan serves as an oasis amongst the typical sights and sounds of a Chicago neighborhood. The non-profit art gallery, haphazardly carved out from the neighboring first floor unit, displays local artists’ funky, eye-catching and offbeat creations. 

Founder and Executive Director Kristin Abhalter-Smith runs the gallery along with her husband Nathan Abhalter-Smith. The Abhalter-Smiths picked the quaint room in 2012 because of its potential to serve as a blank canvas for creative freedom. They named the space after Kristin’s grandparents, who loved fashion and woodworking.

“I saw a lot of opportunity to be able to change and recreate the space over and over again in multiple ways because of the fact that it’s architecturally unusual and not pristine,” Kristin Abhalter-Smith said. “It’s just sort of this public beacon, constantly having some kind of presence.” 

The floor-to-ceiling window illuminating the space allows passersby to see right into the heart and soul of Roman Susan. Kristin Abhalter-Smith said she’s noticed people drawn to the avant-garde nature of the space — where artists are free to express themselves without the pressure of pleasing sources of funding. 

“I think art is an essential part of being in a community,” Kristin Abhalter-Smith said. “I think creativity and the celebration of creativity is part of being alive. I feel like it rewards the curious and I think it just is like the main reason why people come together to experience joy or to express their suffering about something or to just be together.” 

An outlier amongst the chain stores nearby, Roman Susan offers a free space for community members to bond over art. 

However, its existence wanes through the Loyola deal. 

“Why destroy it and make it look like everything else?” Kristin Abhalter-Smith said. “I think it’s important to pay homage to the history and the beauty that connects us all.”

While the physical building may not always stand, the Abhalter-Smiths made it clear that the demolition of 1226-1234 W. Loyola Ave. wouldn’t spell the end of Roman Susan — the pair plans to try and find another space in Rogers Park.

“We’re going to respond to the needs of our community,” Kristin Abhalter Smith said. “We’re happy to be neighbors. We hope that Loyola participates in that and preserve the community.”

Schmatz said she named the cafe after her mother, who was nicknamed Archie. (Daphne Kraushaar / The Phoenix)

‘I’ve heard a lot from customers that this is kind of a home away from home’

When it comes to neighborhood camaraderie, Archie’s Cafe has become a crossroads for longtime community members and Loyola students alike. 

“I’ve heard a lot from customers that this is kind of a home away from home,” owner Roberta Schmatz said. “They feel welcome and recognized.”

Roberta Schmatz, the owner of Archie’s who has leased the space for 16 years, said she will be expected to vacate the property in August once her lease ends. 

Since she first started renting the space in 2008, the property has seen many transformations — from boutiques to fashion shows to art galleries, according to Schmatz. 

With a lending hand from friends and family, Schmatz turned the location into a cafe in 2018, tackling everything from plumbing to electrical wiring.

Schmatz said she named the cafe after her mother, who was nicknamed Archie. With her mother having died prior to the cafe’s opening, she said opening Archie’s in her honor “felt right.”

As a women-owned business, Schmatz said she did her best to collaborate with as many other small businesses and artists, hosting painters and singers in the space while collaborating with student organizations to give them more of a platform as well. 

For Schmatz, one of the things that makes Archie’s special is the opportunity for different generations to come interact with one another. 

“I love that Loyola students sit alongside community members and develop friendships,” Schmatz said. “I think it’s a unique experience, you know, not to be isolated.”

She said she hopes the university will remember the importance of small businesses when they make decisions about what to do with the space and surrounding area moving forward.

Schmatz said she is not yet sure if the cafe will be relocated to a new space after the lease ends in August, but it’s something she is considering.

“Certainly, you know, my antennae are up, to see what’s possible,” Schmatz said. “But you can’t really replace this space.” 

Archie’s will remain open and continue to host local artists and collaborate with businesses and student groups up until its closure in August, according to Schmatz.

This story was written by Hanna Houser, Julia Soeder and Lilli Malone.

Featured image taken by Daphne Kraushaar / The Phoenix.

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