Ayana Contreras and the cover of her new book
Ayana Contreras and the cover of her new book Credit: Courtesy the artist

Chicago is too often presented as a violent wasteland rather than a cultural wonderland, for terrible reasons and occasionally for less terrible reasons. Many fantastic facets of our city have been underdocumented not out of nefariousness, but because everyone who cared already knew. In pre-Instagram days, who had an incentive to record a sight as familiar as barbecue king Leon Finney cruising through neighborhoods in his Rolls Royce with its custom “LEON RIB” plates? Thankfully, Ayana Contreras won’t let the lesser-known histories of Black Chicago’s art, music, commerce, and daily life fade. By collecting interviews (sometimes via her Vocalo show), records, obscure pamphlets, and family lore, she has crafted a magnificent manifesto about the power of Afro-optimism. Her new book, Energy Never Dies, is an accessible love letter to Chicago that’s whimsical enough to juxtapose Brighton Park’s beloved Tom Tom tamales with Tom Tom Washington, the genius arranger for Earth, Wind & Fire. Whimsy doesn’t imply triviality—connections between grassroots commerce and art are as real as a Mumbo Sauce mogul sponsoring soul superhero Garland Green in the 1960s and as contemporary as pre-#10Day Chance the Rapper turning a Black-owned boutique into a mini Coachella. Just like when Finney’s Rolls rolled down 79th, space is shared by producers and consumers of music, meat, and Ultra Sheen. As dancers on the local Soul Train proved, Black creativity isn’t just for professionals. When Contreras surveys neighbors about life, luck, and the lottery, it’s playful, but when it comes to listening to the voices on her block, she does not play.


Soul Train Local

The show that put black music on TVs across America got its start in Chicago—and even after it moved to LA, Chicago kept its own version running daily for nearly a decade.

Best of Chicago 2021 is
presented by

Green Thumb

sponsored in part by

Goethe Institut
Chicago History Museum

Refer to the closed final ballot to see all the categories and finalists that were voted on.