Rogers Park restaurant has put politics front and center for 40 years

Heartland Cafe
Kathleen Dillon, 26, took on a position as the Heartland Cafe's political coordinator in January. While her starting motivation was to rally behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, she's now taking the Heartland's politics in a local direction. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)

By Max Greenwood

It was a Thursday night in mid-April, and Kathleen Dillon dragged tables around the Heartland Café, carefully arranging them to give a good view of a projector screen. It was less than an hour before the New York Democratic presidential debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and Dillon frantically prepared the restaurant for a watch party for Sanders supporters.

“You know Bernie won Rogers Park,” Dillon said, a smile crossing her face as she recalled the results of the Illinois primary. No, Sanders didn’t win Cook County, she lamented. “But we really pulled him through in Rogers Park.” That’s home base for the Heartland.

At 27, Dillon has her hands full. She’s an academic counselor at Loyola University Chicago, a waitress at the Heartland when the need arises and, as of January, the restaurant’s first-ever political coordinator.

At any other restaurant or café, employing an official political coordinator might seem odd. But at the Heartland, a vintage lefty locale at the intersection of North Glenwood and West Lunt avenues, it’s expected.

After nearly 40 years, the Heartland hub for progressive politics and community activism remains a place where the hippie movement of the 1960s and ’70s is still very much alive. And in a presidential election year, particularly one when a progressive like Sanders has gained fervent traction, the Heartland demands to be heard.

Sanders’ smoldering rhetoric on economic inequality, universal health care and tuition-less public colleges and universities strikes a chord with the Heartland’s crowd of progressive 20-somethings and aging activists in their 50s and 60s. A not-so-careful look around the exposed brick walls and peeling paint of the Heartland reveals a pulsing liberalism: computer-printed flyers with stylized portraits of Sanders, stickers condemning hydraulic fracking and handwritten notes advertising a drink special called “The Bernie” (2 ounces of Buffalo Trace bourbon mixed with lemon juice and honey, and topped with club soda and a lemon wedge).

But the Heartland’s politics mix more than platitudes and drink specials. They’re ingrained in every aspect of the restaurant, from the largely local organic food churned out of the kitchen to the wall art and reading material interspersed throughout the bar. Dillon wants to shape those politics, and Sanders’ campaign focused her mission this spring.

“I’ve always been politically involved; I guess I have a set of skills in that way,” she said. “They’ve been, not stagnant, but buried for a while. But they’ve been there, and I think getting excited about Bernie brought it out.”

Balancing jobs as an academic counselor at Loyola University Chicago and a waitress and political coordinator at the Heartland isn’t easy, Dillon says, but it’s a labor of love. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)

That excitement quickly defined Dillon as the Heartland’s political coordinator late last fall, when she was solely a waitress there. The son of owner Tom Rosenfeld had thrown a party at the restaurant to watch a Democratic presidential debate, and when it was over, Dillon began pressuring her boss to hold more “watch parties.”

“I think I might have annoyed Tom a little bit because I was always asking what we were going to do next and when we were going to have another watch party,” Dillon said. “Eventually, we started talking about me organizing political events and getting an actual title.”

Taking that job, however, meant stepping into a long and tumultuous political legacy, and Dillon said she found the perfect mentor in Heartland co-founder Kathleen “Katy” Hogan.

The Heartland’s history

Hogan’s memory is sharp. At 66, she can recall the exact day she and Heartland co-founder Michael James began work on the restaurant. “May Day 1976,” she said.

Her memories at the Heartland are among some of her favorite, she says in her signature raspy voice, and after almost 40 years there as a founder, former owner and patron, she has a lot of them. From the time it opened in 1976, the restaurant became a hub for bohemian progressives. Countless artists, musicians, writers and activists found their way to the Morse stop on the Red Line and passed through the Heartland as a sort of pilgrimage.

“We paid so many musicians with free meals through the years,” Hogan said, laughing.

But politics always took center stage. Out of the Heartland, Hogan and James organized to help elect David Orr, an independent running against the Democrat for 49th Ward alderman in 1979. Former Chicago mayor Harold Washington spoke in front of the restaurant during the 1983 campaign that made him the city’s first African-American mayor. And a 2004 rally there helped galvanize the campaign of a young would-be U.S. senator named Barack Obama.

In the years following the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, however, the Heartland began to struggle. A 2009 closure due to health-code violations further distressed the restaurant, and in 2010, Hogan and James began asking customers for donations to help keep the restaurant afloat. In 2011, Rosenfeld, the owner of an organic farm in Michigan and a longtime Rogers Park resident, approached Hogan and James about buying the Heartland. That deal was finalized in 2012.

“It was this neighborhood institution, really a Chicago institution, and Katy and Michael and I had been talking about me buying it for a while before we finally went ahead and did it,” said Rosenfeld, 50. “This is, without a doubt, my most difficult business venture, but I love it.”

Heartland Cafe
In it’s 40-year-history, the Heartland Café has become a symbol of progressive politics and community activism in Rogers Park. (Max Greenwood/Medill)

Like Hogan and James, Rosenfeld was politically progressive—it was a condition of him buying the Heartland, Hogan said. And that affinity for progressive politics was essential to Rosenfeld’s decision to buy the restaurant.

“I liked that the Heartland was a political place, that it had opinions, because it only seems natural to me,” he said, adding that he wanted to preserve the progressive reputation of the Heartland. That’s why he made Dillon the political coordinator.

The Heartland Today

Dillon didn’t resurrect progressive politics at the Heartland. It never really left, she said. Hogan and James still host a Saturday radio show from the restaurant once a month, when the duo talk to politicians and activists. And even early last year, before Dillon began waitressing there, the Heartland rallied for Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s mayoral campaign.

What she has done, Dillon says, is add a degree of consistency and stability to the Heartland’s politics.

As the primary season comes to a close, Sanders’ path to securing his party’s nomination has become increasingly narrow. But the Heartland’s activism doesn’t end with his campaign, Dillon says. Moving forward, she wants to turn the restaurant’s gaze on local issues.

“We are active here, and, you know, yes, Bernie is going to have an interesting go from here on out,” she said. “But what he’s done, what we’ve done here, is start a movement. We’re talking about what we can actually do now. We’re not perfect, the establishment isn’t perfect, but we like to practice what we preach.”

It’s not yet clear whether Clinton will win the Heartland’s endorsement. But backing a candidate isn’t the Heartland’s first priority, Dillon says. Now, she’s working through the restaurant to rally support for the “Fair Elections Ordinance” in Chicago, a law that would allow public city funds to be used to match small campaign contributions. The goal, Dillon said, is to combat the role of big money in political campaigns.

That initiative is a local push for an idea Sanders has espoused during his campaign. Then again, the Heartland’s politics have always been largely local.

“My activism gives me peace because I know that I’m going to continue this work regardless of what happens,” Dillon said. “My endeavors to get involved in local efforts and local activism gives me peace because I know that I can do things here.

This story originally appeared in RedEye Chicago on May 16, 2016.

“Bernie Sanders won Rogers Park. We can do things here.”

Photo at top: Kathleen Dillon, 26, took on a position as the Heartland Cafe’s political coordinator in January. While her starting motivation was to rally behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, she’s now taking the Heartland’s politics in a local direction. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)