Christy Chiappone: The Constant of Rogers Park

Photos by Tim Roberts

Strands of white Christmas lights shimmer in the locust trees out front of the Jarvis Square Tavern located in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s far north side.

A long plywood enclosure, narrow as a railcar, sits vacant along the curb. Empty tables are spread out over the sidewalk. Dead leaves and wilted corn husks linger among hay bales left over from the fall. Just west of the square, the L cuts a brilliant fluorescent diagonal over Jarvis Avenue—the concrete underbelly of the tracks piercingly well-lit. With her back to the open flames of a nearby fire table, Christy Chiappone stands amidst a growing number of friends and neighbors who have gathered outside the tavern for a group run through neighborhood. By 6 o’clock, more than a dozen people have shown up—a good turnout, even for a Thursday night.   

The Rogers Park Running Club (RPRC) has come a long way from humble beginnings.

Christy—an ultrarunner and mortician by trade—moved to Chicago in 1995, eventually settling in Rogers Park in 2003. Six years later, she and another woman began running together after meeting in a neighborhood chat group. “We started running one day a week,” says Christy. “Then it slowly became two days, three days, four days, whatever.” Eventually another woman joined them, and for the next several years they ran as a trio, often rising before daybreak to run the quiet streets of Rogers Park before work. Over time, aided by consistency and a persistent social media presence, their numbers grew. “On Facebook, we have over 900 members,” says Christy. “In reality, however, maybe thirty people regularly join us for group runs.”

Here, Christy speaks with Hard Prairie about the diversity flourishing in Rogers Park, RPRC’s visibility in the community, and a little run they like to call the “Samosa Stumble.” 

Tell me about Rogers Park.

Rogers Park is literally one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. There is probably seventy languages spoken here. Chicago is broken up into fifty wards, and we’re at the very north end of the city. Our northern border is Evanston. We’re right by the lake. The homes are really huge and they’re on really big lots. But there’s a lot of apartments too. There’s a lot of immigrants and refugees settling in Rogers Park. Refuge One and Heartland Alliance do a lot of their settling here, so we have a lot of African immigrants in the community. That brings with it different restaurants and grocery stores, different fashions. It’s a melting pot. Rogers Park really thrives on its ability to stay community oriented. There’s not a lot of segregation in our neighborhood. I think the majority of it is either Hispanic or African. Loyola University is in our ward as well and it’s pretty diverse. There’s a lot of activity. A lot of kids and parks. Our alderman is super involved in making the community welcoming. It has always been the activist center of the city. When Barack Obama announced his Senate candidacy, he did it here in Rogers Park. 

What makes Rogers Park a good place to run?

We’re so close to the lakefront. The whole eastern border of the ward is the lake, from Devon up to Howard. That’s two miles of straight lakefront property. Then there’s Warren Park which is a little further west. They have a sledding hill there. We have two 5k fun-runs that we sponsor in Warren Park. And we also do a “Samosa Stumble.” It’s like a beer mile, only you have to eat a samosa and run a mile in twenty minutes. It’s so much fun. But even with the lakefront, if you want to stay just on that property, you don’t have to cross any streets if you go into Evanston.  That’s really easy to do and very inviting. Everybody loves to run on the lakefront. We like to run our ward outline too, which is like six-and-a-half  miles. But I think the lakefront is probably everybody’s favorite thing to do.

Are there things RPCP is doing to be visible in the community?

Our alderman’s wife approached us this year asking if we would do a monthly run in the north part of Rogers Park—north of Howard—where there is a lot of gang activity. She is a runner as well. It’s the last Sunday of every month. We call it the “Heart of Rogers Park Run” because the shape of the route is a heart. It’s like a two-mile route. It’s at 8 o’clock in the morning. We all wear our shirts and go run a couple loops. The idea is to let the community know that it’s okay to come out. Let’s be visible and be invested in this part of the neighborhood as well. We have also talked about maybe having other community organizations become involved as well, maybe as sponsors or a group that would be willing to bring out water or donuts after a run or something. So we try to do stuff that way. When we do ward clean-ups, we’ll make sure to have our shirts on and stuff like that. It’s not anything real hardcore. They do The Mile of Murals, and we were active in that. I think next year, we’ll do a fun-run around that—like maybe a 5k—to raise some money for it. There’s also a couple food pantries that have done 5ks and reached out to us. We try to do as much as we can.

The RPCP Facebook Group is very diverse and very active. Why do you think that is?

During the pandemic we started posting challenges so that people would stay engaged. You know, take a picture of this or that, and with every picture you’d get your name in a drawing . Then every week we’d draw a name for a $25 gift card to a restaurant in the neighborhood. This was partially to keep people involved and partially to give money to restaurants because they were hurting, and nobody knew what the hell was going on. Also if somebody was hurting due to the pandemic, we could at least give them dinner. So we’d do bingo with pictures, especially around the holidays. We just tried to keep people involved so that they would have something to do. You could always go outside and run. And it really worked. Some of the people who post today don’t even come to the runs. They never come, but they post their runs all the time. And a lot of it is because they started posting with the raffles and the challenges that we were doing. I think that makes other people feel like, “Oh, these people are posting about their stuff, so maybe my stuff isn’t that lame.” I don’t have a lock on posting, that’s open. Anybody can post. My only rule is that it has to be about running. People might post some other shit and I’ll always take it down and tell them, “Sorry, not here.” As long as it’s about running or anything remotely about running, I’m fine with it. And everybody is very supportive of everyone else. It’s valuable to them, which is why everyone keeps doing it.

The club has lasted over thirteen years, why do you think that is?

I think it’s the community aspect and just finding your people. Everybody is so nice. There hasn’t been one person I’ve had to kick off Facebook because they’ve been a dick or something. Everybody is super cool and it’s indicative of the neighborhood. I think it’s the sense of community that it brings and how welcoming it is. It is always, “Welcome! Come join us!” Literally, we will yell at people that are running around who aren’t with us: “Rogers Park Running Group, you know we’re here. Come on!”

Does that work? Have you really found new members that way?  

Yeah, totally! We’re very open. There’s no fee. We don’t have liability insurance or a board or anything like that. It’s straight-up community friends, that’s it.

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