Chicago Magazine: History Rewritten, A Portage Park illustrator preserves Chicago’s past one letter at a time

Storefronts from Englewood (above) to West Town (right) have inspired Shanabruch’s typefaces.
Photography: (buildings) Michael Zajakowski / Chicago Magazine
Schulze Baking Company Building, 1914, John Ahlschlager & Son, 40 E. Garfield Boulevard. Image credit: Preservation Chicago by artist Steve Shanabruch

“On the southeast corner of the five-way intersection of Fuller and Loomis Streets and Archer Avenue in Bridgeport is a prototypical Chicago apartment building. The three-story structure is modest in scale, its bricks various shades of sandy brown and reddish orange, with a series of helix-shaped accents crowning the façade. Today, the structure is nondescript, unassuming: a Chicago apartment complex, nothing more, nothing less.

“When I first saw the building in August 2020, after my partner and I moved to Bridgeport from the North Side, there was more. On the ground floor, storefront signage — maroon lettering on creamy peach tiles — promised passersby ‘Ice Cream’ and ‘Drugs,’ offerings once made by R.V. Kunka Pharmacy, a neighborhood drugstore. Even though the shop no longer existed, that distinctive lettering — asymmetrical and curvy, the K’s formed by a thick stem, a squat lower arm, and a slender, almost half-U-shaped upper arm — was a welcome sight in my new neighborhood, a reminder that I had moved to a place with real history.

“Yet it was not long for the world: By that October, the display had been painted over, and soon any indication of the building’s history had been stripped bare, the exterior made generic for whatever new business might wish to move in. The loss of the R.V. Kunka storefront is one of countless stories we could tell about how the city changes; whether you’ve called Chicago home for five years or 50, you’ve seen things come and go, from single buildings to entire blocks. But still, seeing that signage removed, leaving behind only some tan-colored bricks that were beneath it, left me with an unexpected feeling of mournfulness.

“So I was delighted when I discovered that some tangible form of the old sign lived on, at least in the creative imagination of artist Steve Shanabruch. For Shanabruch, best known for the series of Chicago neighborhood prints he began in 2013, that kind of cultural memory has always been important. Today, his prints — faux tourism placards for dozens of neighborhoods and Chicago landmarks, inspired by WPA-style travel posters — are beloved around the city, with nearly 70 available for purchase. But that is only a part of the work Shanabruch has undertaken to celebrate Chicago and its inhabitants. To honor places like R.V. Kunka and other idiosyncratic pieces of the city’s fabric, Shanabruch has turned to an underappreciated facet of Chicago’s history for inspiration: typography.

“It’s an iterative, intuitive undertaking, Shanabruch says. He chops up different letters into new combinations, with the letters A, O, H, and R proving especially useful for disassembly. His process happens exclusively on Adobe Illustrator, and if you look at his digital workbook for the Starsiak font, you see that some characters emerged in one or two attempts, while the letter G took 10 tries.

“Shanabruch, 42, was born in Beverly and has been in Chicago his whole life, except for the three and a half years he lived on the West Coast after graduating from St. Xavier University in Mount Greenwood. He and his wife moved back to Chicago in 2008 and now call Portage Park home. His fonts project has become a pleasant diversion when he needs a respite from his day job creating designs for local nonprofits — it offers a different sort of mental challenge.

“Shanabruch takes his inspiration from photographs, both archival and contemporary. Several designs started with suggestions by fellow Chicago history enthusiasts on Twitter. Of the 13 fonts he has completed so far, which are free to download from his website (thechicagoneighborhoods.com), all but two were drawn from text at a specific place. One of those two, Park District, is a nod to the midcentury green entrance signs in many of the city’s parks; the other, Snickers, a design based on a vintage advertisement for the candy bar, is a tribute to the recently shuttered Mars Wrigley factory in Galewood, a Spanish Revival–style structure built in 1929 that may soon become a city landmark.

“Learning to read and appreciate storefront signs, registering their unique properties and what they might say about the city’s past, allows us to dig a level deeper, conferring unexpected insight. For those who use Shanabruch’s fonts, as I’ve done in zines, on invites, and even on my business card, his work honors a changing city, showing appreciation for Chicago’s singular charm. While the neighborhood prints have gathered more attention, his typefaces are a way to capture the city despite its ephemeral nature, a way to rekindle a spark of community memory, preserving the small flash of recognition that can bring a place back in the mind’s eye, if not in brick and steel.

“‘Growing up, you take things for granted, and then one day they’re gone,’ Shanabruch says. ‘You remember that cool sign, that cool restaurant, and even if it wasn’t anything of great value or whatever in your life, at least you could go by it and see it, and it would be part of your existence.’

“The R.V. Kunka Pharmacy served its last customer in 2009, as the neighborhood establishment was crowded out by CVS and Walgreens. Shanabruch almost scrapped the font honoring the store, shelving it for six months as he struggled to re-create its intricacies to his liking before he figured out a workable design, which he released in June 2021. And while I caught only a glimpse of the storefront in 2020, a welcoming neighborhood presence now lost to history, I know its legacy is just a few clicks away, there to help conjure whatever city tale might come next.” (Howard, Chicago Magazine, 2/27/24)

Read the full story at Chicago Magazine

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