From The Archive
Mike Newirth
No. 10  September 1997

Zoned Bohemian

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Behind these pretty, pricey streets of West Town lingers a neighborhood of dim ghosts: The grimy filigree of the Milwaukee Avenue firetraps, the cornices dated to the nineteenth century, the snaking alleys of oxblood cobbles, and the smoothworn, narrow railway tracks that disappear into brick walls. A neighborhood that for fifty years was serene in its limitations, insulated from the wealth and the speeds of the city. There was plant and factory work, cheap food in lunchrooms and bodegas, cheap rents in the helter-skelter whitewashed warrens, the dozens of large old apartment buildings that were grandly built and now wear thick skins of grime and listing fire escapes. The kids were cutups, playing ball, kicking ass, running with the Latin Kings. Every corner had its tavern that stayed open late. They had empty streets where on lazy summer nights they fixed their own cars, parts strewn on oily sheets. They had their own streets.

It was not so long ago, the late eighties, that the central intersection of Milwaukee-North-and-Damen was untraveled and desolate at night, a drab part of the city just off the Blue Line el where a few wornout cars sat on the streets, and only the cops, oldsters, and stout Polish regulars moving slowly in the lit windows of the Busy Bee testified to any neighborhood life. But by 1993 circumstances were beginning to weave a desired destination out of the old neglected neighborhood. The streets packed dense with old homes and six-flats were suddenly valuable to the local landlords and the local media hungry to catch an edge, and soon enough the hipsters and homeowners were trickling in, filling up the smoky bars: the Rainbo Club, which had always been there, and thus could claim the rarefied air and snooty staff of an established spot, and the upstart rooms like Sweet Alice and Uncle Wally’s. That was the year Billboard anointed the neighborhood as the new nexus of cutting edge Chicago, even printed a map of West Town to assist the A&R sharks in searching out the next big thing, which turned out not to be Urge Overkill or Loud Lucy. Within a few years a consortium of Wrigleyville scene-profiteers had moved into the celebrated intersection, transforming a perfectly adequate shitkicker bar into a noxious concert hall known as the Double Door. And the youthful explorers, the Art Institute kids and earnest disheveled recent grads, kept on coming, tentatively at first, like tourists with their laminated maps and personal security alarms, then as proud renters, until so many had arrived that the streets were no longer lazy or empty but a rising sea of congested boho cool.

The earnest, unquestioning nature of the crowd was an early tip-off to the artifice of their spangly new environs, the energies at work as flimsy as the rehab walls of the newly subdivided shabby old apartments. A lot of people saw that big intersection—anchored by the opposing prows of the forebodingly deco Coyote Building and the sleek, white-tiled Flatiron—and decided that this grimy, haphazard neighborhood was it, the place for them, the destination they’d been promised. Or else a place for easy speculative profit. Until finally, like an organic change, West Town was transformed into Wicker Park: Now the cars stack up for blocks to pass under the el, through the same intersection, lined by the somber gray faces of galleries and restaurants. You can’t just park here, anymore; on Milwaukee the valets line up impassively in their orange vests to take your keys and money.

When West Town—a neighborhood dormant for years, torn and frayed, run into the ground—was reanimated in the public eye, its landscape of neglected real estate turned volatile. The space of buildings, houses and taverns and commercial boxes and two flats, mutated into a liquid, as flexible as capital itself. Even now that the area is so well established in its trendy hipness that it’s really become a bit stodgy, there are still enormous profits to be wrung out by the brave. A developer buys a rat-trap house of brick, a back house or old carriage house on the west edge, facing Humboldt Park, hands off an incredible windfall, tens of thousands, to the oldster or weary Latinos who hold it, spends ten more to renovate, adds a whirlpool tub and Euro-kitchen, and then sells this deluxe West Village on the Park condominium for $240,000 or so. And every piece of cheap housing that the developers gussy up is gone for good, whisked upward into the decorous moneyed sphere, as if it were the bourgeois promise itself that the developers were constructing in the air above its foundation, out of ceiling fans and granite countertops.

The developer is an easy figure to hate, but it can only be said in his defense that he is a man of the moment, a gelatinous creature who seeks only to expand, to fill the air. All the petulant carpings that make up the do-gooder exposés and community group blather—the notion of “community” as anything other than a buyable thing, the concept of persons displaced, the residue of history, the gone jobs of these ghost factories—this entire dusty web of ideas is simply invisible to the developer. So if we’re to stoop to the comforting hypocrisy of blame, let’s keep things simple and blame the yups, the buyers of the mini-lofts and pale new blockhouse condos. They’re the eager participants who should know better, and it’s their lust for the correctly purchased life in the city’s most now quadrant that speeds the teardown of organic neighborhoods, and they really do deserve their portion of blame for that.

There is a perfume of insiderdom in the stale air of the coffee shops, a scene built on streams of gossip, news, projects, the ambition to cause some sort of stir that will embed an individual into the public mosaic.

But for one who lives in Wicker Park there’s no argument to be made that gentrification is anything but unstoppable, that the neighborhood’s carefully fanned heat and the accompanying rain of greed could produce anything but this frantic division and degradation of the spoils. The last carousel is finally spinning in Algren’s old neighborhood, as the hard-won occupations that raised this city sashay back toward the static imaginary past, down the cool lights of the expressways, out toward the endless deathland of industrial parks beyond the city’s furthest edge. In the future maybe we’ll all be options clerks, or run UNIX networks, piss in a cup and wear the gleaming suits of movie assassins, and away from our ten-hour office days we’ll sleep, orgy, and thrive in our own crisp white boxy condos, all the luxury mini-lofts fabricated out of the ghostspace of a city gone to history.

The paradox of the Wicker Park scene is that what disappears is the very thing of authenticity that all the new arrivals are seeking; it becomes something they can only seek to emulate, both as individuals and as consumers within a larger commercial enterprise. And in that emulation is a growth as invisible as cancer, the hearty hollow boom time that’s already left its cement skeleton along the main drags of a thousand suburbs, all the sad Levittowns and Winnetkas. Now each new hello-kitty swinger’s retreat or daringly themed post-ethnic restaurant only hastens the collective demise; each new arrival dims by degrees the shine, the buzz, ensures that the cutting-edge Wicker Park scene can only be ephemeral, counts down toward the final disappearance of credibility, of the elusive glare of the public moment. From the travails of the landscape here it appears that money, like water, seeks its own aesthetic level: So it is that the favored gritty neighborhood becomes the shunned suburbs, freakish in its whiteness and jut-jawed macho conformity.

In the meantime the new occupants of Wicker Park have little choice but to continue emulating what’s gone, what they’ve come here to find. What remains—what we’re left with—exudes the fakey, tacked-up disappointment of a high school talent show. Hence the rise of a new caste of cliquish passivity, the professional bohemians and coffee-shop rebels who slouch among the tables at Earwax and Urbis Orbis, trying out their scowls, buying the lattes, the frappes, the wholesomely ethnicized flesh-free food, obsessing within the secret notebooks, arguing, expounding spittily upon their complicated lives, hatching the diatribes that fill the grotty fanzines; all their needs attended to by the pinch-faced students, pulling the teat of the espresso machine, over and over, a sticky eight-hour shift, cash in the register, the tip jar clinking. There is a perfume of insiderdom in the stale air of these coffee shops, a scene built on streams of gossip, news, projects, the ambition to cause some sort of stir that will embed an individual into the public mosaic, the little footnotes and momentary ripples to which urban “edge” culture has been reduced.

Traces of what’s been replaced float like ghosts through the streets of the neighborhood. Near Division and Damen was the Czar Bar, a dark scuzzy recroom-type establishment run by middle-aged Poles, where for a few good years touring bands like Unrest and Beat Happening and uneasy local stuff like Homocore found a roost, to the point where the Poles got some money and rehabbed the bar into a light, airy rec-room. But now it’s shuttered. A few doors away, though, the Smoke Daddy is crowded with white people seated in tight groupings, eating tasty low-country barbecue in quiet reverence beneath the carefully framed and displayed tropes of a po’ folks juke joint: sepia labels of blues 78s, quaint tinted illustrations of the Maxwell Street Market, tin signs from the ol’ filling station. Near the big intersection on Damen one may dine and carouse at the Silver Cloud, one of the many places striving for the dim cultural memory of the swanky cocktail lounge, this one serving funny meatloaf platters, displaying a temptingly fragile pyramid of martini glasses, offering up a booze list dense with the precious goods, the single malts and uncommon microbrews. The Silver Cloud is a handsome space, with that lucrative aura of authenticity lent by a fine old intricate dark wood and chrome backbar; this is serendipitously due to the fact that it was until recently—and for no small time—a Mexican dancing bar, a dark unretouched alcove where the buoyant tejano music issued into the then-empty street. On Milwaukee, Club Dreamerz, an evil, grafittied concrete shell—which might have been the first place in West Town to have booked arcane rock in the eighties—exists only in mist. The shell has been awarded a new skin of wood paneling and classy chairs; now it’s Nick’s, where a clubby benevolence greets the visitor from Lincoln Park, Evanston, the burbs, the ones who will be most pleased by this urban-themed suburban tavern, the transplanted smoke and boisterous fellowship of home.

Because the neighborhood is so old—because the dark 1880s Lodge Hall now contains the snotty-mouthed coffee kiosk and the kool krazy shoe store where the discerning employees will be happy to take $40 for a Wisconsin Dells ashtray they dug up at the Salvation Army—an overlay effect can disorient anyone who has lived or traveled here before, say, the past three halcyon years. On Milwaukee Avenue one can track the gentrifying tendrils to where they peter out further south, where there’s still the remaindered husks of the street’s former life: El Chino Tacos, the multilingual travel agent, wholesale sneaker stores, and musty Western-wear emporiums. A few blocks more and the storefronts are boarded up, soaped over, closed up early. The street here appears jettisoned, tossed out according to some scheme of benign neglect, a cabal of city pols and landlords ensuring the developers’ pickings for years to come. In the early evening there is a creepy silence along this southern section of Milwaukee Avenue—the sound of absence, of still-forming things. In the go-go Chicago nineties, wealth can take the form of land speculation on the backs of urban strugglers, and the city’s longevity withers in the bright fisting gaze of the market.

The celebrated intersection, meanwhile, has become a place of public theater, as tourist-friendly as “Tony & Tina’s Wedding.” Each weekend day the silvery el cars up above disgorge streams of visitors, ID’d by the spiffiness of their clothes, the correctness of posture that comes from visiting a heard-about place, the race to judge it against expectations. The voyeurism is in effect at night as well, when the intersection becomes the nexus of Wicker Theme Park, a land of hearty grinning celebrants with fine clothes and monodimensional faces, hungry to believe the gilded promise of good times and chosen neighborhoods, and stumbling from bar to bar, hissing through their teeth at passing women, tonguing the black poles of primo cigars, pissing on walls and windows as they sullenly search for the car to take them home, all Hondas bearing Northwestern decals looking alike. The ongoing hedon’s cotillion is good for business in Wicker, from the Rama Mart with its provisions of ritualized decadence—Miller Lite, E-Z Wides, inhalers, dice, ciggies, Gatorade, Trojans, Advil, Visine, Tums—to the Soul Kitchen, where the well-outfitted swingers of the moment prime themselves for a sexalicious evening by eating the funky food, raw oysters and froufrou’d jambalaya. The money hums like vibrators in all the tight rayon pockets, but it brings with it both the trash of trash—condoms, snack wrappers, the glitter of smashed pints—and human trash, the scam artists, bar bullies, and maybe-rapers, leering around at last call.

For residents of Wicker it is different from the tourist’s mode only by degrees. The stakes are personally raised. You are now a part of the scene, one of the fluid links of acquaintance and decadence, and you must act appropriately: purchase coffee-table smut and ephemeral indie mumble; spend bubbly Saturday night hopping from Mad Bar to the Note, wowing a coterie of visiting friends (getting them to pick up the tabs), then slouch hungover all the next day at the Friar’s Grill. Or it may also happen that what you feel is a sort of indictment: that uncomfortable knowledge that something has gone wrong, that behind all the hardpriced, slickly bohemian cheer that’s been tattooed up and down these old streets is a history—and even a people, a living population—that is ignored, spat on and forsaken.

The aloof yuppie hipsterism that defines Wicker Park can trace its origins to the decisions of artists and other disreputable sorts to move here around 1983, when Huey Lewis was the King of Rock and Roll, and All The Young Dudes lived in Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park and partied on the Division Street meat market strip. Today the artist archetype is West Town’s equivalent of Joe Camel, a promotional image wafted over the city to help sell condominiums. The dubious contrast between old and new—between a “real” bohemia and the frat party that replaced it—may read like cheap sentiment, the gloomy boozer’s trip back to his narrow town. And yet the difference here is so sharp and evident as to be undeniable. Today Wicker Park hipsterism exhorts from us only an enthusiastic apathy—the hearty cry of “I know nothing!” in the face of the blatant swindle—in return for the elusive assurances encoded in all the bought objects, the insubstantial retro gear, the puckish publications offering guides to the moment’s favored cultural ironies, the focaccia, the electronica. Meantime, any notion of action or protest—to say nothing of resistance—dissolves in favor of shallow self-articulation. The stations of this theme park are manned by all the in-crowd, the hipsterists, whose contempt for those they attend and serve oozes out as they giggle and confer over their after-parties and connections and secret schemes.

For all the irksome young bohemians so urgent in their visibility, it’s unlikely that this place will ever see many stabs at actual resistance.

The hipsterists share a lot with the capitalists—in particular the notion of getting in early, being the first on board a cultural referent like a good growth stock. Raw ambition animates much of the local culture in its race toward the ever-vanishing “edge,” a culture whose products—pop-cult worshipping zines, arcanely abrasive rock, Dayglo T&A artwork, poetry slams at the sandwich shop—are almost impossible to regard as anything more than grease in the mechanisms of self-promotion. When the dust settles in two years or so, a lucky handful of the hipsterists will have extruded careers, signifiers, lucre, from the co-opted chaos of their Wicker efforts; others will retreat to the cushioned disappointment of boozy recall within a duller life, to grousing over how close they came. Only the landscape will remain constant as it accommodates this discourse, the frantic assertion of competitive difference, underwritten and supported by legions of followers who are as set in their ways as any North Shore Republican.

The cops and bankers who desultorily cruise the intersection can sleep restfully, knowing 1968 will never return to Chicago. For all the irksome young bohemians so urgent in their visibility, it’s unlikely that this place will ever see many stabs at actual resistance—no grimy Loisaida squatters at work in Wicker, no one left to terrorize the landlords—nor are there even many echoes of the disgruntled punk rock scene that flourished in Chicago in the eighties, the lacerating sounds of Bloodsport, Naked Raygun, Effigies, Big Black, along with the stirring community fostered by the half-populated clubs Batteries and Dreamerz—something almost unknown to the Wickerites, who were then in their Rob Lowe-on-Div-Street incarnation.

So the scrabbling bohemians set the tone, and provide the diverting amusements in the glittering galleries and shops, but it is the handsome, self-assured, well-employed earners who literally own this place. The last laugh of gentrification is—surprise!—enjoyed by its natural constituency, the Midwestern strivers who’ve done so well since the ’91 recession, and who have tried so hard to create a permanence for themselves by buying into the sanctioned, praised urban space of a city they never before knew—West Town, Logan Square, the “lofts” of the South Loop—that you can no longer see the frantic pace of land speculation here, only sense it in the absurd muggings of the costs, the public discourse of money, in sums probably you and I—certainly the people who lived here for thirty or so years—cannot really conceive of pulling together.

Most of the new constructions in Wicker are naked blockhouses of brick and cement, featuring one significant feature of ornament: an enormous central window, revealing the living room and more, the home’s notion of public space made literal. The big window allows the occupying yuppie to display not just his skinned-looking house, but every last thing he’s purchased to complete the urban living experiment, the brave way he’s set out to live.

It seems only a matter of time before Wicker is mostly known for its smog-belching hordes of sport utilities, its black-hole real estate loss-leaders, its stogie-huffing sports-bar boozers and uptight white restaurant patrons.

This sort of ostentation is already routine at Con Fusion, one of this year’s most chic Chicago restaurants, where the well-dressed and supercilious line up to contemplate an abstruse, variegated cuisine—a beef in port sauce here, some star anise there, edible flowers atop the peppercorn ice cream. The real draw of Con Fusion lies in a certain triumph of design: The restaurant is a large space where nearly every component is the palest white, with furniture of transparent hard plastic, so that the inevitable floor-to-roof windows facing Damen create for those on the street an aquarium of the baroque spending rituals of trendy dining. The management is known to stock the window tables with whatever celebrities drop by—Marilyn Miglin, Liz Phair—or failing that, to sift out the glossiest among the arriving guests, the tallest, slimmest women, the bejeweled men, just as the red-vested attendants have been ordered to stack up the finest rides—the sterile Mercedes, the occasional Ferrari—on the narrow slice of street outside. It is impressive to walk past Con Fusion late at night and view this bright scene, the display of the well-heeled and their personal assets, faces frozen above the small helpings of fussily arranged food. The sad austerity of the Con Fusion scene sets it apart from the garden-variety vulgarity of Wicker Park consumption: Watching the patrons squint in vain at the long procession of designer novelty, always waiting for satisfaction, is like looking into a specimen case of the future and seeing how vulnerable life is, even in the bright protected enclosures of the rich.

And there’s also that possible future that nobody here wants to talk about, the notion of the pendulum swinging back, that what we’ve done here will in the end get done to us. A collapse in the housing market, a Midwest recession, a stock market crash, or urban unrest when the thousands of West Side disenfranchised come around at last to demand their due—each could shred the safe happy bubble we now inhabit in so many of the colonized neighborhoods of this city. Or, if this notion of urban meltdown seems uncomfortably fantastic here in the autumn of surging productivity, consider instead the ending that is already rushing to meet us, the expiration date, the self-destruct. Already the seams are showing in Wicker Park, as each weekend the streets clog with the loud well-dressed celebrants in their gleaming new cars and loud posses, crowding the streets, woozy with drink, uncertain where to go next, coming unhappily upon the inescapable conclusion that the bars and lounges and supper spots in the end are pretty much the same, that there’s no place left to go here that will startle or shake them. It seems only a matter of time before Wicker is mostly known for its smog-belching hordes of sport utilities, its black-hole real estate loss-leaders, its stogie-huffing sports-bar boozers and uptight white restaurant patrons. “Wicker Park? That’s, like, so 1995!” It is a tantalizing dream, West Town reduced again to its old place, the lofts burnt out, fire-sale real estate signs glutting streets suddenly free of Range Rovers, once again quiet, ignored.

Here at the end of the century, a certain notion of “artistic community” has become one of our most hallowed social institutions. Maybe it’s an ideal that once made some sort of obvious and clearly defined sense, in those sepia garrets where Alice B. prepared the naughty brownies; and maybe somewhere it does still, like amongst the polite and enthusiastic chosen who appear each summer at Breadloaf, or the sullen polyester-sheathed chosen who grind away in the crowded Art Institute workshops. But the degree to which this cherished ideal has become a public hallucination is the real story of the siege of Wicker Park. After all, it took fifty years for the Greenwich Village of John Reed, Max Eastman, and John Sloane to become the “scene” of Warhol, The Basketball Diaries, heroin, and the tourist-squeeze routine of shitty meals, head shops, and bad clubs it is today. The strange and frightening fact about Wicker is that the region’s lamination took only five years or so—five years for the bohemian simulacrum to reproduce itself on the rubble of what was real. And the thread has a ways to play out still, into the sad finale in which everyone will see past the bright lights and new flashy signs of the Milwaukee Avenue pleasure strip, and the great sheepish exodus that will follow: the big ugly hangover of unadorned realization which awaits.

Youth these days consists of the accumulation of money and memory, ensuring that every last frantic experience counts toward some ultimate accumulation, some reminiscence to treasure far out in the suburbs when the city at last is left behind. This is why in all the neighborhoods like Wicker Park these days the young employeds hurry home off the evening el, clutching their Coach bags and cell phones, the tight toes of their shoes tap-tapping. And in the safety of apartments they shed their constrictive disguises and reappear, no longer drones but dashing and sly, in their tight, gaudy, ill-fitting, carefully coordinated and expensive designer swinger suits of polyester, stretch, and pleather, hurrying back, toward the intersection, past the crackhead panhandlers who soon enough will be gone, toward the bright spangly nightclubs and bars. This is the time of celebration, of the solemn ironic party, and they walk down the dark sidewalks with great haste, the employed rebels with their carefully trimmed VanDykes, the career gals in their important nostalgic shoes, this is their time, pausing to raise their Zippos to their European smokes, yearning for the walls of their nightclubs, the carefully resurrected cocktail lounges crammed with martinis and cigars, tropes of youth and money ferried to them in the invisible hands of servers, camaraderie and good fellowship trailing gin vapors off the triangular heads of the frosted glasses. On these evening streets they may brush past occasional former inhabitants of their neighborhood, the old codgers who still live in set-aside low-income housing on Damen, solid grammas with grocery carts and walkers, crooked-eyed geezers who also wear too-tight synthetics, who might actually dimly recall gambling against Nelson Algren, who knew this city when it was really potent, cruising in their very slow way up the sidewalk, back to their small rooms, hurrying to get out of the way.

Mike Newirth has received a Henfield-Transatlantic Review Award and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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