Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Wicker Park

The corner of Damen, North, & Milwaukee, the hub of the Wicker Park neighborhood

Via Carl, a review by Brian Joseph Davis of a new book on displaced bohemia that focuses on my old Chicago neighborhood Wicker Park (I haven’t seen the movie), where I lived from ‘88 to ‘91.

In ‘89 I was renting an apartment in a 6-flat a few blocks from the North, Damen & Milwaukee 6-way intersection. The building was being sold. One day I was taking the El to the Art Institute to meet an old college pal who was in town for a couple days. I bumped into the realtor who was selling my apartment. He was going to the Art Institute to meet an old college pal who was in town for a couple days -- a funny coincidence. We chatted about the building.

The realtor said, “This is the 3rd time I’m selling this building this decade. I sold it in ‘81; the Italian family who owned it had owned it for many many years; it sold for $50,000. In ‘85 I sold again for $90,000. Now it’s going for $250,000. I’m making a lot more money now, but I have to wear a tie, and I’m not sure it’s good for the neighborhood.” Now the building is probably worth a couple-few million.

When I moved to the neighborhood, Wicker Park was right about to transition from a mostly blue-collar Hispanic and Polish neighborhood with a reputation for dangerous gangs (and a dead body was found in a car across from an apartment I lived in in ‘90 or ‘91) to an expensive chi-chi white-collar neighborhood. It was a quick El ride to downtown on the O’Hare El line -- an incredibly convenient neighborhood. I was making almost no money proofreading at the extremely profitable “Chicago Reader” -- alternative press, baby! -- and other odd jobs, and writing and making music and working in theater for no money. It was an exciting time, and like C. Carr doesn’t say but should have said in another piece on the Bohemian diaspora (Carr’s phrase) that Carl links to, my bohemia was more exciting and more accomplished than any subsequent bohemia. (Carr just says her bohemia was better, without acknowledging that everybody thinks that. In my case, of course, I happen to be right.) Plays, bands, experimental films, recordings -- a very exciting time, and of course no money. One of my favorite songs from the era was “Mickey’s Van,” a song I wrote about our one friend in the neighborhood who owned a vehicle, which everybody borrowed whenever anybody had to move. “Oh, oh, Mickey’s van will take me far / Oh, oh, never gonna buy my own car.” Hah!

I moved to Seattle in ‘91, to the Central Area, within walking distance of downtown, Seattle’s historic African American neighborhood, famous for gang violence and drugs. For five years I lived next door to a crack dealer; we heard gun shots every once in a while; a house I lived in was broken into 3 times, once when a female roommate was showering. I still live in the neighborhood, and now, as I knew it would be, it’s expensive and mostly safe.

“Shock trooper for gentrification” -- that’s been my role in the neighborhoods I’ve lived in -- college-educated white hippie punk artist social worker making the neighborhood safe for the landed gentry to move in after me. Now I even have a (barely) middle-class job and live in a house my wife bought on her own a few years before we got together; we couldn’t afford the house today on both our salaries.

I lament the scattering of my bohemians. My theater friends are still doing their brilliant thing in Chicago (Theater Oobleck was the one I worked with; Curious Theater Branch is run by friends); one of the members of a band I worked with has written a Tony-award-winning musical (which I haven
t seen); my filmmaker friends are still doing their brilliant thing in L.A. (in the experimental scene, not Hollywood, though I have some friends writing for Hollywood too); most of my closest musical friends are in NYC or Chicago or Tucson (though I do have some here too); and I miss them every day.

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