*Please note: I’ve been working on this piece for about 3 months now and intend to edit it to include pictures of the titular Hideous Edifice but my camera has been broken and I just got it out of the shop.
The neighborhood we live in used to be fairly unassuming and functional. It shares a border with that hipper, edgier, artsy neighborhood where I used to help run a theater company. And, even in its prime, that neighborhood was pretty unassuming too. A blend of working class, artist and immigrant collectives, Wicker Park and Bucktown were the proving ground for Chicago’s emerging artist scene in the 90s when I moved here. No one but the broke artists really wanted to bunk in with the predominantly Hispanic and Polish working class who dominated the area back then. Rents on retail and work/live loft spaces were cheap and the streets were littered with buskers, itinerant hippies, skate punks and artists peddling wares out of abandoned doorways and backs of trucks. Sure, it was a little dangerous to walk around in the wee small hours back then but when else were you going to get free pickings from the donation boxes left outside the Salvation Army? Or stumble on an after-party that you were too drunk to go to but also too drunk to say no to?
There were liquor stores, convenience stores, coffee shops, thrift stores and used bookstores where you could get a reasonable facsimile of a cup of coffee for a buck while you browsed. (OK, to be fair the bookstore is still there but the employees are way more precious these days.) There was also Furniture Row, which is still in the last throes of being dismantled in favor of chic boutiques and upscale shoe stores. You could pretty much furnish your entire apartment for less than $1000 as long as you didn’t plan on any of the furniture lasting much longer than 2 years which probably worked out OK for a lot of people who found themselves priced out of area apartments after the millennium turned.
You could find prostitutes for all discerning tastes at any hour and Horchata flowed like water. There were no lines to get into The Double Door (unless someone dropped a dime on The Stones playing a secret show) and North Community Bank was the only stash hole for your money.
Ten years later it’s a whole different landscape.
First of all let’s talk about North Avenue, which has been overrun by the Japanese boutique chain, Akira. To be fair, I have no idea if it’s Japanese. I know it’s stupid and expensive and takes up way too many store fronts. Plus, if I keep thinking its Japanese I can continue to use my Godzilla allegory of how it’s taking over the whole damn neighborhood. Really though, how many perfectly good stores have to go out of business to make you happy Akira? Do we really need an Akira, Akira Men, Akira Shoes, Akira Accessories, Akira Men’s Shoes, Akira Men’s Accessories? And let’s not forget about the curtain draped storefront you use as a staging ground. Take your $350 jeans and scram you retail monster!
I suppose I shouldn’t complain about Piece Pizza. If it hadn’t gotten so popular and become such a beloved Yuppie/Hipster hangout it would probably be shuttered right now. Plus, there’s just no way a pizza place that good with such astonishing micro-brewed beer was going to stay under the radar for long. We had a good run though, a good few years when it was still a secret gem in a dodgy neighborhood. We could get free pitchers when the owner spotted us and we knew most of the wait staff. Now it’s just another player in the Friday Night Traffic Jam that makes me not want to leave my house. Luckily, they deliver now so I don’t even have to bother with the over served assholes who crowd the bar.
I can, however, totally complain about what happened to Damen Avenue.Years ago I attended a workshop by an Urban Planning Group which discussed the intended path of Chicago’s gentrification efforts. I sort of laughed it off when they said that the end goal was to have more neighborhoods that look like Old Town. Who the hell wants more Old Town neighborhoods? No one who lives there can afford to shop their neighborhood stores. No one who shops the neighborhood stores lives there and neither group of people cares to stop and give the time of day to each other. Piffle I said. No way was this going to happen to Wicker Park/Bucktown. The Artists would never let that happen. Oh but they totally did.
I feel like it all started with The Real World Chicago but that was just the beginning of the end. A year or so later when my theater company got priced out of the space we were renting (stupid, rotten, shitty nogoodnick slumlord asshole…ahem, I digress.) There were already signs that the neighborhood was on the Gentrification Upswing. First of all; all of the hookers were gone. Second of all; you could count on one hand the number of months it took for storefronts to turn over. Something would open in April and be closed by August. Another store, with a similar look would open in September and not make it through the winter. Spaces were getting pricier but there weren’t enough shoppers coming in to keep these newer, trendier stores afloat. Fluevog somehow abides however. Don’t look at me, I think those shoes are ugly AND overpriced. But, back to Damen Avenue:
Someone, somewhere totally flipped a switch and sent Damen Avenue reeling back to 1987 while I was out of town one weekend I think. All of a sudden walking home from the train is like walking through Roosevelt Field Mall trying to steer grandma towards Spencer’s Gifts. Except I would maybe be OK if someone opened a Spencer’s Gifts in the neighborhood, is that wrong?
Marc Jacobs was first and can someone please tell me why he’s trying to sell me cashmere in the middle of the summer? It ain’t gonna happen Marc. Next was the BCBG next door. All of the fashions and window dressings are straight out my less than illustrious junior high days –neon, simple geometric shapes and lots of cut outs. WTF? Who buys this stuff? Ohhhh right that would totally be YOU Ms. Double-Wide-Stroller-with-a-Venti-Mocha-Latte, and your ear attached to your cell phone. You are far from your North Shore McMansion. Scram.
Now there is also a LeSportSac store (people still buy those?) and the latest addition is – and I am not even kidding – a Dairy Queen/Orange Julius.
Look, I am not one to disparage a nice dish of ice cream by any means but I remember when every other door on this street opened into an art gallery. I remember when you could go dancing at Danny’s on a Thursday. I remember when you could go eat at a restaurant in the neighborhood and not need a reservation on a Tuesday night. I remember being the only table in Silver Cloud and that shit just does not happen anymore.
And I bought an Orange Julius the other day for the first time in probably 20 years (shut up, I’m old. I know.) It didn’t really taste very good which made me sad.
I know I know….Blah blah blah it’s inevitable. Stop complaining about it. It’s just as much your fault as anyone else’s you crazy white girl. But it’s not. I didn’t move into this ‘hood with expectations of better shopping. I didn’t buy a condo a block from a Catholic Mission and then complain about the “undesirables” who gather on the church steps. I didn’t come into this neighborhood and decide to destroy landmark buildings in favor of granite counter tops and Jacuzzi bathtubs. I moved into this neighborhood because it had flavor. It was real. It was, occasionally, very dirty and a very dangerous but it wasn’t all painted in ecru and masked with crown moldings like it is now. Do you know how obnoxious it is to feel like you have to get dressed up to go to the corner store for milk? Do you know how even more obnoxious it is when the corner store is a fancy food market where the milk costs more than $2 for a ½ gallon?
My The Fiancé, who grew up in a bad neighborhood and was not in Chicago during the heyday of Wicker Park/Bucktown doesn’t understand what I’m complaining about. He prefers the safe walk home and the fancy grocery stores. I can’t say I mind being able to buy a nice bottle of wine on my way home but I object to the total obliteration of the neighborhood feel. I am all for gentrification at a reasonable rate but this proliferation of international chains and body waxing salons is ridiculous when you stop to consider how many locally owned businesses have gone out of business in the last three years.
It just makes me mad and depressed that the wonderful little neighborhood I have called home for over 5 years has taken on the look of every other retail neighborhood in every other city, in every other state all over the country. I used to like living here because it was totally cool in its total uncoolness. Just like I used to love hanging out at Piece, and Danny’s, Las Palmas and The Artful Dodger (RIP) before the overdressed masses discovered all of these places. Now, when I go out into the neighborhood I might as well be anywhere. And if I might as well be anywhere, what am I doing here?