Talkin’ ’Bout My Gentrification

By David Himmel

I missed the heyday of the Double Door, which had its locks changed and its spirit evicted from the shell it called home in the heart of Wicker Park for 23 years. As a high school kid from the south suburbs, the majority of my trips to the city for my preferred brand of music—and there were many of these trips—were destined for the Fireside Bowl. I left town for college in Las Vegas only three years after the Double Door opened.

When I returned to Chicago in June of 2007, I immediately began attending shows at the Double Door. And when I moved into the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood in 2009, I cited easy walking access to the Double Door—and the Subterranean and other charmingly grimy, punk-artsy venues, restaurants and bars—as a leading reason for my choice in Chicago neighborhoods. That, and rent was reasonable for a single guy living on a freelance writer’s budget with a taste for cheap beer, artistic freaks, cute girls and good music.

The Double Door. Shuttered at its original location forever. But hey, there's another place for brunch just a little farther down the sidewalk. So that's cool.

The Double Door. Shuttered at its original location forever. But hey, there's another place for brunch just a little farther down the sidewalk. So that's cool.

In the eight years that I’ve lived in the neighborhood, I’ve had three different apartments. From as far north as Damen and Webster to Paulina and Courtland, and now in the shadow of the world’s most beautiful drug store—yet still a waste of great architecture—the Walgreens at Milwaukee, Damn and North avenues. I’ve seen the neighborhood change. The shithole Cans became a Nike Store. I think it was an Asics store that opened up right next to that, though it didn’t last long because, well, who wears Asics when they can wear Nike, I guess. A David’s Tea opened. I bought the woman who would become my mother-in-law the first Christmas present there. Tea with popcorn in it. Because she likes tea and popcorn. And I suck at buying gifts.

I walked North Avenue at 4 a.m. toward the Blue Line to catch an early flight out of O’Hare. On my way, I passed several small groups of prostitutes working the graveyard shift in hopes of providing a little fun in exchange for the necessary nectar we call money. And I’ve seen the North Avenue prostitutes leave their corners as the clientele of honest drunkards and fiscally choosey men (and women, I assume) left the neighborhood.

I’ve been drunk as hell at Wicker Park Tavern and convinced myself that I took a piss in the urinal next to Ricky Bell (New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe fame and genius). And by the end of the beer I bought him after our bathroom break, I’m pretty sure he, too, was convinced that he was, in fact, Ricky Bell. Later that night, I was treated to a surprise, yet lovely evening at the home of a girl I hadn’t seen since the early ’90s. Conversely, I have a friend who got her hair pulled out of her head and the shit kicked out of her ass at the same place simply for resting her purse on an empty chair, which the hair-puller took as a personal insult. That balance of joy and warfare had been part of the Wicker Park charm.

Unrelated to the prostitutes, I met my wife in this neighborhood, too. She, like me, is a white creative type. I write, she paints and designs stuff. She worked for a downtown experiential marketing firm then. She continues to hump for work with big name brands at big, corporate agencies. I, occasionally, do the same. Though our record collection makes a strong case, we’re not as punk or artsy as we would really like to be. We are white people who want to earn money and work hard to avoid being starving artists when really, being artists is all we want to do.

And that’s why we like our neighborhood. Because for years, Wicker Park was the place for the artists and the freaks and the musicians. These are our people. The whites and the browns and the reds and the yellows and gutter punks and rock ’n rollers and hip hoppers and poets and bike messengers… I’ve always felt more comfortable and in sync with these people than I have ever felt with my more corporate and cleaner, mostly white co-workers in the wretched marketing and branding world. Those people—yeah, I said it—as it’s been for a long while now, are fleeing Wicker Park. Or maybe, they're beginning to be outnumbered by another invasive species.

There are still plenty of great bars and grimy, albeit sometimes snooty, book stores. The independent and scrappy business owner isn’t dead yet. But they may be nearing the point of hospice.

Image found free on Venngage. Thanks Venngage

Image found free on Venngage. Thanks Venngage

White glove book cafés, Urban Outfitters, the 606, the Lululemon store, the long-awaited and fancy Robey Chicago hotel where the wife and I will be staying for a night in a few weeks as a way to consume and support our neighborhood, the tearing down of old buildings in favor of new structures with condos—so many condos at such high cost. I see more and more clean people who look more and more like each other than of the kaleidoscope of types I used to see around these parts. The place looks more like Lakeview and Southport Corridor every day. Art portfolio cases and pink mohawks swapped out for strollers and Cubs ball caps. And people lined up outside of restaurants in the worst dead of winter for brunch. Guh. Fucking brunch. Overpriced and overcomplicated, always. I still think Wicker Park is one of the best neighborhoods in town but I'm also confident it will not remain that way much longer.

You can easily make the argument that the hipster-kind of people had overrun the neighborhood long before the yuppies—can we still call them that?—moved in, and that hipsters, to a strong degree, looked indiscernible from one beard to the next. But the hipsters were at least interested in trying new things rather than being attracted to packaged goods like the new Publican Anker. I’ve walked past that place countless times already. Each time I have I notice that every patron inside looks like my dull ex-girlfriend, a high-paid attorney, and her equally dull and equally high-paid attorney friends. Sure, there's a gentle mixing of skin tones among them, but generally, they all seem to be cut from the same beige-colored cloth.

And yes, I recognize that I’m judging these people by their clothes and hairstyles, and that’s not quite fair. But come on, we know that in more instances than not, the way you dress and comb your hair represents, most immediately, your taste and lifestyle. And I have never seen any of those people at a show at the Double Door or the Subterranean or having a drink at Estelle’s. Why would I? They have no interest in the music I do. They, I’d bet 50 bucks, still love Vampire Weekend or any other band that avoids making interesting choices with their art.

Publican Anker. As much as I don't want to, I'll probably eat here. Support the neighborhood and all that.

Publican Anker. As much as I don't want to, I'll probably eat here. Support the neighborhood and all that.

I’m describing gentrification. This is nothing new. It happens in Chicago. It happens in every major city worth a damn. There’s a Target with a gorgeous parking garage now in the footprint of the Cabrini-Green Homes. That’s a different neighborhood, but it proves the point in a simple way. We gentrify. We displace. We eventually ruin. And most people I know don’t like it when a neighborhood gets gentrified. The problem I have is that most people I know are the gentrifiers. What’s even worse is that I, too, might damn well be one of them.

I’m going to miss the Double Door. But its eviction is not entirely due to the brass-knuckled blows of gentrification. Only led by it. Because of rising rent (over $22,000 per month!), poor communication (the Double Door didn't give its landlord notice it wanted to stay, back when it mattered) and, eventually, an inability for the music venue's owners to pony up the $468,000 appeal bond, it was forced to go. And, I guess, what's more punk than getting kicked out of your own house? Or, what's more teenage and stupid? 

But still, I loved that place. I had tickets to see the Finnish monster-metal band Lordi there on Feb. 14, which is why the wife and I are staying at The Robey—it’s part of my Missing Valentine’s Day Make-up Plan. Lordi will instead play Reggie’s that night. Reggie’s is located not far from Pilsen, another neighborhood that will soon become gentrified the way Wicker Park has.

The pattern is clear.

  • The artists move into the heritage-strong but poorer communities.
  • The artists make the neighborhoods cooler without disrupting much of that heritage by creating more business and attractions in the form of music and art shows. And this, right here, from the perspective of a white male writer with a white female artist wife, is perhaps the sweet spot of gentrification, if there has to be one. And there does. Because as I said, I'm not native to the 'hood, so by default I'm part of the process. 
  • And then the hipsters come in and sterilize the cool by trying to make their own kind of heritage, making the heritage and arts they were first attracted to a little less cool by way of being less available.
  • Real estate developers see the potential for profit and begin developing and raising rents, thus pricing out the people who gave the place financial value in the first place.
  • The original inhabitants have to leave because too many minorities are not paid enough of a living wage. Then the artists go because we don't pay artists enough either.
  • And then the people who think Urban Outfitters is a fun! store come in and turn it into a New Lincoln Park. Don’t forget, Lincoln Park used to be a bit rundown, too. And not all that long ago.

So yeah, I’ll miss the Double Door. I’m glad to hear it may be moving up the road to Logan Square. That neighborhood echoes what Wicker Park was like just a few years ago. So maybe the wife and I will make a move up there. We have to follow the gentrification, don’t we? Because oh, my God, think of the home we could get for our money if we buy now.