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Wicker Park Days [Part II]: Art, Commerce & Phyllis' Musical Inn

My recollections of those early days in Wicker Park are at the heart of what is both a success and a flaw in Richard Lloyd's treatment of the neighborhood in Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. It's a sociology book, written as a dissertation. As such, it cites lots of (presumably) well-known studies and conclusions by other sociologists. Some are more familiar to the general readership than others, like Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise.

Lloyd's work compares dozens of these sociological theories and analyzes competing trends based on evidence collected in Wicker Park. But it's no accident that Lloyd begins his book by recounting his first Wicker Park experience, one of Veruca Salt's earliest shows at Phyllis' Musical Inn, in 1993. Asserting something of one's own personality onto the case is a very Wicker Park-ian thing to do. Lloyd's account is something of a hybrid, then, telling the story of the forest of the post-industrial economy by giving the stories of some trees.

And Wicker Park has had some interesting trees, even in its successive gentrified states. My friend Meg, a girl I knew from a ways back, was living just a couple of blocks away from me near Division Street, I discovered running into her at Gold Star one evening. Not only that, but she was organizing a mud wrestling party at an abandoned warehouse way out west on Grand Avenue. (That one deserves its own story.) Dave's friend Kenny was from Cambodia, and when I'd see him around, he always had a story ready about his latest escape from trouble with The Man. Then there was Jessica, an art student living in the other apartment in our building, obsessively listening to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots for days on end, slaving over the Jell-O mold installations she was preparing for a photography series. And so on.

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All of these characters who intersected my Wicker Park life that year are entirely consistent with the characters Lloyd describes - his neo-bohemians. The term is drawn from bohemian traditions going back to Paris and later Greenwich Village, encompassing starving artists and their extended counter-cultural communities. Counter, that is, to the bourgeoisie, which in its latest incarnation means "soulless yuppies," a term that Lloyd presents to us in his introduction. The "neo" comes in the fact that the new bohemian model "plays a necessarily novel role in enhancing the interests of postindustrial capitalist enterprises, especially property speculation of various sorts, entertainment provision, and new media production." In other words, there's money to be made when these new bohemians are on to something ephemeral yet saleable that consumers crave.

I was certainly something of a yuppie, I should admit up front, at least in one of my personas. A girl studying at Columbia College whom I dated for a while described me coming home from work one evening as looking like a Mormon Boy Scout. I gather she meant that I was clean cut and somehow wholesome looking. Of course, I'm neither Mormon nor a Boy Scout, but there was one Friday evening a brief beer at the Artful Dodger turned into the DJ convincing my friend and me to go to Exit on North Avenue with him . . . and if you've ever been to Exit, especially upstairs where patrons ardently pursue proving the argument that industrial music is not dead and therefore one should dress in leather clothes with lots of metal studded everywhere, while intensely pounding the chain link fence caging the dance floor, well then you know that my business casual Friday work clothes put me well out of place. At least if I'd had YUPPIE tattooed on my forehead I'd have been a standard deviation closer to the average number of tattoos visible that night.

Lloyd's success is in identifying the connection between inevitable conversations among characters like Dave, Kenny, Jessica, and the Exit crowd to the fuel they provide to their participants, and the larger - even global - post-industrial creative economy that the climate ends up supporting. His failure, largely owing to the context in which he writes, is that he can't describe those conversations any better than "interactions that fostered a sense of community, and opportunities for mutual support and collaboration among aspiring cultural producers," as he states in his fifth chapter, "Living Like an Artist." That stuff about aspiring cultural producers is true; it's also true that they were art-flavored bullshit sessions.

Maybe it's a fair point to say that it's much more important that the conversations happened at all, since the conversations themselves were almost always arbitrary and usually unimportant, which is not to say insignificant. Maybe it's the fact that aspiring cultural producers were able to commune with each other and with the neighborhood that matters. But when Lloyd occasionally veers into the narrative voice, I found myself wishing for a lot more of that and a lot less of the footnotes, ten-cent words and other academic obfuscations.

Still, looking back, I have to ask: Why, even at Exit that night, do I still think that I belonged in those conversations? What is it that's unique about a place like Wicker Park that continues to attract people like me?

*

Tomorrow: Fear and loathing in gentrifying Wicker Park.

*

Ex-Chicagoan Joel C. Boehm lives and studies law in Austin, Texas. He still maintains Agony & Ivy , a website mostly about the Cubs. He has very recently completed his first novel, Just Drive South, and is seeking to publish it. He can be contacted at jcb@agonyandivy.com.



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Posted on October 3, 2006


MUSIC - Boy Band Con.
TV - Cable25's Signoff.
POLITICS - Barrington Teen Trying To Save Your Lousy World.
SPORTS - Tom Izzo Is White.

BOOKS - American Punishment Awards.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Chicago Tool Library.


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