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Wicker Park Days [Part III]: Losing the Edge

Of course, Wicker Park, the year I lived there, was hardly what it was a decade earlier when Dave arrived before the tide of gentrification rolled in. Or a decade before that, when the trailblazing artists arrived in the urban wilderness of prostitutes and hypos. It's a fundamental truth of a cutting edge scene that it was better right before you got there - ask anyone - meaning that there's always an ongoing debate about whether a scene is any good at all anymore as it supposedly declines.

The edge is rather elusive. Before the edge is cut there's no certainty that it ever will be, and once it's cut it's too late: It will never be that good again. I suppose maybe there's a split second where it's possible to actually be on the edge - I'm thinking about the early Velvet Underground recording sessions - but in reality the awareness of being a part of something so exceptional is always more of a fantasy, an ideal, than an experience. It's a lot easier to look backwards with any measure of certainty about what it meant than to look laterally and know what it means.

On the other hand, there is a certain palpable feeling in rare times and places when, while no one is sure what exactly is happening, one can be certain that it's worth being a part of. Hunter S. Thompson recalls this feeling in my favorite passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

"San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were here and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant . . . . "

It's perfectly consistent, then, that Fear and Loathing was the first play ever performed in Wicker Park's Chopin Theater in 1991, the result of an upstart group of actors and artists working out a deal to get some free space to try something real. (Starring Jeremy Piven, you might be surprised to learn.) That sort of Thompsonian experience is what they were after, and in many ways those artists succeeded in a way that any of us who arrived in the neighborhood later could only bask in. Moreover, it's the chance that the magic still exists that keeps someone like me moving in every month, and in some sense maybe that means the magic does still exist.

* * *

I finally read Neo-Bohemia eight months after I stuck it on my to-read pile last Christmas - six months after I left Wicker Park. I remembered it was there after my friend Meghan - who lives in the Wicker Park/Bucktown vicinity, but out where the rent gets a bit cheaper - asked me if I had read it yet while I visited with her at Earwax Cafe during my visit to Chicago last July. She had been reading it at a different cafe in Wicker Park a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile, as she read, people at the next table were talking about the book, and Meghan overheard one woman mention she knew the guy who wrote it. No surprise - Lloyd must have been around a lot to gather all his anecdotes and case study evidence. Anyway, those folks had no idea Meghan was reading the very book they were talking about, and she declined to bring it up. From an e-mail with Meghan, here's why:

"As for not joining the conversation, it's quite simple. The people discussing Neo-Bohemia seemed to be the exact "hipsters" that Lloyd writes about . . . the essence of Wicker Park. I felt that I would not have anything to contribute to the conversation, even though I was reading the book right then and there. Lloyd mentions that "cultural barrier" between the artists and the yuppies, and I hit that barrier at Filter."

That incident definitely gets to the core of an idea that Lloyd fully engages, as Meghan suggests, namely that of the scene insiders distinguishing themselves from outsiders. As Wicker Park's scene matured, to join the conversation was to be required proving that you belonged in it. Meghan is hardly a yuppie, I should say, being a history teacher and creative enough not to define herself by consumption. Despite that night at Exit, I don't think I'm a yuppie at my core, either, and I'm sensitive enough to care: Damn it, yuppies don't move 1,000 miles away to blow their savings and write a novel about why it's so important to our generation that Bob Dylan went electric on Highway 61 Revisited. But the barrier is nonetheless real; even if you are not a yuppie, you're outside until you can demonstrate otherwise. I felt that with Dave and his friends, as I mentioned. You're culturally guilty until proven innocent, despite whatever egalitarian notions such people might advance in coffee shops.

Thinking back now, I wonder if Dave was more open to including me so quickly because he was already showing signs of being tired with the scene, and was becoming less concerned with maintaining those boundaries. Nine years was enough, he said when he found out our building's new owner would no longer honor the rent agreement he had with the old landlord, the agreement that let him afford even the basement of a building that now finds itself across the street from million-dollar condos. Or maybe Dave was never all that concerned with the boundaries, and really did live there because he had committed the bohemian ideals to heart. To me it's an open question.

In either case, why would such people move to this neighborhood in the first place? Lloyd's central point in Neo-Bohemia, I'd suggest, turns on the observation that Wicker Park's residents were trying to rebel, and that their particular style of rebellion was to treat their lives like art. To make a statement - to express and invoke emotions in others - via their persona. To sacrifice comfort and security, which is to say yuppiness, for vibrancy.

So, what happened? If that's the sort of community attitude that materialized and attracted people to Wicker Park in the first place, inasmuch as that vibrancy is still there, that's the sort of attitude that brought me there over a dozen years later. True, gentrification happened, so maybe the spirit is harder to find, but that can't be all of it . . . can it?


Tomorrow: Rock over London, Rock on Chicago.


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


Posted on October 4, 2006

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