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Wicker Park Days [Part V]: Exit the Golden Arm

As I think about where, perhaps, Lloyd falls short in his considerations, I turn to the patron saint of Wicker Park Writers, Nelson Algren, with whose writing I was casually obsessed with for a while as an undergraduate, and who lived for a time near the Artful Dodger's location on Wabansia. I later learned about Saul Bellow living in the neighborhood, too, and while I read The Adventures of Augie March last winter, as far as literature influencing me along my own journey, it's been Algren near the top. I read much of The Neon Wilderness on a cold few days at my grandparents farm in Wisconsin, as opposite from Algren's urban decay as one could get. In that era I also read The Man with the Golden Arm, which hits one much the same way as the Velvet Underground's first album: for all its merits and flaws, it's fresh, it's both unsettling and inspiring, and it's authentic. As I said before, it's on the elusive edge. It suggests to one the possibility of a new way of doing things. Like Wicker Park once did.

Lou Reed, I should mention, is a fan of Algren's, and Reed's famous song "Walk on the Wild Side" draws directly from Algren's novel of the same name in several sections such as this one:

Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that dash

She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side

Lloyd talks about Algren's writing and why it appeals to so many Wicker Park residents. This appeal exists because, somehow, there is a sense of romance to the grittiness of old urban Chicago, and the way that miring oneself in that grit proves authenticity. To experience the real city is to brush up with hustlers and junkies, Algren's muses. Authenticity is understood as this: when you go through something like that particular gritty experience, you know something significant about life and this mad, mad world that others cannot know. But, I think, that doesn't go quite far enough.

People who lived in a place like the old Wicker Park are drawn to Algren's characters for one reason: they're outlaws. Algren says as much in a scene of The Man With The Golden Arm. Frankie Machine is about to be interviewed by a police captain regarding a red-handed burglary arrest; he's waiting in a line with other Division Street criminals explaining why they're in jail:

"A friend of mine went to sleep and I took his money before somebody else did." "For unbecoming words to a lady, I think it's called." "For tryin' to talk a friend out of trouble - he was settin' in a patrol wagon, I told him to come out of there, so they put me in with him." "Went down to the West Side to round up bums for a labor gang 'n got picked up for one myself." "Picked up at an unreasonable hour." Of late all hours to the captain seemed unreasonable. "I know you," he thought cunningly of all outlaws. "I know you. I know you all."

Till the next line's shadows came on, and the outlaws followed their shadows.

It made the captain want to shield his own eyes; for a moment he looked ready to cup his head in his hands. "The old boy is drivin' himself as hard as he's drivin' the bums," Frankie thought with a certain malice. Then the glare hit his own eyes.

When Lloyd talks about the counter-intuitive romantic appeal of a gritty neighborhood like Wicker Park was in his fourth chapter "Grit as Glamour," he's correct in identifying on what the appeal hinges: "hipness, intensity, diversity, authenticity." Art must be authentic to succeed, and if a life is art, a life has to be authentic to succeed. It all turns most of all, then, on that notion of authenticity. And there is no character more authentic - and more romantic - than an outlaw. That's the final step that Lloyd neglects to take in considering those people he interviews from the period, as well as those who arrived thereafter.
After the artists began settling in the neighborhood out of necessity and opportunity, and a community started developing, those first Wicker Park scene-makers wanted more than to be bohemians, I'd suggest. In a sense, more than simply avoiding conformity, they also wanted to be something a step further - urban outlaws. That's what distinguishes them from the people like me who arrived later. When you look at it that way, it becomes clear that being an outlaw of that sort is, quite frankly, impossible if the norm doesn't mind. (Although, who could have seen that one coming?) Still, outlawry being ultimately impossible, that doesn't mean you can't still shoot for it in some manner, and make a life - or at least a neighborhood - mean something through the goal's pursuit.

* * *


So where does that leave us, as I look back at Lloyd's book, my life, and the neighborhood?

As for Lloyd and Neo-Bohemia, in trying to interpret the Wicker Park experience of the 1990s he attempts to capture the un-capture-able, but he does so as well as he could. His tale is ultimately one of romance between city and citizen exploited, of rebellion undercut at its premise, and since he got a lot of that right, it's worth reading in the context of trying to make sense of this post-industrial, post-modern, post-everything world.

Lloyd speaks authoritatively in his conclusion about "changes in the contemporary economy broadly, with an enhanced emphasis on both individual creativity and the individualization of risk. Compared to a previous era, flexible capitalism demands greater adaptability from its workers, and even educated professionals must learn to live with contingency and vulnerability." And then he gets to the turn: "New-economy professionals are not bohemians, but they are not 'organization men' (or women) either, and in this period of neoliberal capitalism, it may be the bohemian ethic, not the Protestant ethic, that is best adapted to new realities." For me, at least, that rings soundly.

I left Wicker Park with a more intense enthusiasm for life than I had when I arrived, a spark I already had that it nonetheless stoked. I had decided to move there after performing a simple calculation: if I'm going to be leaving Chicagoland for a while, I'll regret it if I don't spend a year living in a neighborhood that will stand as a signal moment for that chapter of my life. I needed to be there not only to accumulate inspiration, but to gain confidence in my agility, that certain flavor of independence and self-sufficiency. It worked.

Then, I needed to leave in order to try my hand at adventuring, to test myself, to put something of myself on the line by moving across the country to a thriving city where I knew no one, for little reason other than to prove to myself that I could. That, and to break out of patterns that would have kept me from going all-in on writing the novel for which I had no sense of direction. Did I belong in those Wicker Park conversations, even though I wasn't a starving artist? Did I belong at Exit, even wearing khakis? I suppose I don't really care. If that bohemian ethic Lloyd suggests as being best-suited for the new economy involves a great measure of agility in one's life, for better or worse, I'd like to think that in the only sense I cared about, I grew to fit in just fine.

As for Wicker Park . . . Well, it's now into its third generation as a gentrified neighborhood. A generation at large is 20 years, but a generation in a neighborhood is more like 5 years, I'd say. My old neighbor Jessica, graduating from the Art Institute and working as a cocktail waitress near Millennium Park, had to move up to Logan Square to afford an apartment that gave her enough space to pursue her art and photography. The Artful Dodger has been leveled in favor of condos. On the other hand, one evening in the winter before I left, a car salesman came in to the Beachwood and ordered a bump and a beer, for no other reason than that he'd been doing it so long that it was simply what he did. There's something of a soul that persists in these old urban neighborhoods, whatever changes they weather.

I don't write poetry, but one night later in the winter I sat by myself at one end of the bar in the Beachwood with my notebook, and I let my one and only Wicker Park poem fly. Walking over, the street had been still in that soft, fresh snow kind of way. I was struck with a sort of presence in that silence. I began: Do you think that streets have memories? That night, it was a loaded question because I knew they did.

So what has happened in Wicker Park is what has happened before, and will happen again: like-minded people trying to be a part of something bigger than themselves. If nothing else, Lloyd demonstrates that despite the supposition that nowadays community is shifting along virtual and technological lines, places still matter. More than setting the trends in music and art and style, regardless of whether trend-setting fits into capitalist structures, recognizing that places matter and cultivating a fierce sense of neighborhood pride might have been the real way that those early residents were on the edge. As I think about it, I wonder if in this post-modern world places don't matter more than ever to those of us for whom agility may be critical to our success. After all, if I'm going to be moving somewhere else along the way, I'm counting on people like me - actually, ahead of me - to have made it cool before I get there. And wherever I find myself in the next arc of my life, I'll vow to try and do the same, for whatever that's worth. You never know if it'll mean something after all, I suppose.


Ex-Chicagoan Joel C. Boehm lives and studies law in Austin, Texas. He maintains Agony & Ivy, a website 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 6, 2006

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