Friday, March 11, 2016

Chicago Then, Chicago Now

Having moved to Chicago immediately after graduating from college, I left in 1966 for reasons which make the stuff of long, boring psychological dramas. We might get to it eventually, sometime down the road. At any rate, I moved back again in September of 2006, and it was in a way as though someone had simply removed 39 years’ worth of pages from the book of my life.

I now live on the same street—even on the same side of the street—as when I first moved to Chicago: exactly six blocks north of my very first Chicago apartment. And therein lies a problem, because now that I am surrounded by the streets and buildings and things which were so familiar to me when I was 25—even the same sounds of elevated trains rumbling by less than a block from my window—I am still 25. And then I catch a glimpse of myself in a window, and the illusion shatters. I never cease to be shocked.

One of the reasons I returned to Chicago was to be back among what I like to call “my own people”—the gay community (there are more gays in one block of north Halsted St. than there are within 80 miles of Pence, Wisconsin). And yet I find that while I am once more in the community, I am no longer a part of it in the same way I once was. The intervening years I have so readily chosen to ignore have aged me out of the bar and cruising scenes which were so important my first time around, and sometimes my chest aches with longing, like someone who knows he is not welcome at a party to which he so badly wants to go.

But still, to be able to be in a place where I can see gay and lesbian couples walking casually down the street holding hands, or with their arms around each other, to go into a store where the staff and the customers are predominantly gay, to talk openly with friends in a crowded restaurant without having to avoid saying anything that might identify me as “one of those” is liberating in a way only members of a minority can feel when they are surrounded by their own kind. Straights never experience this feeling: they are always around their own kind.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was no “gay community” as such. The near north side of the city was something of a gay ghetto, but other than several gay bars, there were no gay shops, gays and lesbians were openly harassed by a notoriously corrupt police department. Discrimination was not only practiced but encouraged. Gays could be fired from their jobs or evicted from their apartments simply for being gay, and there was no recourse.

So, though I was used to attending Gay Pride parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was in something akin to awe when I attended my first Chicago Gay Pride parade. The City of Chicago lined the parade route and other gay areas with rainbow flags, and every local and state politician (from the governor on down) marched or rode in the parade. The Chicago Fire Department had a float, and the Chicago Police Department had not one but two parade entries, one of which was a huge float with more than 20 uniformed openly gay and lesbian police officers. The City of Chicago was a major financial contributor to the Center on Halsted, the city’s sprawling Gay and Lesbian community center.

And to the scores of thousands of gays and lesbians (and many of the straights) under the age of 30 lining the route, all this was simply the way it is, and the way it should be. They had, for the most part, not a clue of what those of us who remember “the old days” went through or how hard we fought for all this to happen.

But time also brings rather disturbing change. I and perhaps the majority of Chicagoans still mourn the takeover…and subsequent loss of name…of Marshall Field’s department store, which had been a landmark and symbol of Chicago for well over 100 years. I refuse to shop there now. Carson Pirie Scott, another department store anchor, has closed its gigantic Loop store, the building now filled with trendy (read “exorbitantly expensive”) little boutiques and restaurants, and probably at least 17 Starbucks. State Street, once a battleship row of grand old flagship department store chains—Wieboldt’s and Goldblatts and many others—is becoming a very upscale strip mall. The charm of “going downtown” is largely gone, at least in Chicago. Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart sounded the death-knell of innumerable small towns by driving small hardware stores, paint stores, dry-good stores, men’s and women’s clothing shops, etc. out of business; the collapse of the department store giants has sounded the death-knell of the once legendary Loop.

Well, life goes on. Chicago goes on. I go on.
This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/

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