While back in Chicago for a friend's wedding, I witnessed the city's gay community conflicted over at-risk LGBT youth and the violence they brought upon Boystown. It got me thinking about getting older, the stability of settling down, and what it means to make a family of one's own. I share my experience in a three-part travelogue. This is Part 1.
I've never had a problem taking a red eye. I sleep pretty well on planes. And on my recent flight to Chicago to attend a friend's wedding, I slept undisturbed. I needed it; my week was planned nonstop, hopping through my favorite neighborhoods and discovering new places I'd never explored. For the first time in the two years since I had graduated college, I was returning to the city I never thought I'd miss, the city where I came of age and left, a man.
There was something about returning to the place where I once lived for five years. As a whole, the city was familiar, but the details, like bus stops, had changed with the traffic, moved down a block, altered to the needs of the passengers going home. And so it was up to me to adjust quickly to these changes.
Rested and alert, I got to Vanessa's apartment in Streeterville right as the summer sun was beginning to heat up the city. I had arranged to stay there for the first half of the week, then off to a hotel right before the wedding to get out of what I assumed would be Vanessa's maid-of-honor hysteria.
"How was the bachelorette party last night?" I asked, shuffling my suitcase so it wouldn't block the door to the bathroom.
"We went to bed at 5," Vanessa said, way too nicely to have gotten only two hours of sleep. "And Jenny didn't get nearly drunk enough." That wasn't hard to believe. Jenny, the bride, didn't start drinking until later in college. In fact, she was admirably against alcohol our entire freshman year. Straight-edge, she said she was. That changed once she started dating the frat boy who was now her fiancé, married in less than a week.
Vanessa went back to bed, and I headed off to meet Mo. She wat at Union Park for the last day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and I wanted to see Cut Copy. Mo had also flown in to go to the wedding but from New York, and she was staying with Whitney and her boyfriend Blake in the Ukrainian Village. Once I got near the park, I joined the stream of hipster white kids walking past equally youthful black kids selling water bottles, crouching by the street curb.
I heard the word "faggot" blaring from a microphone, and I figured I had gotten to the festival just in time for Odd Future. The booking of the foulmouthed rap group with an affinity for shock value via misogynistic and homophobic lyrics prompted Between Friends, an anti-domestic-violence group, to camp out at Pitchfork and pass out flyers.
I never understood the uproar with violent imagery in music and movies, the claim that video games desensitize kids, or why the news censors certain depictions of bloodshed. There are wars going on; gangs are very much a part of urban fabric. At least rap music is expressive about it and considerably less harmful. Besides, no one criticized Ke$ha's song "Cannibal" for literally comparing her appetite for guys to Jeffrey Dahmer (subtle, that one). Maybe it's because no one believes Ke$ha capable of such a crime, but the members of Odd Future?
The next night, I went to The Bedford, a new bar housed in the basement of an abandoned bank in Wicker Park. The owners had turned the vault into a more intimate lounge. It was mostly empty. Mo, Whitney, Blake and Adia were already there when I arrived, and Tom met us later. Adia asked us what we had planned for the week. I said I wanted to go to Empire Liquors, Debonair Social Club and Evil Olive, but I was quickly shut down with some eye rolls followed by an awkward silence. Apparently, at 25, I was now too old for the hotspots I used to frequent in college. Proving just how juvenile the scene now seemed, Evil Olive has a "Porn & Chicken" party every Monday night, where they serve fried chicken while porn plays on the big screens. Nothing about the fleshy affair enticed me, so perhaps my friends were right.
"I also want to go to Boystown while I'm here," was my next suggestion.
"The neighborhood is changing," Adia, a Boystown resident, told me in a cautious, you-better-watch-out tone.
"I know," I replied. "It's in every local paper." On Independence Day eve, a man was stabbed on Halsted right between Roscoe Street and Belmont. The incident involved a horde of African Americans, dashing and shouting, and a bystander catching it on tape and posting it on YouTube. Apparently, social media is not a cure for Genovese syndrome.
"I grew up there, my mom still lives there, and as an African American, it just makes me sad to see it all go down in my neighborhood," Whitney said.
The video rekindled tensions, racial or otherwise, and launched another round of finger-pointing in the gay community. On one side were the mostly white local residents and business owners, who cited crime as the main concern and went so far as to create a Facebook page, Take Back Boystown. On the other side were the urban youth advocates, who defend the Center on Halsted's community services for queer kids of color.
"The story has been completely sensationalized," Tom said. "Crime rates have actually decreased in Lakeview."
"Oh, of course, it's sensationalized!" Whitney got a little heated in talking about it. But she's an actress, so she gets heated about almost anything. "But it's not these kids who are causing the trouble."
I asked Whitney, seeing as she straddles this binary (an African American raised in Boystown), whom she thought was really responsible for all the violence.
"It's the drug dealers, the pimps, the gangs that follow them from the South side," she said. "They're like predators!"
I realized that in all that I had read and heard, no one was pointing the finger at these predators, as Whitney called them. But I wasn't scared. I knew, now more than ever, I had to revisit Boystown for myself.
Check back next week to read the second installment. In the meantime, if you want to read an explicit, unedited version of this travelogue, sign up to receive my newsletter.
This post originally appeared on my blog.