Like San Francisco, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Chicago. Queer spaces in both cities are often under siege–battlegrounds within our communities, in some cases, and taken hostage by these mysterious forces known as the free market, gentrification, and corporate funders in others. And it’s not just queer spaces, mind you. So many other cherished spaces—entire POC neighborhoods, affordable housing, parks, libraries, waterfronts and beaches—are similarly vulnerable.
I was raised in a Midwestern, college town and had the privilege to migrate to Chicago for college. Besides a recent 7-year stint in San Francisco, followed by 2 years in Minneapolis, Chicago has been my home base. And at my 40-something years, that’s a next-level, long-term relationship.
You might say that Chicago and I have each undergone some major life transitions during our break from each other over the last decade. Perhaps it’s not a fair or even good analogy, but one of us has made a relatively intentional gender transition while the other has enlisted a Palm Springs surgical team for never-ending rounds of facelifts.
Here is one striking example: community centers. In 2001, the year I began my transition, there was the Autonomous Zone (aka the A-Zone), an anti-authoritarian, ragtag community center and “infoshop” that welcomed the connections between queer liberation and groups like Food Not Bombs, TransAction, and numerous other DIY artistic and activist gatherings. Located in the predominantly working-class neighborhood of Logan Square, the storefront space was lined with peeling linoleum floors and fourth-hand furniture. Its fluorescent lights and musty aroma could not overpower the homey and welcoming atmosphere for me. There I made an incredible set of new friends who taught me about consuming less and living more openly and creatively, and engaging more actively with social justice, anti-oppression work.
Fast forward to 2012. I live in Logan Square again. The A-Zone is but a memory. The Mayor also shuttered the community mental health clinic in May. Although the 2010 census says that it is 51% Latina, there aren’t nearly as many Brown people visible. The homes sure look shinier. There are more gates around them now with signs that command, “DO NOT LOCK YOUR BIKES TO OUR FENCE. PRIVATE PROPERTY!” We have a weekly farmers market that is required to accept Link cards (i.e. food stamps). Although I seldom attend, I have yet to see Link cards used to purchase organic eggs for $5 per dozen and heirloom tomatoes for $6 per pound. The local food coop had a ramen noodle display (the expensive kind with no MSG) whose sign read “Where my poor people at?!” Although POC-owned small businesses continue to line Milwaukee Avenue, the neighborhood has sprouted all kinds of gastropubs and cafes that boast “local” and “sustainable” menus, and watering holes that make fancy, fresh cocktails for only $8.
To the east of Logan Square, a few neighborhoods away and by the lake, is the area known as Boystown. This gayborhood begat a brand new community center, known as, The Center on Halsted. Its Wikipedia entry reads, “After a $20 million capital campaign involving 2,000 donors, Center on Halsted opened its 175,000 sq. ft. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified building in 2007 with Whole Foods as an anchor tenant and two levels of underground parking.“ Whoa! Forget the A-Zone! Besides Whole Foods, this facility has a rooftop garden, a state-of-the-art gym, theatre, and cyber center, and numerous sleek meeting and exhibition spaces.
The problem is that millions of dollars seem to have made this a very unwelcoming space, particularly for those who may need it most. I rode my bike there last night to see Kate Bornstein perform; it was a fundraiser—at $10 per ticket–for the Center. As I approached the space, however, a few scenes struck me. First, a large SUV–marked with the familiar branding of “Chicago’s Finest” (aka the 5-0)–sat parked illegally in the middle of my bike lane across the street from the Center. There was no sign of its occupants. I turned the corner toward the bike parking where I saw a cluster of young, ostensibly queer, kids of color chatting along the curb on the side of the Center. Not 10 yards away sat another CPD squad car, this time occupied with two officers fervently watching the group. I parked and returned to enter the building, noticing that the group had moved toward the busier Halsted Street side of the Center but still within view and under the watchful eyes of the officers. I entered and found my way up to a lovely and moving performance where I was one of an almost entirely white audience.
I do not mean to idealize my past in Chicago. As with my own transition, the likes of urban renewal and gay-trification were well on their way then–way before then really. And, in many ways, I was and still am complicit in those changes. I left Chicago and the A-Zone behind, and now queer kids, and youth of color especially, have been left to wonder if they are really welcome at a center that was supposedly built for them. I currently live in a more whitewashed version of Logan Square.
Still, all these changes were not and are not inevitable, nor do invisible and overpowering forces drive them, though they certainly seem to be very top-down. Gentrification not only pushes poor people out, but it tends to unfold according to a logic that reproduces the gender norms and binary identities that marginalize the needs and visibility of queers, with queer and trans persons of color being impacted the most. We all have a stake in the direction and shape our community spaces (and our gender identities and expressions) take, and it seems like many of us on the margins have varying degrees of opportunities to participate in the process. We need to build on those opportunities and create new ones for each other.