“How long will it take?” I was talking directly to a hard hat perched on top of the head of a Chicago city worker. He looked up, shrugged, and replied with a mildly amused glint in his eyes, “Don’t know, ask them.” But I had in fact already asked each of “them,” a group of five men outside my Uptown apartment building. City insignia on their clothes lent them an air of authority as they milled around a giant hole in the pavement. The “it” in question was the entire process of turning off the neighborhood water supply, digging the hole, fixing some kind of “water problem,” turning on the water supply and then repaving the pavement.
In typical Chicago fashion, no one in our building had received a prior warning about the water being turned off. I had been unpleasantly surprised to find my taps dry when I returned from getting my paper early that morning. I was cat-sitting for friends and suffered an initial short panic about my feline guest dying of thirst. Realizing that she could do with a single bowl of water for the day, and that I lived in a city with ample resources (except, apparently, running water), I bought a bottle of water, poured it into her bowl and then contemplated what to do until “it” was done. Which, as far as I could tell, could be a day or weeks. Every one of the city workers had responded to my question in the same way, with a shrug and amusement that I would even think about asking how long a city job might take. The men gathered around the hole seemed to have nothing to do with the actual job (the hard hat did all the digging) but they stood and talked, confident about nothing more than the fact that “it” would take time. Who knew how long? Who really cared?
Facing deadlines, I made my way towards Andersonville with my ancient and heavy laptop in hand, loathing the idea of becoming the typical café denizen, the sort that sits at a table looking alternately industrious and contemplative. For me, writing is a solitary activity best done at home, close to the comfort of free food and tea. I don’t, while writing, seek the companionship of friends or strangers. So it was with some annoyance that I found myself in Café Boost looking for a plug point and a quiet spot.
Readers familiar with Chicago’s North Side cafés will remember the great “Kids and cafés” saga from 2005. Andersonville leapt to national attention because of a sign posted by Dan McCauley on the door of his restaurant Taste of Heaven: “Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven [TOH] .” McCauley claimed that this was to make sure parents controlled children who tended to run wild and disturb adult customers. The story made it to The New York Times, surprisingly igniting a national conversation about how parents should raise their children—or if they were even doing so in an age of “child-centered” policies and places. And occasionally, as the story wound its way through national and local news outlets and the blogosphere, it became one about the differences between parents and non-parents. McCauley is an out gay man so, to be specific, the story became one about straight people—“normal” child-rearing types—versus queers—who supposedly don’t have children to take care of.
It’s tempting to write something about the laughable fallacy of assuming that queers don’t have kids—especially given the hysteria with which pro-gay marriage people, straight or queer, go on endlessly about the sanctity of gay families. But readers are aware that I don’t think the family is a particularly precious unit to preserve and cherish. It’s also tempting to write something about yuppies taking over neighborhoods like Andersonville, which have seen gays migrating northwards from places like Boystown after having been gentrified out.
The popular myth about queers and gentrification is that we move into broken-down houses in equally broken-down neighborhoods and fix them up, making it possible for wealthier yuppies to eventually relocate into “our” neighborhoods, pushing us out in the process. This narrative erases the reality that marginal and “undesirable” neighborhoods are usually first inhabited by a city’s migrant workers and its poorest (who may or may not be queer—but nobody cares to run surveys among them) before being “discovered” by queers. And it ignores the fact that yuppies and suburbanites, the ones so many of us love to loathe, are in fact often wealthy gay men and women.
To some extent, the “Kids and cafés” story exemplifies traditional conflicts over ownership of a changing neighborhood. But at the end of the day, it’s really only about who in the neighborhood gets to pay for the privilege of paying about or over $10 for soup and a sandwich at a café—and nearly $20 if you include dessert and a drink. Despite all the talk about styles of parenting, of battles between yuppie gentrifiers and “original” residents, capitalists vs. bohemian artists—it all comes down to people fighting over the right to pay the kind of money that most of us living in the city can’t shell out too often.
I entered Boost for respite from dry taps sometime in 2000, when Taste of Heaven was still located further south, on Foster. Where Taste now stands once stood the old BC Tap Bar. Its eventual closing was mourned by the neighborhood and “Save BC Tap!” signs appeared on windows everywhere. It’s now hard to find an Andersonville resident who even remembers the old bar. Boost has also closed. In case I start to seem like Garrison Keillor in the city, let me be clear that this is not a call for nostalgia. My point is that gentrification is cast in the light of ownership (cultural and material) and sentimental memories of the “old days.” But, in the end, it’s about who can pay to live in a neighborhood and whose tax dollars count the most.
I returned that afternoon to find the water turned back on. The cat, showing no signs of dehydration, was curious about her next meal. The hole in the pavement was filled but never repaved. For years afterwards, people waiting for the bus there had to walk around or over a large mound of dirt until our collective weight slowly wore it down to a bare and rough patch level with the ground. My building was once firmly in Uptown. Two years ago, Andersonville crept southwards to where I live and staked out its territory with a black, faux cast iron lamp-post and a flag with that neighborhood’s name planted to the right of the nearest crossing, making me feel utterly colonized. But on the other side of the crossing stands an old green Chicago city lamppost, its light long missing. I’ve called 311, but no one has bothered to replace it. Who knows how long that will take? Until my area is completely gentrified, who really cares?