by: Travis Olson
Place matters. It is inherently political. The spaces we work, live and play are carefully planned, constructed and maintained. Every street, any street, the local park, the places we get our haircuts and where we pick up our dates are all irrevocably entwined with social significance and cultural value. Every aspect of our homes, their layout, location and price (from your classic Uptown studio apartment to my parents suburban home) are clues to our class status and our social aspirations.
This fact of social life has become increasingly obvious in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Despite what Fox, CNN and MSNBC want everyone to think, the people in Zuccotti Park and the Chicago Loop have a few things figured out and one of them is that space is important and political. Through staking out the sidewalks, plazas and promenades nearest to financial institutions, those who claim the title of the 99% are forcing people to examine what we truly value in this nation. Is it free speech, compromise and diversity, or is it something else?
If we rewind a few months (ages in the Facebook-fed Twitterverse, I know), we will find Chicago in the midst of another socio-political huff involving the symbolic importance of space. This last summer the grassroots group Take Back Boystown sprang onto the scene. The opposing sides in this struggle were the seemingly well-intentioned Lakeview property owners and the “thugs” (meaning young people of color from the South Side) who were increasingly present in the streets at night.
Conflict soon ensued and the property owners and police took corrective measures; but the true root problem of this conflict was never reached. The presence of “gang bangers” in a North Side neighborhood was a symptom of a much deeper issue. Looking at the entire conflict through the lens of crime prevention lowered the discourse to its lowest denominator. What was and remains the problem is a failure to understand the symbolic power of Boystown and how this important place relates to systematic oppression.
Many of these young folks came and continue to come to Boystown because it calls to them. It is a place where openly gay people are supposedly welcomed. They took a risk coming to an unknown place to find people, who at least in some small but significant way, could relate to their feelings, desires and wishes. They sought out a community, like many of us have and continue to do.
Boystown has an undeniable resonance with young men. A widespread understanding of Halstead as a gay Mecca has been carefully cultivated. From the rainbow pillars to its constant self-promotion, the “gay community” and we as individuals have created a place of significance for men who love other men. As a band of deviants and the once-prosecuted, it makes sense that we threw ourselves behind this branding of a neighborhood we could call our own.
What we as a “community” talk about less often is how over time Boystown has also become big business. Property owners and real estate companies have carefully crafted the area’s current upper-middle class vibe. New businesses have sunk significant capital and worked hard to attract customers. The neighborhood, like many on the near North Side, has received a lot of investment and now those with the checkbooks are looking for their returns.
Today, the way we conceptualize Boystown as a center for gay life and the economic reality of the place have come into conflict. Our gay town hall cannot simultaneously welcome true diversity and serve as a place to build community if its first and foremost priority is to continue gentrification and make a profit. Building community is messy. To a certain extent it requires conflict; various opinions and lived experiences must clash at times to create a neighborhood where all can thrive. Economic development (at least the type that Lakeview appears to be going for) does not welcome this. Discourse scares away the higher-end clientele.
Legitimate concerns were voiced this past August, but that does not excuse those who have power in Lakeview from having serious conversations about how we are policing such a significant space. Real and concerning violence does not give license to white, upper-class gays to ignore just as real and concerning social structures of racial and class privilege. The events of this past summer should have led us to question where the places for young people in this area are and how established businesses either confront or encourage racism. Instead, we got the meaningless mantra of “diversity is welcome, crime is not.”
The “Take Back Boystown” conflict mirrors what is happening on a national scale. It is directly related to what the Occupy Movement hopes to teach our nation. Community is important and grows out of physical places and ongoing dialogue. Space matters. Boystown matters. For too long purely economic considerations hidden behind the grievances of “concerned citizens” have dominated our civic discourse, both on a national scale and here in Chicago.
We as queer activists have a choice to how we are going to react. Are we going to be complacent and let the landed interests talk or are we going to push for real dialogue on these important issues?
Travis Olson is a current student at Loyola University Chicago studying sociology and environmental studies. He works to be a voice for queer students on his campus through helping to organize the student group Advocate LUC. He hopes to continue to educate others through pursuing a career in higher education focused on student diversity. In his spare time he likes to read queer theory, cook and create art.