Friday, December 11, 2009

21st Street Gazette

Ah, winter has descended on 21st Street. In great, gusty gales the sloppy, slushy snow sweeps down upon us, enveloping one and all its icy embrace. Through the cruel tundra you spy a lone, hooded figure trudging desperately ahead--it's me, heading to the liqour store for my nightly ration of strong spirits. The street is otherwise deserted; everyone is in hiding, cowering in their warm little nests, growing thick layers of fat that that will protect them from the cold.

But that does not mean all is stagnant on proud 21st Street. No, even in the deadest of winter my street is a hotbed of commerce and activity. The Textile Discount Outlet, for instance, which dominates the south side of the block, has seen bustling business:
And it's no surprise--in these cold times, people need all the textiles they can get. They wrap themselves in veritable mountains of textiles. The Textile Discount Outlet is a treasured specimen of Old Chicago, now considered a highly endangered species. Everyone who works there has an accent of some kind, be it Maxwell Street Jewish, Bridgeport Irish or inexplicably French, and there’s virtually nothing in the building in the way of modern technology—just vast canyons of rolled-up satin and chiffon. It’s run in much the way our great-grandfathers might have run a fabric warehouse. My roommate April tried to apply for a job there—when she told them she lived across the street the boss asked in his ancient Southside accent, sniffing an air of modernity about her, What, you live in the commune?
Speaking of ancient, I came across this photograph recently, perched atop the soda cooler at El Valle liquors:
This is the corner of 21st and Leavitt, some time in the first half of the 1900s, and I’m delighted to note that there’s a streetcar line running right down 21st Street. This was the first I’d ever heard of it, and some cursory internet research has yielded nothing to back it up, but here is solid photographic evidence. The idea of a streetcar running down my block is indescribably appealing. In summer months I’d hop aboard, clutching my sweaty 5 cent fare, and ride on out to the Secret Beach! The photograph also illustrates that under the pothole-addled asphalt of 21st Street there lies a charming expanse of cobblestone. Calling all neighbors! Let’s rip up 21st Street and restore it to its former glory!
In other news, more white people continue to flock to 21st Street. Though the white mecca at 21st and Damen, the bizarre and overpriced Café Aorta, went out of business several months ago, a new venture at 21st and Western promises to accommodate Caucasian tastes—the soon-to-open Casa Café nods to the area Latinos in its offerings of tamales and guisados, but displays its true colors in advertising 100% natural juices. I’m no longer surprised when a white acquaintance tells me they’re moving to 21st Street. Just these last few weeks we’ve seen a flurry of white activity on my block. A seemingly wealthy but well-intentioned young white woman is now living at the corner of 21st and Hoyne, and has offered up her swank storefront home—the “Turning Fork Supper Club”— as a venue for the occasional film screening or acoustic show. One can’t fault her for her impeccable taste and generosity—she serves concertgoers hors d’ouvres of sage-toasted almonds, and complimentary mulled wine—but one can wonder how many hungry immigrants might comfortably live in her palatial abode.
In a similar vein, I offer this building:
Which is located several addresses to the west of me. It’s more compelling than it might appear from the outside. I spent several years scratching my head over this building. Taped to the front doors I’d see flyers for upcoming events—healing drum circles, and esoteric potlucks. Foolishly, I never pursued the matter—I lazily wrote the residents off as pseudo-spiritualists, New Age twats with whom I’d rather not associate. It turns out—and I should have known this all along—that the building was the home of the Chicago Cannabis Growers Association. That a world-class weed farm had taken root mere steps from my home without my ever knowing it is utterly astonishing to me. The years I’ve wasted!
The landlord, apparently, didn’t “agree with what they were doing” and eventually gave the cannabis crew the boot. In a bidding war which included my former house- and bandmates in Cool Memories, the right to rent this zillion square-foot palace for a paltry $1400/month fell to a redheaded art-school student named Miranda. She recently gave me a tour of the building, and it filled me with seething jealousy: three spacious floors full of architectural oddities, rooftop access, a master bedroom with video-equipped intercom and a sprawling backyard—the sort of building where one could have thunderous rock shows, host a cinematheque, hold séances, create a vast lending library, building a roller-skating rink, live in the lap of luxury and do just about anything short of growing cannabis. Miranda and her roommates don’t seem to have any such grand ideas. When pressed about her plans for the space, she offered, vaguely, that she hoped to do some “art stuff” on the ground floor. Indeed, if the gringos have their way, west Pilsen will soon be a regular Soho, a year-round art opening crowded with weird young women and sallow boys, their storefronts-cum-galleries featuring the latest in inscrutable fabric art—the Textile Discount Outlet, at least, will thrive, and there will be free wine on Fridays.
Signs of the times:
The venerable junk shop across from El Valle seems to have finally closed, after interminable months of dire “Going Out of Business” warnings. In was as if the junk shop operated in some alternate temporal reality, where time passed as slow as molasses. Their going out of business sale reached a comedic climax this November, when they put up a big sign proclaiming Final Days: 14 Days Left, Everything $1.00. There were 14 days left for about three weeks—then, suddenly, there were only 10 days left. Then, eventually the sale price dropped to 25 cents. Monday is the Last Day!, the sign read:
It’s been a very dramatic coda for a store which seemed to stock nothing besides soiled lampshades, board games no one would ever want to play, and a box full of sticky old pornographic magazines. Besides my fluorescent crocheted blanket, the only thing I ever wanted to buy from S.Z. Sales was a strobe light, which they refused to sell me—an odd echo of a short story I wrote years ago.
Much as junk shops may give way to art galleries, though, 21st Street is still a hardscrabble enough place. “Shade” reminded me of this when he wrote his name on our front door the other day:
I was a little flattered, actually—I took it as a cheeky way of saying hello to the neighbors. I don’t much know my neighbors here on 21st Street, even after three years of residence. There’s Norberto and his wife, and their spectacularly alcoholic son Junior; there’s Nidia, whose son Ray committed suicide this fall; there’s Waldo, the chubby boy down the block, and the family that runs Late Liquors, where they charge something like a 25% sales tax. I can’t pretend that the dynamic between Latinos and whites in Pilsen is much more than an uneasy peace. The culture gap sometimes seems more like a chasm.

1 comment :