Saturday, September 24, 2011


We popped into the new poetry space around the corner last week. The performances happen in the front room, essentially a dressed-down apartment living room, with exposed brick along an entire wall and some interesting original art displayed. In the back room (the kitchen), you could grab a Schlitz in a bottle for a $2 donation. Not a bad little operation, and the place was packed.

Packed mainly with 20-somethings smoking cigarettes, squeezing themselves thigh to thigh on small couches, flirting a little, drinking their beer down to just a small pool at the bottom of the bottle, then using that same bottle as an ashtray. They listened to not incompetent poetry delivered by not overly earnest poets. As scenes go, it was a reasonable one.

The evening filled me with some guarded nostalgia over a period of life when an average Wednesday night for me might feel much the same.

That said, despite my dents and dings and wear and tear, I'm very happy not to be a 20-something chainsmoker anymore, reciting poetry in non-ventilated rooms, hoping I might get a kiss by the end of the night.

Monday, September 12, 2011

O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall . . .

What you may see here is a plain brick wall. Actually, given the light, you -- like me -- probably see much more, but I'll get to that in a minute.

This wall tells a story, but one without a real denouement. A blank brick canvas is a bit of a midsummer night's dream to gangs working to (re)establish their territory. In the days prior to this photo being taken, one of the largest tags I've ever seen broadcast itself prominently across the building. I actually went out that morning to photograph the tag, but I was relieved to see that our city Graffiti Blasters had beaten me to the punch.

Chicago is strapped for cash these days, and graffiti-removal efforts, like streetcleaning teams, have seen deep cuts. This results in tags lasting longer than they once did, which means the gangs in question get to claim that corner for longer than they used to. Even a few extra days can mean a lot, and trust me, as a neighbor, you feel it.

But the missing tag reminded me that down isn't out, and the city still responds to 311 requests, even if it takes a little longer. It's important, in these trying days, to remember that every problem has a solution, even if that solution requires some extra work on residents' parts.

And yet the ghost of the paint still lingers. You can see it in the proper light, and you know it's never really over. That phantom reminds us that it's a matter of a drug sale on the wrong corner, a girlfriend looked at the wrong way, an Explorer cruising with intent down the wrong block -- and on a larger scale, the job market failing to improve, public education remaining anemic, and cycles of poverty repeating themselves -- and the tag will be back, the tension right along with it.

It's hard to imagine those masons, laying every brick, applying every single layer of mortar, with any sense whatsoever that this would be the legacy of their work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rewriting the Story

I sent a confrontational note to my alderman yesterday. This honestly isn't my style, but sometimes you have to say enough is enough. And between the gunfire the other night, a rash of new gang tags, the illegal tires continuing to pile up outside the auto-body shop down the block, and the pawn shop/payday loan operation being secreted through Zoning to open around the corner, I guess I've reached a tipping point.

My familiars seem better about letting this stuff roll off their backs than I am. I used to be better about it too. It's clear I need to detox. Not the blissful but temporary decompression that came with my trip to Maine last week, but something more longstanding. A giant intake of air that lasts a month or more would be nice.

But life doesn't show any sign of letting up, so I'm taking a DIY approach. Seeking out the small painkillers that present themselves from time to time in the neighborhood.

To that end, I'd like to send a thank-you note to this guy, who's rehabbing a house on one of the busiest, most treeless, perhaps least invested blocks in the neighborhood. More interesting to me than the actual house on the property, though, is this smaller blue dwelling, which already houses his flock of chickens.

To you, sir, I say Welcome to the neighborhood . . . homesteader, urban farmer, pedaler, inspired stranger, calmer of jittery hearts.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sermon on the Sidewalk

If I told you I was excited to see one of our nearby empty storefronts finally returned to productive use, I'd be lying. Not because I want to see these spaces stay vacant, but because when something opens near us, it tends to be one of three things: An Herbalife outpost, a tire shop, or -- like the building in question -- an evangelical storefront church.

These outfits tend to come and go in our neighborhood. For a while small pockets of people will drive up at odd hours -- maybe 10:30 on a Friday night, or 11am on a Tuesday -- and echoes of shouting and staticky music will be heard as far as the next block. Then, just as quick as they set up, they're gone, leaving a hollowed-out building and crooked sign in their wake.

I've never quite understood how these operations work. How do they establish their flocks? Why so peripatetic, and where do they go when they leave? What kinds of tax breaks do they get? Perhaps most importantly, do they follow much of the faith community in having a social mission? If so, what do they contribute to the neighborhood?

They never stick around long enough to guess.

Just a couple doors down from this church used to be a fantastic upholstery shop, and a number of yard-sale finds in our house carry their hallmark. I've always mourned the closure of the shop, which left another empty bay on the strip. So you can guess that when I walked by the other day, and saw yet another sign for yet another church, I got grumpy.

But wait, a closer look, and something didn't quite jive. Bad News Bible Church? West Side School for the Desperate? Either the evangelicals are getting cheeky, or this is something else altogether. Something new. Something that doesn't grow out of pyramid schemes or over-reliance on personal automobiles.

Sure enough, it's a small, culturally diverse, fringe literary group who is using the space for poetry slams, readings, variety shows, and any performance that folks from the community want to bring to their four unassuming walls. My heart may have audibly fluttered.

Ok, I get it: This could easily ring of gentrification, and if I were worth my salt as a lover of community, I'd embrace the evangelical church as heartily as the literary space. But I'm going to refuse that duality. Not everything associated with my cherished existing neighborhood is a good, and not everything sporadic newcomers bring with them is a bad. I like good poetry more than I like bad church. I think it's better for community. So there. I said it. Out loud.

If I'm proven wrong in time -- if the church sticks around, takes in homeless kids, helps women suffering abuse, or even cleans the litter from in front of their storefront . . . and if the literary troop stands out on the sidewalk, spewing treacly verse to unwitting passersby, demanding audience participation -- I'll humbly eat my words. Amen.