23 April 2012

Borderlands: Little Village/Marshall Square

I have always tended, somehow, to live on the edges of neighborhoods, so that even when I have technically lived in a neighborhood acknowledged to be "good" or "hip," people are still always asking, "Oh, is that still a part of that neighborhood?" when I name my intersection. There was the one barely in Lakeview, or was it Ravenswood, more or less neglected by the maps; the one uncomfortably far west in Logan Square (though the bars that are deliberately divey rather than unreflectively divey and the little record shops have crowded nearly to that line of longitude by now; so it always seems to go, "progress" nipping at my heels as the moving truck arrives); the one practically falling off the riverbank of Lincoln Square and splashing into Albany Park. And now this one, a thoroughly settled-feeling patch of greenery and architectural flourish allowed by luxury rather than dictated by the minimal level of civilization belonging to its decade. But still just one city block out of Rogers Park. By one measure it is within Edgewater Glen. I use this measure, because I like the name.

Is it a money thing? Are buildings on the boundary lines cheaper, no matter what boundary it is? I am extremely cheap. The cheapest apartment I ever lived in also took me the furthest afield from the white, coffeehouse-inhabited nucleus of Chicago where nearly everyone I know in this city lives. It was $500 a month for a building that was essentially my own -- actually just the upper floor of a garage, connected to the main building by a covered staircase. (The lady at the phone company trying to connect my line was distressed when I gave "Garage" as my apartment number; I think we settled on #2RG or something equally unwieldy as a compromise.) But it was satisfying to look at the little chunk of brick with bars across the windows from across the parklet behind it and know that I inhabited all that space myself.

You could get onto the roof, but not from my apartment -- you had to go through the window of the man who lived on the main building's second floor, who invited me up one early summer day to drink beer and listen to Loretta Lynn. He was in his 40s or early 50s, lived with a roommate with whom he shared shouting fights the other neighbors had complained about and speculated (incorrectly, I tentatively guess) to be lovers' quarrels, and had decorated the apartment in psychedelic style. A two-bedroom, it could have been mine; I was offered it by my landlord, but, at $600, I felt it more responsible to decline. 

In retrospect my brief acquaintance with this man -- possibly named Michael? -- likely had a foundation of essential sketchiness, but I have always been embarrassingly willing to assume that people's intentions are none other than those which they communicate to me. In this case, a friendly welcome to the neighborhood. Even if he did a) claim to have been Soundgarden's original manager, b) talk excessively about his young and hot Korean girlfriend who would soon be flying in from California, c) invite me to go dancing that evening with some friends of his in Millennium Park, and d) ask me to help slather tanning lotion across his pink, substantial back.

Well, okay, yes. I gingerly applied the tanning lotion. I weighed the dancing offer seriously before declining. Some surprising corners of our musical tastes overlapped; he lent me some CDs. Would I do the same today? Well, probably.

He'd lived "all over the city," Michael said, and this was "the Wild West." I'm not at all sure how long he'd lived in the area; my memory is of asking and receiving a vague non-response. He took pleasure in the Outlaws headquarters on the corner, and enlightened me with the anecdotes that had made its bomb-proof door and razor-wire-topped fence necessary. (Whenever I walked by I had a vision of the scene from Pee Wee Herman, domino-ing the whole line of motorcycles down.) He prepared me for the head-poundingly loud weekly Mexican music festival held in some large tent whose location I could never entirely pin down. I still don't know which road it stood or stands on. Its swooping top shimmered mirage-like from my back windows, planted somewhere in the wastelands between lumberyards and demolished lots and the Cook County Jail, whose white, alien, razor-wired forms I could also see. The cops were bribed to allow this festival to operate as loudly as it did, Michael told me, in the way that older men especially are pleased to demonstrate their knowledge of the secret, corrupt workings of things.

I was mainly glad to have met a neighbor. Later some college kids moved in, the earnest, vaguely Christian kind who had vacated my own apartment and helped my family (my mother shell-shocked by my chosen surroundings) lug my couple armloads of furniture up the stairs, and I met them too. But I was much too shy to unspool my tentative Spanish to most of the people on the block; I'd just smile at the kids playing streetwide games of hide and seek and work my way up to exchanging a sentence or two with the adults.

(The English-speaking Lawndale Gardens project was across the street, but that block seemed mostly self-contained, and I'm not sure I ever really met anyone who lived there. Maybe a couple of kids, whose soccer balls I'd lob back over the fence when they dropped in from the park.)

I biked down my old block of 25th Street again on Saturday for the first time in a couple of years and instantly felt again as I typically did in that neighborhood when it was sunny and I was walking around on the boulevards. (California and Marshall, namely; the immediate vicinity was called Marshall Square, another corner of Chicago almost nobody at all has ever heard of. Though it turns out it's where Stuart Dybek grew up, and there are churches and alleys I know from both his pages and my wanderings.) I felt light. Hazily happy, with no particularly strong sense of self to attach the feeling to. Just a kind of nectar in the air.

The sunshine seems more expansive down there, in the same way the sky is bigger in the West. It's enhanced by how I always get there from the North Side: down Damen through the two or three blocks of pitchy tunnels that run under the freight lines just north of 17th Street and finally reward you with the pastel murals of Pilsen and the tinkling bells of paletas and elotes carts.This is the eastern edge of Little Village, depleted by the County's needs and, one supposes, by some mid-20th-century act of slum clearance soon after it stopped being an ethnically Bohemian neighborhood. Half-blocks of fenced-in grass, littered with rubble, are patched here and there among two-flats. (A couple more vast, gloomy warehouses have been pulled down since I lived there.) But there's still a strong enough web of community to keep it feeling like a neighborhood.

It makes me some kind of hypocrite, I suppose, but I feel weirdly oppressed when I am in a crowd of other young white liberals, young white city-dwellers in general. The Damen bus as it nears North Avenue, for instance. Their opinions seem a cartoon copy of my own, their slightly bad taste a corruption of my guiding aesthetic. I become a claustrophobic grouch, sniping at snippets of overheard conversation. So much privilege, real or imagined, makes me itchy. 

It does not feel natural for a neighborhood to be organized that way. Over and over, I sink myself into the dense city and immediately start swinging my arms to make enough space. The borderlands where I've wound up -- they do have that.

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