In a city whose gay and queer community remains decidedly concentrated within a relatively limited number of neighborhoods, it would seem unlikely a tour of that very community’s history would traverse many neighborhoods outside the current concentration on the North Side. But that’s exactly what happened when I planned a tour of this very history. The tour, which I organized for and with the help of a local Meet Up for LGBTQ* and allied urban planning professionals, students, and enthusiasts called Moxie Chicagoland, took place a few weeks ago. Focusing on the city’s pre-Stonewall queer experiences neighborhoods throughout Downtown and the near South and North Sides were explored, thus examining often overlooked histories and simultaneously forcing a discussion about myriad other relevant topics.
Because of decently strenuous overseas move and a serious case of writer’s block I’ve delayed writing about this tour (sorry, Daniel!) It was nonetheless a wonderful capstone moment to a year spent in my hometown and an opportunity to flex my still underdeveloped event organizing muscle (thank you, Daniel!) It was also a much-needed excuse to venture further onto the South Side of Chicago, which is way too overlooked by North Siders like myself.
The tour, which featured roughly 20 intrepid participants facing cold and rain, began at Washington Square Park. This Victorian pocket of green located on Clark Street fronting the Newberry Library was once a center a bohemian life in Chicago and was until the second half of the 20th century the de facto center of Chicago’s North Side queer community. From here, the tour travelled north on Clark Street passing the former site of The Gold Coast bar (owned by Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather) and to an apartment building on Goethe Street where a police raid of a private party hosted by a gay male couple occurred in the late 1960s.
From here the group made a consistently southward trajectory, through the Gold Coast and River North (formerly referred to as Tower Town in reference to the Water Tower and Chicago’s answer to 1920s Greenwich Village) into the Loop, which included a stop at Daley Plaza the site of many important rallies and protests by queer Chicagoans including the first Pride March, AIDS rallies, and marriage equality protests. Cutting further south still along Dearborn Street (using one of the city’s bike paths in the process) the group made its way to Dearborn Station to learn about one of Chicago’s former vice districts (and an attraction for queer men) before zigzagging to the lakefront and a photo-op at the Shedd Aquarium.
This is when the sun finally came out and the city began to dry out and warm after the frigid morning. Just in time too: from here the group sped south along the lakefront passing McCormack Place and the then soon-to-be-open Northerly Island park on our way to Bronzeville. Better known for being one of the premier African-American neighborhoods and nightlife spots in the city (and possibly the country as well), it also played host to a number of bars and clubs where queer men–those who were white and who were of color–not only met for social events, but to also practice an art that is almost exclusively synonymous with queer culture: drag.
Lots is gone in fact. The tour made one feel the impact of time and redevelopment on our visible and physical urban history (both of Chicago and queer Chicago), but also the impact of social mores on what buildings (indeed, entire neighborhoods) we preserve, especially when the decision is done explicitly. Minority communities and underprivileged communities feel the impacts of these destroyed spaces the most. This was certainly true in Bronzeville, where an entire historical neighborhood disappeared and speaks volumes about to treatment of minority communities in Chicago’s past and even into its present. Seeking out physical remnants of Chicago’s queer past, especially that which happened before 1969, offered few satisfactory moments. Most of the queer community’s physical historical evidence is gone: the Gold Coast is a condo tower now, what were once the vice districts were mostly cleared and paved, and the Coliseum, historical for more than just its queer parties, is long gone.
Chicago is fortunate though that the voices of so many of its queer residents resonate still. Chicago’s queer community, although important, can’t compete with the fame of New York’s or San Francisco’s and the solidity and centrality of its current North Side home make it seem like it was always along Halsted Street. Its overlooked, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.
It didn’t totally disappear though.
Washington Square Park is still there. There are books and TV documentaries and websites being produced about this history. And there is still room for more research. The voices of women and people of color play second fiddle to those of white gay men. Physical spaces, like the home of Henry Gerber, are finally being recognized and preserved by the city and at the national level even. Ultimately it’s not a tragic end. Nor should the results be looked at as a disappointment. Never has a history of Chicago revealed so much about its diverse and complicated past while forcing the viewer to ask as many questions about a similarly complicated present. Indeed, the tour was not merely a history of queer Chicago, rather it was a tour of Chicago’s history through a queer lens and looking through queer experiences, which are as much a part of the city’s history as those of any other group.