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Reality Bites

The Battle For Wicker Park: MTV Versus Its Target Audience



MTV wanted the hippest neighborhood in Chicago for the seven kids in its latest edition of The Real World. So it built a three-story dormitory in the building that used to house Urbus Orbis. As one of the spots that defined the Wicker Park scene of the 1990s, the place had some alternative juju.

MTV spends a lot of time at the beach, filming booties in bikinis. Perhaps the cable network hasn't noticed that the youth culture it wants to sell to Nike and Sony has sprouted a weedy bed of Greens, anarchists, and antiglobalists. Wicker Park still has posters of Karl Marx and plenty of 23-year-olds who ride one-speed bicycles and don't have cable. They think corporate media is a virus.

A few weeks ago they showed up outside The Real World compound at 1934 W. North with drums, bullhorns, and chalk. There was a big crowd. That evening pranksters had been cruising the neighborhood's bars, handing out bogus flyers that shouted "Extras Needed! Attend A Party At The Real World House. Free Beer." A protester with a bullhorn shouted, "Agents of Viacom, we feel sorry for you. We want to liberate you from the agents of unreality. We want to free The Real World. We have a safe house for you." The crowd milled in the street for over an hour, then scattered when police showed up.

"At one point a huge number were chanting 'We're real, you're not,'" according to Greg Gillam on the Web site "Cans and bottles were thrown at the building. One cast member was pelted with paper, and a red paint bomb splattered on the entrance."

The demonstration on July 21 was far briefer. At around 11 o'clock, Nato Thompson was chalking slogans on the sidewalk in front of the house:




Carlos Pecciotto was banging a snare drum. Within minutes, the police showed up and arrested Thompson.

"I said, 'Isn't this a public space?'" Thompson recalls. "That's when the handcuffs came on."

In a scene captured by an independent videographer shooting a documentary on the filming of The Real World, Pecciotto was led to a police car while a voice in the crowd across the street shouted, "He didn't do nothin', man. He didn't do nothin.'"

A paddy wagon arrived, and police began loading it with young people challenging the original arrests. Dylan Barr shouted, "This is public property!" An officer shot him a dirty look and barked, "Come here--I didn't hear what you said." Barr was arrested, and the crowd began to chant, "This is what the real world looks like!" Another protester was arrested for pointing at Melissa Haeffner and asking, "Why is she being arrested?" While all this was going on, someone chained a stereo blasting white noise to a signpost outside the house.

By the time things quieted down, 15 people had been arrested, according to Chicago Police Department spokesperson Robin Mohr, on misdemeanor charges including blocking traffic, disorderly conduct, and impeding a police officer. Arrest reports allege they were "knowingly and intentionally obstructing traffic flow" and "shouting phrases and banging a drum to show displeasure with the complainant's television show."

Mohr says police are now keeping an eye on The Real World house: "The district is aware that the protests are going on. We're aware and monitoring it, giving it special attention, but not doing surveillance."

MTV has nothing to say about the protests, claiming they haven't affected the show. But they drew the attention of Rolling Stone. The magazine called some of the protesters, asking for stills of the melee outside the house. In an E-mail exchange provided by Thompson, the protesters wrote, "We have the pictures you desire but it has been of considerable concern to us that your magazine is quite implicated in the corporate tragedy we aim to destroy. That being the case, we have come to the inevitable conclusion that we are willing to cast our values aside in order to drain some money from your villainous corporate coffers. As you probably suspect, we are starving cultural producers that cannot compete with the parasites that you are. Uhmmmm...listen...we want $500 per image. It will help us in our campaign to run you out of business." Rolling Stone's reply: "Integrity's running pretty cheap these days, huh? Only $500 bucks. If you had said $1000, I would have bought them."

Thompson says the protesters recognize the paradox of becoming stars in the same media they abhor, yet they realize it's the best way to publicize their "pranksterish" actions. A group appeared live on Fox Thing in the Morning, where they demanded that The Real World leave town and the building be converted to affordable housing.

It's hard to say who exactly these protesters are. Various groups--including the A-Zone and the Department of Space and Land Reclamation--have printed flyers and shown up outside the house. Last Sunday, a dozen or so people, many of whom had been arrested on July 21, met at the offices of In These Times magazine to plot against the TV show. They called themselves the Wicker Park Anti-Real World Consortium.

"Most were protesting Viacom, which owns MTV, and the whole corporate media thing," says Melissa Haeffner. "The Real World is an advertisement for gentrification, and it's an insult to all those people they kicked out to put in those trendy restaurants."

Like many others, Brooke McMahon says she's upset to see the neighborhood taken over by filmmakers who need a set for their twentysomething soap opera.

"They just did the High Fidelity movie about a year ago," McMahon says. "They see all these attractive club kids. It's just going to be more publicity. People who are professionals are going to move from Michigan and move into a neighborhood where they feel safe and where there are no blacks."

The Real World has also earned scorn from people with no political agenda. On Sunday night, Ben Levant pulled up in a silver SUV and knocked on the door, hoping to meet his new neighbors. He was shooed away by a pair of security guards paid to protect The Real World from the real world.

"They're so secluded," complains Levant. "They won't let us come up and chill. I've been here way before them, and I'll be here way after them, so they should throw a block party."

Levant has an offer for MTV: "If they want real, they should film my house. I don't have security guards. They're totally insulated."

It's difficult to make contact with The Real World. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to interview the cast. I stood in front of the security camera and made a speech, just like a cast member in a "private moment."

"Hello, Real World. I'm from the Chicago Reader. I'd like to interview the cast about the protests that have been happening outside the building. Please come downstairs and talk to me."

There was no response, so I walked across the street and attempted to take notes on their lifestyle. It wasn't easy. The windows on the two lower floors are covered with opaque plastic sheeting. I saw a shadow moving behind one of them and waved my notebook. The shadow waved back. The third-floor windows are half-covered with steel plates pocked with holes. All I could see were a pair of leopard-print shorts, a ceiling-mounted speaker, a fluorescent light, and a flag. Later, someone raised the shades on the second floor, revealing wallpaper patterned with long-tailed blue doves.

The door still bore the slogan "EMPTV," scrawled by a graffiti artist who was arrested. The frame was spattered with red paint.

The cast has found the protests upsetting, says Cecil Baldwin, a server at Local Grind, the Milwaukee Avenue coffeehouse that's become The Real World's hangout.

"The day after the first riot, two girls came in," Baldwin says. "All they could say is 'Everybody hates us.' They were virtually in tears. Because they were scared, they got the day off without cameras."

Baldwin is sympathetic to the cast. He's seen them followed by MTV cameras ("they attract a human zoo"), but mostly they come into Local Grind alone, so he's gotten to know them as regular customers. He understands, though, why the show has aroused resistance in the neighborhood. It's similar to the conflict between the romantic rivals in Reality Bites, he says.

"This neighborhood is Ethan Hawke. It's the poetry writing, trying to get his band off the ground. MTV is Ben Stiller. There's a natural tension between them."

Local Grind has embraced The Real World. A sign on a tip cup says, "If you give us money, we'll get you on the Real World." But farther down Milwaukee Avenue, Myopic Books has banned the show's cameras. Clerk Jon Cwiok ordered the crew out when they tried to film inside the modest used-book store.

"They set up their cameras on the sidewalk, and they tried to sneak a sound person in, and we had to kick them out," Cwiok says. "They were kind of clingy and indignant."

Myopic Books has the same objection as the protesters: it doesn't like the way MTV is glamorizing the neighborhood. The store even posted a sign that read "NO REAL WORLD FILMING HERE. GO BACK TO THE SUBURBS." The sign came down because it started too many arguments.

Cwiok is probably right, though, when he sums up the "overwhelming sentiment" toward The Real World as "between apathy and not giving a shit."

Most people passing the compound on Sunday evening regarded The Real World as a summer curiosity that won't change Wicker Park any more than it's already changed. There's $8 valet parking half a block away. The Real World is a symptom of gentrification, not a cause.

But those who resent it won't stop fighting MTV. Already a new flyer is going around the neighborhood: "It's time for our reality television. Another reclamation of the Real World. Next Friday 8/3 @ 11 p.m., 1900 North, bring drums, radio boomboxes, other niosemakers [sic] and chalk. Station announcement upon arrival."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.

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