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The Last Drop

Urbus Orbis, the Wicker Park coffeehouse and cultural landmark, falls prey to the gentrification it helped attract.

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By Jeff Huebner

By January the street buzz about Urbus Orbis will be fact. After nearly nine years the homey Wicker Park coffeehouse will serve its last bottomless cup of java. Proprietor Tom Handley has lost his lease. "I will shed a few tears, definitely," Handley says. "But mostly I'll heave a huge sigh of relief. I have supermixed feelings."

When Handley and his business partner, Larry Clyman, opened the coffeehouse at 1934 W. North in the spring of 1989, lofts along Milwaukee Avenue and studios in the Flat Iron Building were still dirt cheap. Only a few bars, galleries, and storefront theaters catered to the neighborhood's burgeoning population of artists, which hadn't yet become a bona fide arts community. "There was already a huge scene here--bands, musicians, visual artists--but we gave the scene a real focal point," says Handley. "Loft parties were the only social things going on. My timing was pretty good."

As business establishments, even coffeehouses, go, nine years isn't a long time. Several coffee shop/diners--including Friar's Grill, the Busy Bee, and Johnny's Snack Shop--were in Wicker Park before Urbus Orbis and are still going strong. And a few coffeehouses in other parts of the city have been around for generations. Caffe Pergolesi, on North Halsted, dates from the mid-60s, and No Exit Cafe, at its current Rogers Park location since 1984, will mark its 40th anniversary next year. Yet arguably no other coffeehouse in Chicago has helped define the public and cultural life of its particular community as much as Urbus Orbis has. Its demise may even signify the end of an era.

In his book The Great Good Place sociologist Ray Oldenburg probes the character of "third places"--informal public gathering places away from home and work, where citizens of unrelated backgrounds can come to pass time, mingle, spend pleasurable hours with one another or alone. He writes that institutions such as coffee shops, cafes, community centers, taverns, barber shops, and beauty parlors act as levelers, because they set no criteria for membership or exclusion. They form the heart of a community's social vitality, even of its democratic participation. Early London coffeehouses, for instance, were places where men from all stations and parties could exchange news and opinions; in the early 18th century essayist Joseph Addison created the Spectator, prototype of the modern newspaper, in a coffeehouse. Some historians claim that Merchants' Coffeehouse, established in New York in 1737, was the birthplace of the American revolution.

But, says Oldenburg, the emphasis in the U.S. is shifting increasingly from community to self-contained activity, as citizens leave their workplaces to find solace, entertainment, and companionship almost entirely within the privacy of their own homes. As a result, the "great good places" are rapidly vanishing. "Without such places," writes Oldenburg, "the urban area fails to nourish the kinds of relationships and the diversity of human contact that are the essence of the city. Deprived of these settings, people remain lonely within their crowds."

Handley read The Great Good Place just after opening Urbus Orbis. It confirmed what he already felt and became the cornerstone of his business philosophy: coffee is almost incidental to the camaraderie and creative ambience that a successful coffeehouse should provide. Urbus Orbis, says Handley, "fits every criterion of a classic third place--it's large and a little dirty, it's supercasual and convenient. All I really set out to do was create the kind of place I wanted to hang out at myself."

The end of Urbus Orbis--the name combines the Latin words for "city" and "world"--will orphan what Handley calls a "family of affinity." Its members will find other places to linger in good company, but they won't be coming together again in the same way. "I'm so bummed," says Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a freelance writer who for years has spent Thursday afternoons at the coffeehouse. "I'll have to find someplace, but I don't know where that place will be. After Tom closes we'll probably all be sitting on his front steps for a couple months. This place should be making a million dollars--and Starbucks should close. But the things that are kind of special by themselves flounder."

Many people in Wicker Park would say the same thing is true of their neighborhood. Michael Warr--a poet, the executive director of the Guild Complex, and a 20-year resident of West Town--laments the loss of many places in Wicker Park that he believes nurtured local artists. "What's being stripped away is a way of life. I've met with groups of people in Urbus Orbis, where we made plans, shared visions and ideas, and implemented those ideas. Festivals, art openings, collaborations with organizations within the community--lots of positive things came out of those places. I don't see that type of community anymore. It's difficult to walk down the streets because so many places are gone. Many have been transformed into something else, and there's no vestige of what's been there before. A lot of the time the word 'gentrification' gets used for this, but it's too genteel and simplistic of a word to describe what's happening in Wicker Park. It's a very complicated process. It's not just a question of artists being forced out--artists are moving in. And it's not just about artists and yuppies--class and color issues are involved too. The most common denominator is, either you can afford to live here or you can't."

Some people would say that Urbus Orbis was part of the problem, and Handley agrees. "I used to bitch about the 'beachhead of gentrification' graffiti that was in my bathroom, but it was completely apropos. I think our presence here did unfortunately draw a lot of attention to the area--because we were a catalyst for Around the Coyote, we were a catalyst for the Greening Festival increasing its scope, we were a catalyst for a lot of public perceptions [of Wicker Park] as well. I've definitely become a victim of my own success."

It's not like Urbus Orbis had to die. Handley does a robust business, and he's always kept a close eye on the bottom line--especially after an early string of embezzlements and burglaries, one of which cost him $15,000. "If I wasn't good with money," he says, "I couldn't have kept this place going all these years."

A bottomless cup now sets you back $1.90 with tax, but that also pays for what many consider quintessential urban-coffeehouse atmosphere. Handley has barely had to advertise--not just because of all his regulars and semiregulars, but because people throughout the city know the place. "I've been wildly successful," he says. "But I could walk away broke."

Handley says his landlord, Ilene Greenblatt, simply refused to negotiate a new lease (the current one is up in March, though she's agreed to let him out in January). He says Greenblatt didn't give a reason. "She doesn't have to have a reason, because I'm a commercial tenant." He says he's had problems with her--including arguments over rent, property taxes, and code violations--almost since he signed his first lease. He claims, for instance, that he never should have had to shell out thousands of dollars to make city-ordered repairs in the building's common areas.

Greenblatt, who bought the building in 1987 for "a little more than $250,000," claims Handley owes her money, though she refuses to elaborate. "Tom Handley is not your ideal tenant," she says. "He has never paid his rent in full and on time--ever. He had me in litigation, but his wife was a lawyer. I couldn't afford to keep paying one, so finally I just said forget it. The only reason I haven't evicted him is because it wouldn't be worth it. He's definitely been a vanguard of the neighborhood, and he's a character. It's been fun, but his time is up. I'm glad he's leaving. I think the neighborhood is changing now."

Handley, who counters that Greenblatt hasn't made needed repairs, has been paying close to $3,000 a month for the 2,900-square-foot space. "She thinks she can get $5,000 a month for it," he says, shaking his head. "All these landlords are insane--they're crazy. Nobody's gonna do it, because the neighborhood won't support it."

But Greenblatt believes it will. She won't say how much she's asking, but she does say that "fancy restaurants" nearby are paying $6,000 and $7,000 a month. What kind of tenant will she get? "I don't know," she says. "I want a reliable, good, solid tenant who's clean, who pays the rent on time and is a strong anchor for the neighborhood."

Handley, who's nearing 40, says he probably would have got out of the business anyway. He thought about selling the corporation and its assets, but now it's too late unless someone walks in with cash. "Somebody could come in and make a decent living if they made a change here. But I'm not interested in doing it. It would violate the whole intent I had. Without this location it wouldn't be the same place. Besides, I'm burnt."

It's not hard to see why Handley's tired--he's nearly always working. He's usually there during the day, except when he's out running errands or buying groceries, and sometimes at night--running the register, waiting on tables, making coffee, warming cups, cooking, cleaning up, or talking to customers. Handley, who calls himself a "motor-mouth and raconteur," can talk to practically anybody about anything. Though he never attended college, he seems to have read everything, seems to have an angle on everything. But he's a facilitator too and can draw a wide variety of people into a discussion.

Alan Gugel, an artist who helped fix the place up and then became its first manager, says, "He's put his whole life into building it, operating it, maintaining it, and being it. Urbus is in so many ways Tom himself, from its aesthetic qualities to its grunginess. I've always been the one to say, 'Glitz this place up, follow the trend, make more money.' But his attitude has always been to maintain a raw creative energy there."

Creative energy is in Handley's blood. His grandfather owned a chain of movie houses in Michigan, and his grandmother was a traveling vaudeville performer. His parents were stage actors in New York, and in the late 40s they followed the nascent television industry to Los Angeles, where he was born. His parents divorced when he was two, and several years later his mother married a "very talented, weirdo sculptor." But that didn't work out either, and in the mid-60s she and her four sons moved to Winnetka.

Handley landed in the alternative-education program at New Trier East. "I was an intellectual disruptive who raised a lot of trouble," he says. He couldn't wait to get out of Winnetka. "I hated it. I was a California kid--what did I know of midwestern winters? And it was one of the snootiest and most uptight suburbs in the world. I ran screaming from there as soon as I could." In 1975 he moved to Evanston. But when his mother remarried and moved back out west he had to drop out because he couldn't afford the out-of-district tuition. He got kicked out of his apartment and spent the winter living out of his car, until he found work at a Winnetka ice cream parlor.

A series of odd jobs followed, but by 1981 Handley was living in Evanston and working as a headhunter for engineering companies. That same year Cafe Express opened, which he says set off the current wave of classic coffeehouses in the Chicago area. He was among the Evanston cafe's earliest regulars. "I really felt at home for the first time. It was really convenient--right around the corner from where I lived. I didn't really have a lot of friends. Everybody I knew was at college, my family was gone, and I was the youngest guy in my office. I read and talked to people. I'd get a double latte in the morning, and a hot cocoa before going to bed at night. Sometimes I'd run out to buy milk for them."

Handley quit his job and for three years ran city and suburban Crown Books stores; in 1984 he became manager of Barbara's Books in Oak Park. But he really wanted to open a theater-oriented bookstore. In 1986 he hooked up with Jim Eichling and Tom and Jamie Asch, who wanted to open a coffeehouse, and in February 1987 Scenes Coffeehouse and Dramatist Bookstore opened on Clark near Belmont.

Handley was operations manager. The first year the shop lost $3,000--which he says isn't unusual for the first year of a business--and he says he was accused of mismanagement and asked to leave. "I sat there with a fuckin' computer and did all the work the first year--and most of their success was due to the work I did for them," he says. "If they'd come to me and said, 'This is a family-owned business and we think the family should run it,' it would've been fine. It was not a friendly parting of the ways. But I'm proud of the job I did there--I have no shame. I just said, 'Fuck you, I'm gonna open my own damn cafe.'"

At Scenes Handley had met blues guitarist Larry Clyman, and they decided to pool their money and open a coffeehouse. (In 1990 Clyman would leave to spend more time on his music.) "It was the dregs of disco and punk and the start of the backlash against alcohol," says Handley. "It was just the right time."

The two looked at several sites in River North but narrowed their search to Wicker Park. "It had a huge arts community that could use a new cafe," says Handley. In early 1989 they saw the scruffy industrial building at 1934 W. North.

The cavernous space the two rented had a 13-foot tin ceiling and exposed brick and ducts, but Handley added some whimsical touches. Artist Pam Olin painted alchemy symbols on the polished wooden tables. Nick Radell, a high school friend, created the curving, 46-foot coffee bar, the panels of which, Handley says, display a "textural time line," beginning with a rock garden (by the cash register) and continuing through wood, house siding, chain-link fence, asphalt, glass, stainless steel, and neon. The bar's counter is made of flooring materials--a visual metaphor that says, "We all eat off the floor here." As Handley explains, "Our society is primarily vertically stratified. Actors hang out in actor bars, lawyers hang out in lawyer bars, cops hang out in cop bars, accountants hang out in accountant bars, newspaper people--you know, everybody hangs out with their own kind. One of the things that I wanted to do with Urbus Orbis was cut across the grain the other way, where anybody who was capable of coping with this place was perfectly welcome here, no matter what your background. If you liked this place it provided you with an opportunity to meet other people that liked this place. It provided a cross-stratification that otherwise is virtually nonexistent in our culture." Handley met his wife, attorney Petra Harris, at Urbus Orbis in 1992. They were married there a year later, though they divorced in 1995.

In keeping with his intention of creating a community center, Handley added shelves of books (since removed), magazine stands (since downsized and placed in the back to deter theft), the area's most extensive bulletin board (until Copy Max came along), and chalk and a chalkboard in the bathroom (graffiti went up all over the walls anyway). He also decided to have monthly art exhibits.

On Friday, May 13, 1989, Urbus Orbis opened. That night, the Backroom--a closed-off area in back--hosted a benefit for Letter eX, the now-defunct poetry newspaper. Angela Jackson, Fred Eggan, and Li Young-Lee recited their poetry. Oncoming Traffic, fronted by the late Stu Coy, rocked, and Mainline Productions did performance art.

Urbus Orbis attracted all kinds. "For a long time I was trying to keep an Urbus journal," says Handley. "But I only know a tenth of the shit that went on here." (The tenth he does know, he's trying to turn into screenplays; one of his brothers is a successful scriptwriter.) For instance, when Handley returned from his first vacation in February 1990, some of the regulars told him what had happened while he was gone. "One Friday night one of the waiters had turned out all the lights, taken off his shirt and his pants, and was dancing on the bar in his underwear, entertaining the troops. The day after I hear that story this guy comes in and says, 'You know, we were in here last week and we got dosed.' I said, 'Huh?' And he goes, 'Yeah, we got dosed with a little acid.' And--this indicates what kind of neighborhood it was like--I say, 'Oh, I'm sorry about that.' They go, 'No, man, it was good acid.' It turned out that one of the guys working for me was selling blotter while I was gone. I have to assume that he touches the acid on the blotter, then goes to make a cappuccino and contaminates the milk.

"Shit like that bugs me, but--how can I say it?--I think part of the reason why this place has been successful and part of the reason why I'm probably the only person stupid enough to get away with this, is because I was always open to people doing what they wanted to do in here. I only say no to certain things. I mean, if I'd known he was selling blotter acid, of course I would've said no. I mean, it's illegal as shit, it's really stupid, and I could lose my business over it--which is way more important to me than the fact that it's illegal."

Artists' venues and hangouts were becoming more plentiful around North and Damen. Gallery 1633 had opened at 1633 N. Damen in 1984, and the Flat Iron Building became the home of the Near Northwest Arts Council gallery in 1987. There were also the Ricky Renier Gallery, the Abel Joseph Gallery, and Club Dreamerz (now Nick's). Earwax Cafe opened in 1990 on Damen, then moved the next summer to 1564 N. Milwaukee. DaVinci's, an eatery at 2011 W. North (now the Subterranean Cafe & Cabaret), was also a popular spot that showed the work of local artists in its upstairs balcony.

But Urbus Orbis drew people who might not otherwise have ventured into a gritty urban enclave. "It spearheaded the first essentially white businesses in the neighborhood," says Shane Swank, an artist who has a studio in the basement of the Flat Iron Building, across the street from Urbus Orbis. "Once he opened his doors, real estate speculators saw that it was OK for art students and white kids to come here. I can't remember the last time I saw a Hispanic family having coffee at Urbus Orbis. But overall, Tom did a good thing."

The Northside Cafe, the Borderline, HotHouse, and Jimo's--the first restaurant in the area to offer valet parking--quickly followed Urbus Orbis's lead. So did Around the Coyote, the annual multimedia arts festival and studio walk--now the largest in the country--hatched in the coffeehouse by Paris gallery owner Jim Happy-Delpech. Happy-Delpech had come to Chicago on vacation and happened to stop at Urbus Orbis, where he saw manager Alan Gugel's paintings on the walls. He bought some of the paintings and soon moved to the neighborhood. Having organized gallery walks in Paris's Bastille district, he made it his mission to give Wicker Park and Bucktown's artists a public showcase for their work. He assembled a board, which included Gugel, and Around the Coyote was born in September 1990. "Jim and I had spent a ton of time planning in the coffeehouse," says Gugel. "We did everything at Urbus--we basically lived there."

Urbus Orbis was a music-business hangout from the get-go, Handley says. Wax Trax Records used to be around the corner on Damen, and members of Ministry and the Revolting Cocks were among the coffeehouse's earliest customers. H-Gun Labs, the music-video production company, got its start there. As Wicker Park began to draw national attention for its indie rock scene, bigger record companies booked their up-and-coming acts in the Backroom. The Murmurs, Jewel, Ben Harper, Paula Cole, Grant McLennan, and even Gillian Anderson (X-Files) performed acoustic sets there.

The years 1989 to 1994, says Handley, were the boom years for artists in Wicker Park. "That was when anybody who had any talent had a real shot at making it in their preferred field. And then, starting in '95, is really when the hype about Wicker Park peaked. It forced a change in perception of what Wicker Park was. So instead of being a working artists' community, well, it became 'yakkety-yak' instead of 'do-do-do.'"

When the "cutting edge" buzz began, local and out-of-town writers started hanging out at Urbus Orbis, trying to get a handle on the scene. Daily papers started running photos of Handley or people slacking at his tables. "One of a new breed of 'bohemian' hangouts," proclaimed the Tribune in February 1990. "Looking intellectual is in vogue at Urbus Orbis," said the Sun-Times in 1991. "Kids come here to practice smoking and forget to inhale." In the fall of '93 Billboard put its Wicker Park story on the cover: "Cutting Edge's New Capital." In 1994 the New York Times called Urbus Orbis a "quasi-landmark," and Rolling Stone ran a minifeature on the coffeehouse that it called "Guyville Java Jive." "There have been numerous Liz Phair sightings here," Jae-Ha Kim wrote in the Rolling Stone story. "But since many of the customers--both male and female--resemble her, who can tell if it was the real thing?"

Handley began noticing that rents and housing costs were soaring, driving out many artists, along with other low-income and working-class residents. As factories became lofts and lots filled up with luxury condos and town homes, many idiosyncratic hangouts began to give way to slick, genteely hip boutiques and eateries designed to indulge the tastes of the wealthier newcomers and visitors. Real diners fell to faux diners, businesses peddling the essentials of life were edged out by those selling lifestyle.

"It seems to be part of the cycle of an artsy-fartsy neighborhood," says Handley. He says that although many of the old, family-run Wicker Park stores--the taquerias, carpet marts, thrift shops, hardware stores--remain, "The real tragedy is that those good, small businesses that make it a livable neighborhood die off. There has to be a diffuse network of people and places to give a neighborhood a quality of life. Diversity is being replaced by homogenization."

For a while Urbus Orbis benefited from the changes--Handley says 1995 was his best year. But sales have "declined steadily ever since." Why? "The change in the neighborhood has brought in a lot of people who not only don't hang out at places like this, they don't understand places like this. They're coming in with a preconceived notion of what the cafe is, instead of coming in and experiencing it for what it is and interacting. They don't understand how it's cutting across the grain. It's also because they're very mainstream. Americans don't develop 'families of affinity' anymore. They don't have places to draw them together. It's not just happening to me. SoHo, LoHo, or FroHo--it's happening to everybody. I'm not the only one bitching about it." He points to a recent issue of New City. "Who did their readers choose as the best coffeehouse in Chicago? Starbucks!"

An 11-store Seattle-area chain when CEO Howard Schultz bought the company in 1987, Starbucks is credited with launching the latte revolution and helping to inspire the coffeehouse craze of the 1990s. It now has more than 1,300 locations--most of them in the U.S.--and plans for 2,000 stores by the end of the decade. It already has 40-odd outlets in Chicago, all downtown or in upscale lakefront neighborhoods.

But the seemingly progressive company--even part-timers get benefits--has used aggressive, even predatory, business tactics in targeting prime urban locations. It's been known to muscle small, independent coffee shops and cafes out of their locations before they even have a chance to compete--which is what happened to Scenes last year--though it has met resistance in Minneapolis's arty Linden Hills enclave, in Toronto's bohemian Annex district, as well as in Bay Area communities, and a Vancouver store was hit with paint bombs and graffiti.

In Chicago there's no Starbucks west of the corner of Webster and Clybourn, but since 1993 Wicker Park and Bucktown have been rife with rumors about one coming. Handley doesn't think the neighborhood is ripe for a Starbucks. "They need a high-income, high-density population, and high foot traffic due to a retail shopping destination," he says. "Based on a cost-to-income ratio, there's not a suitable space for them to generate enough income."

Mike Weaver, Starbucks's midwest director of new-store development, says, "In terms of whether or not we're looking at this market, given the number of stores we have in Chicago, I think it's pretty safe to say we're looking at just about every market, this one included. But we have nothing specific really to discuss in terms of a site or a plan of action for Wicker Park today. That may change in the weeks to come, in the months to come."

Ilene Greenblatt, the owner of the Urbus Orbis building, says, "I will not rent to another food-service establishment."

Handley says that as soon as he sells his house he's going to travel. "I have friends and family all over the world--all of my old friends have left--and I'm looking forward to spending time with them." His brothers are in Seattle and California; his mother lives in Flagstaff.

But he plans to get back into the Chicago restaurant business sooner or later. Several canoe trips on the North Branch of the Chicago River gave him the idea of opening a riverside cafe. Or maybe he'll run a fleet of cappuccino carts. "Odds are I'll be back to do something," Handley says, then laughs. "Or else I'll freak out and never come back, have a midlife crisis, crash on a motorcycle and die."

He's wearing a T-shirt that reads I'm in the Wrong Business. "It's disappointing I don't get to survive and thrive here," he says. "But I've survived and thrived in the past, and that's fine. I didn't open with a lot of noise, and I don't feel like closing with a lot of noise. But I'm starting to realize I'm not just losing a cafe--I'm losing my main source of entertainment, I'm losing my family and friends. Last night I'm putting the chairs up and I'm thinking, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna find a place where they'll let me go behind the counter and make my own drinks? Where am I gonna go for coffee?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photgraphs by J.B. Spector (interior, Tom Handley).

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