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The Savages of Time

Sex columnist Dan Savage and his brother Bill on the lost landmarks of their childhood.

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I have this verbal tic that annoys the shit out of my boyfriend. When I'm headed to Chicago—to visit family, to bury family—I'll tell people I'm "going home."

Home is Seattle, the boyfriend insists, and technically he's correct. I've lived in Seattle for 18 years, 14 of them with him. But it doesn't feel like home, never has, and I'm thinking if it doesn't by now it never will. Maybe it's because I came on a lark, never intending to stay. An unpaid gig writing a sex-advice column somehow turned into a job, then a career. A hot boy I met in a bar turned into a boyfriend, then a husband. Adoption paperwork turned into a kid, then a lippy tween who doesn't want to move away and leave his friends behind.

So I've lived in Seattle for a long time, but it's not home. Only Chicago—particularly Rogers Park, where I grew up—feels like home, is home.

I go home all the time. I go home in the summer, I go home for funerals and weddings, I go home for birthdays and to see friends. But I've stopped going to Rogers Park. Sometimes I'll visit my brother Bill, who lives near Loyola University, but I never make it to Glenwood between Devon and Arthur, where four generations of my family lived in a two-flat, and I don't head up toward Lunt and Clark, where my family moved when I was in fifth grade and I lived until I went to college.

I'll skirt the edges of the old neighborhood. I'll visit the big antique mall in an old Jewel grocery store on Broadway, or go slumming at the Granville Anvil, or head to Hollywood Beach. But I honestly can't remember the last time I made it into the heart of my old neighborhood, the last time I got off the train at the Morse el stop, or rode the Clark Street bus further north than Foster.

Visiting Rogers Park became too depressing, too heartrending. My memories of the old neighborhood are too sharp, too distinct, my love for the neighborhood that I grew up in too intense, and my visits too infrequent, to bear the change that I, like any sane person, recognize as inevitable in an urban environment. On my last trip back—to inter my mother's remains in Calvary Cemetery—my brother informed me that the Adelphi theater, which had been a second-run house when we were kids, our neighborhood movie theater, had been torn down.

Cities change, they evolve, businesses come and go. And I can deal with the changes that time—and corruption and graft and greed and stupidity—have brought to other neighborhoods in the city. But not to Rogers Park. I was too familiar with every business and building on Clark between Devon and Howard not to regard each jolt as an assault on me personally. When the junk store on the west side of Clark between Lunt and Morse closed down—the owner, an old man, lived in the back, and he didn't mind me sitting in the store and poring over dusty copies of After Dark magazine for hours—I was saddened. When a jewel of an art deco bank was torn down—at Lunt and Clark—only to be replaced by a strip mall, well, that didn't feel like change. It felt like violence.

So I retreated, on visits home, to neighborhoods I knew less well, to places that were familiar enough but where I barely noticed the tiny alterations and didn't take the big ones personally.

Chicago will always be home. So I'll continue to come home for visits, and I'll continue to annoy the boyfriend. But I'll continue to miss—as in skip—Rogers Park.v

The truest part of Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" isn't the Hog Butcher and Tool Maker and Stacker of Wheat stuff, or the personification of the city as a "tall bold slugger." No, the line that captures the essence of living in Chicago, especially the experience of a single neighborhood over time, is, "building, breaking, rebuilding." If you stay in one place long enough, you will see your city built, broken, and rebuilt.

When you leave a place and then return only occasionally, as my brother Dan did and does (see above), the slow pace of change feels like a body blow, a roundhouse from Sandburg's slugger. To live in a neighborhood while it changes is to experience instead the slow pain of a thousand cuts. Each loss stings, it bleeds, but then it scabs over and heals. Without some kind of prompt, memory fades, time goes on.

I've lived in Rogers Park my entire life, and in my earliest memories, the neighborhood anchor, in terms of geography, food, and beauty, was the Granada Theater. Already decrepit by the time I studied at Loyola in the first half of the 80s, it announced your arrival in southeast Rogers Park as you rode the el or drove north around the Sheridan Road curve. The theater's almost absurdly baroque terra cotta facade invited aesthetic contemplation. It shifted color in different lights, from a stark, almost Moroccan yellow at noontide to mellow rose at sunset.

But the auditorium was sort of beside the point—more important were the restaurants and stores in the long, low commercial building extending north from the theater proper, which gave the neighborhood so much of its character and so many of its characters. The Greek joint, Athena's, with its hearty gyros, a very lax carding policy, and a stern Greek lady at the cash register. The hippie deli, Little King's. The New York-style thin-crust pizza at Gigio's. The south-side-style ribs from Jim Wright, Mr. Bar-B-Q. The Chicago-style hot dogs at Happy Harry's. The cover bands at Baby Huey's; the jukebox and pitchers of beer after class, or before, at Rambler's.

Sometimes after last call we'd go back behind the theater, clamber onto the Dumpsters beneath the fire escape, and climb to the theater's roof. The final ascent involved a swaying ladder only loosely anchored in the masonry. The astonishing view made the risk worth taking—the sliver of the new moon rising over the lake just before dawn. After a long night studying or partying, this was the pinnacle.

The Granada and its many storefronts are long gone. Not replaced by a vacant lot—that'd almost be a blessing. Instead, they were supplanted by a bland concrete high-rise, built by Loyola and a Chicago developer, as devoid of personality as a department store mannequin. The rich array of sustenance once available has been reduced to a single sad Subway. In the grand tradition of suburbs, subdivisions, or malls named after the landscapes obliterated in their construction—Deerfield, High Meadow, Old Orchard—the developers called it Granada Center. Loyola eventually turned the building into a dorm.

Rogers Parkers learned to live without what they lost, of course. I walk down Sheridan Road often, out of the neighborhood—to Metropolis Cafe down on Granville, or to meet my brother at the Hopleaf. And only rarely do I think of the old Granada, or the view of the moon and the stars from its black tar roof.


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