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Home Invasion

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When I moved to Lincoln Square, one of the first things I noticed was how clean the bums were. This was due mainly to the efforts of the laundromat at the corner of Wilson and Lincoln, which offered free soap on Mondays and Tuesdays. All a bum had to do was score a little spare change over the weekend and he could do his wash for the entire week. And there were plenty of bums in Lincoln Square back then. There always seem to be plenty of bums in the neighborhoods I like.

Their whites were whiter than the whites worn by your typical bum. Their brights were brighter. And these weren't guys selling StreetWise or panhandling. Not much of that went on in Lincoln Square. These were guys picking through restaurant Dumpsters for food and sleeping behind factories or behind the library or in the park. So their cleanliness was an even bigger surprise.

While their wash was in, they could head down the block to Welles Park for a shower, maybe take a dip in the pool there. The guy behind the counter at the Washing Well would be happy to transfer your clothes from washer to dryer while you were gone—if he didn't happen to be on the floor facing Mecca at the time. That's the kind of laundromat it was. They cared about their customers, even if you happened to be a bum whose home was a soiled piece of cardboard. They'd even keep an eye on your shopping cart while you were gone.

Bums still sleep in the alleys of Lincoln Square, but they're not clean anymore. They don't take pride in their appearance or their smell like they once did. They don't brush their teeth three times a day, and their breath can only be described as indescribable. Many of them have figured out how to use this putrid stench to their advantage by leaning very close while panhandling, which seems to be a new neighborhood pastime. So if you're smart or even slightly squeamish, or if you'd simply prefer to walk around surrounded by your own aroma, you'll probably want to stay far away from my neighborhood.

It would be easy to say that all the trouble started when the laundromat was knocked to the ground by a bulldozer that went "Beep! Beep! Beep!" every time it backed up, but that would be simplistic. Actually the trouble started with the invention of the movable-type printing press back around 1450. This led to more books than anyone had room for, which led to libraries, which eventually begot the Hild north-side regional library, which for some reason wasn't good enough for the north side so the Sulzer library was built to replace it.

Now was the time for all good bulldozers to come to the aid of Lincoln Square. Now was the time to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. But no. The city didn't want to knock the old library down. They were in love with its art deco facade. They tried to sell it. No takers. They tried to give it away. Still no takers. Then they offered to throw in a million bucks. Before I could run down to City Hall with my bid, the Old Town School of Folk Music snapped up the money. So instead of the world's largest Italian ice and beef emporium with an all-Sinatra jukebox, my idea, we have a second Old Town School of Folk Music. This one not even in Old Town. Joni Mitchell played opening night. I'll bet she sang that song about them paving paradise. And I'll bet all the swells who paid $600 a head to see her patted themselves on the back. But the parking lots were coming to Lincoln Square, Joni Mitchell be damned. Where else were the swells going to park their cars?

The first victim of the Old Town School was the moving company in the alley behind my apartment. The city bought the place and gave the school the land to use as a parking lot. Once again I didn't get my application in on time. The property, which once housed an oil company, was a collection of run-down one-story buildings surrounding a small yard full of moving trucks that never moved. The trucks were parked so tightly together that it's doubtful they could have moved if they'd wanted to. During peak moving times the trucks would be lolling in the shade while the movers were sweating it out aboard rental trucks. But like most good things, their days in the shade were numbered. One day a couple of tow trucks arrived. The drivers had to really work to get the trucks out of the narrow yard. But they did finally, and the trucks were towed away, to one scrap heap or another. The trucks are probably now toaster ovens. Or thumbtacks.

The bulldozers arrived before long—"Beep! Beep! Beep!"—and the moving company was gone in a cloud of dust.

I still see one of the movers walking through the alley every so often. He always turns his head right where the entrance to the yard once was. He never stops but he always turns. I don't think it's possible for him to pass without that quick look. He's not that old—younger than me, I'm sure—but he walks like an old mover, with a slight hitch in his slow and steady pace. I talked to him once years ago, on the day I moved to Lincoln Square, and he seemed like a normal enough guy. We talked about furniture moving for a few minutes, a business I know a bit about, and he sounded like a pro to me.

One of my neighbors called him a bum one day and I was shocked by the characterization. I know he did sleep back there at least some nights. I don't know if he had a key to one of the buildings or not. Maybe he slept in one of those old trucks. It didn't really matter to me one way or the other. It didn't make him any more or less of a man.

I wonder what he sees when he turns. I'm sure it's more than just that empty space. Maybe he remembers dreams he once had, or long-ago moving jobs. Grand pianos. Hide-a-beds.

He keeps his eyes down as he walks. Even the look into the old yard is a quick, sideways sort of glance. I see him hanging around the new library a bit—not reading books—or sitting by himself in one of the cheaper saloons nursing a beer. I haven't seen him on a truck since the moving company disappeared.

He looks more like a bum every day. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. It's hard to forget talking to him on a beautiful spring day when he was just a regular guy.

For a while the space where the moving company had been was just an empty lot. People left cars there for months on end. A boat dropped anchor one day and never left. A house trailer soon followed with a couple of guys living inside. A friend of mine decided it would be the perfect place to do automobile repairs. Others had the same idea. One day leaflets were placed on all the stray vehicles warning that they would be towed away. The house trailer and most of the cars got out in time but the boat was towed. I found myself singing, "Way hey, tow them away. The Lincoln Park pirates are we," and thinking it was too bad nobody had thought to ditch an airplane there too.

Not long after, they gave Lincoln Avenue in front of the Old Town School the honorary name of Steve Goodman Way. About the same time, signs for Lincoln Towing went up in the parking lot. I began to wonder if the people running the school had ever listened to Steve Goodman's songs. Apparently someone finally told them about "The Lincoln Park Pirates." The signs came down.

The laundromat closed on New Year's Eve and never reopened. A truck fought its way through mountains of snow to take the washers and dryers away. And then nothing happened. The building sat there for months and months, and the neighborhood turned a bit grayer with each passing day.

The rumor was that a Starbucks was going up. One day I was having a beer and I overheard someone say they thought the Starbucks was just what the neighborhood needed. "Do you rent or do you own?" I butted into the conversation.

"I rent," the guy said.

"You're an idiot," I said, once again proving that it's fairly simple to make friends with strangers. Just don't be afraid to express your true feelings. "Don't you know they're going to raise your rent?" I shouted. The guy shrugged. He didn't seem to care about his rent going up. He didn't seem to mind that a perfect stranger was calling him an idiot. My snap judgment looked better and better with each passing second. But an amused look crept into his eyes and I realized he didn't care what I thought. He was just waiting for me to go away.

There are several coffee shops already in Lincoln Square. None of them are of the Starbucks variety. Most are full of people speaking foreign languages, people with accents. It's that kind of neighborhood. That's one of its greatest charms.

If you're uncomfortable around foreigners there's always the Nervous Center, a dark, funky-looking coffeehouse that has been in the neighborhood for several years. They can speak English without an accent but they tend to do so very, very quickly. They usually open for business about the time the typical Starbucks is shutting down. And they're usually still sipping away in the wee small hours. But don't expect to stop in all bright-eyed on your way to work some morning with a briefcase in one hand and and ask for a latte au crema con frappoccino. Chances are that even if they happen to be open, it would make them a bit too nervous.

You're already making me nervous. So why don't you just not move to Lincoln Square? Besides the problem with bums and foreigners running around unchecked, it's one of the dirtiest neighborhoods in town and it's incredibly noisy.

"Beep! Beep! Beep!" the bulldozer went as it knocked the laundromat to the ground and more dust rose into the air. When the dust cleared I could suddenly see the front door of Bransfield's Bar and Grill. I decided I would clear the dust out of my system and celebrate my new view with a beer.

I had a great time that night, but I should have kept my mouth shut about my new view. I must have heard that joke about Jesus on the cross three times, the one with the punch line "I can see your house from here." I must have stayed a bit late. It seemed like only seconds after I dropped off to sleep that I was awakened by a piercing "Beep! Beep! Beep!" Is there something mocking in that obnoxious tone?

It turns out it's no accident that that maddening beep sounds the same no matter what huge vehicle is waking you in whatever part of the world you happen to be sleeping in. Somebody actually invented that damn noise. I know this because he just died and the Sun-Times ran an Associated Press obituary under the headline "Ed Peterson, 78; invented truck backing alarm."

According to the AP, it was in the mid-1960s when Peterson came up with his Bac-A-Larm, which he marketed worldwide. The alarm deserves credit for destroying the health of millions by subjecting them to sleep deprivation torture while saving the lives of three inept construction workers.

The factory across from the Old Town School came down next. They made greeting cards there when I moved in, and when the greeting card company moved a furniture manufacturer came along. The bulldozers came next with their shrieking beeps. When the dust cleared I could see Welles Park from my apartment.

I've been trying to hide this fact from my landlord. I know that if he discovers I have a park view he will raise my rent even more than he has already raised my rent. I know this because several years back when town houses were built just to the east, one of the town housers, a beautiful young woman, took to sunbathing in a thong suit on the deck out back.

One day my landlord, let's call him Nelson, came up the back way to do some repairs. He knocked on my door. When I answered he pointed toward the sunbather, who was on her stomach. She'd undone the strap across her back and there was little to mar the perfection of the view. "I'm sorry," Nelson said without a hint of either smile or leer, "but I'm going to have to raise your rent."

The rent increase was a small price to pay. The girl was really quite beautiful, and she used to smile at me in the alley sometimes when she sped past in her Audi or BMW, whatever it was, and her smile was as enticing as her backside. She must have known I was on my porch peeping as her skin turned a lovely shade that summer and I wrote barely a word. I had high hopes, but she never did forget to retie that top strap before turning over. Someone stole all her patio furniture one day, and shortly thereafter she moved away. I don't know if one thing had anything to do with the other, but Nelson did not suddenly decide to lower my rent. In my more than 25 years of renting apartments no landlord has ever lowered my rent. Gouge, gouge, gouge. I think that might be Nelson's middle name.

So I'll probably pay for my park view. But do I have to pay for the Old Town School too?

I can see half its sign from my living room. It burns night and day and is completely unreadable from most other vantage points around the neighborhood. At least its message doesn't crawl anymore, like the headlines in Times Square. I hope they kept some of that million dollars the city gave them to help pay the electric bill when it comes. I can see the roof of the school too. There's enough air conditioning equipment up there for the entire neighborhood. I'm expecting a squadron of helicopters any day to drop a bubble over us.

Snide comments aside, I have nothing against either the school or folk music. Some of my best friends are folk musicians. I'd name them here but they're true folk musicians, which means they're poor and they need the few pennies the Old Town School occasionally throws their way so they can afford to buy new guitar strings at the Old Town School company store. Profitable nonprofit organizations usually find it more profitable to act like a nonprofit organization when dispensing money than when accumulating money.

If the Old Town School had been headquartered on Roosevelt Road, say out around Kostner Avenue, I don't think its opening on Lincoln Avenue would have had quite the effect on the neighborhood of Lincoln Square.

But the school was not on Roosevelt Road. It wasn't on Madison Street, or Cicero, or Cottage Grove. It was on Armitage Avenue, in the center of Lincoln Park's ritziest shopping strip. It had been there for years, all the way back to the time when Armitage was just a normal city street and I lived a few blocks away. The wrong kind of people came up with the wrong idea—now Lincoln Square would go the way of Armitage. These people have been following me around for decades pushing me from one neighborhood to the next. And here they were again.

The day I saw Michael Cullen lurking not a hundred feet from my apartment, I knew my latest neighborhood was doomed too. Michael Cullen is—oh, you know who he is. I just want him to go away. I keep sticking pins in a doll I bought in a black magic shop in back of a Romanian restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue, but I have little hope. Chances are Cullen and his friends will be here long after me and my friends are gone. I hope they like bum breath.

Months before the Old Town School opened, an article appeared in one of the neighborhood newspapers. A neighborhood group said the laundromat did not fit in with their vision of the future.

It makes a weird sort of sense. Three bars and a laundromat on one corner. Guess which one doesn't fit? But the bars can always be upscaled as the neighborhood turns into another in-city suburb. A laundromat is a laundromat is a laundromat. When all the poor and middle-income people are gone, when no one speaks with an accent and all the apartments are condos, what will the point of a laundromat be? Who'll use it besides a few hopeless bums?

The neighborhood group said they were hoping for a music store or a bakery instead.

They might have been a bit naive in their understanding of the ways of profitable nonprofit organizations. The Old Town School would, of course, have its own music store on the premises. And the block already had a bakery. Two doors south of the laundromat, the North Star Bakery made some of the best rye bread in town. But it was a commercial bakery. Most of its bread went out the back door to stores and restaurants. You could go in the front way and buy a loaf, but there were no tables or chairs. There was no coffee or cappuccino either. It was just a bakery.

It was doomed along with the laundromat. According to Inside newspaper, Michael Cullen would be opening a bar and restaurant in the building housing the bakery. Cullen's structure would also include "a 150-seat great hall in the rear." Whatever that might be.

Maybe I'm using the wrong kind of pins with the doll. How does this one feel? Wait. What if I twist it like this?

It didn't take long before the laundromat wasn't the only thing that didn't fit. A few months back I was talking with a woman who'd just moved to the neighborhood. She told me she really liked Lincoln Square. She had one complaint. "I wish they'd close that bar," she said, referring to the No Big Deal Sports Bar across Wilson from the laundromat.

"Why?"

"Oh, you know, those people."

Yes, I know all about those people. I've been running from them for years.

But the people at the No Big Deal seemed pretty normal to me. The last time I really looked there was a bunch of guys in softball jerseys drinking beer. It was no big deal. A pool table, a jukebox, a couple of TVs, video games, pretzels, potato chips, beer. In other words it was just a bar. A normal city bar. The problem is, the neighborhood is no longer a normal city neighborhood. It's a hot spot.

The problem with hot spots is the rents go up. Way up. So the shoemaker—or, as the sign in the window said, shoemeister—closed suddenly the other month. The story I heard was that his rent had gone from $500 to $1,000. You have to put soles and heels on quite a few shoes to cover a nut like that. Even $500 seems high.

When I came in he always glanced at my shoes. More often than not, I'd be wearing running shoes. There'd always be a bit of sadness in his eyes when he saw them.

The shoemaker wasn't very old—30 or so, I'd guess. He spoke with an accent. He did some small repairs for me, adding eyelets to a pair of boots, sewing a patch on another pair. He never charged much, a couple bucks usually and I always wanted to give him more. I could see business wasn't very good.

I brought in a pair of boots to be stretched once. They were good boots. Union made. He admired the craftsmanship and said they would be ready in a couple of days. When I picked them up he charged me three bucks. "If they're still tight, bring them back," he said. "I won't charge you." But the fit was fine. Everything he ever did for me was perfect.

I've been waiting for the boots to wear down so I could take them in for soles and heels and give him more than just a couple of dollars. But good boots don't wear down as fast as a hot neighborhood will chase good people away.

At the end of June the No Big Deal closed too. I'm not sure what happened there. I've heard conflicting stories. But I'm sure the woman I talked to is happy now. I hope all the No Big Deal's old customers start drinking under her bedroom window while she's trying to sleep.

But she's probably not the only one who was happy to see the No Big Deal go. I'm sure she's got plenty of company among the new arrivals.

People no longer move to Lincoln Square because they happen to like the neighborhood. They come hoping the current residents—those people—will quickly depart.

They move in hoping that people who look, think, dress, and smell just like them will soon follow, chasing their original neighbors away, increasing their property values, and leaving them with plenty of war stories about pioneer days when the neighborhood was little more than a slum. And of course, people with money will win in Lincoln Square like they've won elsewhere. And then, as they walk around bumping into people from their old suburban and university days, they'll say, "Don't you just love Chicago? It's like one big small town." I've yet to hear a Chicago native say that. From them I hear, "Where did everybody go?"

The problem with being a pioneer is that sometimes the Indians don't want to go away. Worse than that, sometimes they wait for the bus right in front of your expensive new home. This seems to be what has happened down in Old Town across the street from the spot where the Old Town School was founded in 1957.

The CTA recently moved one of the bus stops at North and Sedgwick a quarter block east, to the other side of the alley that runs behind the new houses. It's a busy bus stop, and when I'm in the neighborhood I like to stop on my way by and ask the people waiting for the bus, "Why'd they move the stop?"

"Rich white people," is the standard reply.

Oftentimes I'll spot someone standing at the old bus stop waiting. This is not surprising. Old habits are hard to break, and the North Avenue bus has been stopping at the corner since it replaced the streetcars that had stopped at the same corner for a million years before. This is the first alley bus stop that I'm aware of, and I don't really think it's asking too much for the CTA to put up a sign directing people from the old bus stop to the new one. If trends continue, they'll probably need quite a few such signs. I doubt if this will be the last alley stop.

More and more residential development is going up on commercial streets. So if the current rumors are true, I guess I should be thankful I'm getting a Starbucks and a branch bank on the corner where the laundromat once stood. At least I'll still be able to catch the bus there. But the truth is, I'm probably not going to be using that bus stop for long.

The bums are starting to drift out of Lincoln Square, and that's usually a sign that it's time to start looking for a new neighborhood.

Unlike factory buildings, a parking lot doesn't offer much in the way of shelter. Good neighbors and good neighborhoods give shelter and the occasional table scrap, the heel of salami, day-old bread. People say hello as they pass. They can see beyond failure and dirt. They see humanity. They see themselves.

No only do parking lots offer little shelter but they leave you with such a boring view. But that's the way the city is going. Strip malls and parking lots, gate houses leading into housing developments that turn their backs to the street, making passersby stare at glass block bathroom windows and brick walls that look like they could use guard towers and searchlights. Entire neighborhoods with everybody dressed out of the same damn stores.

"Why would you move here if you didn't like our neighbors?" I asked a woman who had moved into the new development at Wolcott and Diversey and was now complaining about the people from the housing project a block away.

"The real estate broker promised me they'd be gone in a year," she said.

"It's not going to happen."

"I know. It's already over a year," she said. "I think I'm moving."

If you don't have people with money living in the city, the city falls apart. But do they have to be so white, so suburban, so afraid, and so stupid? Why can't they stop themselves from turning the city into a suburb? If they can't stand diversity or the sight of poverty or people with accents or anyone who doesn't look, think, dress, and talk just like them, and they won't get rid of their fucking cars no matter what, why can't they just stay in the suburbs?

As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I see their point about automobiles. Twenty years ago you could live in Lincoln Park and get by just fine without a car. Today there are miles of suburban-style shopping on Elston and Clybourn avenues and at North and Sheffield. Only North Avenue has regular bus service. (Years ago there was a streetcar on Sheffield, believe it or not, and it actually ran all night.) Cabs are hard to find on most of these streets. So you really do need a car if you want to keep up with your neighbors. And Lincoln Parkers have managed to accumulate so much stuff that a Container Store opened on North Avenue. All they sell are things to cram all that stuff into.

If all the stores in those strip malls on Clybourn were pushed up to the sidewalk, you might have a nice window-shopping street and probably the stores would make a bit more money too. The Marshall's at Clark and Halsted wastes nearly two blocks of what should be valuable display windows with solid cement walls. Not only did they make Halsted and Clark boring, they're probably throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sales each year. The stores are so used to operating in the suburbs that they don't know what to do with a city except help destroy it.

Lincoln Square has years to go before it can hope to match this kind of unplanned stupidity. But it's on the path, and I'm looking for new neighborhoods to conquer.

But I feel bad moving into a nice neighborhood, knowing who's likely to follow in my footsteps after people like me have made the place safe for suburbanites. The hippies down in Lincoln Park used to say, "You're either part of the problem or part of the solution." I stand convicted. But they do too.

This won't be the first time money has chased me out of a neighborhood. I was in Lincoln Park when that was a great place to be. Remember all those funky used-book stores, like that hole-in-the-wall joint that was first on Sheffield and then on Webster? Remember the Biograph when it was a revival house and they sold penny candy at the concession stand? I left years before the neighborhood was completely overrun by my version of "those people." Same with Lakeview. I got out ahead of the rush. But I still have fond memories of Southport Avenue when it was a wonderful city street. Remember Doninger's saloon? The old department store? The Music Box when it was a revival house? The laundromat at Waveland? The Holiday Grill at Belmont?

I guess I wasn't cut out to make money in real estate. When I see those people coming I tend to head the other way.

But the truth is that even if you can afford to live in Lakeview or Lincoln Park, chances are if you're a real city person you're not going to be able to stand the smell.

When I mention the neighborhoods I've lived in, some people's eyes light up with dollar signs. "Where are you going next?" they want to know.

"Hegewisch," I like to tell them. And it's true. I'm going as far south as I can get, at least for a visit. I hear there's a shop down there that sells serrated pins made with some of the southeast side's finest precision steel. Maybe if I push one in just so and turn it very, very slowly....Tell me if you feel anything.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Terry LaBan.

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