There's a glorious passage in Night Moves, the latest book by music editor and critic (and onetime Reader contributor) Jessica Hopper, during which she recounts a 2004 bike ride down Damen Avenue. As she travels along, she rattles off a stream-of-consciousness list of the Chicago landmarks she passes along the way ("Pilsen's strip malls," "Little Italy's ass end," "the Drag City office").
"Taking Damen Avenue from one side of town to another," Hopper writes, "you get a good span of Chicago, something practical to counter the highlights reel of Lake Shore Drive."
Night Moves revels in subtle but wholly Chicago moments like these. Out September 18 from University of Texas Press, the book is a compilation of vignettes of Hopper's explorations of the city between 2004 and 2008. It was an era when Wicker Park was in the midst of rapid gentrification, an era when barflys couldn't drop their eyes to their smartphones at the first twinge of discomfort. Ever observant of her surroundings, Hopper understands her fleeting interactions with both friends and strangers as representative of the rhythm of the city—and she often describes them with an agile sense of humor.
Recently I spoke with Hopper via phone (she was walking through Manhattan on her way to an interview with Cat Power) about Night Moves and her ongoing love affair with Chicago.
Your interest in the texture of Chicago has always shown through in your writing, but what made this retrospective important for you to publish now?
When I was putting together The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, there were things that didn't fit. My friend Alice Merrill, who was helping me archive, pointed out that I've written about Chicago so much—and that the material I had between 2004 and 2008 seemed like its own piece. If we stopped just before I had kids, my first book, a career—it would be its own contained, discreet world. I kept finding all these people who had left Chicago, all these places that didn't exist anymore. The world I chronicled was in some cases several years gone. Neighborhoods had been transformed by gentrification. The era I was around was the last gasp before it fully flipped. I was a harbinger of that change—and so were my friends.
You don't much hold back about the repercussions from the gentrification in Wicker Park. How did you interact with the dwindling of the neighborhood in which you had made so many fond memories?
I had a mentor who when I told her where I lived said, "Yeah, that's where my painting studio was back in like '70 to '75." Up in the Flat Iron. So clearly I was part of a steady encroachment that visibly picked up steam during those years I document.
A chunk of the book takes place when I lived in two neighboring punk houses, kind of right on the edge of an industrial corridor over on Grand. I was practically the last tenant. They were bulldozed and leveled to make million-dollar condos. Literally million-dollar condos. There was no way not to be very aware of our role as a young, white artistic class. When I was in Ukrainian Village, it was still 97 percent Ukrainian. I saw up close how the cycles sped up. I was being priced out of the neighborhoods I had been hanging in for 20 years, but there was nothing to be gained by being blind to the young, blithe whiteness within the space.
You recount more than one night out where, say, you wish a hole would open up in the ground, swallow you whole, and transport you home. Those nights where you were stuck in a booth drinking your water with ice [Hopper doesn't drink or use drugs], the scene bustling around you … Was it about observing the scene? What made you go out?
It wasn't necessarily situations I didn't want to be in—that was the risk of going out. The book takes place during the dawn of Myspace becoming a network for people who weren't collegiate. It sounds absolutely arcane, but we went out to connect with people. And that was just the gamble. The only info we might get would be, "Oh there's a thing tonight at such-and-such place, and people are going over here after the show." The physical real world was so much more a part of our immediate community.
I realize I'm a bit more of a hermit than I probably realized I was back then, but I went out a lot and was alert because I really cared about the people I was hanging out with. And there was an interest in preserving those moments.
People would show up at my house because they couldn't get ahold of me, or they didn't even have a phone. It was during the days of borrowing the cell phone of the person you're with. It sounds so long ago. But I like that about it—the feeling you're still in the nascence of something. So the twilight of this other thing felt crucial to document, even if there's nothing remotely special about my life in that space and time. It became sort of the soft story of the book. Tim Kinsella's All Over and Over, about his time on a Make Believe tour, is diaristic in the same sort of way.
Night Moves is an ode to friendships developed and nourished in a city where everyone is everywhere all the time. Did you get wistful in remembering those relationships?
I'm not a supersentimental person, even though my last two books have been anthologies and works from my past. This book helped me become reacquainted with my younger self—and in some ways rightsize my memory. So much of my memory of that time is … I'm just broke. But I also remember having a lot of space in my life. Today that space is informed by my children, my children's schedules, and being married. I wonder, "Would 28-year-old me be disappointed in 42-year-old me?" That rightsizing is more of what happened than getting wistful for what was.
The book captures that sort of amorphous late-20s/early-30s range, when there's a lot of recalibration of self happening. You comment on it a lot, like when you write, "Watching the smart and talented trying to stave off the reality of their 30s with Similac-cut bump really gets me down." What were your struggles with that era and how did you understand your friends' struggles?
At 28 I wanted to be living by my moral and spiritual principles. Absolutely. And I wanted to be a professional writer. That idea was modeled on the lives of my friends in New York who were writers. That's not a life particularly possible for a writer in Chicago [where there's not as large a publishing industry], and I kind of had the sense that I'd always be playing catch-up. Eventually I realized that being here allowed me to have a totally different kind of career.
There was a period of time where I felt like a lot of people were using cocaine in a recreational way—and sometimes other people drinking in a habitual way. And there are moments where the book intersects with the sort of reckoning of that. People having things reconciled—you kind of have to grow up or sink deeper into it.
There were nights I went out where I was the only one not hammered. When I moved to Chicago, I came from LA, where a lot of people are sober. Here I would hang out with people who drank every single night and drank to get drunk every single night. I was like, "How does anyone function the next day?" To me it was like, "How does anybody get it done?"
So much happens on a bike—and the action is often moved ahead because of a bike. How integral was the bike ride to discovering your Chicagoness?
Very much so. I think it's hard not to feel deeply embedded in the city when you're on a bike. Maybe you're just cruising by, but you're also seeing things and people and encountering the world in a way where you're not hermetically sealed up in your Acura. So much of my ability to explore Chicago is literally being on a bike and being like, "Oh, what's that?" And just being able to stop and get off. v