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Resourceful Renters

Michelle Puetz/Pilsen

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Space 900 square feet | Rent $600

It took Michelle Puetz a month to move into her fourth-floor walk-up in 2002. She was living across the street, with a guy who was by then her ex-boyfriend, and ferried her belongings up the steep, uneven stairs one day at a time. The new apartment was a mess: there'd been one previous tenant, but before that it had been used for storage. The door was cut for hobbits, just five-and-a-half-feet high, and inside the sloped ceiling was barely eight feet at its peak--Puetz had to take a six-by-six painting (by her friend Jaya Howey) off its stretchers to get it into the place. The wall between the kitchen and bedroom was only framed out; lighting consisted of three box fluorescents. Some of the floorboards had rotted away and the kitchen floor was covered with tar paper. Worse, "the tar had started to soak through the paper, so it was really sticky."

Puetz had come to Chicago from Boston to get her PhD in film studies at the University of Chicago; she's writing her dissertation on experimental film and sound artists of the 1960s. Though she also works as a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center, money's tight, and the price of the attic--then just $400 a month--was right. Besides, she thought it had potential. "My preference has always been to have a space that I could make my own rather than a place that was more clean or fancy," she says.

She took down the fluorescents, wired and installed new fixtures over the bed, knocked out a wall separating the sleeping and living areas, drywalled the studs between the bedroom and kitchen, and mounted a mirror and cabinet in the tiny bathroom, which has a shower stall but no tub. She painted the walls "circus colors": red, dark purple, bright blue, bubble-gum pink, chartreuse. A seasoned thrift shopper, she scavenged a lot of the furnishings and fixtures. The red metal kitchen cabinets came from the alley; she bought her mod lamp shades "off a guy in the neighborhood who used to go around and sell stuff he found in the trash."

The space is full of vintage lamps, in fact, and a string of marquee bulbs hangs over the kitchen table. You can't really have standard overhead lights or a ceiling fan, Puetz points out, when you can touch the ceiling flat-footed. The pillow pile under the tiny front windows was inherited from a neighbor, and she kept adding to it, creating in effect the world's biggest cat bed.

In hindsight Puetz, who's now hunting for a place to move into with her current boyfriend, thinks the apartment was an outlet for the creative energy she couldn't find a place for in grad school. It was the first time she'd lived alone, and "it was really liberating to be able to do whatever I wanted to do to the space, both in terms of having license from the landlords and also not having to bend to someone else's wishes. If I wanted a bubble-gum pink room, I could have one."

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

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