High on two espressos and having just purchased a book from Myopic called Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, Victor Grigas sat down at a computer lab last Thursday at Columbia College, where he's a film student, and started to rant. "I used to live in a neighborhood of human beings who happened to be black," he wrote on the Conversation, a Lumpen-affiliated message board, "and the taxes were reasonable. Now realtors dicks got hard and they've been cumming the yuppie jizz all over my block. All I see is yuppie fear and resentment."
Grigas is a lifelong Chicagoan who's lived all of his 26 years in Old Town and Lincoln Park, neighborhoods where his father--also named Victor Grigas--bought a few buildings in 1960. Victor Senior, who grew up in Bridgeport during the Depression, has two buildings left: one in each neighborhood. He lives on Wrightwood in the Lincoln Park building. In Old Town he has an 1875 wood-frame two-flat with a carriage house on Sedgwick. Victor Junior, who works as the super there, lives in the carriage house with his friend Alberto Aldana and rents out the three other units.
Victor Senior fought in World War II, then he got married, started a photo business, and moved to Willow Springs. He bought a Popular Mechanics how-to book on building houses and within about four years he had bought his first Victorian in the city and fixed it up. "It was pretty straightforward," says his son. "Nothing funky. But then after he got it appraised he realized that the work-to-money ratio was a lot bigger in real estate than in photography."
His dad's design sense got more baroque, and the next two buildings he bought--also Victorians--got gutted and then rebuilt with pieces snatched from other places that were coming down. "They became these funky, rustic-looking apartments," says Grigas. In the house where he lives, for example, his father built decorative brick walls inlaid with antique glass bottles and tile, constructed cabinets of worn barn wood, put in stained glass windows from an old church and framed them with molding from a dilapidated hotel, and installed an antique dresser as the base of the kitchen sink. "I get looks from people that it's a weird building, it's out of place," says Grigas. "They think it's a teardown because it's just a little two-flat in the front. And everything else around it is these four-story cinder block buildings of condos with oak floors and granite countertops and everything.
"All this new construction looks like a Soviet bloc in eastern Europe or something," he says. "There it's all concrete and there's one contractor."
In an effort to fight the condo clones, Grigas posted an invitation on the message board to paint graffiti on his garage door. "If anyone gives you shit call me....It is my fucking garage door and i can have 'friends' paint it how i like."
Grigas's ruling ethos is "open-source information." He's obsessed with Google Earth, Wikipedia ("I'm on there all the time, editing whatever I can"), and "organic development," such as engaging in a sticker war with his neighbor over election politics. He spent the 2004 campaign taking down pro-Bush propaganda, replacing it with decals that said george w. bush is a punk-ass chump. Since April he and Aldana have kept a typewriter on their coffee table, where visitors are strongly encouraged--sometimes forced--to bang out a thought. They punch holes in the output and tuck it into a three-ring binder. They're working on the third volume of this project, called Batman Whatever, which they hope will go online soon. "The whole concept is to be as open as possible," Grigas says. "We don't throw away anything we create here."
When electronic music and visuals wizard Dan Layne came by to spray paint the door last Saturday, says Grigas, "my neighbor across the way opened the door and asked, 'What's going on here?' I said, 'Oh yeah, I told all these artists they can come over here and write on my door. It's open to anybody.' And she said, 'Well, we're trying to sell our condo.' Like I was supposed to think [what I was doing] was bad. I told her she could come by with a paint roller and cover it up....I wanted to say, "Then why don't you get rid of all the black people in the neighborhood.' The whole concept of property value is just totally based in fear."
Funny thing is, about a year ago Grigas called the city's Graffiti Blasters to remove a tag from his front gate. So isn't he being hypocritical? "If it's yours, you make it the way you want it," he says. "I only get mad about it because my right to express what I want with what's mine impinges on a sense of conformity." And while he admits that he's not so "open source" when it comes to control of his own building, he says he tries to share the property as much as possible, not just by letting strangers paint on his garage but also by keeping rents low. A small two-bedroom unit in his building rents for $750 a month, a large two-bedroom goes for $1,000, a one-bedroom is $600. "But the taxes keep going up," he says, "and unfortunately we have to raise those rates. I've got to maintain the building."
He says his father was one of two white guys in the neighborhood until about eight years ago. "As long as I can remember growing up everyone was black. Around 1997 or 1998 a couple buildings here and there were getting bought, and in the last four years it got really aggressive," he says. "I don't have anything against white people. But I have something against yuppies. It's an exploitative mind set. It's like that show Friends--if you watch that show for long enough it makes you believe this myth of the city being a land of individualistic freedom. People come to this city, come to Lincoln Park and Old Town, and are like, 'Oh, I love this--there are all these things to do, so many singles bars.' They come here postcollege to flee their suburban life, and they do it while they're young. But people don't come here to live here.
"And a place like Bridgeport is just poised to be next, you know?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ Andrea Bauer.