Adventures in Poverty | Letters | Chicago Reader

Adventures in Poverty 

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To the editor:

Those Wicker Park artists still don't get it ["The Panic in Wicker Park," August 26].

Gentrification, my friends, is not some inconvenience that deprives you of your right to live in a cold-water apartment and put in your requisite years of suffering before the big-time art world discovers you. Gentrification is working-class families being driven from the only homes and communities they've known for generations. It's people who fled conditions of poverty and oppression--in Eastern Europe, in Mexico or Puerto Rico, in the southern United States--and worked and sweated for years in factories and sweatshops, scrubbing floors and cleaning streets so their kids could have a better future than they did, only to find that the place where they raised their children, worshiped their God, and kept their extended families within reach has been stolen and sold out from under them.

That's a far cry from the problems being faced by the Wicker Park arts community, and I'm sorry, but I can't find much sympathy in my heart for most of them. Granted, there are plenty of artists around town who need exposure and an inexpensive place to live and work. Granted also that the presence of a real, genuine "artists' colony"--complete with adventure-in-poverty raggedness, cockroaches, the thrill of hanging out in "inner city" neighborhoods, drinking overpriced espresso in ostentatiously dingy coffeehouses, and dressing in black to confound the square suburbanites who come to gawk--has a certain faux-Lower-East-Side appeal for a lot of image-starved Chicagoans. Granted, occasionally something of artistic merit actually gets produced by all this.

More often, though, these folks have simply served as the pilot fish for the real estate sharks and gentrifiers who identify "trendy" neighborhoods and market them to outsiders, driving out the locals in the process. With a few exceptions--most notably HotHouse--none of the Wicker Park artistic colonizers have, until recently, made any kind of active effort to align with longtime, nonartist residents and resist the trend. Where were the artists working side by side with established community organizations against Easy Life Real Estate and their various buddies, as they continued their mission to transform a multiethnic working-class urban community into a playground for "pioneering" suburban empty-nesters and hipper-than-thou artsy fartsies? Where were artists using their skills in graphic design, writing, and street theater to give honest assistance in alliance with their working-class neighbors to fight for the things--better schools, well-paying jobs, public services (sanitation pickup, good street lighting, clean and safe parks, legitimate police protection), health care, child care--that neighborhoods like Wicker Park have been needing for years?

Instead we too often saw, and still see, the opposite: artists who adorn their windows, doors, and personal effects with images that scream "I'm An Artist And You're Not!" Artists who run overpriced coffee shops with condescending names like "Too Far West." Artists who parade their hipper-than-thou sophistication by running occult bookstores or displaying posters, publishing zines, and playing music full of profanity and adolescent-kicks nose-thumbing--activities sure to threaten and alienate people with cultural roots in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Eastern European countries, countries with strong traditions of religious and social conservatism. We see artists operate galleries and restaurants with little thought to the tastes, needs, or life-styles of anyone but themselves and their culturally inbred group of friends; we also see them encourage the conversion of buildings needed for inexpensive family living and industrial production into loft, gallery, and performance space.

They don't even bother learning the history of the struggles they themselves want to get involved in. The Wicker Park gentrification battles have been going on at least since the 70s, long before any of the current kiddies began throwing mud pies at each other in the spoiled-brat playpen the neighborhood has become. But don't fear for them--they'll find another ripe-for-change neighborhood to hang their berets in until they have to move on again. Weep instead for the families, for the people who for years lived, worked, and raised their children in Wicker Park and other neighborhoods like it; people who've been displaced further to the west side or out of the city completely, and who've been forgotten by all sides in the current gentrification debate.

Meanwhile, to the artists who've suddenly discovered that they live in the real world and that actions have consequences, I'd like to suggest that the whole sorry saga is merely another case of chickens coming home to roost.

David Whiteis

Fort Wayne

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