The Streets Where He Lives/Bits of the Blackstone/Can Anyone Help the Baffler? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

The Streets Where He Lives/Bits of the Blackstone/Can Anyone Help the Baffler? 

As Boys Town retreats in the face of condofication, its dedicated chronicler Howard Casner savors a victory.

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The Streets Where He Lives

Playwright Howard Casner is sitting in the Caribou Coffee on the corner of Aldine and Broadway, known to regulars as the "Cariboy" or the "'bou," talking about real estate. A goateed bald guy in a black baseball cap, leather wristband, and Queen Mary T-shirt, Casner's in his element at this hangout in Boys Town, the neighborhood that's the backdrop for most of his plays. Boys Town is a battleground now, he says, under siege by encroaching straights. But it was an exotic enough setting to catch the eye of British boutique publisher Hollow Hills, which just made Casner's "Random Acts: Three Tales of Boystown," available on the Internet. "Boystown, for those not familiar with gay America," Hollow Hills explains, "is the 'ghetto' in Chicago where much of the action is set." "Random Acts," which had a successful run last year at the Playground on Lincoln, includes A Cold Coming We Had of It, A Misreading of Camus, and A Little Lear and Laundry. The plays are set at an el stop, a coffee shop exactly like the 'bou, and a laundromat like one that formerly stood next to another Boys Town nexus, the Sidetrack bar on Halsted.

"Boys Town is getting smaller and smaller," Casner says. "It used to be from Diversey up to Grace, now it's Belmont to Grace, and it just sort of dies out between Halsted and Clark. There's a fight for it, and it revolves around the gay bars and businesses in the area. The gays moved in years ago when it wasn't such a great neighborhood, redeveloped it, as they often do, but didn't invest in ownership." As the neighborhood improved, rents went up, driving gays north to Andersonville and Edgewater, while straights came in. Then everything went condo. "Now there's a huge battle on Halsted, similar to the one going on in the Steppenwolf and Royal George area, about who's going to control that street. Is it going to be the people who buy condos? Or is it going to be the businesses? I moved here to be near the bars and businesses, and now people are coming in and complaining about them. That's like moving out to O'Hare and complaining about the noise."

In his 20 years as a Chicago playwright, Casner figures he's made a grand total of maybe $2,000. And that includes grant money. He's supported himself as a legal secretary, working on his plays nights and weekends, often in the 'bou. Now without a steady job for the first time in a decade (and looking for one), he's been putting his energy into new one acts. Like all his plays, he says, they're about making sense of life in a largely random world. Last year was a good one--three of his shows were produced (two in Chicago and one in LA)--but for the University of Texas drama grad, who's wanted to be a playwright since ninth grade, success is still elusive. "I'm not making any money at all. Period. Nothing," he says. "But I could live with that if I knew the next play I wrote was gonna be produced somewhere and it wasn't such a struggle just to get people to read it." By his own assessment not much of a schmoozer, Casner found Hollow Hills through a posting on the Internet site www.stageplays.com. Since last week, "Random Acts" has been available for browsing or purchase at www.hollowhillspublishing.com. The price for the E-mailed manuscript is six pounds; two pounds of that will come back to Boys Town.

Bits of the Blackstone

The Blackstone Hotel opened in 1910 at 636 S. Michigan. Designed by the firm Marshall and Fox, who also designed the Drake Hotel, the mansard-roofed, beaux arts hostelry had an intimate, dark-wood lobby trimmed in brass and hung with crystal chandeliers. A graceful marble double stair-case led to the ballroom (most recently home to the 17-year run of Shear Madness), and guest rooms offered some of the city's most beautiful views--across Michigan Avenue to Grant Park. The Blackstone is famous for the June night in 1920 when Warren G. Harding was picked by cigar-puffing party insiders as the Republican candidate for president in a 13th-floor suite--the original "smoke-filled rooms"--but toward the end of the century it declined into shabbiness. In 1994 it was sold to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation program and guru to the Beatles. In November 1999, after a visit from city inspectors that resulted in citations for more than 100 code violations, it was closed. Now the Maharishi Global Development Fund has hired Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange to turn it into about 50 condominium apartments. The exterior, lobby, and ballroom will be restored to their original condition, Lagrange says. The rest of the building will be gutted.

In preparation for that, the Blackstone is having the city's largest estate sale. Almost anything not screwed down (and a lot that was) has been acquired by International Liquidators, a local company that has a month to sell the contents piecemeal. Every inch of the two lower levels, main floor, mezzanine, and ballroom is chockablock with nightstands, dressers, desks, bed frames, chairs, and lamps. Mattresses are piled nearly to the coffered ballroom ceiling; linens line the walls of the space that was the longtime home to Jazz Showcase. Phones can be had for $5; televisions for $59; blue vinyl booths are three for $65. Guest room doors, complete with hardware, are $40 each, and the marble steps connecting floors can be purchased in groups of 50 for $225: all you have to do is remove them. Last Saturday, Steve Carman, in town for the weekend from Indianapolis, wandered in and got hooked on the history being carted out of the place. Without bothering to try to negotiate, he paid $450 for the handsomely framed certificate that proclaimed the Blackstone a national historic landmark and another $45 for a picture of Harding. His strategy: "We're just gonna take it and run like hell." According to James Kinney of Rubloff Residential Properties, which will market the condos, the starting price for units in the 22-story building will be at least $1.5 million. "Some people are saying this is an expensive property for the South Loop," Kinney says, "but it's going to be like New York's Central Park West." Kinney notes that pricey North Michigan Avenue is getting more commercial while South Michigan is turning into a prime residential area, "with this wonderful park out front."

Can Anyone Help the Baffler?

Got an extra computer or desk lamp? When artist Dan Peterman's studio at 61st and Blackstone went up in flames last week, the Baffler magazine lost its office and everything in it. The journal was one of several nonprofit organizations and small businesses housed in Peterman's building. "We had to convince a fireman to go back in and bring out a computer," says publisher Greg Lane. The hard drive from the singed, soaked machine was sent out for data recovery, so Baffler #14 should be in the hands of subscribers by the end of the month. Lane says the magazine will move back in after the building is repaired. Donations to the Baffler Recovery Fund, P.O. Box 378293, Chicago 60637, are tax deductible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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