By Erin O’Neal
I first went to Boystown in 1988. I was 12 years old and for the first time I felt I was some place where I belonged. I was just barely starting to understand that I was queer. The one thing I did fully understand was that I was different from almost everyone in my suburban area. In that space I was a freak with weird hair and clothes who looked and acted like a boy. In Boystown, I was considerably tame by comparison to others around me. On the weekends that I was able to get to Boystown, I would meet up with other kids from all around the Chicago area and aimlessly hang out in the neighborhood.
Most of that time was spent on the corner of Belmont and Clark in the parking lot of the then infamous Punkin’ Donuts. Having little to no money, it was the place everyone ended up more times than not. There were some places at that time, though, that I could go when I did have a little bit of money. Medusa’s was a part-time all ages/17 & over, New York style club/juice bar. There were a handful of coffee shops where a dollar fifty would buy you a bottomless cup of coffee and teenagers would congregate for hours on end. There were options for things to do if you weren’t 21 or were unable to get in the door at the more liberal establishments that didn’t ask too many questions about IDs.
In that time, I met countless kids who hated where they had come from. Some were homeless, staying with whomever had parents that would allow extended sleepovers, some lived in squats, some hustled for whatever they could get. There were a lot of different people with a lot of different situations. Drugs were plentiful. Petty crimes were commonplace, committed sometimes out of necessity to simply exist or sometimes just out of boredom. There were fights. There was a brawl off Belmont that nearly blinded a friend of mine when a bottle of hair dye had been used as a bomb and it exploded in her eyes.
I would imagine some of the business owners in the NHBA remember what the late 80s were like, as many of those businesses are still open today and run by the same people who founded them. Their experience of that time was probably a little different as they were over 21 and had their own homes and places to be, but I am sure they recall the sight of up to a hundred kids spilling out all over the neighborhood on the weekends with nothing to do, being “wild.”
This phenomenon of aimless youth in Boystown didn’t magically end with the election of Bill Clinton. Rave culture had developed. Kids who would have been hanging out in Boystown were still there, but at night they were going all over the city to empty lofts and warehouses, in many cases, alongside adults who had patronized Vortex and Berlin for years. Underage DJs from the Rave scene would eventually find themselves embraced in gay clubs by the end of the 90s.
By the early 00s, Rave culture was all but a memory in Chicago, the Daley administration having done everything in its power to put an end to it and the larger promoters having moved into doing more accessible and profitable parties at licensed venues. Most of the coffee shops, including the one that had been part of Circuit, were gone. The bars that had been somewhat flexible in their door policies had either closed or changed ownership. Medusa’s long ago had moved and was now in the suburbs, its original home in Boystown became condos.
Boystown, through all of this, was still that same place where young people from all over found their first acceptance. It was still a beacon. Except now, there was nothing else to do but hang out on the street. No more dancing in places that allowed people under 21. No more coffee shops to sit for hours and talk. No more places to learn to spin music. Just hanging out, making friends, trying to get by and have a life that you didn’t hate and was worth living.
Maybe the business owners who feel Boystown is simply a shopping and entertainment district don’t see that, like it or not, Boystown is a community. It is a beacon to so many LGBTQ youth for hundreds if not thousands of miles as a place for them to escape the bullshit they face in their own unwelcoming communities. That Boystown has served as that beacon for so many years though is exactly what makes their businesses profitable. No matter how Disneyfied you want to make Halsted and its surrounding area, that commercial appeal is built on the back of a very real history of struggle and acceptance. To attempt to turn away and disenfranchise our youth, by denying them that acceptance, is to erase the neighborhood’s history and ignore the ideals on which these businesses now profit.
Youth in Boystown have always come with crime. Youth in Boystown have always struggled to make it. But youth in Boystown have never before had to face armed guards. No one ever told me and my obnoxious underage friends to get off their front lawns with a gun in hand and there’s no reason we need to start doing so now. These kids want the same thing I wanted as a teenager: a place to belong, a place to be themselves. The difference now is that there are fewer places they can go within Boystown. Rather than throwing money toward policing of the area, why not direct it toward developing more spaces for these youth to go. I was lucky to have some spaces like that. These teens deserve that too.