What’s Happening to Restaurants and Nightclubs in America’s Oldest Gayborhood — Boystown

(jazz music) – [Zach] On the north side of Chicago, sandwiched just east of Wrigley Field and west of Lake Michigan, is Boystown. Established in the late
1960s as the nation’s first official gay neighborhoods it was one of the only safe spaces for LGBTQ people to
openly live their lives in the entire city. It has become one of the city’s
most well-known areas and, after finishing high school
and moving to Chicago, was a place I called
home for nearly a decade. Seemingly overnight, rent
prices have skyrocketed, resulting in many people in
the area to be pushed out. Gay bars have begun to close and are being replaced by trendier,
more mainstream restaurants that cater to both
straight and gay patrons. Programs for LGBT homeless people have vanished that used
to dot the streets. And the future of one of the
world’s most famous areas and neighborhoods finds itself wondering, “Is the gayborhood even needed anymore? “And if so, by who?” I’m Zach Stafford, the
Editor-in-Chief of INTO, an LGBTQ digital magazine and, during my last month before moving away from the city I pretty much grew up in, I spent days talking with the
activists and restaurateurs about how the food and drink industry control the landscape of the neighborhood and are now changing it
for better or for worse, depending on who you ask. Over the years, Furious
Spoon made its mark in many up and coming
areas around Chicago, such as Wicker Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, and now in Boystown. This is co-owner chef Shin Thompson. Before sitting down to chat with me about his fast-growing franchise, he invited me on a tour
of his latest venture in the heart of Boystown. Their new location will
be in the place of Spin, an iconic gay club that was sold in 2014, a former space I grew
up in as an underage kid wanting to see drag queens
and meet other people like me and maybe find a boyfriend if I was lucky. Now the space will serve food trends that have popularized in the wider market. Boystown strip was so
much about nightlife too so a lot of the restaurants are doing food from all day til about ten, then they become more of
like a clubby type scene. – Yeah. – Do you see that happening here? – I don’t know about clubby scene, but we’ll definitely be open late so. – [Zach] You play hiphop music. – We play hiphop music, yes. I don’t know if there’s
gonna be much room to dance around here or anything like that but it should be lively. – There used to be a
pool table right here. And people would play pool and what was great about it
was you would play pool and people could see outside. That’s why people came in. So they saw somebody they
thought was attractive and they would like run through
the door to come in here. Oh this is the original graffiti. – [Shin] Yeah. I think we’re gonna keep this. – Yeah, this is awesome. I don’t know who did this, but I remember this used
to be not very well lit. You would have no idea
what was on the wall. – But if you look at our other shops we’re very, we have a,
yeah, a lot of graffiti. – Yeah, it’s on brand. You’re staying on brand. – This is where the bathrooms were. It’s interestingly gonna
become the prep kitchen. – Really? – Don’t worry, we’re taking down all of the walls, restripping everything, all the plumbing, electric, all brand new. – I hope you’re using a lot of bleach. – It’ll be good as new. – Yeah, beyond it being a bathroom, this was like, I’m not gonna say what happened down here. (Shin laughs) Things happened in this bathroom. Not in my life, but, you
know, other people’s lives. But it was a really popular bathroom. So that was weird. A lot of gay men, or LGBT people, will go there, sure, but it’s
mostly gonna be a restaurant that a lot of the straight
people go to in the neighborhood. As the neighborhood becomes more straight. So it’s gonna be weird
the day that I do go there and see people eating
ramen next to those windows or walking down the stairs to graffiti and them thinking it’s
just like part of the decor and not realizing it’s part
of this really long history of Boystown that’s really
important to a lot of us. This is a really good
example of the responsibility of going into cultural neighborhoods, whether it’s a gayborhood
or a Latino neighborhood, and understanding what you’re erasing when you go into that space and how that may mean a lot to other people and you not realizing and
how hurtful that could be. Due to decades of discrimination, gay bars have typically been
the only place an LGBTQ person could go and openly be themselves. And some of the most important
people I’ve met in Boystown during my time living there
weren’t on the dance floor, but slinging drinks. These folks are the ones to go to for any hot gossip, to get advice, or just hear about what
was happening in the hood. This is Hadeis Safi, a bartender
and HIV awareness advocate who works at Replay. – I think there are places that
will always be a gay refuge. I think there are places that we will always continue to make
our own because we have to. We have to. And no matter who comes in and tries to kind of make it theirs, we just gotta push back. We have two restrooms
here and a woman walked, one of my customers actually, I walked out of the
quote-unquote women’s restroom, it’s a private restroom but
it has like Ms. Pacman on it. And she goes, “Why were you
in the girl’s restroom?” I was like, “Why are you gendering a
bathroom in a gay bar? Stop it.” – Like this is always
just a bathroom, girl. – It’s just a bathroom. – So historically people like you have been pillars of the community, and that’s why people came to gay bars, is to have that person that not only served them the drink but
got them access to services, which you do. – Yeah. – In your own life, do
you still think that role is really vital to this neighborhood? Do you think all the
bartenders should also kind of exemplify what you do? – I think all the bartenders
do exemplify that in a sense. So you have people like me and there are multiple people who work in the industry on the strip who work in like HIV/AIDS
related services and social work. But there are also people who work and they don’t do that kind of direct work but they do social work in the sense that they create spaces outside of bars and they work with faces outside of bars who are queer, for
predominantly gay men honestly, to meet and to feel safe. It’s like oh, well there’s
this party, there’s this event, there’s this museum, there’s
this awesome cultural aspect of the city that you may not know because you’re new here
so let me help you. And I really try to remember all the different intersectionalities and the different parts of who we all are. It’s not just one person
that has one thing. And there’s so much that makes us, because there’s so much that makes me and there’s so much that makes you. And I gotta remember all of those things and I’m trying to be there for people. – And also make a good Manhattan. – Yes, ma’am. – [Zach] Jenne Valioces
is a Filipino trans woman who recently opened up her own bakery on the edge of Boystown and Wrigley Field, which is interesting, as the juxtaposition of the stadium to the gayborhood has led to homophobic abuse in the past. But her bakery signifies how those in the hospitality industry can provide not just goods and services but hope, refuge, and positivity. – Actually finding this location is like the perfect spot because originally I wanted to open a bakery in the heart of Boystown. I felt like Chicago needed a bakery that the LGBT community can call their own. As it turns out, this spot is perfect because it’s not necessarily
in the heart of Boystown but it’s close enough where people from all walks of life can come in and experience an atmosphere
of just feeling welcome regardless of where you come from and what your background
is and enjoy dessert. When I’m in the kitchen and
I’m creating and I’m baking, it’s my ultimate escape. I get to be in this world where I’m just focused on creating and I’m not thinking about my
problems or my daily struggles, I’m just focused on
creating beautiful things and things that taste good. I think everybody needs some
kind of creative outlet. Opening a bakery is not just about baking. You have to wear many hats. You have think about
the business side of it. All these things that I
have no experience of, it’s very, very challenging. Luckily I’ve had amazing friends and people that are helping me. – Does your mom come to the bakery? – Yes, she does. She helps me out a lot. She’s like my business advisor. She helps in the front of the house and she gives me a lot of great advice. She was the first one
that was very concerned about me opening a shop but once she saw the outpour of support, she was like, “Oh my god.” She was just as surprised as I was. – She got it. – Yeah. – [Zach] Do you feel like
you made your mother proud? – I hope that through this bakery she can see that this is
what truly makes me happy and fulfilled as being the
person that I am, being trans. This is a place where I feel like I can make an impact on people’s lives. (cheering) – Yeah. Anything going down at this table? – [Audience Member] I’m 21 today. – You’re kidding, it’s your birthday? 21? I don’t like you. Just because you’re young. But I still like you,
it’s fine, it’s fine. Happy birthday, my love. Thank you for coming here. (club music) – [Zach] As Boystown has become an entertainment destination, some businesses have begun
capitalizing off this trend, especially when it comes
to bachelorette parties. Heritage commodification, or the process of selling one’s culture for tourist gaze in order to make money, is lucrative for business owners now with the mainstreaming of LGBTQ politics. But it’s also controversial. Here in Boystown, Kitkat Lounge, a popular dining and entertainment venue, with its drag performances by trans women like Dolce Andrews, and its huge selection
of martini cocktails is the clearest example of
this type of commodification. Prior to marriage
equality, there were bars that were banning bachelorette parties due to LGBTQ people not
having equal rights. But Kitkat was one of the few places that kept its doors
open to straight women. While the historic
inclusiveness is admirable, it was perhaps necessary for its revival as a gay-owned establishment. – Well Boystown has always
been a destination spot. So hopefully, as time goes by, making the neighborhood
look and feel more gay is gonna make even more people come from other communities to come celebrate life and celebrate being gay. – What makes this place so special is that all of these restaurants and
bars are next to each other. But I’m sure that has
to get tenuous at times. I mean you all are a community but you’re also competition. So what has that been like for you all? – Well, I don’t want to
call it competition but we all try to work together as a community in the neighborhood. We want to bring more
people to the neighborhood and if we all offer top quality cuisine and we all offer something different, it’s only gonna benefit the street and make more people come here. – As more places like Kitkat Lounge profit from the straight
consumption of gay culture, other gay-owned restaurants want to open the neighborhood up to being a dining destination as well. For a strip that is used to
low price and low quality food, Wood did something different. Recognized by Michelin Guides as offering excellent food
for five years straight, Wood began paving the way for more upscale dining experiences in the area. What made you finally decide to come here? – There just wasn’t anything
in this neighborhood and so I just thought that it was time that this neighborhood
started making its mark on the culinary world just
like the West Loop does or Logan Square, for
example, just has become a Mecca of restaurants. So this is why we decided
this neighborhood. It needed a restaurant of this caliber. – Talk to me about the price points. You all, I remember, being
one of the first restaurants beyond Yoshi’s that had a little more of a higher price point. And I remember people being
a little nervous about that. – Yes, they were. – How did you feel about
that as you kind of, just said you know we’re gonna do small plates starting at 12 and large plates starting at 24, like that was a first for
this block especially. – You’re right. We felt that, you know
what, a dollar more here, two dollar more here,
people will recognize that in the quality of the food. And for the first couple months we had some pushback by the neighborhood. But we don’t hear
anything about it anymore. – What is your advice to
straight men or straight people who are coming to the neighborhood to open up their own restaurants? – Anyone and everyone should
be allowed through your doors. They’re your guests, they’re your clients, and they’re going to
keep your business going. And this neighborhood
isn’t going to change. We’re going to stay who we are, we’re going, our businesses are always going to be LGBT
community friendly, and, whether you’re straight or gay, people are going to
frequent your restaurant. – [Zach] Franco’s openness
to welcome new businesses made me think of Furious Spoon and how, perhaps, it contributes to the homogenization of gay culture that’s been happening in recent years. So what’s the response
been like around the city to have your ramen shops
opening up in neighborhoods where ramen wasn’t
necessarily thought to be and has there been any
pushback from the locals? – We try and go into neighborhoods that we think that will really
enjoy what we bring. The food, the environment. We try and kind of hand-pick
those neighborhoods. Our latest shop opened just in Pilsen. That’s kind of another
up-and-coming neighborhood, which was like Logan
Square like five years ago. I think once we kind of
engaged with the community, explained to them, I don’t think we’re pricing anybody out of the neighborhood. You can get a bowl of
ramen for eight dollars. – How do you see yourself
being a part of a community that’s been longstanding? – Well we definitely want to be integrated into the community where people feel welcome
and we’re felt welcomed back. How do we do that? I think providing a good
product and good service. And just being open to people’s concerns in the neighborhood. – Wanna hear something funny? You remember the bathrooms down there that the manhole used to be connected to? – Absolutely. – Guess what they’re now. I did a walkthrough. Guess what they’re becoming. – What are they now? – The prep kitchens. (Kylon laughs) – Oh the stories those walls could tell. – [Zach] Like any
community, Boystown has had its own problems with inclusion of different intersectionalities, especially with regard to race, gender, and other social issues. My friend Kylen, a social
worker who works with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, has been a vocal person in the community working against this exclusion. – As youth is understood
under the age of 24, there are a lot of spaces now that won’t cater to young folks
because of the perception. And as this neighborhood
continues to grow and change, black and brown young folks continue to be more and more silenced and unheard. – But why haven’t these businesses wanted to embrace young people at all? – I think there’s a lot of misconception. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, there’s definitely a lot of
assumption being made, again, about someone’s access to contribute. So financially, sure, and we’re
entering the district now, the entertainment district. Will these young people
be able to spend money in my establishment? – And it’s a place you dream of moving when you’re a young
gay kid in the country. You’re like, I’m gonna
live in Boystown one day and then you get here
and you realize, like, they don’t want you here. (both laugh) They want something else here. What I heard about this parking lot is that a few years ago, as you’ve been talking about young people and how the neighborhood’s not
been really loving of them, there was a moment called
Take Back Boystown. What was that about? Who were they taking it back from? Because this place has
been so gay forever. – I think that was the
perpetual question, right? When people are moving
in and buying property and so they’re setting down
roots and they’re staying. And those people, for the most part, are middle to upper class white folks. And so this movement
started when these folks started noticing the black
and brown trans queer youth walking up and down Halsted Street that there was this sentiment
that they felt unsafe. For just being in the neighborhood and sharing the neighborhood
with these kids. And so a movement started
called Take Back Boystown and it started in this parking
lot, was the big rally. – And was there a stabbing
here that happened? Or like what was the ignition point? – There was, I think. I think it was during a Pride. And there was an altercation. One of the things that happens when young people have resources that are taken away from them and shut down is this rubbing of personalities. This, sort of, lack of community building, the opposite of community building, which has people feeling threatened. And so there was a
moment that that happened and there was some violence
that happened in this community. So that was the impetus
I think for this group that was Take Back Boystown. We see the fear rising. And the lack of community engagement. We didn’t necessarily have
to take back Boystown. We could have engaged
Boystown in conversation. And so we know that as
these things change, there are specific identities that just aren’t welcome in
the neighborhood anymore. – So what do you think the
future of the neighborhood is, who’s it for? Who is this neighborhood for now and who are they building all this for? – So I don’t even know that
the future of this neighborhood will stay gay and queer. Which is a shame when we think
about the obelisks, right? – Or these rainbows that are dotting. – That they erected in
order to anchor community. – But do you think it’s always going to be that elite community that will stay here? I’ve talked to a lot of
bar owners and they say this will always be gay. And I think when they say that, they’re saying like, our
restaurant will always be here. And it feels like a
certain type of people, like people that go to these galas, will always have this
neighborhood for them. – I think that’s exactly
what we’re talking about. I think as we’re talking about it not necessarily staying gay, we’re also talking about
it not staying affordable. We’re also talking about certain
classes that are invited. So as we talk about not only what is middle and upper class white folks, we’re also talking about
the elite gay community who can afford to buy here. – It’s so sad to see that change. Because you know it’s so funny
when you come to Boystown, especially as a young person and you see the fantasy start to dissolve, that it is a business. This is about money, this
is about having profit. Then you’re kind of like, oh, well, I thought it was just going to be magical and it was going to be
like Disneyland for me but then you realize
Disneyland is really expensive and it takes a lot of
money to keep it going. And you’ve gotta like clean these pylons, you’ve gotta keep these places open. – You’ve gotta be able to
afford Disneyland, right? If not I’m not going. I might be at Six Flags. (Zach laughs) I might be somewhere different. And we will see this neighborhood change. And probably not in the way that community initially envisioned it. Probably not in that way. And that is sad to see, I agree. – [Zach] This is the Human First Gala. They’re owned by the Center on Halsted, the hub that provides social, health, and education resources for the LGBTQ community in Chicago. This center came about as a
result of years of lobbying and huge donations from
the political figures and business men, women, of Chicago. And nights like these, I’m
comfortable with the reality that the LGBTQ community is divided into two far removed groups. The ones prosperous and
affluent enough to attend galas and donate large sums of money, and the ones that rely on the center but cannot afford to live near it. I am at the Center today and,
ironically, during my visit, an event exploring the question, “Who does the neighborhood
belong to?” is occurring where residents have been
invited to hear from experts on what is actually happening
to the place they live. Jason Orne is a sociologist who has written a book on the matter. – Today, I feel like
more of the bar owners, particularly the gay ones, really are invested in
creating a community. What’s interesting is that a lot of them have specifically chosen to own gay bars, to create gay space because they think that those kinds of spaces are important. Which is why, then, you see
an interesting tension today with the heritage
commodification that’s going on. Because they really want to
save the area as a gay area, even as they’re bringing in tourists to actually buy the goods
and services that are around. – Do you think straight
people coming to our places, our spaces, are they making them de-gay, or are we making them gay? – As they come in, it’s still gay, as in the identity and
parts of the culture, but it’s desexualized. So it’s often not having
a lot of the really, more radical and sort of sexuality that used to be in those spaces. And are we losing some of our gay culture, some of the raunchiness and
some of the over-the-topness that maybe is less acceptable. Like the kids of the street. You’re allowed to be
gay as long as you’re an upper class white married
couple who wants to go to brunch and fits a sort of
stereotypical view of a gay guy. – So what is the future
look like for Boystown? Because, as you’ve presented, the past and some of the present is meant to be a space
of refuge, of community, but it seems like that commercialization, the Disneyland effect, is taking over. So what do you see happening
here the next few years? Do you think these young kids are never gonna come back here anymore and then the place becomes
no longer Disneyland? Well I guess it was never
Disneyland for them. – Yeah, it was never Disneyland for them. I hope that they continue
to resist and that hopefully as we get people in
positions like here at the Center on Halsted that are
supporting those people and supporting, helping them not in a way that’s trying to change
them and they’re culture, but rather embracing it. I hope they can continue to flourish. But I think we’re seeing, also, multiple other gay areas
form here in Chicago. Sort of the sanitized,
touristy gay Disneyland and the more radical, the more inclusive but also the more scary
to straight society. Those kinds of bars and communities opening up in other parts. (jazz music) – [Zach] For the business
owners led by straight people who are coming to the
area in hopes of profiting from the mainstreaming of it, the future of Boystown
seems paved with gold. As the neighborhood sees
its rent prices grow and more condos erect, this trend doesn’t look
to be slowing down. But for the businesses and the people wanting to keep the
neighborhood as a refuge for queer people, the
future is pretty gray. Sure, some spaces are flourishing with the new influx of businesses, but many other spaces and
services are disappearing. Thankfully the spirit
of grassroots activism that first established the neighborhood is still pushing through the cracks, serving as a reminder that Boystown isn’t just a neighborhood, but a safe space for so many people. While I know that the area
may never be what it once was, or maybe even what people
always hoped it to be, I do know that people
like me will find a home for ourselves with all of our glitter and all of our glamour
somewhere in the city, Boystown or not, and the bars and restaurants
will most likely follow. (jazzy hiphop)

22 Replies to “What’s Happening to Restaurants and Nightclubs in America’s Oldest Gayborhood — Boystown”

  1. Peter Joseph O'Brien says:

    Very poor first-ever documentary. This is very shallow and pandering. I'm a NYC/Westchester Co. raised kid who completed degrees and made a career in Albany, NY. I'm three hours away from my 'hometown gayborhoods' where I came out in 96. Those businesses are now replaced by more expensive real estate ventures. And I'm still here. I can't imagine being mournfully reminiscent of a NYC club bathroom I visited by learning it is being turned into a restaurant prep kitchen. And I'm still here. Take a breath and try again. Here's an idea for a Boystown documentary. Find out when, how and why Boystown was a beacon. Talk to those who in their youth thought that way, those that did and made it there, folks who did not make it to Boystown, and those who left better or worse off. See a difference? I didn't even study film or journalism. Cheers.

  2. It Came From A Box says:


  3. RileyRemix says:

    I love how all the attacks and robberies are not mentioned or shown. Maybe that counselor guy can explain to us how to start a conversation with the black and brown youth when they are robbing you or standing in the group of 20 making the sidewalk impossible to cross. Why wasn't anybody from establishments that have been here for 30+ years interviewed ? Seems like a one sided view.

  4. Brent Foster says:

    San Diego's gayborhood, Hillcrest, is heading in this direction. Little by little, it's happening.

  5. Nancy Calderon says:

    Yesss 💙 alot of people dont understand and dont want to take responsibility for going into an area that is so heavily influenced by a culture and all of the sudden changing it

  6. Jesse K says:

    You know how the right, at least today, romanticized the past – they heyday of American manufacturing and coal mining, this is the left's equivalent of that, romanticizing the crime ridden past of certain neighborhoods. No! The past wasn't better.

  7. Eileen Patterson says:

    Is it wrong for me to think the repeated references to the bathroom were crass, unnecessary, and off-putting? We get it. A bathroom known for sexual escapades and drugs has been remodeled into a prep-kitchen and you think that's hilarious. Except, it's not that remarkable of an event, and the fact you think it is, calls your judgement into question.

  8. Fred Ricardo says:

    That was very well done. Good insightful piece of journalism.

  9. MonieLue78 says:

    I love this!

  10. Metha Kumapan says:

    great piece of evidence , rich and colorful cultures merging together with food and one of the most amazing cultures of all time , the lgbtq community. awesome and educational video.

  11. ɴᴅɢᴏᴄʜʏʟᴅ says:

    Back in the early 2000s my friends and I used to hang out in Boystown. we were too young to go to the clubs but we went to the sex shops and Beatniks. So sad to see that Spin is gone. I miss Hydrates and $1 drinks too. The Circuit….ugh now I'm depressed.

  12. ɴᴅɢᴏᴄʜʏʟᴅ says:

    oh and I miss the Pink Elephant. they had the best clothes….lol

  13. Pepper1188 says:

    Was great in the 80s and 90s..too much crime now.

  14. Very fine people on both sides says:


  15. S G says:

    Beautiful things get ruin because of greedy people.

  16. tiffany curtis says:


  17. John Sluder says:

    Gays destroy themselves. I mean what do they want? They don't know. They prove it here.

  18. LIFEinMOLLYWOOD says:

    That's sad to see!

  19. PlanetRockJesus says:

    Disgusting people.

  20. StrangeWays says:

    Never liked chicago.

  21. Koichi Born says:

    Not a fan of this interview.

  22. Mac 26.2 says:

    I lived in Boystown for years. I live in Manhattan now. Every neighborhood should be safe for all.

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