Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Change is Gonna Come...



It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will


Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come

I was reading one of the little Chicago neighborhood papers a couple of days ago and saw that the Diplomat Hotel, at 3208 N. Sheffield was being auctioned off. It's assumed that it will probably be redeveloped into condominiums.

The Diplomat is, to put it bluntly, a flophouse. It was one of the last hold-outs to gentrifcation in Chicago's once-seedy, once-bohemian Lakeview neighborhood.

My favorite Indian restaurant, The Star of India, is located in the lower retail section of the hotel. Whenever I treat myself to Indian buffet there, I witness the ebb and flow of drug dealers, hookers and down-and-outers. Even at 1 in the afternoon, it was a pretty seedy scene. I can only imagine it was worse at night. That'll all be gone soon.

Truth be told, I'd been wondering for several years when this was going to happen.

When I was just out of college, in 1986, I roomed for a couple of months with a co-worker just around the corner from there while I was looking for an apartment. Back then, Lakeview was a squirrelly, sometimes dangerous place. I remember one night going out for a walk and inadvertently walking into a shoot-out between the police and some guy holed up in a building. It was not surprising to see hypodermic needles lying around. Gangs ran rampant. People would find bodies in the alleys.

These days, Lakeview is mostly safe-- there's the occasional mugging of a yuppie who didn't know not to walk through alleys at night, but mostly it's okay.

The Diplomat was the last crappy little hold-out.

I've got to say that I've got mixed feelings. First, I do have empathy for poor people, and SRO's (Single Room Occupancy) like the Diplomat have a place in the world in giving people who are struggling for various reasons-- sometimes self-inflicted-- a place to live. I've got to admit, though, that I fall prey to NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome when it comes to this. For every poor person using it as shelter, there seem to be a couple of creepy predators who seem only to be behaving at the moment because they need a few minutes to size you up before they decide whether it would be better to try to mug you or grift you. I don't want them around me, and especially don't want them around my wife and kids. And I'm sure the people who have bought homes in the area are glad to see the Diplomat go.

My guess is that the developers will required by the city to place the current tenants in some other housing. In all likelihood, it'll be to another SRO, in another part of the city. I doubt their lifestyles will change.

I guess I'm a little sentimental about the closing of the Diplomat-- only because I can afford to be. I remember in my twenties, when I'd go to a show at one of the many long-gone clubs down there, and I'd walk by the corner of Belmont and Sheffield. It was filled with all kinds of menacing-looking characters, many of whom lived in the Diplomat, or at least were hanging around with denizens of the hotel. I was smart enough, and aware enough, as a very skinny white guy, to avoid being one of the many people who got mugged-- and even worse-- near there.

I realize, though, that it's not really the Diplomat I'll miss-- it's what I already miss. I've got a thousand great memories of the area in the eighties and early nineties: Seeing a friend's band at the Avalon (now a tanning salon), the place that everybody seemed to get their first gig at; seeing the Effigies at Gaspar's (now Schuba's); going to Crosscurrents (now razed for condos) with my friend Tim to see Big Black, Scratch Acid and Killdozer, while hanging out with our friends Jeff Pezzati, John Haggerty and the rest of Naked Raygun. It was a good time and place to be a young guy who loved music.

The Diplomat was a relic. It was a relic of a time when the area was poor and seedy. It was a relic of a time when the neighborhood was rough, and rents were low enough that someone could run a rock club where they could charge a five buck cover to see a great band or two. And it was a relic of when I was young and carefree and my life revolved around which show I was going to see that night. It was a fun time. No regrets.

Going by the Diplomat, though, in it's seedy incarnation, was like running into an old buddy from your club days, and you're both middle-aged, but you've got your wife and kids with you on the way to miniature golfing or to the zoo, and he's with some woman 15 years younger than he is and still dressing funny and hanging out in the clubs. It's nice to see him, but a little awkward-- it doesn't suit him anymore. It makes him look even older than you.

Because youth, they say, is for the young.

22 comments:

Natalie said...

I must say I'm not sad to see it go. As someone who arrived in the area in 01 I have no warm fuzzy memories. Just the crazy nutjobs yelling at me when i walked home form the train.

lulu said...

That's the one across from Leona's right? Evidently in the late 80's, Leona's bought curtains for the rooms facing the street because you could look directly into the hotel from the second floor of the restaurant. I can't imagine why people didn't want a floors how with their dinners.

Splotchy said...

That Sam Cooke song gives me shivers whenever I hear it. One of my favorites of his.

For a second I was thinking you were talking about the Diplmomat Motel over on Clark and Foster.

Thankfully, down-on-their-luck foreign dignitaries still have a few options left in this city.

A couple years ago, my friend would sit a while at the Belmont station while he waited to transfer trains, when he was heading home from work around midnight. He'd sometimes would have to wait ten or twenty minutes at the station.

He said it was still kinda rough at that late hour, even after all the gentrification that had taken place.

Skylers Dad said...

Reminds me of growing up and riding my bike home from washing dishes at the Kings Derby cafe.

Ahhh yes, the mean streets of Idaho Springs Colorado...

BeckEye said...

Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy. I guess nothing sleazy can either.

Big Orange (a.k.a. "Uncle Moonpie") said...

I've got a book for you, JY: Flophouse: Life on the Bowery

You might also find this NPR story about The Sunshine Hotel

cheer34 said...

Oh the places we visited in our youth. I wouldn't want to step foot in those neighborhoods now. My super hero powers that prevented anyhting bad from happening to me wore off around 23.

I too have the not in my backyard syndrome. I have a husband and kids to think about.

lulu said...

I get the NIMBY thing, but here's what I don't get. The people who live in that neighborhood knew that there was an SRO hotel there when they moved in or bought property there. It isn't like it opened over night when they weren't looking. I liked that neighborhood when it was a little dangerous (sometime have tenS tell the story about trying to go to whatever that underage club that used be there was called, and getting a gun pulled on us.)

lulu said...

Medusa's! I knew it would come to me!

Bubs said...

Ah, the Diplomat. I worked a case about 10 years ago with a guy who left his wife and went on a 3 week long coke-and-booze-fueled binge with a hooker, and I think one of the places he stayed was the Diplomat. He ended up robbing a U-Haul shop when he ran out of money.

You know where all those nutjobs and hard luck cases are going? Section 8 housing in places like unincorporated Des Plaines , Prospect Heights and Palatine.

Places like the Diplomat ceased being low income housing for working stiffs and the down-on-their-luck years ago, and became holding tanks for the most deranged, addicted and predatory people in our society. That neighborhood is better off without it.

'Bubbles' said...

Great post, JY. The constant = change.

The Elk said...

Mr Yen,

Isn't that where "our buddy" Mr Charles ended up? With the closing he could be back out on the street and soon be habitating a garden shed in your vicinity....

Johnny Yen said...

Natalie-
I can understand that.

Lulu-
You figured it out-- Medusa's. And yes, the Diplomat is across the street from Leona's.

Good god-- I can only imagine the shows some of the people in Leona's got before they put the curtains in.

Splotchy-
The first time I ever heard the song was at the Gingerman-- they had it on the jukebox. That beautiful opening and Sam Cooke's voice-- all in the context of the civil rights movement...

Yeah, the whole Red Line is still a place that you've got to watch yourself.

When I was first out of school, in 1986, I lived near Morse and Clark. The neighborhood was declining visibly and rapidly. I started taking the Clark bus from downtown instead of the el. The Morse el stop was not a nice place to be with a bunch of waitering cash in your pocket at midnight.

Skyler's Dad-
I'll bet you've got a few good stories from working there.

Beckeye-
I guess that is some consolation-- nothing good will last forever, but neither will bad things.

Big Orange-
Thanks for the suggestions!

Here in Chicago, our big skid row has become a big yuppie magnet. It started when Oprah moved her studios there.

Cheer34-
My landlord's wife has a great saying, that I'm pretty sure is Irish: "God looks after drunks, children and kittens."

Lulu-
Yeah, with stuff like that, I'm always reminded of that line in Casablanca-- when Major Strasser is asking Rick (Bogart) why he moved to Casablanca, he replies, sarcastically, "For the waters." When Strasser points out that Casablanca is in the desert, Rick, still sarcastic, says "I was misinformed..."

Bubs-
He really planned that one out. A Uhaul place? One does not think of a Uhaul place as having much cash around. Obviously he was an amateur.

Section 8 is one of those "good on paper/bad in implementation" things, isn't it? When I lived in East Rogers Park in 1986, a lot of the buildings in the area went Section 8, and it contributed to a rapid decline in the neighborhood. I think you've mentioned living there around then. The absentee landlords didn't keep the buildings up or screen tenants-- they just collected their government checks. It got bad around there for a long time.

Yeah, absolutely, it's an improvment. Maybe when I was younger I had more tolerance for it all, but now I just see sad, dysfunctional people.

Anon. Blogger-
Absolutely.

It's been interesting watching the change in the neighborhood I live in, North Center. There's been a gentrification, but a lot of the regular middle class folks (like me) who've lived there forever have managed to hang in there. It's turned out to be a nice place to raise my kids.

Elk-
I'm pretty sure he ended up in the 400, down the street from Wrigley. It's funny, because Kim lived about a block from it (by Wrigley) when I met her.

Splotchy said...

Prior to my wife and I moving in together in an apartment near Lincoln Square, she had a nice big one bedroom apt. near Touhy and Ashland.

I think it was only a week or two before she left that apartment that someone got set on fire at the Morse El stop.

Ahh, good times.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I have your solution - you need to move more.

I feel so sheltered - I've never once had a gun pulled on me or been mugged. Why did I have to grow up in the middle of farm land, why?!

Seriously - you should write a book about the places you've known in Chicago, you seem to be in tune with a lot of their history and your own stories of association with the place would make for an interesting read, I think.

Johnny Yen said...

Splotchy-
Where in Lincoln Square did you guys live? Did you ever go to Jury's? I work there.

Kristi-
Thank you!

I had a knife pulled on me in a fight once-- in East Rogers Park, of course. I took the knife, which was tiny, away from the guy. He was much smaller than me (he had started the fight) that I didn't have the heart to beat him up.

I also had a carload of guys try to mug me; they pepper-sprayed me from a car. I had turned my face right before they did it, so I could see out of one eye. They suddenly had a very angry six foot tall 200 pound guy in a leather jacket on their hands. They decided to move on and find an easier mark.

I also had four young guys follow me off the el. I turned toward them with my hand in my coat and they backed off. Holy Bernard Goetz, Batman!

Splotchy said...

We lived actually a little west of Lincoln Square, over near the Rockwell stop of the brown line.

I definitely ate at Jury's at least once during that time.

Johnny Yen said...

Kim and I live right across Montrose-- around Montrose and Western.

If you had a tall blonde-haired guy who talked too much wait on you at Jury's, that was me.

'Bubbles' said...

Holy Bernard Goetz, Batman!

OMG, too funny! Thanks for the laugh!!

My dad was mugged by Cabrini Green. (He worked at Monkey Ward Corporate) They shot at him and missed - too high. Broke off a huge fingernail in his pocket, so they missed the money clip. Took his brief case (work only) and wallet (no money, before credit cards were a comodity). Funniest.... missed a gold Omega watch and an 18k gold and precious stone ring!!!

He didn't do much walking around there again. My mom:: I TOLD you so!!!!!! :-)

Johnny Yen said...

"Bubbles"-
My first year as a teacher, working as a sub, I was sent nearly every day to Jenner Elementary, just a few blocks from that building, right in the heart of Cabrini. I took the el there. Ah, youth...

Ha-- if I hadn't already known you were a former Chicagoan, I'd have figured it out with the "Monkey Ward" comment-- that's a total Chicago thing.

Glad your dad was okay!

silentspring said...

Hmm..the Diplomat. I can't specifically blame the hotel residents for this, but I suspect one of their junky denizens: About 15 years ago I sat in something horrible...I'll spare you the details...on the bus bench at Belmont and Sheffield. An elderly lady, with her eyes bugging out, said "you got somethin' on your coat" God bless the owners of nearby Thai restaurant, who let me into their employee bathroom to hose down.

Anonymous said...

Lulu -- I don't get your comment: "The people who live in that neighborhood knew that there was an SRO hotel there when they moved in or bought property there."

Of course they did. I bought a place less than a block away two years ago. I have no problem whatsoever with the Diplomat, and I'll actually be a little sad to see it go, though I'm not sure the change will be bad (depends on what replaces it -- we'll see). I do think we need more affordable housing in the neighborhood, not less. Do you think the neighbors are forcing it to shut down or something? It's the owner who is selling it -- the property is worth $4 million and they want to cash out. It really doesn't matter what the neighbors think. You can't force a property owner to carry on operating a seedy hotel just because you miss the good old days when the neighborhood was more dangerous.

These kinds of knee-jerk reactions against "gentrification" drive me nuts.