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.