Travel

Kawai’s Guide to Chicago’s Wicker Park – Day Edition

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Chicago’s Wicker Park reminds me of Toronto’s Queen West in the mid 2000s when a corporate brand of gentrification had firmly wedged its foot in the door. Do you remember when more 905ers began stalking its streets instead of punks on the weekends, when all the goth stores just west of Spadina suddenly folded? Pages was going strong, the area was peppered with indy record stores, and you could still pick up a shirt for $2 at Black Market. But Big Capital had come to Queen West and it was going to leave the neighbourhood forever changed, pushing everyone westward (into an area called West Queen West that is now being feted by the likes of NYTimes and Vogue) and eventually converting the street into an outdoor doppleganger of the Eaton’s Centre mall with a few stalwart hangers on: Steve’s, the Black Bull, the Riv. Does anyone bother to head east of Spadina anymore?

Wicker Park is a neighbourhood dealing with the aftermath of a wave of corporate colonization that has washed through its streets, still bracing itself for more waves to come. It hasn’t had its rough edges entirely smoothed over like Queen West, but one senses that one has entered the neighbourhood in a new, uneasy era. It’s that time when the more subversive, risk taking and dangerous elements of an urban ecosystem have emmigrated or are considering emmigration, taking a piece of the neighbourhood’s soul with it.

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Still, Wicker Park’s store entrances remain wallpapered in colourful DIY flyers for independent shows and services (my favourite way of gauging the richness and diversity of the social and cultural networks operating in any urban ecosystem). There are hints of an earlier Eastern European influence – food offerings and a Russian banya – that one can still detect among the fresh influx of different ethnic groups and youth culture. And personally, I find transition periods in any neighbourhood fascinating. In Wicker Park today, independent retailers like The Boring Store and Rudy’s Roundup rub shoulders with the likes of Free People, Urban Outfitters and Lululemon. The food scene is a delightful mix of independent cafes, cheap sushi and schwarmas, trendy $$$$ restaurants, buzzing patios, a respectable brew pub and self serve froyo joints. The crowd skews young – a little younger than West Queen West – and the streets are still alive well into the night.

I’m sure as I spend more time in Chicago, I’ll figure out where corporate gentrification refugees have fled and spend more time exploring neighbourhoods like Pilsen. But for the time being, I’m happy to haunt the streets of Wicker Park. So here, I present to you the neighbourhood by day. Night edition hopefully to follow soon.

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Quimby’s Bookstore

I have to begin my tour of Wicker Park with Quimby’s because it’s basically the reason I visited the neighbourhood in the first place. It’s a lovely bookstore that is packed full of rare and delightful treasures to discover with multiple walls and racks devoted to mini comics and zines that are fairly well organized. Here you can find just about anything: beefcake pinups, anarchist theory, Tiajuana Bibles, indie food mags… you name it. The staff are approachable and some are very knowledgable about comics so don’t be shy to ask them for recommendations. Quimby’s is conveniently located a mere hop skip and a jump away from Damen on the blue line.

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Myopic Books

This multi-floor used bookstore features a vast fiction collection, a fairly decent poetry section and a healthy section on literary criticism. There are little nooks and couches for you to curl up in and read as well. I must say however, that the philosophy section in particular, is abysmal, so that was a disappointment. Everything else is hit and miss. As far as used bookstores go, Myopic is worth checking out if you happen to be in the area and have a little extra time to rummage for gems. It’s servicable, but a little on the expensive side and nothing to write home about.

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Revolution Bookstore

Located on Division, this bookstore is rather disappointing. Instead of a rich selection of Marxist/socialist/revolutionary material, this is mainly a little hub that showcases the writings of Bob Avakian. Works you would expect any political book store to have in stock – back issues of The New Left Review or works by political theorists like Althusser, Negri, etc. – were absent. The feminist section was basically a sad pile of books that would fit in a milk crate. In fact, I think they were stored in an actual milk crate. Avoid disappointment and head for the library instead.

The Occult Bookstore

Further south-east on Milwaukee, just south of Division, The Occult Bookstore is exactly what you would imagine it to be. A broody environment tricked out with gothic decor where one can also purchase goods you would find in a well stocked new age store: candles, herbs, jewelry, cheesy statues of dragons, that sort of thing. The book selection is mostly second hand, pretty random and not in any way comprehensive, at least in terms of stocking “canonical” works. More interestingly, while I was browsing, a pair of gentlemen entered the store dressed from head to toe in full-on Victoriana, complete with top hats. They were greeted warmly by the store clerk and a very personal conversation about spirituality ensued. All I can say is that it seems occult groups are pretty active in Chi-town.

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Reckless Records

Reckless sells used CDs, DVDs and games, but its main attraction are its long aisles of vinyl. It’s always been too packed for me to really scope out their collection but the few times I’ve popped in, it looks fairly extensive unless you’re looking for classical music.

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Dusty Groove

Dusty Groove serves up used records and CDs with an emphasis on blues, jazz, funk, etc. The store also offers a handy service whereby they’ll email you if that obscure LP you’re looking for happens to cross their path.

WEAR

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My love affair with Milwaukee Street began thusly. After Liz at Quimby’s gave me a grand tour of the shop, I walked out with an armful of zines and comics and made my way down what appeared to be a promising string of vintage clothing stores. Little did I realize that I would be entering what I can only describe as a wrinkle in the fabric of the fashion market space-time continuum. I’ve thrifted my way around the fashion capitals of the world: London, Tokyo, New York, you name it, and I’ve never seen anything like what I saw on Milwaukee between Damen and Division. There, you will find used clothes in good condition, made in countries like Italy, being priced lower than polyester crap made in countries like Bangladesh.

Let me preface the following by stating that I don’t do clothing hauls or fashion trends. I know what I like and what looks good on me and I don’t see why I should give a damn if it’s on the runways or not. I buy clothing infrequently because whatever I purchase is meant to last years of wear. So if you are bored easily by your wardrobe and must always wear what’s “on trend,” thrifting on Milwaukee is not for you. However, if you, like me, are increasingly frustrated by the steady decline in quality of apparel and the bifurcation between fast fashion and luxury excess, you must pay Milwaukee a visit.

A sampling of the purchases I’ve racked up since January, easily the most clothing I’ve ever bought in such a short period of time:

Item Material / Country of Manufacture Cost
alice & olivia crew neck pullover 100% cashmere / US $25.00
ella moss waterfall wrap cotton-spandex blend with silk trim (difficult to read label) / US $15.00
ETRO cardigan 100% wool / Italy $12.00
ETRO turtleneck (iconic paisley print) 80% silk- 20% cashmere / Italy $15.00 – found on the 50% off rack! WTF!
Marc Jacobs jacket (not “Marc by” diffusion line) 100% cotton / Poland $22.50
Sonia Rykiel jacket 100% cotton / Slovenia $40.00
splendid wrap 50% cotton – 50% modal / US $9.50
velvet little black dress 97% rayon – 3% lycra / US $16.50

In regard to higher end brands, the story was no different. Stores were selling vintage Chanel and Lanvin jackets for under $100. Just to give you an idea, if you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned labels, a comparable Marc Jacobs jacket at full retail price would probably run you over $500, an ETRO paisley knit would be around $500-$750. To buy items like this second hand in Toronto would easily run you into the hundreds.

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When I first saw these prices, I wondered if retailers were cutting out labels and sewing in fake ones. But the thing is, you can’t fake workmanship, the feel and drape of fabrics like cashmere. Everytime I visit these stores, I am struck by a bout of cognitive dissonance. What’s wrong with all these retailers? How can this possibly be a functional business model for second hand clothes – even if they are not for profit? Why isn’t everyone else shopping around me completely freaking out? On my first trip, I asked each person behind the counter: why are your clothes priced so low? And each time I received the same deadpan reply, as if I was being extremely dense: they’re used.

The stores I would most highly recommend are Crossroads Trading and Vintage Underground but I would certainly browse through other stores too. There are some fun stores like Kokorokoko, which specializes in loud, 80s wear and oddly, carries a lot of 80s VHS porn.

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That’s all I’ve got for now. Coming soon, Kawai’s Guide to Wicker Park – Night Edition, featuring EAT & PLAY

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