Twenty years ago, Wicker Park was a dirt-cheap, centrally located Chicago neighborhood filled with artists and the working poor, too edgy for even forward-thinking yuppies to slum there. Today, the intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee Avenues is a bastardized bohemia, equal parts hipster theme park (Urban Outfitters), frat party (Swig and Cans) and boutique strip mall (City Soles/Niche), replete with a Starbucks and three banks.
Yet somehow, the six-corners intersection known as “the Crotch” maintains its reputation as an arty hub. And if Stephen King novels have taught us anything, it’s that the guests at the glamorous ski resort will inevitably go insane from slaloming over the old Indian burial ground. Could the same be true for the bankers traipsing around the Crotch? Will their glass-walled townhomes someday crumble into squats? I troll the area for signs of any spectral, arty residue hanging over the six corners, and to see if I can hang there for seven hours straight without my inner art student throwing up all over herself.
In search of a student-priced lunch, I bypass twin grease-pits Underdog and Flash Taco for Sultan’s Market (2057 W North Ave, 773-235-3072), a cafeteria-style, vegetarian-friendly Middle Eastern restaurant far too cheap to harbor any pretense. Sidling up to the glass counter, I order a deliciously frugal falafel ($3.75) and a Jerusalem salad ($4). Too early in the season to take advantage of the outdoor seating, I take my tray to a bench facing a window, where I can watch the throngs ambling toward the intersection.
Soon after, I join them, walking a few blocks southeast to the only venue my friend Mark, a Boston-based noise rocker, insists on visiting when he’s in town. At Reckless Records (1532 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-235-3727), I pick up a copy of Santogold’s eponymous debut on CD ($14.99). The shaggy, messenger-bagged clientele reassure me that Reckless remains a place for serious fans to find good music. The staff might be too nice to land a part in the sequel to High Fidelity, but the vintage LPs and dedicated record collectors who surround them are sufficiently intimidating to prevent Cans patrons from stumbling in for the latest John Mayer.
Next, I make an obligatory stop at dusty used-book emporium Myopic Books (1564 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-862-4882), which has hung around for more than 15 years. On the second-floor landing, I peruse a hopelessly out-of-date edition of The Idiot’s Guide to the Weather ($8). Although the Dungeons & Dragons fans who used to hold tourneys in the basement seem to have moved on to more fantastic pastures, Myopic still fulfills its bohemian quota, housing a cat, staying open past midnight, and holding well-attended fiction and poetry readings.
All this browsing is making me hungry again, so I pop into Earwax Café (1561 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-772-4019). As I eat the ridiculously hearty coleslaw and barbecue sauce–covered vegetable patty known as the Messy Burger ($7.95), I notice for the umpteenth time how much less charming Earwax has become since it moved from its cavernous digs across the street. But no matter how forced its circus colors might appear in the smaller, cleaner space, its earnest notebook-scribblers and veggie burgers still triumph over a block crowded with mediocre sushi and overpriced bar food—even though you run the risk of tripping over a thousand-dollar stroller on your way in.
I decide against trying on a silver unitard at American Apparel in favor of heading east to look at comic books. The staff at Quimby’s (1854 W North Ave, 773-342-0910) has enough attitude to befit a store specializing in indie mags, hand-drawn zines, comics and trade books with tiny printings. As well they should—Quimby’s has been a mecca for those seeking alterna-lit since 1991. After picking up the new issue of Chicago-based women’s rock mag Venus Zine ($6.50), I bypass four hopelessly trendy Akira outposts on my way back to the intersection.
My final stop of the day is the Pontiac Café (1531 N Damen Ave, 773-252-7767). The Pontiac’s charm is located squarely within the weed-choked parking lot that houses its outdoor seating. In spite of the fact that the Eurotrash whose cigarette smoke once blanketed the sidewalk sped off on their Vespas years ago, it’s here that I finally find the Wicker Park that thrilled me in high school. It isn’t in the pint of Stella ($4) or the gorgeous Labrador leashed to a chair. It’s the distant, throbbing music from a nearby loft combined with the vague menace of a stinky, graffiti-coated bathroom that sends me back to a time before The Real World sunk its teeth into this once-gritty ’hood.