Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is the final part of a four part story. Read PART I here. Read PART II here. Read PART III here. Read PART IV here.
Once the sun goes down anything goes in Pilsen. I learned that firsthand the summer of 2011.
Zoey, my girlfriend at the time, was a crust punk that was into protesting for workers rights and salting for labor unions. She had a lot of activist friends living in the Humboldt Park and Pilsen neighborhoods because of the low rent and lack of police patrols. For instance, she had friends that lived in a house in Humboldt Park that had seven roommates, a few dogs, cats, a jellyfish, turtle and a chicken coop in the backyard. The progenitor of these chickens was purchased from a hispanic neighbor a few doors over that sold live poultry and fresh produce out of his back yard.
One sweltering summer weekend we were invited by some of her friends to a backyard show in the Little Village neighborhood that borders Pilsen to the west. At the time I was living at an apartment in Old Irving Park, so we hopped on my Vespa and hauled ass down Western Avenue to the show. Upon arrival, we were witness to the first salvo in the unrelenting weirdness that would prevail throughout the night. The entire yard was filled with very large, detailed sculptures of animals normally found on African safari. Two giant giraffs rose out into the night sky while mediocre punk bands thrashed at their guitars in a poorly lit garage. Crust punks drinking warm PBR out a backpack leaned up against a life sized purple hippo, nodding their heads to a phantom rhythm. On the street in front of the yard was an entrepreneurial Mexican family that set up a grill to sell food to the drunk and high twenty year olds that were at the show. While mom and dad were slinging fajitas their eight year old son was running around the yard, hiding among the unmoving wild animals and staring at the oblivious punks.
I drank some beers and chewed the fat once we met up with Zoey’s friends in the crowd. While we were talking they all suddenly huddled together with their backs to a sorry old man dressed in a boyscout shirt that had its sleeves cut off and was covered with band patches. They told me this was ancient Chicago punk rocker Adam Rebelius. Rebelius has allegedly been active in the city’s punk scene since the 1980s. They told me the old burnout lived with his mother and was at practically every punk show, big or small, in the city. He hovered around our group trying to find a way into our conversation and beers before finally giving up and wandering over to the next group. I would see him again at Riot Fest a few years later, still wandering around with glazed eyes, this time in a jean jacket with cut off sleeves, again trying to score a free beer.
After about half an hour the show was coming to a close. Zoey and I had arrived well after the show was underway and we had missed her friend’s band play their set. As we were gearing up to leave and head back to the north side, the last crust punk band that had played walked over to our group and invited us to a second show they were playing at a moped rally in neighboring Pilsen. Sounded interesting so our small group headed over to 1350 West 19th Street. Once I finished putting my Vespa on its stand we walked up to the front door of the building and tried to knock.
No one answered.
For a bit I thought I was in the wrong place. Then, around the corner of the building a voice called us over into the alley. The entrance to the party was through a gate into a high walled yard. Once inside there were hundreds of mopeds parked haphazardly in the yard. People were outside drinking beers and smoking, generally having a good time. Outside of not having a local garage or liquor company booth set up, it looked like a typical motorcycle or scooter rally. However the guy that had let us in kept waving for us to come into the building. Being curious and looking for our friends, we followed. Inside was a hanging disco ball and a guy blasting the greatest dance hits of the 70’s through a P.A. system hooked up to his laptop. Only two people were kind of shuffling their feet to the music. The DJ didn’t seem notice. I thought to myself, “Is this it?”
No. It wasn’t.
The guy who let us in waved us further into the building, to a staircase that led to the building’s basement. Zoey and I paused to consider following the guy down the rabbit hole. After a few seconds we shrugged and decided to go down the stairs. Each step down was met with the sound of a crowd screaming getting louder until we were in a basement filled at capacity with a bunch of sweaty millennials. In the center of this basement was a makeshift boxing ring. A barrel chested man in very tight jeans, combat boots and a sleeveless jean vest had a mic in his hand and was asking who in the crowd wanted to test their mettle. The raucous crowd cheered and fought their way to get the man’s attention. Finally, two guys were chosen and given boxing gloves. One pair had the Mexican flag on it, the other the Puerto Rican flag. As soon as the man with the mic gave the signal the crust punk band we had seen earlier began a sonic assault. The music’s violent tempo was only matched by the jabs the two boxers gave one another.
I was speechless.
After about three songs Zoey and I agreed that we had journeyed as far down the rabbit hole as we could have without risking our life and limb. So we finished our drinks, said our goodbyes and headed back upstairs. On the way out one of the party goers tried to stop us from leaving. He warned us that there were cops patrolling the area and that they might pick us up for being out past curfew. I assured him that since I was twenty-four years old and not holding anything illegal I would be fine. Zoey and I got on my Vespa and drove home.
That ridiculous night was two years ago.
Pilsen has since become even more gentrified than it was back then. The recession stalled some of the development, with many college age kids setting up shop in Bridgeport warehouses to the south and moving towards the heart of Pilsen as East Pilsen’s rents go up. As for Thalia Hall, it was purchased by Empty Bottle bar owner Bruce Finkelman for $3.2 million. He’s planning to continue the building’s restoration and use six of the building’s storefronts as commercial spaces, with the corner storefront becoming a tavern named Dusek’s, after the man who founded the building in 1892. Additionally, the building’s basement will be a separate bar called Punch House that will focus on punch cocktails.
The building’s theater will be restored and, according to Finkelman, start hosting live events “sometime this year.” Ald. Danny Solis (25th) has been excited about this, believing the new Thalia Hall will serve to make 18th Street commercial strip more vibrant and get more activity in the area in the evening. Similar to how the Double Door music venue helped revitalize the Wicker Park neighborhood when it opened in 1990s.
Speaking of Solis, he was also finally was able to tear down Whittier Elementary School’s La Casita field house to make way for the soccer field and basketball court he and CPS originally wanted in 2010. Oddly enough, the very same gentrifying residents that Solis has been pandering to were some of the most vocal activists, along with parents and volunteers from the neighborhood, trying to save the community center.
Maybe Pilsen will be able to hold onto its cultural identity and affordable rents. Or maybe it will go the way of Wicker Park, where Newcastle Limited purchased several buildings on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of North Milwaukee Avenue for a total of $16.2 million. Only time will tell. Ω
END OF SERIES