Boystown: The Castro of the Midwest

The crowd of cheering revelers took on biblical proportions. Like teeming locusts, bodies were filling up the streets of Halsted and Broadway to scream at floats bearing half-naked dancers and rainbow-colored flags. The diversity in the crowd defied sterotypes and cliches. There was a large number of pregnent women, maneuvering their expanded bellies, expertly through the crowds, all the while remembering to hollor for beads from the drag queens on the floats. An elderly (heterosexual) Chinese couple stood beaming to the side, taking pictures. The husband cheerfully ran up to a multi-hued drag queen, while his wife snapped a photo as if they were in Disney World. Children were propped up on adults’ shoulders so that at early ages they too can be exposed to the sight of a middle-aged man with a full-beard dancing to Diana Ross in a tulle gown. Politicians also came, pulling mini-caravans behind them, shamelessly pandering for votes by waving a Pride flag (and the mysteriously forgetting their appearence during Legislation time).

Pride is of course the most publicized and famous day for Boystown, but many may be turned off by the ridiculous crowds and the oppressive, Calcutta-like heat of late June in Chicago. There is still reason to visit, even if the trip is scheduled in the less-notable winter or fall season.

As with most upscale Chicago neighborhoods, Boystown offers great dining. There are lots of different styles of cooking to choose from. Chinese-enthusiasts would be thrilled because both Ping Pong on Broadway and Mark’s Chop Suey on Halsted offer great fare for a decent price (though the prices are decent for Lakeview standards — meaning, like airports, Lakeview businesses tend to price as if they banked from Mars). Thai food is served at Joy’s, which is great for people-watching because the glass front of the restaurant is opened on balmy days.

There are also diners — Nookie’s Tree is excellent, as is Melrose. Both are open late, and on Saturday nights, often late-nite clubbers exhaustedly file into Melrose for greasy nourishment to fight off the dreaded hang-overs.
Clubs are a huge attraction at Boystown, though they differ little from gay clubs in other areas of the country. There is the obligatory bar, where if you don’t look like Brad Pitt, you’re virtually ignored for a good fifteen minutes. After (finally) being graced with scant attention from the flirtatious bartender, you can take you over-priced, watered-down drink to the dance floor (they’re all the same, really), where bodies are pressed together under a haze of strobe-lighting and fog machines. The lines to the bathrooms (and to the clubs, truthfully) recall queues for bread-lines in Russia.

Shops in Boystown are on the most, clever and witty and offer a wide range of souvenirs and curios. Of course, most stock in kitsch — campy, nostalgic post cards of 1950’s housewives, Jesus Christ action figures, lava lamps. It’s all ugly, of course, but it’s ironic, and it knows it’s ugly, which is redeeming.

Beatnik’s on Halsted and Cornelia is a great store. Inside it looks like RuPaul and Dolly Parton were let loose. Feathers, lace, vinyl and tulle battle for space on the racks. The costumes are great — sexy variations on everything: sexy nurses, sexy cowboys, sexy nuns, sexy cats. The back of the first floor also has a wall of wigs — resembling Cher’s dressing room. The styles all range from trendy and cute to campy and crazy. If you want to see what it would be like to live inside Bob Mackie’s head, go to Beatnik’s.

Borderline Music on Broadway is great for dance-music buffs. The prices are more expensive than the monstrously corporate Tower or Virgin stores, but the selection at Borderline is very specific and offer a huge choice in imports. So if you ever wanted a CD of a techno show-down between Liza and Barbra, Borderline will probably have a copy for you. There is also a good selection of music memerobilia — autographed magazine covers, dolls, platinum record trophies.

Unabridged is a great bookstore just a few blocks south of Borderline. Again, the size of the store may not be as impressive as Borders, but the selection, specifically gay and lesbian work is excellent. Those looking for predictable porn and erotica will not be disappointed, however, those seeking something with more substance will also be satisfied. Also notable is that Unabridged, unlike most of Boystown, has works of interest for lesbians too. The prices are good, and there is a large number of books at slashed prices, as well.

In early August, the businesses of Boystown set up booths for Halsted Market Days. A two-day event, many locals actualy prefer this event to Pride. Many of the same elements appear — hilarious, six-foot tall drag queens, leather daddies, etc, but there are also booths with folk and local art, as well as, great food. There are often performances, as well — usually the acts are quite obscure, though some more well-known artists have also graced the make-shift stages. The music is segregated to different genres, so that different tastes will be appeased. This isn’t a music festival, so most genres will not be represented — a bit unfortunate, since it would be nice if there would be rap and hip-hop artists involved. What plays is predictable, but good: rock/pop, folk and dance. The crowds aren’t as appalling, possibly due to the fact that the event lasts for two days, and is stretched out for most of the day, which means there’s a chance you won’t have to breath in someone else’s carbon dioxide.

Boystown is a great area of Chicago to visit for a weekend — it’s good to see other parts of the city, as well (Gay people can travel outside the rainbow barricades of Halsted). It’s a limited experience, of course, but a fun and memorable one.

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