The Fourth River

Tributaries, The New Nature: “After the Gayborhood is Gone”

By on January 31, 2018

Selected by Ira Sukrungruang

By Barrie Jean Borich


When the lingerie and sex toy store with sharp-dressed mannequins moved in around the corner, Linnea and I had high hopes for the neighborhood. The second story storefront had a show window hovering over the sidewalk. Once a real estate office, and before that a fortuneteller’s studio, the new store’s window was a dioramic pleasure bubble, cleaner and more Vegas than the sex stores on this block in the old days, but still a glitter curtain space, reminiscent of a Chicago gayborhood that used to be.

The proprietor loved changing the outfits on the mannequins, sometimes daily, flat or full chested bodies, even the little model dogs wearing matching leather, studs, ruffled bustiers, showgirl rhinestones and lace. Halloween brought on the feathery masks and devil horns and at Christmas the camisoles were red, and all the bods wore lights, garlands, and sexy silver bells. The storekeeper stood outside the shop door, above the street in the cold, wearing a lacy hoodie, a cigarette aloft between delicate fingers, hair shaved on the sides but up top combed into a pompadour, singing with a recording of La Cage aux Folles. Sometimes Linnea and I waved and once, on Christmas Eve, after a bit of drinking, he tumbled to the street for group hugs, mistaking us for people he knew, complaining of a hard day, too many of his ex-husbands in town.

Boystown is officially LGBTQ, with rainbow flags on the lampposts up and down Broadway. What’s left of Girlstown is further north, but when we moved home in 2012 gender lines were looser. Linnea and I— transmasculine butch and queer femme—have always been happiest planted in the ecosystem between gay and lesbian. But too, Boystown was the site of packed bars and sweet gay bakeries we’d loved when we were young. This area was once a porn store and video arcade district, the gay boys, the sex consumers, the mob run-bars all sharing spaces, and then it was a scrappy free-for-all gaytown, but these days the street caters to the young, mostly straight, professionals from the fancier suburbs who live in the tiny, pricey studios that turn over faster than the weather changes. At night we saw every window fill with giant TV screen light, 1000 spots of blue, and if we heard shouting it was not a protest march, but just the Cubs finally winning.

Linnea and I were sad when the burlesque windows stopped changing, and not long after the store closed. The replacement was a discreet joint, a sex superstore chain, with no one singing on the steps. Then we stopped seeing old queens air kissing in the doorways of dress shops, and even the gay chachka store shut down. The bar district is still intact but Broadway has changed. We’d been there five years when new people in our building started calling us the ones who’d “been here forever.” Soon after that we moved. We had to get out before nothing queer grew there but the flags.




Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press/American Lives Series), winner of a Lambda Literary Award in Memoir and an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) Gold Medal in Essay/Creative Nonfiction. Her previous book, My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), won the ALA Stonewall Book Award. Her work has been cited in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading and she’s currently working on a book-length essay about repurposed industrial landscapes, urban joy, and riding her bicycle on the mean streets of Chicago. Borich was the first creative nonfiction editor of Hamline University’s Water~Stone Review and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty of the English Department/MA in Writing & Publishing Program at Chicago’s DePaul University, where she’s developing Slag Glass City, a creative nonfiction and new media journal focused on sustainability, identity and the arts in urban environments. Borich earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives now with her spouse Linnea, a few blocks from Lake Michigan, in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, which was recently voted the most “incomparable” gayborhood in the world.

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