Unfolding the geographies of Queer Clout

Queer Clout is a very welcome contribution to the extensive scholarship on Chicago politics, and an urgently needed and long overdue scholarly intervention on Chicago’s queer politics. It is quite astonishing that, compared to New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Chicago’s queer politics (and queer geographies) have received relatively little attention. So, I start by remarking that this is a milestone of a book for addressing a lacuna in our knowing and understanding the “queer urban” in Chicago. There is much to be glad about Queer Clout. It is a book situated at the intersection of social, political, and public histories, and it is of great value to geographers and other social scientists.  Admittedly, it is not primarily focused on Chicago’s queer geographies. It is however sensitive to geography, quite insightful about questions of spatial structure and placemaking, and erudite about how the act of chronicling “the rise of gay politics in the postwar United States” (3) can substantially inform our understanding of Chicago as a queer place, or at least as a space where difference, the pursuit of equity, and a right to the city through coalition-building become the coin of politics. Stewart-Winter does much of that important exploring in, and, importantly, points the way to, local public history resources: the Chicago History Museum and the Gerber-Hart Archives.

Stewart-Winter combines a community study method (which traces and illuminates the intersections of movement activism and everyday life) and the study of the entanglement of political histories at all geographic scales (privileging the local, but also skillfully identifying its connections to the regional and federal states) (9-10). He uncovers two key political patterns: first, the manner in which the knowledge and strategic depth of the African American community’s civil rights movement and struggles informed the approaches and strategies of Chicago’s queer civil right movement. He also identifies the pathways and strategies African Americans and the queer community developed to collaborate on common political objectives.

Second, the author argues that the rollback of police brutality was the common objective that catalyzed and defined what can also be described as a cross-race and cross-class coalition. He notes that  “[a] key factor enabling [the queer community] to challenge police harassment successfully was the example of demands by blacks for police reform, and what enabled gays and lesbians to gain power—a toehold in city hall—was the emergence of progressive, black-led local electoral coalitions” (2). The notion that the queer community patterns its strategies on those of the African American civil right movement is of great significance, and deepens our understanding of what was structurally required to fight white machine politics in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. He continues that “the black civil rights movement provided gays not only a model but also new opportunities to gain visibility and influence at the municipal level, as black and white liberals broke open urban machines and rejected traditional political structures they viewed as corrupt and unfair” (2). So the coalition was mutually beneficial, as African American politicians, like mayoral candidate and later mayor, Harold Washington, needed progressive whites to win the top office and at least some of the key aldermanic wards. Some of these progressive whites were members of the queer community, and they were sitting on certain crucial swing wards. Stewart-Winter skillfully connects these changes to the political transformation of the country, and more specifically the evolution of the Democratic Party, especially from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention onward.

Stopping aggressive policing, or what one can also possibly call inequitable policing, of non-machine connected groups, was a priority for both African Americans and members of the queer community. A combination of over-policing of targeted groups (excessive arrests and harassment, especially in areas which were known as epicenters of the queer community) and under-policing African American and Latino neighborhoods, which otherwise experienced persistent budgetary neglect by the City, defined the City’s revanchist attitude and approach to difference and to challenges to its supremacy. Indeed during the 1960s, and well into the 1970s, the city surveilled and disciplined the queer community through police entrapment, bar-raids, false arrests, intimidation, and denial of equal access to the local economy. The local state equated queers to hoodlums, and linked them to criminality and the underworld (20). Queer lives were lived anxiously in the public sphere behind tinted bar and tavern windows, and until the tactics of the African American-queer community strategic coalition, as described by the author, bore fruit.

Importantly, Stewart-Winter exposes the collaboration of police, politicians, commercial capital, and the press in the suppression of both the African American and the queer communities.  Often, if mob connections were indeed in play (as in extorting protection money from bar and tavern owners), the criminal web entangled politicians and their policies, with local queer entrepreneurs in the role of either minor lackeys or outright victims. It will be only by the mid-1970s, and after revelations of the Chicago Police Department’s mob connections made laid bare, that the press and the public started worrying more about corruption and criminality in government than what was going on between patrons in queer taverns (114-15).

This thread of local state actions and minority coalition counteractions and strategy-laying in Stewart-Winter’s chronicling, makes up a detailed playbook of how to build an effective political organization, and stage collective political action—especially with respect to organizing bloc voting in local and state elections. I should think that it makes an important contribution to the history and practice of activism.

Queer Clout also illuminates key intra-community coalitions—between gays and lesbians—by also pointing out the challenges to their political cooperation.  The author notes that the most political subset of the community was overwhelmingly male and white, while lesbians focused intensely on creating and nurturing grassroots communities that often were not entangled in the political struggle but instead built hearths for creative pursuits. “For queer people of color and white women, the gay movement was often not the movement that spoke most directly to their daily concerns. Second, many gay men were—and are—simultaneously privileged by race and class at the same time that they were victimized by antigay discrimination” (96). These disparities would be further accented by the AIDS crisis, during which queer people of color did not receive equal access to services, in part because of the geographies of care at the time: most clinics and social services were located on the North Side, the epicenter of the gay white male stratum of the community (194). He makes an effective argument for how the AIDS crisis and neoliberalism transform the long-standing African American-LGBT coalition and increase queer Chicago’s socio-spatial polarization. Indeed queer entrepreneurship was mainly focused geographically on the North Side. Alongside it, social services for the community would proliferate. He notes “[n]ew programs serving people with AIDS and homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth were administered by a growing nonprofit sector. However vigorously advocates strove to deliver services where they were most needed, they could not undo the growing impact of metropolitan segregation by race and class—even as the AIDS crisis worsened the impact of those inequalities” (3). Further, the author notes that our scholarly inattention to African Americans during the early AIDS crisis has rendered them substantially less visible (190). This book goes a long way to sign-posting the significance of studying Chicago’s South and West Sides with respect to these communities.

Spatial dimensions: Urban geographies in Queer Clout

By the early 1980s, the notion of New Town as “our ghetto” had solidified. To one twenty-six-year old gay man interviewed by Chicago Magazine in 1983, “Anywhere outside of New Town, you can’t be openly gay. What goes on in our ghetto means nothing to a gay boy in Bridgeport of the South Side” (129).

The author’s geography-sensitive approach to understanding community building and politics is indicative of Queer Clout’s significance for geographers. As I was encountering the narrative’s spatial arguments, I was imagining the many ways one could build further the conversation on Chicago’s “queer urban.” Here is a non-exhaustive list of such connections to the book:

The geographic mobility of gays and lesbians was lent the pioneer-sounding name of the “great gay migration” by anthropologist Kath Weston. The absence of time-series demographic data on queer people before the 21st century makes it methodologically challenging to study at depth what is commonly revealed in the oral histories of community members: Most of us arrived where we now are from somewhere else. In the sense of ethnic migrations, “pull” and “push” factors defined our voyage and its pit stops. The reporting of these experiences in journalistic accounts, chronicles and personal memoirs, and oral histories, constitute the most reliable basis for reconstructing the mobilities and specifically the migrations of queer folk. It is an extraordinarily important topic, which remains largely unexplored by geographers. Stewart-Winter rightfully leads with it: “Gay migration to cities was a major feature of postwar urban life, one that consequently shaped urban liberalism” (1). Reporting on Gilbert Herdt and Andrew Boxer’s discussion of Horizons, the social services agency for gay youth in Chicago (1993), he continues, “[t]he gay in-migration of the 1960s and 1970s predominantly drew whites who chose not to live near their families of origin, but it also coincided with sharp increases in the residential racial diversity of the majority-white neighborhoods along the North Side lakefront where families had long lived” (Stewart-Winter 2016: 107). The historic demographic composition of the crucial swing wards along the North Side lakefront and the mobilities that produced it are a critical part of the story of the rise of gay politics in Chicago.

The concept of “community,” as village, as enclave, as “ghetto,” and as a set of semi-permanent groups with a dynamic membership (think here “mobility”) united by social-sexual attributes, and at least some common political goals, underlines the entire study. Tellingly, Stewart-Winter notes that “64 percent of gay male gathering places in Chicago were situated on less than 1 percent of the city’s land mass” (104; Levine, 188). Importantly, the establishment of at least one significant territorial stronghold on Chicago’s North Side since the mid-1960s (“New Town” or Lakeview), made it possible to leverage that territoriality to achieve entry in local government.

A derivative theme of community building and the geography of homosociality is the transformation of the neighborhoods in which great numbers of queer people took up residence. The author notes that “[t]he center of gravity of gay life moved from Old Town in the 1960s to “New Town,” just to the north—a brand-new label for a neighborhood known to its longtime inhabitants as Lake View (later, Lakeview)—in the 1970s” (104).

Questions then arise about the type of urban agency that queer people represented in Old Town and New Town (Lakeview). Were they classic gentrifiers, as urban lore suggests? Or did their radical politics translate into resistance to the Chicago machine’s proclivity to support large urban developers at the expense of neighborhood interests? The author notes that in 1972, radical gay activists joined African Americans and Latinos to protest a police crackdown in neighboring Lincoln Park, which was at the epicenter of a struggle between large real estate capital, housing activists, and homeowners (91).

Further, the author discusses at some length the controversy surrounding the construction of cheap “four-plus-one” apartment buildings in Lakeview, which signaled both the declining urban fortunes of the neighborhood in the 1960s, and, importantly, the demographic shifts that defined the American city in that period: white families suburbanized; single, lower-income adults moved into the urban core (106-07). The tie-in to urban morphologic change was very insightful as it points to some important dimensions of the materiality of queer urban placemaking.1

So, could queer Chicagoans of the lakefront districts be classified according to Logan and Molotch’s classic classification, as “serendipitous,” “active,” or “structural place entrepreneurs”? The author addresses the premise of the “gay man as the consummate pioneer gentrifier” in the context of Lakeview’s (Boystown’s) 1998 redevelopment by the City of Chicago of the iconic North Halsted Street. The street redevelopment project was conceived as part of a general up-valuation of real estate and services following the queer community’s incorporation into the grand Chicago Democratic party coalition. Progressive politics aside, the economistic decisions of queer men (mostly) in possession of capital, appear to be much more consistent with their whiteness and their class status than with their activism and affinities to the LGBT collective (220-21). So, queer place entrepreneurs are not unlike their mainstream counterparts in terms of the instrumental logics of capital accumulation, yet they are set apart by (and aside for) the distinctiveness of their personal life and the manner in which they live it in public. A fuller conversation of what distinctive a type of urban transformer queer men were (and are) still needs to take place. Indeed, urban change, urban renewal or gentrification are significant expressions and output of urban politics, and in the case of Chicago (as elsewhere), the long-term trajectories of urban investment, development (and redevelopment), and community empowerment (or disenfranchisement) are co-constructive. Our understanding of queer urban agency in Chicago can benefit from further analysis.

Following both a thematic and chronological framework, Stewart-Winter addresses some of the implications of neoliberalism upon the urban economic fortunes of queer Chicagoans. White-dominated lakefront areas on the North Side, such as Lakeview, are targeted by real estate capital for further development, while the African American- and Latino-dominated South and West sides, in relative terms, languish (218). The local state’s geographical preferences for public-private ventures favor the expanding Central Business District and globalization showpieces like Millennium Park, the Museum Campus, and the McCormick Place Expo District. So, I fully agree with the author that the agency of neoliberalism in globalizing Chicago is undeniable. Now (also officially) queer Lakeview is increasingly a destination for mainstream real estate development capital, which is transforming it in tandem with queer surplus capital accumulated by the very energetic local chamber of commerce. 

North Halsted Street (Lakeview). The neo-Deco rainbow pylons were elected as part of the 1998 North Halsted Street Redevelopment Project (author’s photograph).

Although neoliberalism might be clearly visible on the streetscape, the triangulation among "Chicago politics-queer urbanity-neoliberalism" is not clearly established. This is one way we can start thinking about it: The becoming of Boystown coincided with neoliberalism’s advent and what Jamie Peck et al. (2009) call “roll back” regulation-corrosive, and “roll out” market-consolidating mechanisms (49-50). While deregulation and privatization were becoming the new normal in the 1980s, Chicago’s LGBT community was marshaling its electoral and economic capital to secure its right to the changing city. Queer Clout meticulously documents and explains it. Further, in the case of Lakeview (and Boystown in particular), the changing social and electoral geographies made new, LGBT-inclusive, political alliances necessary—an argument also fully discussed in the book. On first observation the “roll back” of anti-gay discrimination and unfair policing, and the “roll out” of gay political and economic influence appear unconnected to the “roll back” of the local state and the “roll out” of market-driven urban governance. Is it a case of political-economic expediency that neoliberalism accelerated the crystallization of Boystown as a mature gay village and a special commercial district with a strong LGBT character, open to, first, city-, and then regionally- and nationally-situated finance capital? And/Or is the City of Chicago’s adoption of a neoliberal financialization strategy, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the catalyst for much of Chicago’s transformation in the last quarter century, including the triangulation of "Chicago politics-queer urbanity-neoliberalism?" Indeed, it may be clearer if we were to describe it as "Chicago politics-queer urbanity-financialization." A further conversation is needed here, and we can be thankful to Stewart-Winter for starting it.

Queer bohemia: From skid row dwellers to exiles, from exiles to colonists

Before Boystown, the “queer urban” could be found in the near-North Side Old Town neighborhood and in parts of the South Side’s Bronzeville. And before these nodes became visible, there was Towertown (located by Chicago’s landmark Water Tower) and queer space patches in the CBD-associated skid row. The downtown queer node’s evolution and its eventual disappearance by the 1990s, traces, in some respects, the changing character of the American CBD after the Second World War. It is a critical period that spans, at one end, the onset of suburbanization and the demographic hollowing-out of the central city, and at the other end, the onset of large-scale reclamation and gentrification of urban industrial, warehousing, and allegedly "blighted" residential tracts, especially in Chicago’s North Side, and along the lakefront. Gentrification in the North Side has continued largely unabated since then.

Starting with the Great Depression and continuing during the war, divestment and physical plant obsolescence in the CBD frame created a classic zone of discard. Overt and covert queer business establishments—gay bars and taverns, bathhouses, blue movie theaters and bookstores, among others—alongside a few social and community organizations, filled a niche in the Near North’s low-market commercial structure. Combining elements of skid-row and zone-of-transition, the polygon defined by the north Loop (to the south), Wells Street (to the west), LaSalle (to the east), and North Avenue (to the north) will become the target of massive land clearance in the 1950s and early 1960s, followed by significant gentrification. That polygon also represents the most significant geography of queer entrepreneurship (and possibly, also, residential settlement). Let’s call it Chicago’s mid-century “Queer Bohemia.”

The 1947 Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act and its instrument, the Land Clearance Commission, provided the regulatory framework for the transformation of the central city. The planning discourse builds on the bleak aesthetics of Harvey Warren Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929) to promote a mid-century, Haussmannized vision of “renewal through demolition.” He writes about the CBD frame as “a belt of bleak, barren, soot-begrimed, physically deteriorated neighborhoods” (129). And he goes on to describe the Near North Side slum as being divided between “an area of cheap lodging-houses along Clark and Wells streets and the streets south of Chicago Avenue, and an area of tenements from Wells Street west. The tenement area is the world of foreign tongues and cultures; the area of cheap lodging-houses is a jungle of human wreckage” (129). Let’s read between the lines here, and imagine queer folk among the disapproved human flotsam and jetsam.  Mayer and Wade (1969), influential Chicago urbanist, draw on Zorbaugh and write about the dual purpose of urban renewal in that area:  Neglect, the Depression, and war had precipitated further deterioration of the urban fabric, which “needed attention desperately”… “[M]ore ominously, the blight had oozed over toward the lake, jeopardizing some of the city’s most exclusive residences” (388).2 Arguments for renewal were built on a desire to combat insalubriousness, and check the mobility of undesirables, and much less on poverty alleviation and social equity. The target area includes the totality of Queer Bohemia in the CBD fringe and in Old Town.

Three major urban development projects in the North Side, staggered chronologically between 1947 and 1961, defined geographically and determined developmentally the urban morphological trajectory of the Near North and the lakefront to the border of Lincoln Park on North Avenue: First is the 1947 Rubloff and Zeckendorf project for the redevelopment of North Michigan Avenue between the river and Oak Street as a luxury market commercial district. It would wall-off the Near North zone of discard to its west. It is followed by the construction of Cabrini Extensions North and South between 1957 and 1962, which absorb and concentrate displaced populations. Initially these are white ethnics and later African Americans. They will be captured in a polygon framed by Division Street to the south, North Avenue to the north, Halsted Street to the west, and importantly to the city and to developers, a rigid line drawn at Larabee Street to the East. Massive clearance of what is deemed as "blighted" built environment is creating firewalls between the Gold Coast and historically poor and working class neighborhoods north of the river. It is also sequestering Queer Bohemia.

The third project visions the construction of a mainly residential "superblock" bounded by Division Street to the south, North Avenue to the north, LaSalle Street to the east, and Clark Street to the west—essentially, another concrete barrier between the lakefront and socially suspect neighborhoods to the west. The land on the street blocks encapsulated in these street limits is proclaimed "blighted" in 1953, and purchased by the city using federal aid. In 1961 Arthur Rubloff and partners’ Carl Sandburg Village project is green-lighted by the city’s Land Clearance Commission. The "superblock" will include 1,932 residential units in a mosaic of high-rise towers and townhomes. With the "superblock" in place, the elite Astor Street district, to its east, is geographically insulated. The transformation of the old warehousing zone north of the river into a gallery and bright lights district in the 1980s would, eventually, fully box-in the remains of “Queer Bohemia.” 

Kenneth Heilbron’s, 1967 photograph Peep-Shows, Hot dogs, and High-Rises captures the social and urban morphological tension in Chicago’s “Queer Bohemia”(Old Town).

All three projects involve significant changes to the cadaster for the purpose of regulating and restricting east-west traffic, and providing opportunities for massive up-scaling of building volumes (be they high-rises along the Magnificent Mile, arrays of public housing towers, or an early version of a gated community in the guise of the Carl Sandburg Village, which annihilates the traditional lot morphology of the street blocks it occupies). It is a sign of a new planning and urban development paradigm that should be familiar to us in the age of neoliberalism and globalization: In the performance of projects critical to City Hall, it privileges master planning, implements the exclusive land-use designations codified in the 1957 zoning ordinance, up-scales the project’s size through lot consolidation, and privileges speculative multi-sourced finance capital over small land-entrepreneurship. A countermovement did emerge, as homeowners rallied to preserve, at least in places, the low-density streetscapes of townhouses and old worker cottages. The Old Town Triangle District, bounded by Lincoln, North, Wells, and the former Ogden right-of-way, was designated a Chicago Landmark on October 28, 1977 (City of Chicago, 1977).

Gentrification on three sides and mass public housing projects to its west produced a type of spatial mismatch in “Queer Bohemia.” Up-marketing of land, new zoning sensibilities that countered traditional shop-house streetscapes, and political pressure from city hall on commercial entrepreneurs—some of them gay—caused the demise of Near North’s skid-row and Old Town’s bohemias, and by extension the eventual closure and displacement of queer businesses and population north, first to Clark and Diversey, and later to Lakeview. Public disapproval in the mainstream press of the non-conventional commerce and bright lights that defined Old Town in the 1950s and 1960s as an alternative community, paired with aggressive policing and restrictions to business licensure, very much as Stewart-Winter describes, made it very difficult for bars, taverns, bookshops, and movie theaters to stay. It is certainly a testament to the tenacity of its owners that the legendary “Bijou” theater is still in business on Wells Street. Queer Bohemia is largely gone by the 1960s. The queer age of Lakeview (and Boystown) is dawning in the 1970s and producing queer clout.

Queer Clout comes out at a time when the “queer urban,” as we have come to understand it since Stonewall, is at the point of redefinition. There are signs that Chicago’s Boystown, like San Francisco’s Castro, is becoming “de-queered” as domestic politics and capital have normalized same-sex desire and life, at least in US global cities. Although gay villages like Boystown may remain the epicenters of LGBT life and entrepreneurship, the spatially fixed gay village appears to be increasingly understood as an artifact of historic activism. If that is so, it is ironic that the much-lauded “gaying-up” of North Halsted Street in 1997-98, associated with the North Halsted Street beautification project, coincides with the sun-setting of gay villages across the United States. Chicago in its alleged “post-mo” stage, then, needed to finally have its queer politics story told.3 Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics is a major contribution to that conversation. 


1 For a critical urban morphological study of Chicago’s Boystown, see Papadopoulos (2016).

2 Harold M. Meyer was the research director of the Chicago Plan Commission and member of the Chicago Regional Port District Board. Richard C. Wade was a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of urban history, and an advisor to Robert F. Kennedy on urban affairs. They were both faculty members at The University of Chicago at the time Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (1969) was published.

3 Catherine Jean Nash (2014) suggests that intergenerational differences within the LGBT community account for different ways in which identities are forged and transacted across urban space (243). 


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