Born and raised in Chicagoland, Jennifer Branton still loves her hometown even as more of the places she spent her childhood change or close
Welcome to Chicago
As a child, going downtown was a magical thing for me. My parents would drop us at the train station on 80th Ave, where the Metra ran every 45 minutes. I would wait pacing on the walkway along side of the track-until after many accidents in later years where people were hit by the approaching train and a new tunnel that went under the track and only allowed patrons to slip out even the train platform with no access to the train tracks. The overhead announcement would go off in a few minute intervals as the train grew closer- ten minutes out, four minutes out. As our chariot slowed, we would hurry to our favor spot on the top level with the backwards facing seats so we could watch our approach into Chicago in reverse through the widows.
As the train raced from our stop in Tinley Park to downtown, we watched in awe as the neighborhoods changed, for better or worse. Crowed suburban streets gave way to smaller homes and graffiti underpasses. People on the streets changed by race and social status and back again until we LaSalle Street station dumping the contents of all the train cars into the city.
We had a ritual once we reached Lasalle Station. First we raced into the station to use the bathroom as the tiny stalls on the train were pretty disgusting- also all Chicago natives know that before jumping on the L Train, always grab a snack and use the bathroom as the amount of delays could be anywhere from a few minutes to sometimes a half hour or more when there were other issues. Being on the L hungry, or having to pee is a very bad thing and would explain the amount of "Pee Seats" hidden off in the darker corners.
We always went to the bathroom and then ran across the street to Subway to grab a sandwich before jumping on the Brown Line and following around to where Red Line Merged getting off around Diversey, Belmont, Clark, or Divison depending on our current adventure, which is my youth was mostly concerts.
Music, And Nightlife
When I was immersed in the local music scene by college, I had enough time out in every club in the city to know who you needed to know in the local scene, where the best after-parties were held and the best routes to get where you needed to before the last train of the night. A local band that I had worked for a number of years had some serious international appeal to young girls and I would serve an an ambassador of sorts to those looking for a great hotel near the venues, what places to eat, and where to buy the best "Chicago" fashion so they could go back to wherever they came from and impress their friends with stories from the big city.
Over the years the number of places that I have seen shows have closed their doors, hotels that I had great memories of like Hotel Sax located next to The House of Blues, had changed names and moved away from their beautiful gothic feel in their Crimson Lounge and video game room. There was no hope in saving clubs like the Double Door, and all the nights I had spent at Neo shoegazing rather than dancing to The Cure and Nine Inch Nails was no longer open until four am.
A normal weekend in Chicago for me revolved around the concert like something at The Metro as most of my friends back in those days were from the music community, then about a half mile walk down to Belmont and Clark to have breakfast food at midnight and avoid the few homeless people that tended to pander in the area that late at night but our pack of weird alternative kids either didn't get bothered because the homeless people either assumed we had no money ourselves or were afraid to approach us. After eats, we might make our way down to Neo or someone's hotel room party, or the official after party at Angels and Kings or Debonair Social Club.
I would take kids shopping the next day at places like The Alley and show off the gorgeous mural behind the place showcasing some of the most amazing portraits of music's long lost artists where they would pose for pictures with the likeness of Kurt Cobain and Jimmy Hendrix before entering the store that was a former fire station I was always told in my youth to buy Doc Marten boots and a sarcastic screen print tee shirt.
I would take many a tourist down the street to get a friendship tattoo and Chicago Tattoo Company and then if it was summer and they were up for a long walk around the lake, down by Navy Pier and show how they could literally follow the lake all the way back to the hotel I usual set everyone up with The Days Inn on Diversity as it was so close to most of the venues and was often sold out if there was a Cubs game or a University event at DePaul University.
Most of these places no longer exist I am sad to say.
The last time I was downtown for a concert at the edge of Chinatown, I took the long way back to pay down the streets where small business had been replaced with a Super Target, hotels, and several parking garages.
All the the places that were backdrops of my childhood were gone and only exist now in pictures on my Facebook from my college years.
Things Change But I Did Not
It isn't the physical absence of brick and mortal places that I have stood inside and maybe scribbled my name on a bathroom stall in a concert hall bathroom or eaten a meal at Pick Me Up Cafe or The Lunch Counter that makes me want the life I had in college. It doesn't make me so much miss the friends I had known, the music I had listened to, the places and events that made me broke every weekend when I spent my entire paycheck trying to see everything.
I miss that these places now that I am a wife that I can not take my husband and show him these are the places in the background of all my college pictures. These are the places that I wish that I could share with you.
The more that we are missing out on now, I know that these memories won't ever exist for my son when he is old enough to explore the city for himself.
I know that the city always reinvents itself every few decades as neighborhoods change and new places and move in and old places board up. What hurts is that the things I knew about the Chicago scene in my lifetime were the things that were just springing up when my parents were ending their journey of young adulthood. I was inheriting places where my parents maybe had been into once and then aged out of. These were my places.
By the time I was in college and some of these establishments had been opened for a few decades, I thought that maybe I would have the opportunity one day to be the "Old Person" at the concert hall in their forties and thrill the younger patrons with stories of how I had seen great bands play there back in the day. I hoped that maybe I would have someone that I could pass along my Chicago to.
But over the last few years, my Chicago was fading. I couldn't even show my husband the places that I had loved just over ten years ago.
Imagine if you will where this drug store is now, once was a magical store that my friends and I would smoke behind while waiting for the L. Imagine this neighborhood where you keep hearing about people being robbed waiting for the bus, a place that my pack would walk the sidewalk at three am loudly singing to ourselves as we tried to find an OWL line to get back to our hotel.
Even my dear Ferris wheel at Navy Pier is different!
I am being forced into finding new memories in my beloved home. I will find new places that will be special to me in the later half of my life but nothing will take away that magic that came from my youthful explorations.