Liam’s a quiet, polite man who looks younger than his age—advanced for the American punk scene he associates with. He starts by asking, Why me?
Why not you? I reply.
I guess I don’t have an answer.
But it’s been the central question of Revision Street: America since the project started. Why these people, and why now?
And the answer is pretty simple: The people I want to talk to haven’t distinguished themselves, haven’t developed platforms, don’t have constituencies, and aren’t identified leaders of social movements, business, or cultural production. They just live in Chicago, do what they need to do to get by, and still somehow a politics—and a culture—emerge.
Over the last six months, it’s become more and more clear how it emerges (as in the Whittier occupation) and how easily it can be silenced when it does (as Gabriela Fitz, Sladjana Vuckovic and so many others have attested). But the story that follows adds another element to the understanding of how this city works, who feels ownership over it, and why.
Liam recently returned from a trip Germany.
Where are you living now?
I’ve ended up back in this attic that I was living in, prior to going to Germany. There isn’t really space for me, but it’s three of my best friends, so they’re being nice and letting me hang out for a while. I just turned 30, so, I’m an old-timer. I can’t say I quite feel it yet, and maybe I never will.
I was born in Portland, Oregon, but I moved to Evanston when I was two. I’ve lived mostly in Chicago since I graduated high school. I went to college for a year in New York. Didn’t work out, I guess. Ran out of money, too. Definitely not a place I would want to live now. [In Chicago] You don’t have to work three jobs just to live in a little closet.
I think a lot of this city’s self-image is wrapped up in the Daley dynasty, unfortunately. Even I used to have a paternalistic feeling about Daley. That he had a lot of problems, but he’s our city father. He plows the roads, and makes sure the garbage gets picked up. But I definitely don’t feel that way anymore. That changed some time in the last 10 years. Maybe as I became more politically aware. Not to say that I’m all that politically aware.
A big city like Chicago is a very complex organism. There’s a lot more to a city than politics. Culture, music, food, art, street life. After being in Berlin for four months, the street life in Chicago is not terribly impressive to me.
I do feel like I’m part of a community of some kind. I’m not sure how I would describe it—if it’s more arts based or culturally based, or politically based. Certainly it’s mostly young white people. Most of the people I know mostly want to have a good time. I’m not sure as far as common goals are concerned. I’m not sure there are any. I think everybody wants a better and more just society, but people have vastly different ideas of what that would look like, I’m sure.
There’s a stereotype that people are stoic in the Midwest, and I think there’s definitely something to that. I’d say that rings true for Chicago as well. I definitely think Chicago is a very Midwestern city. When I came back to Chicago from Germany, it was so quiet. I was sitting by my window by my attic and all I could hear was crickets singing. It really felt like I was out in the country. I feel that way sometimes about Chicago. I used to live in McKinley Park, just south of Pilsen. I was living at 37th and Damen for a while. There were spots around there that really felt like I was out in the country. There were these diners with screen doors hanging off of one hinge. Parts of Chicago seem sort of bucolic sometimes.
I would like to hope that it’s a choice that I’m living in Chicago. I’m not totally sure. I think it’s partly a choice and partly just default I guess. I just got back here a few weeks ago and I’m living in a temporary place and I don’t really have a job, so I don’t really feel firmly rooted here right now.
What does it take to feel firmly rooted in a place?
Having a bedroom would be a good start. Not sleeping on a couch. But I’ve never lived in a place for longer than two years.
I’m broke all the time. I’ve been on food stamps for the last five years or something, it’s kind of ridiculous. I’m a grown man. But everybody is on food stamps now, practically. I always figure if we can afford to spend trillions of dollars dropping bombs on other countries, a hundred and fifty dollars in grocery money a month is not gonna break anything.
What does broke mean to you?
Like right now I have seventy dollars. Definitely not flat broke. I have seventy dollars. There have been times in my life when seventy dollars would have been a major windfall. I think as I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’ve managed to be a little less literally broke than I was in my early twenties, when I was literally broke all the time. Certainly it’s partly a choice. It doesn’t feel like a choice, because I don’t think it’s in my character to hold down a job that I don’t like and I don’t like most jobs. But I mean there were definitely times when I would—like I would make a living busking in the street, or I went through some periods of selling plasma, doing that kind of shit.
What sort of class background do you come from?
Not that easy a question to answer. I would say, basically, lower-middle class. My dad was a public school teacher in the suburbs when I was growing up, and my mom worked in various offices. She’s worked at the school that I went to for the last ten years or so. So my parents were basically teachers, and there’s not a lot of money in teaching. My grandfather had a good amount of money. So in a way I feel like there’s—not aristocracy, but this branch of my family is upper class. But none of that money certainly ever trickled down to me. So on a practical level there’s not any reality to that. Basically, I’d say I’ve been broke since I moved out of my mom’s house.