It was surprisingly humid for the middle of March.
We embrace stereotypes of neighborhoods because they sometimes prove to be true. I live near Wicker Park, a neighborhood known for its nightlife and youth culture. Although this identity is not as strong as it once was (gentrification has a way of changing the identity of a neighborhood multiple times), it is still prevalent in the clothing stores, boutiques, high-end coffee shops, and club-like bars that line Milwaukee Avenue. Once we’ve seen our stereotypes to be true, we hold on to them. It is easier to rely on what we know than what we don’t. Seeing once is believing.
But we often stereotype these neighborhoods because our identities are tied into these environments. I had a friend and coworker who moved to Logan Square not because he wanted to, but because he felt it was the thing he was supposed to do.
“I mean, all of my friends are moving there. Everyone my age, like me, has moved or is moving there,” he said while we chatted at a party.
Chicago as a city of neighborhoods can mean a number of different things. This cultural identity can be comforting. People of similar races, ethnicities and classes move to neighborhoods where they can be among their own.
Chicago turns something out of nothing. It is not the city itself that does this, but the people within it, homegrown or recently transplanted. Chicago gives artists and other creatives the opportunity to build from the ground up, allowing them to not only visualize their dreams but to actualize them. Although these artists are often lacking in the traditional market forces (as in a print and money-driven economy influencing who gets the media attention and higher-valued work), the size of the city and the abundant and underutilized spaces allow creatives to build projects with their own visions, usually with little to no financing involved.
This makes Chicago a fertile ground for creative projects such as Matt Austin’s The Perch. Part underground dinner party, part printing press, and part collaborative artistic social experiment, The Perch could only be born in a city like Chicago. Austin’s funds are considerably low. The project takes place in his own home.
I had a friend in school who wrote about her depression, and I berated her online. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t get over it. In my mind, this was not sickness. And therapy, while good in theory, seemed unnecessary for someone so young, smart, and wealthy living in an affluent suburb. “Why can’t she just push through this?” I used to ask. And as she continued to talk about her pain, I continued to feel angry. “This is not a problem,” I thought. I told a relative about the girl, and they said she was just acting dramatic. And in all of the things that signaled who was and was not a weak person, “acting dramatic,” was one of the worst. There was depression and there was “depression,” and I learned to only recognize the latter.
Eventually, I learned my mistake. It was through my own feelings of stress, inadequacy, isolation from teammates, and loss of major friendships that helped me understand her mindset. And as the feelings of hopelessness and sadness sustained, I knew that mental health was not just something for other people.
My original mindset was born from the pursuit of strength over anything else. Adversity was not a bad word; it was something that gave you character.
Contemporary dance is an underrated art form, even in Chicago, where the breadth of companies and performers is as diverse as the population it seeks to entertain. For many people, dance performances are inaccessible because of stereotypes regarding social class and age. Unlike theater or film or art, the most visually recognizable and misunderstood genre of dance is ballet. This identity, born out of the precision of the movements and its long history as an evening activity of the upper classes, overshadows the multitude of dancers and choreographers creating unique, experimental, and important new works.
Based on the book My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary by author Rae Earl, the show My Mad Fat Diary (all of the episodes are available online on Youtube) came at the exact right moment and underscores certain core beliefs that plague me even now, at age 25. To me, this show says something few shows have ever attempted: You are OK.
The show takes place over a brief period of time during the summer of 1996 in Lincolnshire, England and tells the story of 16-year-old Rae Earl. Freshly released from a psychiatric hospital after a four-month stay, Rae tries to gain a footing in the outside world while undergoing treatment for body image issues and depression. It is in Rae’s struggles, as well as her everyday interactions, that the show finds its grace.
I was born five years after Smart Bar. I say this not to elicit shock, but to point out this Chicago establishment's success. Situated underneath the Metro, Smart Bar opened in 1982 and just recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. But to me, Smart Bar will always be a newly minted 21-year-old, all bright-eyed and energetic. It’ll always be there for a good time – or a weird time. And even if you, too, are no longer as young as you feel, Smart Bar will welcome you with no judgment. Truly great places always do.
This late-night venue, open until 5 a.m. on the weekends, is an institution. It is important for what it has provided in the past – the bands, the DJ sets – but also for what it continues to provide right now. I didn’t think I would ever hear Joy O, one of my favorite young producers, in Chicago. And then he came here, and he played at Smart Bar. Because of course he did.
As a genre, electronic music continues to grow. And while Smart Bar stays focused on its core genres (house, techno, drum & bass), it also acts as an outlet for progressive and experimental sounds, music the venue describes as, “that future-bassy-techy stuff that can't really be classified.”