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Has Hipster-Friendly Stretch of Division Reached the Bro-Bar Tipping Point?

By Mark Konkol | August 7, 2015 7:01am
 Has the Division Street dividing line between Wicker Park and East Village finally reached the bro-bar tipping point?
Has the Division Street dividing line between Wicker Park and East Village finally reached the bro-bar tipping point?
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EAST VILLAGE — Hear ye, hear ye! The Chicago Court of Gentrification is now in session.

Here, there is no judge and jury — only a public discussion about the boozy Division Street entertainment district that sits on the border of Wicker Park and East Village.

The case of Bro Bar vs. Hipster Hang is now called to order.

As a matter of background, the issue before us today relates to the pending sale of Club Foot, a former tavern at 1824 W. Augusta. Owner Laurie Rohrig hopes to sell the place to former patron Mike Marzewski, who runs hipster-friendly Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport.

The point of contention is the long-standing moratorium on neighborhood taverns in East Village that remains in the way of longtime owners from turning over their joints to new barkeepers. We’ll get to that later.

What’s more interesting is what Rohig told DNAinfo Chicago reporter Alisa Hauser this week: “The current buyer was an old customer. I would rather see him succeed there than another sports bar or bro-hole."

Rohrig’s take on the infiltration of fratboy-friendly bars on Division Street shined a spotlight on the ongoing effects of the slow-but-steady Great Bro Migration on a longtime hipster stronghold.

Mark Konkol says hipsters pave the way for the bro migration:

So as something of a public service, I summoned a couple guys known to travel in both hipster and bro circles to a Division Street bar to offer insight on the clash of drinking cultures there.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “bro” generally refers to cocky young men dressed in tight shirts who travel in packs, pound beers, watch Big 10 sports on six flat-screen TVs at a time to the tune of pulsating electronic dance music and generally believe they are better than you.

And “hipsters” are a collection of young independent people who agree on most things, like cat T-shirts are cool, enjoy drinking cheap beers and Malort shots in dark dive bars, prefer old jukeboxes to music videos and mostly think they’re better than you.

Here’s the situation: In recent years, due to the rising cost of rent, a steady stream of bros has headed west toward Wicker Park, which in the last 15 years or so has evolved from an artsy, working-class punk rock haven into a place where women who like bros can buy fancy high heels, handmade jewelry and sparkly collars for their purse-sized pooches.

While there’s not much evidence of a conflict between bro and hipster nightlife, the two sects of bar patrons seem to navigate a separate-but-equal drinking existence in the neighborhoods straddling Division.

Or as one of my bro-culture experts, a 20-something with frat-boy tendencies, put it: “A couple bros living with my brother who moved here said, ‘This isn’t really our scene, but we’ll adapt.’ ”

But what might be closer to the truth is that the Division Street entertainment district has evolved to embrace bros.

In the last few years, there have been more bar-club hybrid watering holes opening on Division — the kind of bi-polar joints that switch from daytime sports bars to deafening dance halls that litter Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville — including Boundary and Fat Pour, sometimes called “Frat Pour” as a nod to its bro-heavy clientele.

Even long-time barbecue hotspot Smoke Daddy recently underwent what one friendly bartender called a “bro-spansion” — adding a barroom and outdoor seating area complete with eight big-screen TVs to cater to sports-watching, beer-pounding bros.

“Families generally sit on that side,” he said, pointing to the tables and booths fronting a stage that features live music every night. “And the bros are over here with all these TVs."

Now, that’s not a new observation. Seven years ago, the spot where Wicker Park meets East Village had already began shedding the gang-banger chic image of its past with the addition of trendy boutiques and yuppie coffee shops and joints where you can get over-priced gourmet sandwiches.

But has that stretch of Division Street finally reached the bro tipping point?

My bro experts and a bar regular certainly think so.

“The neighborhood, it’s so bro,” one of them said.

“And the alderman,” another said. “he’s pro-bro.”

The irony, of course, is that Ald. Proco Joe Moreno is best known as the “hipster alderman.”

I gave him a call to see if the influx of bro bars is a sign he’s slowly evolving into “Proco Bro.”

He laughed and told me, “I’d really like to talk to the person who said I was pro-bro, because that guy is just plain wrong.

“I’ve lived here for 18 years and personally I like [long-time hipster dives] Gold Star, Rainbo and Zakopane,” he said. “As alderman, I’m not going to criticize other places, but that’s my personal preference.”

But when it comes to the mix of bro-friendly and hipster-centric bars near Division, Moreno said he’s mindful of reaching the bro-bar tipping point but has only seen signs that there’s a commercial desire to keep a strong hipster vibe in the neighborhood.

That includes the Club Foot proposal, and another recent conversation with the owner of Gold Star about lifting the moratorium so she can retire and sell the business to people who want to keep it from becoming a bro-bar.

“Even though Division Street has a lot more action, there’s still Gold Star, Rainbo, Zakopone, Phyllis’ Musical Inn, Happy Village, Inner Town Pub, and they’re all doing well,” Moreno said.

“I see a trend of going with more of that kind of a model … And the most recent conversations I’ve had about Gold Star and Club Foot have been about wanting to keep the feel and that vibe. I haven’t had anyone come to me that wants to do a multi-screen sports bar.”

Indeed, Moreno told me that he’s received nothing but positive feedback via social media about the proposal to lift the moratorium to allow Club Foot to re-open as The Golden Arms, a place that aims to have a vibe that’s more attractive to hipsters than bros.

“About 99 percent of the feedback has been positive about lifting the moratorium" for the Club Foot location, the alderman said. “I think it’s very telling that there weren’t any really negative responses … a sign that maybe moratoriums are a tool of the past that might not be necessary.”

But that doesn’t mean the Hipster Alderman — a nickname Moreno doesn’t really like, because calling people hipsters carried a negative connotation when he was a Wicker Park kid — plans to discriminate against bros and their favorite bars.

“I keep saying this isn’t Wrigleyville. I wouldn’t want it that way,” he said. “I think we have enough of both. I don’t think they’re at odds. I think people in Wicker Park tend to think, ‘You do your thing. I’ll do mine.’”

Maybe the hipster ward boss is right.

But Gabby Galloway, a friendly waitress at The Fifty/50 on Division, said it might be people like her who don't fit either stereotype that will help maintain the delicate balance of hipster and bro from tipping one side or the other.

"I wouldn't say I'm either one," she said. "I guess I'd pick 'other.' I'm a hybrid."

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