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The Secret History Of Boystown: From The Closet To The Rocks

By Ariel Cheung | July 19, 2016 5:57am
 Chicago by Chicagoans designed a walking tour in Boystown for architecture buffs and fans of LGBTQ history.
Boystown Walking Tour
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BOYSTOWN — A moment's pause can unlock the history of a place you've walked past for years, and Patti Swanson is the key.

That's the purpose of Swanson's new Chicago for Chicagoans tour, which began in Swanson's native Albany Park before launching the Boystown walking tour earlier this month. Next month, the tours will take on Wicker Park, but there's still a chance to see Boystown through a historic lens with an Aug. 7 tour.

Swanson, who led Downtown tours for Wendella Boats and the Chicago Greeter program, said she's been surprised by the popularity of the neighborhood walking tours, which typically take around two hours. Many customers live in the areas they tour — a target audience for Swanson.

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"Part of this mission is educating people about the spaces they live in," she said. "And I keep hearing, 'Oh my gosh, I never knew this was over here,' or, 'I walk by here every day.'"

That's part of why Swanson only asks for a suggested $10 donation from participants — so no one who wants to learn is excluded.

The Boystown tour begins at the Belmont "L" station and progresses to the lakefront.

Swanson teamed up with Andie Meadows, a femme queer activist and Boystown historian. Together, they share details on the history of Lakeview, its architecture and the growth of its LGBTQ community.

Patti Swanson and Andie Meadows lead a walking tour through Boystown as part of the Chicago for Chicagoans group. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

"I'm really interested in things that overlap in both categories, which we found a lot of," Swanson said. Meadows "said there are spots she knew she had to hit, and there are some things I wanted, so it's been really great."

Meadows moved to Lakeview three years ago as she was opening up about her sexuality, and it took her a while to determine that "it really was a boys' town," and lacked the inclusion she'd hoped to find there, she said.

The tour guides said they hoped to bolster visibility of people of color and women in the LGBTQ community, from sharing the history of the Belmont Rocks to The Closet — the first lesbian bar in the neighborhood.

Belmont Harbor used to be home to the Belmont Rocks, a manmade cluster near Lake Michigan where working-class residents and the LGBTQ community would gather. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

"I'm really interested in these kind of forgotten histories and the histories that don't get as much attention," Swanson said.

At Belmont Harbor, Meadows shares the history of the Belmont Rocks, a manmade strip of limestone on Lake Michigan where working-class residents and eventually the LGBTQ community would sunbathe and enjoy a day at the lake.

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The Belmont Rocks were beloved enough that an LGBTQ writer with New Town Writers once declared, "I don't need a headstone; these rocks are enough," Meadows said.

Swanson and Meadows are overflowing with historical tidbits, like the people behind the neighborhood's biggest names. Addison Street is named for Dr. Thomas Addison, while Halsted honors two major New York financers who paid for many real estate ventures under Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden.

There are still traces of the earlier Lakeview settlers. Into the 1930s, one-third of Lakeview was Scandinavian or German; Swedish eatery Ann Sather is a reminder of their legacy. Nisei Lounge harkens to the days of Chicago's unofficial "Japantown" along Clark Street, where many Japanese Americans found a home after World War II.

The walking tour's final leg travels up Broadway and south on Halsted, where Chicago's gay neighborhood sprouted as New City long before the first whispers of "Boystown." Meadows shares the legacy of gay bars, Pride events and the Howard Brown Health Center.

RELATED: Here's Why Gay Bars Are So Important, Explained By A Chicago Gay Icon

The neighborhood's more recent past is likely familiar to long-time residents, like the story of The Abbott Hotel.

Originally a single-room occupancy hotel known as The Bachelor Hotel, it became an inn for gay men under the Abbott Hotel moniker. Police raided it regularly, searching for drugs and prostitution, and it closed in 2012, Swanson said. BJB Properties converted the building into studio apartments soon after, removing the long-standing Abbott Hotel sign from the facade.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church models the traditional English Tudor style of many Catholic churches, but its American-made stained glass is a break from the norm. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

"Closing SROs is a good sign of gentrification in neighborhoods," Swanson told a recent tour group. "Lakeview is slowly erasing its seedier past."

Across from the Abbott was one of its greatest opponents: Our Lady of Mount Carmel. While the church fought against the improprieties at the Abbott, it joined other Lakeview churches as early supporters of the gay community, Meadows said.

"They recognized who their community was in Boystown," she said. "There were a lot of queer folk in it, and these churches tried to serve them."

The next Boystown walking tour is set for Aug. 7, and there are still spots left, Swanson said. There will also be another Albany Park tour before Chicago for Chicagoans heads to Wicker Park in late August.

Tom Tunney (second from left) bought Ann Sather as a young Chicagoan before becoming the city's first openly gay alderman. [Provided/Patti Swanson]

The Bread Shop was a spinoff of The Bread Kitchen, which opened in 1975. The not-for-profit served affordable, no-frills food until it closed in 1987. The Bread Shop became Beatnix, and the Kitchen became the Chicago Diner. [Provided/Patti Swanson]

Built in the 1890s, the house at 737 W. Belmont Ave. has preserved its original address number, 1662, in stained glass above the front door. Chicago renumbered its streets in 1909. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Philip Sheridan is honored with a statue at Sheridan Road and Belmont Avenue. The Civil War general was "not the most politically correct guy," and he coordinated military relief efforts in the city after the Great Chicago Fire. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

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