Is a neighborhood by any other name still the same neighborhood — and will changing its name change what happens there?
That’s a question that arose after the Northalsted Business Alliance announced in September it would no longer use “Boystown” in its marketing of the neighborhood. The alliance, which comprises businesses in the East Lakeview neighborhood stretching along Halsted Street between Barry Street and Irving Park Road, conducted an eight-week survey of nearly 8,000 people over the summer to determine if those living in or visiting the LGBTQ enclave felt excluded by the name Boystown. The survey came after a petition circulated in July calling out systemic racism, sexism, and transphobia in the neighborhood.
When the survey results were made public, many people thought that the neighborhood’s name would change, but, to be clear, the business alliance hasn’t advocated for an official renaming: It has only said it would stop using Boystown when marketing the neighborhood’s events and businesses. Boystown has been a widely accepted nickname for this portion of Lakeview since around the early ’80s, but it has never been the official neighborhood name.
But does that matter? Will the alliance’s change stop people from calling the area Boystown, and will it affect whether people patronize local businesses?
While 80 percent of survey respondents say they did not feel unwelcome by the Boystown name and 58 percent favored keeping the name intact, the alliance still felt that by not taking a step to be more inclusive, it could alienate a part of the population that does not identify as “boys,” thereby leaving them feeling unwelcome in what has been known as “Chicago’s Proudest Neighborhood.”
“I think it illustrates that we need to listen to the neighborhood and continue to change,” says Micah Hilgendorf, who owns the North End and Lucky Horseshoe Lounge. “I’m glad the call to recognize it wasn’t a name for everybody was heard, and I hope we can respond to things like this in the future as quickly.”
Hilgendorf, like other restaurant and bar owners in the area, doesn’t feel the marketing changes will affect his business. In fact, he thinks the Boystown name doesn’t have much impact on his success.
“The North End identifying as a gay bar didn’t deter customers from coming in,” Hilgendorf says. “The straight folks who found themselves there — whether that was the first place with seats or the closest bathroom on the way back from a Cubs game — ended up staying and having a good time.”
A mixed crowd
Franco Gianni not only owns Wood, a popular New American restaurant on Halsted known for its shareable plates and quality cocktails, but he’s also lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. He mostly refers to the neighborhood as Boystown when traveling.
“People from outside of Chicago refer to the area as Boystown,” Gianni says. “That’s how they know it and find it when they come to Chicago from another city.”
Gianni says his clientele is fairly mixed, which he feels reflects the neighborhood’s demographics over the last couple of decades — and they’re still coming in to eat and drink.
“I’ve seen a wide mix of people while living here for 22 years,” he says. “I don’t think the name deterred people in the LGBTQ community from being here.”
That sentiment is shared by Rose Pohl, who since 1978 has co-owned the Closet — a popular queer bar — with Judi Petrouski. Due to its location on Broadway, just a couple of blocks east of Halsted, the Closet is not part of the Northalsted Business Alliance. But people still call that area Boystown.
“If we change it to Northalsted, it’s still going to be Boystown,” Pohl says. “With all the problems we have in the gay community right now, like [the GOP] trying to take away gay marriage, this is the last thing we need to think about.”
Stu Zirin, with his business partner, John Dalton, owns D.S. Tequila Company and used to own the now-closed Minibar. Zirin also sits on the board of the business alliance. Several years ago, Zirin didn’t want to use Boystown to market D.S. Tequila, because, he admits, “If I wanted to get the straight guys from Wrigleyville to come watch a game, I didn’t know how comfortable they’d be.” He now says that attitude has changed.
“The culture has changed,” Zirin says. “People accepted the name.” That said, as a board member — and as a Halsted strip business owner who early on hired trans people at D.S. — he has always strived to be inclusive.
“We’ve always been open and welcoming,” Zirin says. “I’ve been discriminated against and I would never discriminate.”
Bigger issues than a name
Local businesses face a more pressing issue with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most other hospitality businesses, those in this area also feel the pain of reduced capacity.
“COVID is a bigger issue than the name,” says Mickey Hornick, owner of iconic vegetarian restaurant the Chicago Diner (its motto is “meat-free since ‘83”). “We do carry-out and delivery, but not dine in. My staff didn’t want to wait on customers with masks, and we don’t blame them. We’re doing what we think is correct, but what good will it do us if we’re not there? That’s the main thing on all of our minds. Winter is coming. It’s a very difficult time.”