Owen Keehnen remembers the Belmont Rocks like he was there yesterday. On summer afternoons in the mid-1980s, he would stroll up the lakefront from Diversey Harbor. As he approached Belmont Avenue, he’d see a large grassy expanse punctuated on one side by a series of tiered limestone blocks that separated the city from Lake Michigan. Sprawled out along the grass and rocks, men cruised and canoodled. Some were clad in Speedos. Others wore loincloths. A few discreetly sunbathed in the nude. The warm air crackled with erotic energy.
Like so many LGBTQ Chicagoans of a certain age, Keehnen came to “the Rocks” to enjoy a relatively newfound taste of queer liberation. At the time, the Boystown bar scene was just emerging, with taprooms such as the Closet and Little Jim’s and a shiny new video bar called Sidetrack. But those were domains of the night, when it was safer for homosexuals to surface. The Belmont Rocks was the rare spot where the queer community could mix and mingle in broad daylight all summer long as traffic whizzed past on Lake Shore Drive. It was nothing short of gay paradise.
The Rocks began attracting sunbathers (and late-night sex seekers) as early as the 70s. In the mid-80s the AIDS crisis took its toll on many of its most devoted denizens, and by the early 90s a new generation of gay men and women, lured north by the gentrification of Andersonville and the gay beach volleyball scene, carved out a happy niche along crescent-shaped Kathy Osterman Beach (aka Hollywood Beach) in Edgewater. Then, in 2003, as part of the Belmont-Diversey Revetment Project, crews replaced the Belmont Rocks’ limestone with concrete. The restoration marked the end of an era of queer Chicago history.
“The Rocks were a kind of a political statement, that we had a right to be ourselves and to be out in the fresh air,” says Keehnen, a bookseller at Unabridged Books in Lakeview and the author of several gay novels as well as biographies of Chicago leather community icon Chuck Renslow and Baton Lounge owner Jim Flint. Keehnen’s latest project is an oral history of the Belmont Rocks, which he’s currently compiling in hopes of finding a publisher. “There isn’t a lot documented about the Rocks and what they mean to people,” the 57-year-old says. “It’s a fragile history.”
Ask most LGBTQ Chicagoans under the age of 45 about the Belmont Rocks and they’re likely to return a blank stare. As millennials and Gen-Xers enjoy greater equality and rights than the generations before them, it’s easy to take for granted how bold the nascent community was to socialize together in such a public space. “I think the importance can’t be stressed enough about how just going there and hanging out together outdoors with your friends [or] just alone and wanting to cruise outdoors in a public place, how empowering and political that was,” Keehnen says.
The importance of the Rocks to Chicago’s LGBTQ community hit Keehnen like a ton of limestone bricks in June. En route by bicycle to his shift at Unabridged, Keehnen took a detour down memory lane, out to Belmont Harbor. What he saw saddened him.
“It was really sterilized, sanitized, stripped of all the art and life and energy of the place,” he says. “It was literally like . . . nothing was going on there. They did all this beautification of the lakefront and it had the exact opposite effect, because what they took away when they bulldozed the Rocks is what made them so magical. Seeing that gone just punched me in the gut.”
To rectify what he saw as a historical transgression, Keehnen started a Facebook page called “A Place for Us: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks,” on which he’s made an open call for written memories of the Rocks and photographs taken at the site; he’s accepting submissions through October 1.
Keehnen’s research and the community’s response has thus far revealed a lively portrait of the Rocks that, in addition to sunbathing and cruising, includes barbecues, civil unions, Pride celebrations, memorials, political rallies (drag performer Joan Jett Blakk filmed a portion of her 1992 presidential campaign video at the Rocks), queer artistry (the Rocks were covered with drawings, carvings, and graffiti), relationships formed and relationships ended, and much more. That this patchwork of LGBTQ stories could’ve easily ended up in history’s dustbin only strengthens Keehnen’s resolve.
“It’s heartbreaking in a lot of ways because people will send a picture of, like, five [friends] doing something wacky and I’ll say, ‘Is it OK if this eventually gets used in the book? Do you have to clear it with anyone?’ and there are a lot of times where people will come back and say, ‘It’s fine with me. Everybody else in the picture is dead.’ That happens a lot.”
Keehnen isn’t the Belmont Rocks’ only documentarian. Around the same time as he was discovering its wonders, so too was a Columbia College photography student named Doug Ischar. Surprised by the openness of the Rocks in comparison to gay meccas in places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (where at the time, gay beaches were well off the beaten path), Ischar became a daily fixture and persuaded many in the marginalized community to let him photograph them at play.
“I was determined to photograph gay men and I was very interested in photographing them in social situations,” says Ischar, 68, now an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It was the perfect situation for a devoted, committed young photographer who wanted to picture gay men socially as opposed to studio nudes.”
Shot over the course of two Chicago summers in the mid-80s, the images in Ischar’s “Marginal Waters” series hold up a mirror to a community whose swimwear choices have changed very little in three decades, although the feathered haircuts are long gone. The images are also haunting in their unflinching depiction of same-sex relationships among a cheerful community about to be devastated by AIDS.
“Some of the Rocks photos show extreme intimacy,” Ischar says. “That was very important for me. I was always extremely bent on picturing public intimacy, kissing, making out—just the kind of mildly erotic behavior that could only come with a certain degree of liberation.”
Ischar now lives in Edgewater in a high-rise condo directly overlooking Hollywood Beach. The socializing he sees there today is “much less mixed, culturally and racially” as compared to the heyday of the Belmont Rocks, he says. “It’s much more, to my mind, straight out of the clubs. It’s not the same kind of place.”
While Keehnen is proud the queer community upgraded from a collection of jagged rocks to a beautiful stretch of sand, he’s quick to point out the generational shift. “Hollywood Beach is the sequel, but I also don’t think it’s the same thing,” he says. “The Rocks were about asserting our identity and our right to be here. Hollywood Beach takes it for granted. I think it’s kind of closer to assimilation than the Rocks were.”
Keehnen intends the Belmont Rocks oral history to serve as a kind of intergenerational scrapbook, one that functions as a history lesson for LGBTQ millennials as well as a memento for gay seniors. “None of us who experienced the Rocks are getting younger,” Keehnen says. “History gets harder and harder to chronicle as you lose your primary sources.” v