Chicago media Twitter recently pounced on the irony of a simulacrum of a dive bar housed inside the kind of newfangled craft beer spot quickly replacing the very thing it’s paying homage to.
so it’s a pop-up in Logan Square of the kind of bars that have been almost entirely pushed out of Logan Square…
— katherine of chicago (@kofchicago) January 18, 2018
Follow that logic and street artist Don’t Fret’s dive-bar-themed art installation and pop-up Light Times Club is the equivalent of Whole Foods housing a faux bodega or a greasy spoon pop-up that sells $10 artisan hot dogs.
But seriously don’t fret.
The self-described “conceptual watering hole”—it previously appeared at Gold Star, Soho House, and Publican Quality Meats—is in residence through February 10 at the pop-up space at Emporium in Logan Square (2367 N. Milwaukee Ave), the same place that made national headlines last year for hosting the popular but unauthorized Stranger Things concept bar. The Light Times Club is the opposite of the dystopian confines of the Upside Down. It’s a warmly nostalgic tribute to pre-gentrified Chicago. Don’t Fret designed much of the colorfully painted interior to resemble the streets of a gritty but ordinary neighborhood, complete with the brick exteriors of graffiti-strewn buildings, a CTA bus sign, a pawn shop, and a Maxwell Street Grill-like food stand. The bar portion of the installation looks like the comic-book version of the typical cozy corner spot, the kind of well-worn watering hole where regulars shoot the shit and order a shot and a beer in between friendly games of darts.
While there’s something mildly irksome about paying $9 for a glorified gin and tonic named Da Ghost of Studs Terkel, there are plenty of recently established joints in Logan Square and other gentrifying neighborhoods that fake a kind of lived-in authenticity with taxidermy and vintage Old Style signs on the walls, old-timey cash registers, and $15 cocktails whose names reference relics from Chicago’s past.
The place I visited didn’t seem to be exploiting dive bar culture. With its cardboard cutout bartenders, hand-painted portraits and photographs of sports, political, and media figures from the 70s and 80s, and witty meta-jokes (I particularly love the sign that reads “YOUR BENCH ON THIS AD”), the Light Times Club fondly celebrates true dive bars while mourning their slow death.
Next month there’s a panel discussion at the GMan Tavern (formerly the Gingerman) in Wrigleyville called “Where Did All the Watering Holes Go?” about why the number of tavern licensees have steeply declined from 3,000 a generation ago to less than 1,000 now.
I’ll save you time. Working-class bar culture is leaving Chicago along with working-class people. The forces of late capitalism keep jettisoning blue-collar jobs and pricing the people that work them out of Chicago and other major American cities. The old meatpacking district is becoming a playland for the nouveau riche, the Merchandise Mart was just recently emptied of merchandise as it evolves into a tech hub (a change accompanied by a branding update as “the Mart”). The City of Big Shoulders, of stockyards and steel, increasingly caters to people who work on their laptops instead of with their hands.
Naturally, the new masters of the universe have different tastes than the old. So upscale cocktail and craft beer bars keep edging out the ol’ working-class watering holes. Sometimes it’s worth remarking on this sea change in Chicago nightlife—and, hey, maybe taking a shot of whiskey in honor what came before.
The Light Times Club Emporium Arcade Bar, 2363 N. Milwaukee, 773-360-8774, emporiumchicago.com/gallery/light-times-club. Through 2/10. Sun-Mon, Wed-Thu 6 PM-2 AM, Fri 5 PM-2 AM, Sat 3 PM-3 AM.