“I loved the baseball strike last year since it meant the end of inundation by Cub fans,” says Bill, a twentysomething slacker who’s hung out in front of the Dunkin Donuts at Clark and Belmont for the last five years. “Cub fans walking between Waveland and Belmont are scum. They boo at us, make fun of us. I don’t need no less self-image than the one I already have.”
Bill blames Cubs fans and “plastic 708-ers” for the black wrought iron fence on the northwest corner of Clark and Belmont. He calls it the “Belmont Berlin Wall” and says its purpose is to keep kids from congregating. In recent years the CHA and various real estate companies have been installing similar six-foot-high fences on the perimeters of their low-income properties. Architects call it “defining defensible space.” A barricade you can see through, the wrought iron fence has become one of the less intrusive security strategies in the urban landscape, keeping undesirables at bay without sacrificing the view.
Mark Thomas, owner of the Alley and lessor of the property on the corner, is the brains behind the barricade. On a warm weekend night, Thomas was out in front of what he advertises as “the Alternative Shopping District,” asking every loitering kid, “What’s wrong with you? Do you want to go to jail?”
Mike, new to the scene from Texas, says he retreated across Belmont after Thomas harassed him twice. Carlos, a teenage raver with a Day-Glo pink tint to the top of his hair, was hanging at his usual spot on the private walk outside the Dunkin Donuts, playing with his wrist Pez dispenser and chatting with his friend Janet. He was taken to the Town Hall precinct house by the police at the direction of Thomas, and was rescued by his mom at 11 PM.
“So what do you have against the kids who have made this scene famous from Hamburg to Tokyo?” Bill asks Thomas, as a chorus of punk rockers surrounds the two.
“I don’t have anything against them if they don’t cause problems,” says Thomas.
“I would think you’d be a smarter businessman than to alienate your potential customers,” retorts Bill, who worked at the Alley one summer. “I think you could be making more money by encouraging the scene here instead of discouraging it.”
“We know where our customers come from, and in the last year we’ve quadrupled sales,” Thomas responds. He says he makes the bulk of his money at the Alley–and its associated businesses providing everything from cement gargoyles to fried mushrooms–from the families and kids who come to Clark and Belmont from the suburbs, hands full of plastic or cash to buy their alternative looks off the rack. Naturally, a lot of these kids end up joining the crowd in front of Dunkin Donuts.
But just what is Thomas defending, the kids want to know, since the 60-square-foot cement triangle has no commercial value? The fence will defend an empty plot of concrete.
Bill says we’re witnessing the end of a scene. “Clark and Belmont has changed a lot in the last eight years. There are still, maybe, 11 people who hang out who were true punk rockers. You know, there used to be a unity among the age group from 14 to 23, and they would collectively put together free shows with hard-core punk groups, local talent, people you knew on the street who also played in a band, and they would have rave shows, and the energy was amazing. We were just doing it for our own enjoyment. It was beautiful.
“What we had, it was like, the freedom of individuality. That’s why people were freaked out if you looked like anyone else, since we wanted to be as funky as we could be. If someone copied your look, you’d change it the next day. It was too strident individuality. Punk rock was some intense shit.
“Now it’s just this trendy thing for 708-ers to use against their parents. And to think we believed we were anarchists back in the days of Bush and Reagan. The 708-ers come down here to the city, just as bad as those Cub fans.”