Saturday, May 26, 2012

Towertown, sexuality and the occult in Chicago at the turn of the century

Today I spent a bit of time poking around the Encyclopedia of Chicago, an interesting database provided via the Chicago History Museum.  I was interested to read about an area known as Towertown which I had never heard mention of before.  Doesn't this sound amazing?

"Neighborhood in the Near North Side Community Area. Towertown was Chicago's bohemia in the early twentieth century. Lacking precise boundaries, the district took its name from the Water Tower, which stood to its north and east on Michigan Avenue. An art colony took root in Towertown when Anna and Lambert Tree built Tree Studios to tempt artists to stay in Chicago after the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The concentration of artists, writers, and poets attracted bookshops and coffeehouses, the most famous of which was the Dill Pickle Club. Soapbox orators gathered in Bughouse Square to debate the issues of the day. Gays, lesbians, and experimenters in free love took refuge among Towertown's radicals. By the mid-1920s, rising property values driven by the luxury shopping district on nearby Michigan Avenue were pricing out many of the artists. Towertown became a tourist attraction, further alienating its bohemian denizens. By the Great Depression, the art colony had dispersed."
-Amanda Seligman

"By the mid-1920s, many of these writers had left Chicago. After their departure, according to sociologist Harvey W. Zorbaugh, Towertown became a popular destination for “egocentric poseurs, neurotics, rebels against the conventions of Main Street or the gossip of the foreign community, seekers of atmosphere, dabblers in the occult, dilettantes in the arts, or parties to drab lapses from a moral code which the city had not yet destroyed.” Chicago's bohemia turned conventional, and its alternatives to traditional gender roles, sexual relations, and work habits became part of a broader transformation in social mores."
-Timothy B. Spears