Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood quietly drops its quirky nod to its gay culture.
By Danielle Braff
Littered with rainbow flags, gay bars and signs welcoming the LGBTQ community to the neighborhood, the area of Chicago nestled within East Lakeview from Halsted Street between Barry Street and Irving Park Road has been lovingly referred to as “Boystown” for as long as anyone living there can recall.
“It’s hard to say when it started,” says Lake Alen, Northalsted Business Alliance treasurer and acting executive director. “Mayor Daley has been accredited with starting the trend,” Alen says.
So maybe it started about 30 years ago. Perhaps the name was adhered to this strip of land most welcoming to the LGBTQ community even decades prior to the Daley family descending on Chicago. Not anymore.
Still a beacon of hope to all forms of love, Boystown is officially no longer a welcome term of endearment for the area now exclusively deemed “Northalsted.” The change came after an online petition originated, claiming the nickname and corresponding street signs were not inclusive of women, gender nonbinary individuals and people of color.
“LGBTQ neighborhoods exist for all intersections of queer identity. Chicago’s is the only gendered nickname.” says activist Devlyn Camp in the petition. Camp didn’t respond to further inquiries for comment.
Jo Lewis, who often goes by "Jo Mama," the head co-chair of the Chicago Black Drag council, and the co-director of A City United, echoed Camp.
“This was an absolutely necessary change, not only to signal to the entire community that change has arrived, but also that everyone is welcome in this historic LGBTQIA+ neighborhood,” Lewis says. “I think we have a long road ahead here in Chicago, and being that we are the city of big shoulders, we can handle more than one problem at a time.”
The petition came on the heels of the Drag March for Change in June during the Black Lives Matter protests, when Black speakers said they weren’t given jobs at clubs and bars in the Northalsted neighborhood due to their race.
That wasn’t the first time there was alleged racism or bigotry in the neighborhood. In 2019, Progress Bar attempted to ban rap music - and a Black security guard at the bar was assaulted, according to Windy City Times.
There was also an incident at Beatnix, a vintage clothing and costume store, where a Confederate flag vest was offered for sale, according to Block Club Chicago.
Still, a survey released in September 2020 in response to the Boystown marketing found that 80 percent don’t feel unwelcome by the Boystown nickname, and 58 percent favor keeping it.
Mariel Ross, a Northalsted resident, says she understands the effort to make the community more inclusive, but feels that there are more important issues to tackle at the moment - including making it more inviting to all minorities, and helping minorities own businesses in the area - which would promote inclusiveness more than a name change, Ross says.
“I understand the change and support the want to be more inclusive, but the name change itself is more of a performative action than anything,” Ross says.
As part of the name change, the Boystown signs are being removed, and the area is reverting back to “Chicago’s Proudest Neighborhood” as a more inclusive marketing campaign, Alen says. The rainbow pylons bare the name “Northalsted, and now that they are federally protected by their historical designation, they can never be changed, Alen says.
Anthony Arroyo, an Iowa resident whose favorite place to be is in Northalsted, says he’s pleased that the change will make the area more inclusive, but he’s hoping that the neighborhood will still represent the vibe and the ideals of the traditionally LGBTQ spot.