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  • "Street of Ouzo, Arak, and Tequila":Recalling the Marvelous Strangeness of Chicago's Near West Side with Carlos Cortéz, Sandra Cisneros, and Daniel J. Martinez
  • Olga Herrera (bio)

Since the late nineteenth century, Chicago's Near West Side has been a heterotopic urban place, exhibiting racial, ethnic, and cultural intersections not easily found elsewhere in this heavily segregated city.1 Carl Sandburg once drew inspiration from this milieu, honoring the work of Jewish and Italian immigrant residents in poems such as "Fish Crier" (1916) and "Onion Days" (1916). Currently, redevelopment efforts have overwhelmed the neighborhood's small ethnic shops and restaurants with national retail chains and massive architecture, constituting a landscape defined by homogeneity and corporate profit. The shift in the neighborhood's identity from ethnic and working-class to affluent and homogenous suggests a story of post-industrial urban change and "white infill," or a reverse "white flight" (Piiparinen). As the Near West Side has become less a distinctive urban place rooted in history and cultural contact and more a predictable environment designed for consumer convenience, writers and artists have mourned that loss and interrogated the value of its redevelopment.2 I examine the interventions made by poet Carlos Cortéz, novelist Sandra Cisneros, and visual artist Daniel J. Martinez in successive stages of the Near West Side's transformation, from the mid-1950s to the early 2000s. As Cortéz's "Requiem for a Street" (1990), Cisneros's Caramelo, Or, Puro Cuento: A Novel (2002), and Martinez's installation 100 Victories/10,000 Tears (1993) and his performance Consequences of a Gesture (1993) recall the area's vivid, ethnically and racially diverse community, they also contest the institutional and capitalist spatial practices that have reshaped the neighborhood.3

Drawn to the neighborhood by both its cultural intersections and their erasure, Cortéz, Cisneros, and Martinez artistically intervene in the processes of urban renewal and gentrification that have demolished inner-city neighborhoods and [End Page 162] displaced communities.4 At the heart of this engagement between art and redevelopment is the question of civic good, often defined by the city in commercial terms but also dependent on the racial and class makeup of a neighborhood. The "white spatial imaginary," described by George Lipsitz as one that views space as the "locus for the generation of exchange value" (30), "idealizes 'pure' and homogenous spaces, controlled environments, and predictable patterns of design and behavior" (29). On today's Near West Side, one sees how public policy rooted in this ethos has reshaped the neighborhood—replacing the variety of products and infinitely different interiors found in ethnic delis and African American-owned businesses with the uniformity of national retail chains—erasing racial and cultural difference to produce a "racially marked form of consumer citizenship" (30). In their literary and artistic responses to this erasure, Cortéz, Cisneros, and Martinez contest the conflation of civic value with corporate profits by emphasizing the value of the neighborhood's racial, ethnic, and cultural intersectionality.

Cortéz, Cisneros, and Martinez elaborate this pluri-ethnicity and intersectionality as a marvelous "strangeness," a source of subversive pleasure in the neighborhood's difference from the corporate city. Drawing from Hakim Bey's elaboration of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, I suggest that while the Near West Side was not by any means a utopia, the texts in this study posit the neighborhood's strangeness or difference from the city as "'utopian' in the sense that [they] envision an intensification of everyday life, or as the Surrealists might have said, life's penetration by the Marvelous" (Bey).5 The confluence of Jewish, Italian, Mexican, Greek, and African American cultures on Halsted Street; the bartering and juxtaposition of expensive and trashy treasures at the Maxwell Street flea market; and the proximity of Haymarket Square and its significance to labor history contrast with the order, homogeneity, and wealth of mainstream commercial development. These strange street elements offer an intensification of everyday life and are made marvelous in Cortéz's, Cisneros's, and Martinez's work.

Such textual privileging of strangeness functions as a barriological strategy to critically orient the reader with neighborhood life. Raúl Homero Villa defines barriological acts as...


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pp. 162-185
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