Milwaukee Express: A Summer Fantasy
Author: Tianyang Fu
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
There is something about arriving. Arriving somewhere you have never been to. When you step out of the plane, the train, or whatever transportation you use, the air is different: different in the color of the sky, the smell of the corner, the transparency, and the taste of the wind. At the time when you arrive, everything feels different, and so are your sensibilities. More than ever, you believe you are a complete stranger to this world. And the world remains silent, unsparingly revealing its excessive and delicate details. An alluring hallucination encircles you that you know today, the summer fantasy begins.
This is how I felt when I suddenly noticed I had already arrived on Milwaukee Avenue. Yes, it is an avenue on the near northwest side of Chicago, not an expressway. The title of this article comes from a Hong Kong movie, with its name translated into Chungking Express (1994), which, by director Wang Kar Wai, illustrates evanescent memories in the cold-tone dying lights and faded reality through Christopher Doyle’s flowing shots. Milwaukee Avenue presented me with its similar emotional touch and its identical express feature, with everything floating, gusting, and scurrying into an inexistent space called the lost era. But it is also expressing, through what remains, through people’s nostalgia.
Cutting through the West Loop and Wicker Park up to Jefferson Park and the suburbs, Milwaukee Avenue is the main artery of the Northwest Side of Chicago. “Since the early beginnings […], it’s been a busy commuting path and one of the most bustling commercial centers.” It originated from an Indian trail used by the local inhabitants of Illinois. As the European settlers arrived in the 1830s, the road was plundered and transformed into a tollway. The fire that swept out in 1871 brought drastic changes to everything, including the avenue. The decreased land price after the fire enabled the city of Chicago to take over the avenue and sell the land to merchants back then to reinvigorate the economy. Instead of renting, a large proportion of the store-keepers owned their stores and buildings for furniture and clothing manufacture, which developed incredibly fast and flourished the economy of the avenue and the city of Chicago. In 1895, the first electric elevated road came to Logan Square, transforming Milwaukee Avenue into a “bustling thoroughfare that provided quick access from suburban neighborhoods to downtown.” European settlers then, mainly from Germany, Norway, and Poland, swarmed into the avenue, leading to an economic boom and making the avenue the second largest financial district in Chicago.Years have passed since the most prosperous era of Milwaukee Avenue, with clothing and furniture industries left behind as the era’s legacy. Boutique buildings stand still with their strongly featured architecture style now, and their stories shall continue. When you walk on the street, houses lined on both sides are still emitting the hustling and bustling noise of the past blooming years. Clothing and furniture are once the industries thriving enough to support the neighborhood’s financial development. Yet, they are also once the industries blown away and disappeared in the fierce winter winds of Chicago. Now, when you step on the street, beside the architecture brimming with senses of the past golden age, feature stores selling vintage clothing and furniture from the 1960s to 1980s can still be spotted, in their original buildings, saluting the lost era with the mold and scum left by history.
There has been a rise in vintage fashion in the 21st century; a fashion style based on used or retro-style garments. As consumption behavior often relates to the construction of identity, while identity groups are linked with cultural communities, it is reasonable to assume that vintage consumers form a subcultural group, which allows scholars to examine the phenomenon from a critical cultural studies perspective. The vintage subculture corresponds with its own socio-economic layer of individuals. Such consumption behavior can be understood theoretically by interpreting stylistic signs. It can be traced to how consumers build up their self-identification, community belongingness, and authenticity through vintage consumption. Buying vintage goods differentiates them from mainstream market consumers, forming a community with a sense of uniqueness compared with “the other.” Here, taste (in vintage) by the definition of Pierre Bourdieu suggests how vintage consumers get their “distinction” in this process. The utilization value of vintage goods descends to the second level, while the symbolic meaning is prioritized, which is a typical contemporary phenomenon by Jean Baudrillard.
Repair, reimagine, recycle, the advertisement of Levi’s presents one of the core ideologies appended to vintage fashion, environmental protectionism, and the pursuit of recycling, reusing, and reducing. Despite the debate on whether vintage shopping implies a contemporary form of consumerism and hiding commodity fetishism with its thrifting mask, it is fair to say vintage clothing and furniture fulfill the consumers’ needs that no new goods are demanded to be produced for them. In this sense, the goal of being environmentally friendly is met.
However, uniqueness/distinction and environmental protectionism are only two potential reasons for people’s longing for vintage goods. For someone, including me, vintage goods are containers of stories, stories that can never be found on the Fordist assembly line.
On Milwaukee Avenue, my eyes were always caught by people portraying themselves with retro outfits, coming in and out of the vintage stores. From an 80s bomber jacket, a pair of 90s Levi’s jeans, and a CD walkman playing the Rolling Stones hit to the industrial plastic trash from the Millennium, I felt something remains. Even though time has been passing so rapidly and ruthlessly, something remains.
It is people’s nostalgia. It is the stories passing through.
Our first stop on Milwaukee avenue was a very serious gallery called A Very Serious Gallery. At the time I was writing down these sentences, my mind was still lingering on the sketches of Christi Lopez, with her works exuberantly illustrating body and love. Lesbian love. Entering the vinyl store and rummaging in the boxes of used jazz records from the 60s, I firmly felt the collision between the contemporary and the past. Something ineffable back then is presented so beautifully in modern art. Something that could have been lost in time is also well reserved for modern citizens to discover. Like the experiences of Gil, the character in Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris (2011), my memory of Milwaukee avenue remains as a piece of a summer fantasy. Climbing out of the rabbit hole, I left with a tiny gift from the gallery assistant, a pink plastic rabbit ornament. Carrying the summer fantasy, the ornament will one day become another vintage piece in my room, with my memory of Milwaukee avenue consolidated inside, forever.
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 Same as footnote 2.
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 Same as footnote 2.
 Same as footnote 2.
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