Sunday, November 13, 2011

Alvarez Hardware Store

   I walked down to my neighborhood hardware store about a month ago to get some keys made. It's a small store, and it seems to be run by just one man. I've tried to bring him whatever business I can over the last six and a half years that I've lived in this neighborhood, but that isn't much. I bought a new toilet seat a few years back. And I've directed a new neighbor or two to the store. But other than that, I've just gone there for keys.

   The man was never unfriendly with me, but I usually felt like I picked up on some sense of frustration mixed with resignation coming from him. I figured that his store had to be struggling. It was usually empty, and my occasional need for keys wasn't going to keep him afloat. But there wasn't much I could do about that. I am a renter, rather than a home owner, so I only tend to the most minor repairs in my apartment.

   It wasn't until this last trip there that I spent any significant amount of time thinking about the store, what it may mean to the man that owns it, and also, what it meant to me.

   I arrived to find that the door was closed. The windows were covered from top to bottom with plain brown paper. And the iron gate that was typically pulled aside during business hours, was closed and locked. Alvarez Hardware Store had finally gone out of business.

   I took a step back and took a moment to look at the store. I'd walked by it over a thousand times. I'd walked into it about a half dozen times. But I think that that was the first time I'd noticed the name.

   This was presumably the name of the man that had owned and operated the store. I have no idea what his first name is. I never asked. But I immediately thought back to that aforementioned sense of frustration and resignation that I thought I got from him. And for the first time, the irony of his key making services struck me.

   This neighborhood, Pilsen, has seen a significant demographic shift since I first moved here in the spring of 2005. The shift started before that. But even if I stick to the changes that I've witnessed first hand, the contrast between "what is" and "what used to be" is stark.

   In 2005, I moved into a neighborhood that seemed to be comprised entirely of Hispanic families. That summer, I saw front porches crowded with friends and families every night. I saw kids playing in the spray of a fire hydrant. I saw mammoth 4th of July block parties. I heard an ice cream truck every 30 minutes. And there was even a small family circus that set up in the park every September.

   Of course Pilsen was not an Hispanic Mayberry. There was a notable gang presence, and it was relatively easy to recognize the houses from which drugs were being sold. And on one evening I found myself frighteningly close to a shooting.

   But on the whole, I felt like I'd moved into a tight-knit community of families that had laid down roots in the neighborhood. People knew one another, and I always got the sense that they looked out for one another.

   Much of that feeling is still here in 2011. It just isn't as strong. The packs of children are thinner. The block parties are fewer and farther between. The songs of the ice cream truck less frequent. And I think 2008 was the last time that circus came through.

   Today's Pilsen, while still predominantly Hispanic, is also home to people that look like me, and live lifestyles that are similar to mine. Single people in their twenties and thirties. Mostly white. Students and artists and hipsters and aimless wanderers. We came here, just a trickle at first, and then a steady stream. We provided a clientele for a few new restaurants and bars and coffee shops. Thrift stores became vintage clothing stores. We drove up the rent and fattened the pockets of the area landlords and real estate investors in the process. And we probably influenced the increased police presence and the improvements on the local CTA routes. (At a time when both of those public sector services are being defunded.)

   But we didn't go to Alvarez Hardware Store. Except of course to get some spare keys for our new apartments. It must have felt something like making a weapon that you know may very well be the instrument of your death. Grinding keys for the new residents of what is soon to be your old neighborhood.

   And as I looked at that closed storefront, I wondered, for the first time, about the man that used to stand behind that counter. I wondered how long Mr. Alvarez had had his store. I wondered if he has a family to support. I wondered if he has had to take a job at some big box store, making keys for low wages. Or if perhaps he found his way to something else. Maybe even something better?

   I also considered the irony of my own role in the demise of this business, and that of other small businesses in the neighborhood. The small bakeries and taquerias. The tailor and the corner drug store. They are a part of the identity and the appeal of the neighborhood. They're a part of what attracted me to the place when I first walked down 18th street, just days after moving to Chicago. But their inexpensive goods and services can't handle the rent increases that I help to bring about. And the new demand for higher end commerce will continue to push them out. And some day down the road, I will wake up to see that the process is complete. That by my mere presence, I've helped to sow the seeds of the destruction of something that I once found beautiful.

   And as these thoughts collected in mind, I didn't experience them with any sense of guilt. Nor did I feel any call to arms. The world changes. And I don't want to fight the dying man's fight against change, as long the living man's embrace of it is an option. I will probably leave a world that looks little like the one I was born into, and I wouldn't have that any other way.

   However, I do want to be conscious of my active role in the world. And I want to be aware of those around me. I couldn't have saved Alvarez Hardware Store. But I could have known the man's first name. I could have taken a closer look at that particular piece of the neighborhood that I am so fond of. I could have taken a closer look at another man, and my relationship with him.