I have lived in Oak Park all my life. It is a suburb of Chicago, just minutes away from downtown. Almost two weeks ago, on June 3, The Velvet Rope, a gay bar in Oak Park’s commercial center burned down. The incident was deemed arson. Hateful graffiti was left behind and nothing was stolen. The Velvet Rope has been operating for years and has never been targeted before now.
Anger, fear, embarrassment that this could happen in the place where I live, in the community that so frequently boasts not being a “suburb” suburb, are all the logical reactions. The overriding emotion, however, is shock. I can’t help but realize that maybe this one is not so logical. Turn on the radio, walk through a high school cafeteria, watch a television show and we are inundated with nonchalant use of the word “gay” as a synonym for weird or bad, and with insults that treat homosexuality as the ultimate faux pas. These regular outrages are examples of the normalization of hateful thinking. It takes a moment when hatred manifests itself into violence for many to realize the seriousness of all this.
I wrote this poem when I heard what had happened:
The sun rises up
A now tattered rainbow flag
is suspended by last threads,
sways delicately in the morning-after silence.
smooth jazz and
a bouncer clutching velvet rope
used to sprawl out onto sidewalk,
neighbor couples would curl over bar stools
exhausted by the false boasts of
“tolerance” and “diversity”
heard on every suburban street
whose one interracial family
came out to a block party this summer,
Between an Indian restaurant and a toy store,
Oak Park had one gay bar.
Trying to be a little less suburb
and a little more something,
the now tattered rainbow flag is all
that’s left of the velvet-roped charm.
It can’t ice a bruised lip
or wash a bloodied nose
to recover from the bar fight
this place has sustained.
Emptied aerosol cans
at the feet of
a wall scrawled
with slurs and hate words.
The once inviting glass window
overflows onto the sidewalk.
Air smells like barbecue
and gas station,
still thick with scattered ashes.
The fire department boards up
the storefront today
and headlines in local news
read “Suspicious Fire.”
singe hairs on the backs
of every decent neighbor,
heat their spines and
curl vertebrae into
chain-linked choke holds,
holding the soul of this community still.
We do not know what to say about arson.
The tattered rainbow flag
sways delicately in the morning-after silence
with something a little less than pride.