Wicker Park gets a dose of reality

Yes, Virginia, MTV was in Chicago.

Surely you have heard the local talking heads pontificating about the siege of a Chicago neighborhood by the mainstream cable giant. Disgruntled Chicago residents ages 18 to 26 even staged protests in the street over this corporate atrocity.

Red paint was splashed across the front door of the unassuming house guests, remnants of which are still visible. Uninviting phrases such as “What is Real?” “I am not an actor in my neighborhood,” and “No Real World filming here,” were scratched in chalk on the sidewalk outside the chic 3-floor loft.

So who are these new roommates that infiltrated this peaceful neighborhood? Surely these “seven strangers picked to live in a house…” must be dangerous outcasts of society – thieves, prostitutes and exotic animal poachers – to create such a ruckus.

Well, not really. The cast MTV chose to star in its 11th season of the “Real World” consists of members of the same young professional demographic that has flocked to this section of West Chicago for the past 10 years.

Wicker Park, whose major commercial developments are concentrated at the six-corner intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenues, is now almost unrecognizable from the crime and violence that occupied the area in the early 1970s.

In search of affordable living, the 1980s brought many artists and intellectuals to the area, transforming it into a cultural hub.

Many Chicago residents fear the resurgence of commercial development and high-profile events like the “Real World” will change their neighborhood from an ethnically diverse working-class setting to a high-rent white professional area like Lincoln Park.

Though MTV producers chose this booming neighborhood as the model character of Chicago to impress television viewers, Wicker Park’s recent history is still evident in its rough edges west of the commercial district.

The spanning gentrification of Wicker Park has already caused much change. From pawn shops to high-scale boutiques, greasy spoons to posh three-star restaurants, old warehouses to spacious new condos – commercial investors have discovered the development value of this West Side neighborhood.

Commercial growth has come at a cost.

The median home price has doubled between 1990 and 2000, with most single-family homes now priced from $500,000 to $700,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In retaliation for the higher rent and changing demographics, some residents have taken activist action against major corporations who endeavor to settle in Wicker Park. A Starbucks opened at 1588 W. Milwaukee Ave. in Fall 2001 despite antagonism toward the company.

“Starbucks had its windows broken almost every night,” resident Maria Vargas said. “Eventually they installed shatter-proof glass and things calmed down.”

MTV’s reception was no different. About 250 spectators filled the street outside the “Real World” loft at 1934 North Ave. on July 14.

“Some people carried signs and were shouting,” Woodridge resident Chris Gutierrez said, “But I think most of them just wanted to catch of glimpse of the cast and crew. There were a few more protests the following weekends, but I think the novelty wore off and the crowds stopped coming.”

But the scene was not quite what it appeared to be.

“When the police made arrests outside the Real World house,” Vargas said, “they found out that most of the protesters weren’t even from the neighborhood. Lots of them were from the suburbs.”

Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kara Salgado said most community residents are pleased with the area’s commercial expansions and feel safer with the new look and feel of their neighborhood.

“New business helps everyone,” Salgado said. “The big corporate names attract foot traffic on the sidewalks and the small storefront retailers benefit.”

“We have more young families moving here too,” Salgado said. “When a big company calls about a grievance, the police show up right away. Police don’t respond very quickly to calls about deserted parking lots.”

Salgado said the actions of a few anarchists, who might or might not be residents, don’t represent the community attitude on the whole.

“Those groups have never voiced an organized complaint,” Salgado said. “Most of them have their own personal agendas against corporate America in this area, but you know, they are about 10 years too late.”

MTV gave “Real World: Chicago” cast members and Wicker Park community protesters alike a chance to achieve their 15 minutes of fame. Chicago survived MTV.

The apocalyptically hyped programming, which premiered on Tuesday is sure to be forgotten as soon as the “Real World XII” promotional shoots begin. Brace yourself, Des Moines. nyou<