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Tell Me Your Double Door Story

In its prime, the Chicago rock club meant something different to everyone.

Double Door Chicago

My first fake ID came from a roommate a couple of years older than me. My second was purchased for 15 bucks off a woman at a house party who carried a stack in her purse. My third came from a guy I was dating; he was a bouncer and had confiscated it from some other underage girl trying to buy alcohol. I, however, did not want a fake to buy alcohol. And I didn’t want it to get into bars—not bars plural, anyway.

I wanted to get into one bar. I wanted to get into Double Door.

I moved to Chicago in the summer of 1995, 19 years old and small-town sheltered. I wanted to write—books and theater and music—and back then, Wicker Park was the place: artsy, edgy, everybody broke, everybody trying to make things and “make it,” whatever that meant.

I lived a straight line up Milwaukee Avenue between the Bongo Room—the brunch place where I waited tables—and my rat trap of an apartment on Hoyne. Memory is often made of points on a map: mine were Myopic Books, Reckless Records, Earwax Café and the art-house video rental place above it, Urbus Orbis and before MTV turned it into the house for The Real World: Chicago. Before Starbucks moved in and people threw bricks through its windows; before Urban Outfitters and raw juice bars; before I understood what gentrification was doing to the neighborhood and its people; before I understood the part I played in it.

At the center of this four-block world was Double Door, a music venue just south of the intersection at Milwaukee, North and Damen, that opened in June of 1994. The main floor had a bar and a stage and just enough space to dance or sway or stand with your beer and bang your head. Upstairs was a dark, loungy area where you went to escape the crowd, have a conversation or, more likely, make out. The basement had a smaller bar with pool tables and DJ sets and occasional art shows; it changed names over the years but I’ll always think of it as the Dirtroom—like how wherever the White Sox play will always be called Comiskey Park and the tallest building in the city will never not be Sears Tower.

I didn’t think I was cool enough to be there at first. I was young and self-conscious and scared that my clothes, my style, my ideas weren’t “right,” but I learned pretty quick from the women that I saw on that stage and in those crowds—fuck that noise. I cannot overstate what a valuable lesson that was for a girl trying to make art, in this city or anywhere.

Recently, I went to Wicker Park and walked up Milwaukee Avenue, retracing the map of my 20s. Double Door was boarded up, and its iconic, 16-foot neon red sign—”DOUBLE DOOR LIQUORS”—had burnt out. The legal battles between the owners and the landlord date back to 2015: rent spikes, lease extensions and the final eviction in February 2017. Last June, the building sold to a downtown developer for upwards of $9 million.

During the Double Door’s prime, I’d get off the L after a late-night class downtown, hear music pounding from the open side doors and follow the sound in from the street: indie rock, R&B, pop, Liquid Soul on Sundays. The sound came up through the floor and into your shoes. Bodies everywhere. Accidental elbows to the gut. Whiskey in plastic cups. A fog of cigarette smoke. I didn’t smoke, but I can still sense the nicotine in my hair, my pores, under my fingernails.

Grab anybody from Chicago and ask them to tell you their Double Door story. You’ll hear about Liz Phair, Neko Case, Andrew Bird and Chance the Rapper. The legendary $7 Rolling Stones tickets, shooting the Jack Black singing Marvin Gaye scene in “High Fidelity” and bat-shit Har Mar Superstar shows. You’ll hear about more than music, too: weird and wonderful visual art, at least one wedding and countless poetry and story slams (one of Double Door’s owners, Joe Shanahan, is a huge supporter of literature in Chicago). My favorite story: Chicago filmmaker Alex Bonner told me about a Local H show on Halloween where the crowd all came in costume. “I was Agent Mulder, and the love of my life was Scully,” he said, “and for a few moments everything was perfect and the Chicago gods were smiling.”

My Double Door story is a late set from a Philadelphia artist named Res in support of her 2001 album, How I Do. It was packed when I got there—the bar so busy that I didn’t bother drinking. I don’t remember what was going on with me that night, only that I was hurting. A breakup, maybe? Fight with my family? Yet another round of What in the hell am I doing with my life? But I’ll never forget standing alone in the back as she sang the chorus to “Tsunami”:

Ride, ride this wave of mine
There’re brighter things out on the other side

This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.

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Megan Stielstra is the author of the essay collections The Wrong Way to Save Your Life and Once I Was Cool. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, NPR, The Believer, Longreads, Guernica and other outlets.