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All Plays Are Local

A play about gentrification and its chokehold on small business

 The connection between politics and theater recently hit me in the face like a tight, closed fist. This smack to the jaw isn’t something that happens every time I work on a show, although most times the social and political have a strong thread in my work. The “closed-fist” happened during an early rehearsal for my play Gas For Less, which ran at the Goodman Theatre in May and June. The play, about a failing family-owned gas station on Chicago’s North Side, dug deep in me emotionally and was also tied to the city’s constant requests for my hard-earned dough. The price of riding the train was going up, the cost of a city sticker was going up, there were less places to park in the city for free, the sales tax was increasing, the property tax was increasing, my rent was increasing and on and on.
   It felt like Chicago could sense some vulnerability within its denizens, some blood in the water, and suddenly there was a feeding frenzy for our wallets and purses. It seemed that everywhere I went I was being shook down or watching others get shook, such as the inspiration for the play, my favorite neighborhood gas station (and local hang-out) on the corner of Lincoln and Berteau. When I heard the place, called Gas For Less, had closed for good (after months of silent threats like empty candy racks and broken gas pumps), I was left rattled.
   After the station closed, I asked around the neighborhood about its demise. I found the reasons had been two-fold:  the independent station couldn’t afford to fill its tanks any longer and the tax on the lot had risen so much they couldn’t keep up. The politics of Chicago (and the nation) had dealt a blow to a neighborhood establishment, one that supplied definition, character and service to a changing area. The politics of greed were in the air and the community of North Center was heavily affected. As with all gentrification, those who can’t afford to stay must go and are quickly replaced with those who can afford to move in. The profit-making begins with those new folks. If one can afford a condo in the up-and-coming area, then one can afford brand-name shoes, gourmet coffee and high-end baby clothes. But none of this pattern is new. It’s the same story told a hundred times in other cities across the country. I felt conflicted, asking myself if there was a place for the stations like Gas For Less anymore and what happens when a way of life ends for a shop’s owners, customers and hangers-on.
   This conflict began to settle once I had the opportunity to meet Phil Berman, the son of the station’s original owner. He had seen an article about the upcoming production and offered the cast and crew any insight he might have into running the station or the neighborhood at large. Taking him up on his offer, he and his wife stopped by during the second week of rehearsals and told us his story. What he expressed was a heartfelt sense of loss and frustration that ebbed directly from him and through his father, Bill Berman. I discovered that the feelings they had about the changes in the neighborhood (as well as the changes in their lives) were the same feelings I was having. None of us had a clear place to put the emotion tied to those changes.
   I quickly felt a strong bond with Phil and believed I had a duty to clearly represent his (and his father’s) situation. I realized I hadn’t known tthe true cost of this roughshod political decision-making until I talked to the individuals affected and saw the downside of “community betterment.” In the same way I feel when I’ve written about those in the military, I discovered a strong need to make sure our show honored the memory of the original Gas For Less, along with shedding light on the politics that helped bury it.
   As our elected officials continue to make decisions “in our best interest,” Chicagoans must remember what they may end up sacrificing. It’s the city’s inhabitants at large who must hold tight to their neighborhoods, their history and their relationships to both. If we do not, then those with more money and more power will continue to remove all quirks from a city that relies on those eccentricities to live, breathe and survive.

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue