Neighborhood comes out of the closet

By The Columbia Chronicle

by Tony Merevick

A Facebook group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood has built a following so large that it has become an alternative option to the gay scene in Boystown located in Lakeview.

Created in the summer of 2008 by Columbia librarian Arlie Sims, the group was formed to address the North Side neighborhood’s growing gay population, and bring together local members of the LGBT community.

Sims is the head of Reference and Instruction and Coordinator of Staff Development at the Columbia College Library.

Formally known as LGBTQ in Rogers Park, the group had its first birthday Oct. 17 at its usual location in The Glenwood, located at 6962 N. Glenwood Ave. The most recent meeting was on Nov. 14, the 13th meeting of the social group.

“I wanted to have more of a network in the neighborhood, a time where people could go out and know that they would meet lots of their gay friends in the neighborhood without having to get on the train or drive or take a cab to go to Lakeview or Edgewater,” Sims said.

Since it was conceived, the group has seen a large increase in attendance, boasting a large crowd at each gathering, according to Sims, a Rogers Park resident.

“Very soon—almost immediately, people started joining,” Sims said. “I don’t remember how quickly we got 50 people. It was a couple of months and we had a couple dozen and then more and more.”

The group now has 293 members on Facebook. Sims said people in their late 20s and 30s and older attend the socials.

“I saw it on Facebook and I clicked on it, found it very interesting and I joined it about a couple of months ago,” said Michael Harrington, Rogers Park resident and chairman of the Board of Trustees at United Church of Rogers Park.

“It’s friendly and festive,” Sims said. “People are really happy to be hanging out with, well, their own kind in the neighborhood.”

Sims said he tries to talk to everyone in the bar. He wants to make sure that everyone knows about the  new group.

“It’s always good to be amongst one’s peers and fellows,” Harrington said. “I enjoyed it.  I saw many neighbors and people I knew from the LGBTQ community and felt good.  It was a refreshing atmosphere.”

Sims moved to the neighborhood in 2001 and began to notice its large gay population.“So I got to thinking and I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to start a Facebook page because I would like to meet more people in the neighborhood and not feel like you have to go to Andersonville or Lakeview to have social lives,’” he said.

Lakeview and Andersonville are North Side neighborhoods known for their large gay communities, such as Boystown.

Sims said Rogers Park has a different feel to it.

“It’s a different vibe from going out to Lakeview. Even Big Chicks [5024 N. Sheridan Road] has its own vibe,” he said.

After having drinks with some friends for the first time at The Glenwood, Sims quickly contacted the owner, Renee Labrana, about bringing the group to her bar.

“It was clearly a gay or gay-friendly bar,” Sims said. “[Renee] is very friendly and very enthusiastic.”

“We had just opened,” Labrana said. “And I was thrilled that he would want to bring a group of people in the neighborhood together at my establishment.”

Labrana said she has many fond memories of the socials.

“I love to hear the stories that people in the group have met here, and then are going to each other’s houses or out to dinners together,” she said. “It makes you realize a big city isn’t always so insular, and The Glenwood helped with that. That makes me very proud, for lack of a better word.”

Sims tends to be modest when it comes to praise.

“I’m really not doing hard work, I’m just sending out an announcement every month on Facebook and getting people to join the Web site,” he said.

“Arlie is fantastic as a host,” Harrington said. “He is really warm and welcoming, and I was really impressed with how he manages it. He basically spends time introducing people to each other and he is really good at that.”

When asked about the future of the group, Sims laughed. He is content with the group.

“I need a task force because I don’t really have a vision,” he said. “To me, it’s doing just what I wanted it to do.”