Chicago - As the El Train clatters and clanks to a stop, I join a rush of passengers gulping for air. On the street, I walk past an art student type sporting a subdued mohawk. Laughing at his outrageous T-shirt that reads, "I fucked Mick Jagger," I'm sure I've got off at the right stop, Wicker Park. I'm spending my last night in the Windy City in Chicago's funky alt-neighbourhood.
Settled by German beer barons in the 1860s, a decade later both the park and neighbourhood were named for community builder Charles Wicker. Off the dark main streets of this green district, Victorian mansions peek out from behind the ancient trees.
Waves of Polish and then Latin American immigrants provide a multicultural backdrop to what's now one of North America's largest artist communities. Low rents attracted artists in the 1970s, and by the late 90s the requisite bohemian cafés, scenester bars, galleries and vintage shops filled the area. Despite such signs of gentrification, Wicker Park's never been Starbucked and boutiqued like New York's Chelsea or San Francisco's North Beach. That's why I'm here.
I find my bearings at Wicker Park's landmark flatiron building. A wedding-cake-slice of a building, white and elaborately decorated, it houses many of the neighbourhood's galleries and studios. Here, and elsewhere throughout the nabe, I find examples of the naive outsider art Chicago's famed for.
I head a block west to the trendy Mod for an iced cappuccino. Its dramatic entrance features a two-storey orange wall facing funhouse-style mirrors. I grab a seat in a groovy white Jetsons chair to take in the street scene.
I then have a bite at the unappetizingly named Earwax Café, a vegetarian restaurant and art-house video outlet. Patrons reflect the neighbourhood's urban mix of surly bike couriers, dreadlocked fair-trade coffee drinkers, angst-ridden grad students and runway-watching fashionistas.
With little time to waste on this 12-hour tour, I head to Club Lucky for a cocktail. A hipster hangout disguised as an Italian restaurant, Club Lucky has a bar area, like many in Chicago, decorated in immaculate 1940s movie-set style. I talk local real estate with ex-punker types who look like they'd be better versed in 1980s Brit band trivia.
But I'm late for a wine sampling at Taste (serving "fruity wine" and "stinky cheese," says the sign). I realize this is, thankfully, not a stuffy wine tasting when owner Rodney Alex starts blasting disco music. By the end of the evening he's singing along to Ring My Bell.
Looking for nightlife is a tad too easy. Preferring mellow sounds, I choose a piano bar, the eccentric, swanky Davenport's, noted for its bathtub-size martinis.
After a couple of hours of Broadway-type tunes played by versatile pianist Andrew Blenderman, a lounge singer belts out his personal history of gay achievement in America, leaving the audience to ponder, "Who put the KY in Kentucky?"
The proprietor, Bill Davenport, engaging in a little wine tasting of his own behind the bar, is chatty. He tells me how much he loves Toronto.
I tell him I don't want to go back.