A Place For Us: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks By Owen Keehnen
Since even before the early days of modern gay movement, the Belmont Rocks were a place to call our own. The lakefront stretch of stone and grass from Belmont to Diversey harbors was a public space Chicago’s LGBTQ community claimed from the 1960s through the 1990s. This unwelcoming stretch was more than a frequented waterfront area. The Rocks were a political statement tied to our liberation. The Belmont Rocks were a symbol of our right to be here, our right to exist, and our right to gather outside and in the sunlight at a time when our bars still had blackened windows.
Community happened along this undesirable strip of uneven limestone blocks. Relationships and friendships happened here, hook-ups, unions, memorials, sex, picnics, cookouts, dance parties, and rallies. Artwork covered many of these stones. At the Rocks, people laid in the sun, watched the sunset before going out, and sat to watch the sunrise after the bars closed.
I first came to the rocks in the early 1980s. I happened upon them one day and as soon as I got into view I felt something. Once I got a bit closed the air fairly crackled with a sexual energy, a tension. The feeling was in the air. For the next decade I spent countless hours laying out on a blanket there, cruising, pretending to write, getting stoned, meeting lovers, meeting friends. The Rocks were just as important to my socialization as a gay man in Chicago during that time as the bars were. Those memories were seared into my mind. The thought always brought a smile, and so many of the friends I had from my Rocks days are no longer around. Some have moved, but most died. Mostly from AIDS. The epidemic was brutal to the Rocks demographics. Not eager to show the ravages of illness in a speedo.
Many point to Hollywood beach as the natural descendent of the Rocks, but they are different at the root. The Rocks were about asserting identity. Hollywood Beach. A more welcoming lakefront, volleyball on sand, a symbol of inclusion of assimilation, but with that something was lost. I see the same thing happening with
the loss of gay neighborhoods. I like the energy and activity that a high concentration of LGBT people bring to the table.
Several weeks ago I rode my bike to work in Lakeview and thought for old times’ sake I’d head to the Belmont Rocks. I hadn’t been there in years. What I saw as I approached the lake chilled me to the core. This fun, sexy, and decadent place, which was such an important component in Chicago’s LGBTQ history, was gone. The Rocks had been sterilized, sanitized, and stripped of all the art and life and erotic energy which made them unique.
In 2003 the Rocks were bulldozed and removed as part of a revetment project, supposedly to safeguard against shoreline erosion. Due to the valiant efforts of folks like Charlotte Newfeld and Alderman Tunney, some of the old rocks which featured artwork were preserved and incorporated into the top layer of the wall or repurposed as seating throughout the park. The result was in vain. A few random limestone blocks weren’t the Rocks.
I took a picture of what the Rocks had become and posted it to my Facebook page with the comment, The Rocks Are Dead. The response was overwhelming. I had no idea that photo and comment would speak to so many people. When I got home I dug though old pictures and found a few of the Rocks - people lounging around, partying, lazy days, old boyfriends, even just the topography of the place. The response to these photos was even more overwhelming.
Within hours People began sharing pictures, memories, anecdotes, and talking about what the Belmont Rocks meant to them. The joy people displayed in sharing these stories and photos was incredible. This project truly found itself. Within two weeks the core idea of a book project, A Place For Us: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks, emerged.
The sudden surge of energy behind this community effort is exciting. My goal is to harness that energy and passion and convey what the Rocks embodied. I believe that as a community, we need to preserve that memory. I see this project as an act of historical and cultural conservation.
My vision is for A Place For Us to be a scrapbook of a time and a place and a phenomenon. This was an important part of Chicago LGBTQ history, it’s part of our story and it’s also a prime example of a piece of history disappearing in our
lifetime. Many of us have learned firsthand the importance of preserving LGBTQ history after witnessing so much loss and so many silenced with the AIDS epidemic. A Place for Us is a way to remember the time as well as pay tribute to so many who are no lo
nger with us.
I am seeking pictures and drawings as well personal recollections, memories, and anecdotes of up to 500 words about LGBTQ life at the Belmont Rocks. I even plan to include police reports since that is all part of the story. If the Belmont Rocks were a meaningful part of your life, please consider contributing anything which captures what the Rocks meant to you. With a unified effort we can let future generations of LGBTQ Chicagoans have a window on another time and know the significant role this gathering place had in our history.
The Rocks are gone, but we have the opportunity to harness some of the memories, the stories, and power that came from that incredible place. Preserving our past is our responsibility.