Nelson Algren wannabees flock to Gold Star Bar, like moths to a flame. While Tuman’s sold out and a more upscale breed of lounge has moved in, Gold Star Remains one of the original Bohemian dives along Division Street. What’s so special about it? Nothing, really. Well… perhaps it’s the laid-back feel to the place, the alleged presence of ghosts that creates an eerie fascination, or perhaps the cheap beer and indie juke. My bet’s on the latter, but most likely it’s a combination of all of the above.
It might help to know these things about Gold Star prior to going there, as it doesn’t look like much from the outside (and that might be an understatement). To begin with, Gold Star is not to be confused with the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which used to be a cabaret and jazz club on Lake Shore Drive in the once ominously numbered 666 N. LSD (later re-numbered 680 to increase its real estate value). Instead, the Gold Star Bar is housed in a red brick three flat next to a liquor store (on the corner of Wood Street), and across the street from Phyllis’ Musical Inn. There is a mid-century style neon sign that I have never seen lit, so the Gold Star Bar may be a little difficult to find at night. This sign is actually a holdover from the days when there used to be a hotel above it, of ill repute. The façade is primarily comprised of black-painted plywood with “Gold Star” written in gold, cursive script surrounded by stars. It looks like a child of five may have been commissioned to paint it. There is also a gold star in the sidewalk, reminiscent of a Hollywood square – there are even a few seedy people hanging around out front just like everywhere in Hollywood. Never mind those butterflies in your stomach as you step through the plate glass door encrusted in glass blocks as you’ll find a rather sedate environment that is not at all unwelcoming. In fact, it has the same surprising warmth found at other dark, gothic neighborhood bars in the area like the Inner Town Pub, Rainbo Club and the Charleston.
Inside, you’ll find a golden hue and all the décor of an old Chicago neighborhood joint: ancient wooden floors, a high, green-painted tin ceiling, scuffed white and red-painted walls, and a worn wooden bar that extends halfway down the room on the left side. Behind the bar are more gold stars, a neon Point Beer sign, a few trophies and a gargoyle above the bar. The latter of which is probably to ward off the spirits (some evil?) that have been felt and, some say, seen in the bar. Don’t worry we’ll get to the ghost stories a little later. The open space behind bar used to house a grand piano but now allows the bartender to roam around.
Photo courtesy of Jon KatzeHere at the bar, the beer is cheap. How cheap? Let’s just say it would be about half the price of what the House of Blues charges. The place is so cheap that I once ordered two Budweisers and got two Old Styles. I’m pretty sure the bartender heard my order… Perhaps the small neon Budweiser sign in the tiny front window had been a little misleading. There’s no kitchen at Gold Star, but you might be able to snag some free popcorn or be blessed by the nightly appearance of the Tamale Guy.
Across from the bar, the walls are adorned by frameless works from local artists, beyond which is a seating area comprised of green plastic lawn chairs around formica-topped tables, and a small pool table in the back surrounded by three tattered couches and an ancient cigarette machine. There is also a jukebox that offers an impressive array of punk and alternative favorites, including Tom Waits, Naked Raygun, Sam Cooke, Buzzcocks, David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust, of course), Clash, Jesus Lizard, Radiohead, MC5, and Black Flag. This area used to be the residence of the old Polish woman that ran the bar from the 1930’s until 1990, until the bar changed hands and the wall was knocked out.
The crowd at Gold Star is a mix of old regulars and young, alternative newcomers to the area. Everyone seems to wear somewhat scruffy clothing to match their hairstyle. Many of the younger types are the newest generation of Bohemians, including writers, artists, actors, web designers, bike messengers, and others that cannot yet afford a place in Lincoln Park or prefer life on the edge in the Ukrainian Village. Gold Star is a good location for Bohemians as it lies between the Chopin Theater and the Myopic Bookstore, the latter of which is open for night owls until 1:00 a.m. It may be a bit of a stretch, but one could draw a comparison between Gold Star and McDaids of Dublin, circa the 1940’s and 50’s when it attracted cutting-edge literati like Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh. Gold Star was even the site of the 1995 Chicago Underground Press Conference Underground Press Conference, remembered by Marc Spiegler. Gold Star seems blissfully devoid of pretension, but I do get the feel that there are a few alterno-poseurs here and there. While the place does not look it at all, Gold Star does get pretty revved up in football season. Evidence of this is the aging “Green Bay Super Bowl Champions” banner with yet another gold star painted on it, hanging from the ceiling. As you may of guessed, the bar is unfortunately owned by Packers fans. Will’s Northwoods, eat your heart out!
“I have a nagging urge to go to this bar and Rainbo Club and start a fight with all the hipsters. ‘Hey I fused my bike to another bike and I’m wearing women’s jeans! I suckle at a minutiae-obsessed wolf’s teat!’ Good luck with your BA in Irony, jerko. They have Carlsberg though.”– Carl G. on Yelp (November 13, 2008)
Also in attendance at times are a few ghosts. Before we get into that, one must understand the history of the area. As Lee DeVita points out inBarfly’s Guide to Chicago’s Drinking Establishments (2000), “For the first 50 years of the 20th Century, much of West Division Street was settled by Polish immigrants. During Prohibition, Division Street was known for speakeasies, whorehouses and gambling dens. After Prohibition, many of the speakeasies turned into Polish polka bars and the whorehouses and gambling dens continued on.” While gambling doesn’t appear to have factored much in Gold Star’s past, the bar did evolve into a cross between the speakeasy and whorehouse it was during Prohibition: it became a bar with a “hotel” above it. The hotel was actually a place to “visit” with teenage Polish girls, for a fee of course. Apparently, the bar still gets a few inquiries for those in need of these things today. Hell, the antique key-rack still hangs to the left of the front door, where the room keys once hung. This was the height of “Polish Broadway” and the heyday for the Gold Star Bar. The bar was “sumptuous,” with an, “interior of an ornately-wallpapered and lavishly-furnished pub,” according to Ursula Bielski in her book More Chicago Haunts, Scenes from Myth and Memory.
Good times did not follow in the 60’s, and Gold Star suffered a similar fate to the Green Mill in Uptown. Polish Broadway became full of gin mills, hookers, addicts, and often lethal brawling in the street. While regentrification has taken hold of much of the area, some of this legacy continues. I once heard of an incident in the mid-90’s that occurred in front of one of those old-school, liquor store/dive bar combinations, where two old immigrant men got into it over a woman. The argument devolved into a violent kafuffle, in which one of the men almost decapitated the other man with a knife, killing him. OJ would be proud. Chicago Bar Project fan and former Wicker Park denizen, “Cowboy Tim” recalls: “It wasn’t a decapitation. It was a good ol’ fashioned THROAT-SLITTIN’. Two men in their late 60’s or early 70’s got into a fight over some stupid hooker, and one of them produced a MACHETE (no less) and slit the throat of the other, right there on the sidewalk. The bloodstains remained on the sidewalk for months and months afterward — testament to what happened and the fact that nobody takes any care of that fuckin’ neighborhood. Nobody cleans up in front of their property ’round there. Perp was arrested and charged with 1st-degree murder. This was all over the local news at the time, too — most upsettin’ to my mother (‘Oh, my God — isn’t that right down the street from the apartment you’re about to move into?’). Oh, and in the interim, I’ve managed to reach into the deep recesses of my enormous mind to recall the name of the stinky taproom in front of which the crime occurred: Cut-Rate Liquors, in the 1600 block of W. Division St. Local townsfolk casually renamed the joint ‘Cut-Throat’ immediately followin’ the incident. MU-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
Photo courtesy of Kurt Kramer The neighborhood is better today, but one should always be careful and keep an eye out in this area. Sadly, as part of the recent regentrification, the polka clubs have been swept away along with the gin mills, whorehouses and gambling dens. However, for those of you wishing to get down to “Roll out the Barrel,” there’s still the Baby Doll Polka Club on the South Side.
The Gold Star has had its share of violence in the past as well – a legacy that lingers with the bar today, even though its violent episodes appear to be a thing of the past. As pointed out by Bielski, “… a number of hot-blooded killings are reported to have taken place here over the generations, including the one that occurred in the 1950s, when a previous bartender shot a would-be holdup man in the tavern’s front doorway. Susan Stursberg, an employee of the Gold Star for nearly ten years, has long felt a degree of discomfort in this area of the bar, whether opening or closing up for the night or socializing in the vicinity. She has also wondered from time to time about strange movements in her peripheral vision… A visiting psychic… pointed to a presence in the bar’s front doorway-the site of the murder.” The ghost of a girl in a lime green dress and a man in a straw hat have also been reported by Gold Star patrons and staff to have been there one minute and gone the next.
“Gold Star is kind of like Cheers except even if everybody knows your name, nobody really gives a shit.”– Carly F. on Yelp (January 5, 2008)
While the Gold Star may not be as interesting today as during its heyday during, and immediately following, Prohibition, there’s still enough to keep you interested between the patrons and supernatural. Still, I’m sure that Nelson Algren, the working-class novelist of the 20th Century and former resident of the area, would be happy to see the Gold Star frequented by neighborhood types, he probably wouldn’t object to the yuppie newcomers as they do not seem to have spoiled the atmosphere. One might argue that they compliment it quite well, even. Or, maybe I’m just biased because the old regulars might view me as one of “those damned yuppies.” Whatever the case, head over to Gold Star for a Bud – er, I mean Old Style – and a ghost story. Afterwards, head over to Myopic Books down the street to pick up something by Nelson Algren or Steven King. Boo!