The GMan Tavern is a rarity these days. A consistently great bar in a neighborhood that’s rapidly changing, some say for the better, while others say it’s losing any trace of what made it interesting in the first place. The draft list and whiskey selection is full but not fussy, the Bloody Mary could very well be the best in the city, you’ll hardly find a better jukebox anywhere and there used to be a pool table there, fitting since the place was used in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money.
All told, it’s one of the finest places to drink in a city where you can do a hell of a lot of that. It’s great during nearly any time of the year – except before and after a Chicago Cubs game. That’s because spending any amount of time in the Wrigleyville neighborhood when the ballclub is playing tends to be a dicey proposition, possibly bad for your physical health and mental well-being. No matter how great the bar is, no matter how fun the company might be, a few thousand drunken Chicago Cubs fans roaming around – hammered on cheap shots of whatever and covering up for over a century of losing – is a terrifying thing.
“I just think of the drunkest, drunkest, drunkest former frat guys, harassing the shit out of women in the streets, fighting, bad dueling piano bars and hefty meatheads slapping their hands on my car windows like zombies in a student film,” says Daniel Kibblesmith, a writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Kibblesmith grew up in Chicago and went to the area to see bands play and buy comics, and later on as an adult to, “go to a lot of comedy shows (and work on a few)” at the iO theater. But like countless others who have spent some time around Wrigleyville, his mind always snaps back to the drunken fans. It’s a normal response.
Chicagoans have strong feelings about Wrigleyville. While a local might have more nuanced thoughts on neighborhoods like Logan Square (gentrified, filled with hipsters, great places to eat) or Wicker Park (gentrified, filled with yuppies, great places to eat), say you’re going to hang out near Wrigley Field, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. You really go out of your way to visit there for two reasons: Cubs games and shows at the Metro, the area’s long-running venue that has played host to everybody from Metallica in 1983 to Nirvana in 1989 and nearly every important Chicago band or artist from Ministry at the dawn of the city’s burgeoning industrial music scene to Chance the Rapper in 2016. Joe Shanahan, who opened the venue in 1982, remembers a time when he needed to be escorted by security to his car after a late-night. Not so much because of the fans, but because it was a neighborhood in a big city in the 1980s. “It was scary,” he says of his early days turning the former Swedish Community Center built in 1927. “But it was inexpensive.”
Like any neighborhood in any American city that has drawn certain subcultures – from hippies flocking to Haight-Ashbury in the late-1960s to various neighborhoods across Lower Manhattan where all kinds of punks, burgeoning art stars and other weirdos moved to in the 1970s – Wrigleyville was a place with cheap rent that just happened to be situated around the ballpark of Major League Baseball’s most notoriously pitiful team. Somehow, almost inexplicably, the neighborhood that catered to drunk sports fans there to see their Cubbies lose another day game (Wrigley Field didn’t have lights for night games until 1988) also became a punk-friendly area. The Metro is a few blocks up on Clark, and the Cubby Bear sit directly across the street from the stadium. The latter bar played host to a number of punk and hardcore bands in the 1980s, from Discharge and Sham 69, to locals like Big Black, Articles of Faith and a Naked Raygun show that also happened to be the first punk show ever attended by a kid named Dave Grohl (who was in town visiting family). Sports fans and punks making a specific neighborhood a destination for their respective groups – you don’t really hear of that very often.
It wasn’t always the easiest marriage. Punks hate jocks and Cubs fans routinely took any chance they could to try and start shit with the freaks with mohawks and piercings, but as Shanahan recalls, the relationship between the home team and the venue has at least been good, even recalling a high-ranking Cubs front office member’s daughter showing up with dyed hair to an Agnostic Front show at his venue.
Yet the area embraced its strange side. Up the street into the Lakeview neighborhood, you had The Alley, a store that opened in the late 1970s and served as sort of a mini-mall for all things counter culture, from punk and metal to goth and whatever else was popular at the given moment. The store took over its corner on Clark and Belmont, circling a Dunkin’ Donuts that would famously become a spot for local punks to gather before and after shows, earning the nickname Punkin’ Donuts. In 1991, Chicago Comics would open up between The Alley and Wrigley Field, remaining to this day one of the best comic shops in the city. Clark Street from Belmont to The Metro became sort of a thoroughfare for people looking for everything from bullet belts to bongs.
But things change.
You know the story: people living on the fringe make the area seem attractive to people with money, the people with money move in and, soon to follow are the bars with 20 televisions all showing sports. Wrigleyville, already a strange neighborhood because of its cozy little ballpark and the cursed team that plays there, somehow seemed like a decent fit for a bunch of outcasts. It was normal to end up at the McDonald’s across the street from the ballpark and see kids from whatever show let out ordering Big Macs alongside sloshed baseball fans. It was awkward, but both groups were strange in their own way: kids with the funky hairstyles and clothes, and the baseball fans that would cheer for a team that they know will only disappoint.
Flash-forward to the last days of summer, 2016: the Chicago Cubs are the best team in baseball, the smart pick to finally win a World Series for the first time since 1908, and the McDonald’s, Punkin Donuts and The Alley are no longer there anymore; they’re building a Target on the corner of Clark and Belmont where people used to go to buy Crass shirts and the posh Hotel Zachary is going where countless punks used the bathroom for who knows what. It’s not exactly sacred ground, but it all signals a big shift in the neighborhood, but can also tell you a lot about the long-term plans of the Ricketts family that owns the Cubs, the land where the hotel is being built as well as other important property in the area. It’s the story of gentrification: What once was weird and largely overlooked is becoming the new normal.
Despite all the losing, there has always something inherently charming about the Chicago Cubs. They have drunk and rowdy fans, sure. But you really get that anywhere with every sports team. You’ve had your characters and their famous moments: Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with the fans during the seventh-inning stretch; former manager Lee Elia’s famous tirade against the fans in the early 1980s; Steve Bartman, and a host of others, possibly inebriated, who show up to see the Cubs play even if they know there’s not a chance in hell that they’re going to do anything productive.
Wrigley Field is the Brill Building of baseball. It’s every great love song that you know by heart and you based all of your ideas on how life should be when you were younger.
For years, the team played and mostly lost while owners like the Tribune Company and then billionaire Sam Zell probably never bothered once to take a look at the standings. To them, the Cubs were just a good investment. Fans would show up and the money would roll in no matter what. You could pin the team’s woes on legit curses, sheer bad luck or owners that didn’t really care, but in the end, the fans have remained loyal. That’s a difficult thing to do when you’re the fans of the franchise known for doing one thing better than any other team: losing. And no matter how obnoxious the fans are on game day, that weird loyalty has always added to the thrill that is seeing a game at Wrigley Field. You walk through the dark entryways and into the tunnel to get to your seat and you’re greeted by the most welcoming sight in sports. Every cliche or Ken Burns documentary line you can drum up comes rushing back at you when you see the green field surrounded by ivy along the outfield walls and that old green scoreboard in centerfield that is turned by hand. Wrigley Field is the Brill Building of baseball. It’s every great love song that you know by heart and you based all of your ideas on how life should be when you were younger. Then when life and love don’t turn out to be so cut and dry, at least you’ve always got that song. It takes a lot, Cubs fan or not, to not fall for Wrigley Field.
The stadium itself is undergoing changes: expanded bleachers, posh clubs and the new video boards that some fans hate while others aren’t really bothered by them all that much. The team’s clubhouse has been turned into what many say is the nicest in all of baseball, but hopefully no massive overhauls or additions to the ballpark itself like the ones performed on Soldier Field, the home of the football team Chicago Bears, which caused the stadium built in 1924 to lose its national landmark status. The hope is that ownership knows that part of what makes the entire experience of seeing the Cubs play is that their stadium is the perfect place to watch baseball, and that they don’t mess that up by turning Wrigley Field into some massive stadium without a soul.
What’s changing is the area. The Ricketts family is looking to give Wrigleyville a new face with the hotel, Wrigley Plaza, and other shops, restaurants and amenities that make the neighborhood a place where people actually want to go to and spend lots of time and money around besides just on game day. Part of that, of course, comes with delivering a World Series win. If the Cubs can not only finally break the curse, but also stay competitive with this young team of superstars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo that they’ve assembled, they will no doubt be at the top of the baseball world for a long time to come. But the other key component is balance within the community, keeping the area alive during the off-season. Small businesses like The Alley weren’t able to survive after nearly 40 years, but few have had the opportunity to work with the Cubs through all their phases over the last three decades like Shanahan. He sees nothing but positives in how the baseball team’s ownership has not only revamped the team, but how they’re helping the neighborhood. Seeing a member of the Ricketts family or even President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein at a Metro show is nothing shocking he says, and Epstein has even talked with the club owner about how the venue and the team could work together more in the future.
“Baseball and rock & roll work together,” Shanahan says. He points to the Foo Fighters concert at Wrigley in 2015 that included local stalwarts Cheap Trick, Urge Overkill and Naked Raygun on the bill. He mentions Brendan Kelly of local punk bands like the Lawrence Arms and the Falcon bartending shifts at the GMan, and drinking pints with members of Wilco and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs before heading over to catch games as proof that the two worlds can co-exist. Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello are lifelong fans, so are MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, actors Nick Offerman, John Cusack, Jake Johnson and, of course, Bill Murray. And while celebrities getting behind their adopted hometown teams in Los Angeles or New York City is nothing new, these are bonafide homegrown Cubs fans who are visible in and around Wrigley whether the team is first or last. That’s all a huge part of what going and seeing a team whose whole thing is losing so fun to experience.
“Baseball and rock & roll work together,” Shanahan says.
It’s the end of summer on a recent Saturday evening that turns into Sunday morning at the GMan. As last call approaches, nearly everybody is hammered, all the guys with beards (that’s about 75 percent of the people in the room), the two guys in Misfits shirt, the girl with an Old Style beer tattoo on her arm. It’s good material for a Tom Waits song. The next Cubs game is closer to starting than the last one is to being finished. After two decades of drinking all over Chicago, I can safely say that the spot where I’m sitting and drinking (which I still refer to as “the Gingerman,” like I say Sears Tower instead of Willis Tower or Comiskey Park instead of whatever the hell they’re calling it these days) is still my favorite place to do just that in the entire city.
Yet there are still Cubs hats and shirts on around me. While it’s doubtful that they’re fans who have been in the area since around the start of the prior afternoon (although it is entirely possible as Chicagoans do drink like people in few other places anywhere in the world I’ve ever been), the GMan Tavern near closing time is a perfect summation of Wrigleyville then, now and possibly the future. I recognize a few people from bands I’d seen years before next door at the Metro, clock some Cubs fans and a couple of loud bro-ish types who seem out of place and look like they’re minutes away from being walked out the door by either of those two other types of people.
Like so many other neighborhoods, the old, weird Wrigleyville is long gone. Yet while there are plenty of other options for drinking all across the city – like places with huge whiskey selections and Michelin Starred-menus, upscale tiki bars like Three Dots and a Dash and world-class cocktail spots such as the Violet Hour – the GMan Tavern remains an attractive option. It’s a great place to drink that has shown that no matter what changes may come to the ownership (Shanahan purchased the bar from its former owners in 2012), or even if the neighborhood it has called home all these years finally becomes the center of the baseball universe, it’s still the same old spot. And really, as long as that stays the same, not much else matters.