November 2001

By Steve Knopper

For two hours on a sweltering Friday night in early August, not a sound came from the new Real World building. Outside, 350 angry punks, bemused yuppies, and random, leaflet-distributing musicians milled around both sides of Chicago's high-traffic North Avenue. "MTV will never get with me!" chanted a circle of hip-hop MCs. A T-shirted kid in his 20s rattled drumsticks against the three-story brick apartment. A guy in horn-rim glasses distributed FREE THE REAL WORLD SEVEN fliers and begged the crowd to "hold hands around the building and levitate!"

Suddenly, the big orange front door opened, and five amazingly thin cast members with perfect haircuts pushed past the protesters and boarded a waiting Volkswagen Eurovan. In the front seat, a young woman with a Macy Gray vibe made an obscene gesture involving two fingers and her tongue. A voice shouted "go home!" as the van sped away.

But few could explain exactly why they'd gathered in Chicago's Wicker Park, the arty, liberal neighborhood that rocker Liz Phair immortalized as "Guyville." A blonde woman walked through the crowd and asked, "Somebody's protesting The Real World? Why?" A guy with several piercings responded: "Because it fuckin' sucks. The woman replied, "That's the only reason?"

Actually, there are two: 1) MTV is owned by Viacom, a multinational conglomerate, which, like AOL Time Warner and Microsoft, controls the media and is therefore evil; and 2) MTV's presence represents the apex of Wicker Park gentrification.

A decade ago, Wicker Park was "just hypodermic needles, Mexican cantinas, hookers, and junkies -- and neighborhood people," says 12-year resident Tucker Harper, 30. In the early '90s, struggling artists began renting lofts; coffee shops, record stores, and used bookstores followed. As will happen when young scenesters colonize a dodgy neighborhood, others caught on: Housing prices jumped 97 percent between 1992 and 1997; Starbucks moved in near the venerable Double Door rock club; and fixtures like coffeehouse Urbis Orbis and used-CD store the Quaker Goes Deaf went out of business.

Today, at the six-corner intersection in the heart of Wicker Park, businessmen in small spectacles wait for walk signals next to kids with noserings and giant pants. None of them would be here if the area were still overrun with hookers and junkies, but that argument seems lost on the anti-MTV crowd. "Even people in their 30s are having a hard time finding a condo to purchase in this neighborhood," says office temp Carlos Pecciotto Jr., 33, who is also a spokesperson for a loose consortium of Real World protest groups. "Bicycle messengers or waiters may come to Reckless Records for fun, but devil if they can afford to live here."

Yet some locals -- even people who wait tables -- have no problem with gentrification, and they disagree with the proesters' broader manifesto. "MTV did not raise the rent," says Wicker Parrk resident Mollie Sullivan, 27, who is a manager at the Local Grind, where three cast members frequently drop by for coffee. "The people who are protesting need to realize this is bringing people to the neighborhood -- they're getting mad at someone who's going to buy their paintings or see them speak."

These protests have moved beyond The Real World 7: Seattle, in 1998, when kids in bars wore REAL WORLD SUCKS T-shirts and placed themselves in camera range. In Chicago, lured by tongue-in-cheek EXTRAS NEEDED fliers, about 50 people showed up for the second and most unruly protest on July 2. Police arrested 15 -- including Pecciotto, who says all he did was bang a drum -- for disorderly conduct or obstructing officers. Local networks picked it up. A front-page Chicago Reader headline declared, REALITY BITES: THE BATTLE FOR WICKER PARK; MTV VERSUS ITS TARGET AUDIENCE.

Yet odds are low that the protest will make it as a subplot next season (ironically, there's usually one episode devoted to shady hangers-on trolling through the house), yet the apartment at 1934 West North Avenue has been locked down like a bunker, with off-duty police silently standing guard and security cameras posted in doorways. (In an unrelated incident in early July, a woman drove two men who had been shot gang-style a few blocks away to the officers stationed outside the Real World residence for help; after paramedics showed up, one died of a head wound.) But even the oblivious have been stopped and frisked: One afternoon a deliveryman who brought a bouquet of white orchids was intercepted by a beefy guy with an earwire.

During another protest later that week, the kids in the house seemed eerily unaware of the events outside -- though at one point a cameraman began filming from a third-story window. "We're gonna be on fucking MTV showing everybody what a fucking lame city we are!" whined a lipstick, club-ready girl. Not a chance: After exactly three seconds, the cameraman disappeared.