What the “Boys” have to say about Boystown, Chicago’s Gay Neighborhood


Cole Christensen

People dancing on top of tables at Roscoe’s Tavern in Chicago on Feb. 25, 2023.

Cole Christensen, Staff Writer

If you asked someone from the suburbs what they associate with Chicago, the typical answer might be Michigan Avenue shops, museums, sports teams, crime, etc., but is that an accurate depiction of every neighborhood? Boystown, or Northalsted, located next to Wrigleyville, was the first officially recognized “gay” neighborhood in America. The area is best known for its nightlife, exhibiting dozens of gay bars, night clubs and drag shows. Here’s what the people of Boystown have to say.

“It’s something special that exists in the world,” says Gina Smith, who has been coming to the bars since the 2000s.

Smith’s bar of choice is Progress because it plays old-school hip-hop. She also enjoys Boystown for the acceptance it emits. 

“Some ‘straight’ areas aren’t as welcoming, but this area welcomes everyone,” Smith said. “It’s a place where you know you’re gonna have fun and [your sexuality] really doesn’t matter.” 

Travis Enberg, a patron of the neighborhood since he came out two decades ago, agrees.

“It’s a very inclusive area, straights and everyone,” Enberg said. 

When Enberg first came out to his cousins, they suggested he check out the gay bars in Chicago. At the time, he attended college at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and drove 4 hours for a single weekend.

It may seem like a long drive, but times are different from what they were. 

“[Boystown] is more of an elevated space [now],” Enberg said. “Everyone’s friendly, things are going on. [We can be] more open and free.”

The increased acceptance of the LGBTQ community has led to more public events celebrating their culture and history in Chicago. The most popular one is the Pride Parade which is how Meg Magennis first discovered Boystown.

“I always like to come for Halloween,” Magennis said. “No matter how good your costume is, know that it’s not gonna be as good as [the] drag queens at Boystown.”

Aside from the costumes and parties, Smith and Magennis both describe how the neighborhood’s bars are fair to their customers.

Magennis praises Sidetrack and Roscoe’s Tavern for not having a cover fee, despite being popular and high in-demand.

“Not everybody wants to pay to get into places,” Smith said. “They’re both very popular, so it’s not that you’re sacrificing the experience just because you don’t have to pay to get in.”

Magennis also noted that the TV situation at Boystown is superior to straight bars. That was where she watched the presidential debate a couple years ago.

“Sidetrack is really cool because they have so many different rooms, and if there’s something you wanna watch [on tv], you can do that,” Magennis said.

While the frequenters of Boystown have positive views of the area, they also have their criticisms.

In 2021, business leaders within the district changed the official name, Boystown, to Northalsted to be more inclusive.

Jesse Lex lives nearby in Lakeview, and shares his problems with Boystown.

“There’s probably a good portion of people that aren’t as accepting and welcoming,” Lex said. “It doesn’t really come to the top for the rest of the city, or outside the city to see. …In 2019], there was a conflict [with] gay black people coming to bars and not feeling welcome. Every neighborhood has its dark side and bright side.”

While Boystown may not be viewed as perfect, it’s important to remember the social impact of its nightlife. For decades, it has been a safe haven for urban, suburban, and rural Americans alike.

“It’s beautiful to accept everyone and have a place where you feel you can be yourself and not be worried,” Smith said.