When Bob Hoagland and Thomas Senesac moved to Wicker Park in 1987, it was to escape rapidly gentrifying Lincoln Park. The couple planned to stay for as long as it took them to not be underwater on the two-story property they'd purchased. They stayed for 30 years.
"It's a beautiful neighborhood. When we moved in, there were quite a few gay couples here. In those days, gay couples tended to be the pioneers of gentrification. There was a lot of property that could benefit from being fixed up," Hoagland remembered.
Many changes have come to what Hoagland called "the best block in the city." Gay couples left and now families routinely cycle through, leaving when they have kids. "We never really seriously talked about moving," Hoagland said. "We weren't standoffish. Oh, we don't want to get to know these straight people. I never expect to be rejected because I'm gay, so I'm perfectly confident to go out and engage people with the totality of who I am. We reached out, and people responded positively. I think that's validation."
The hardest change of all came when Senesac died of cancer in 2014. "A lot of people would call Thomas the mayor of the block," said Hoagland, who described his partner as incredibly charming and often larger than life. "I know a lot of people love me, and proved it while Thomas was sick and dying, and being there for me and doing things."
Neighbors offered to maintain Senesac's garden while he was ill, a reflection of all the small favors the couple had done for them over the years. The two were famous for their annual Christmas party and for always welcoming new neighbors with offers of support. It's a legacy Ald. Joseph Moreno honored last June, with an honorary street sign at the corner of Damen and Crystal.
"Thomas was, and I am, a very outgoing and friendly person," said Hoagland. "We would do the time-honored stoop sitting. We would come home from work on a nice day, we'd get a beverage, sit on the front steps and talk about our day before we went in to make dinner. The neighbors would come by and stop and say hello, and we'd say, 'You want a beer?' Eventually it became sort of a social clearinghouse for the block. It was lovely. It forged connections. It was what I think makes a neighborhood a neighborhood. "
Senesac was also notable for his business, Acme Prop Rental, which supplied Hollywood films and helped John Hughes get his start in movies. Despite a warehouse brimming with material, occasionally inspiration struck a little closer to home for Senesac.
"I came home one day and the four-poster bed was gone, " Hoagland laughed. "It was gone for two weeks and then it came back. You just laughed; it was always a surprise. It was kind of cool to see things that you own in a movie. It was a delight to live with someone like that. I'm a little more linear and organized, so we made a good team. "
Hoagland told Windy City Times he thinks their partnership benefited from the relationships they built around them: "When you're involved in a community, it helps your relationship because it's just something bigger than you are," he said. "We always tried to live our lives to the fullest, because, I think, we had no one to depend on but each other. We didn't have kids to take care of and society wasn't always that encouraging of us. We have to make our own universe and our own happiness. Ultimately that's true for everyone, but our circumstance of being gay made us think about it constantly, and consciously do something about it instead of just drifting through life."
Now, when he sees honorary street signs around the city, Hoagland said he wonders about the stories behind them.
"I'm this little kid from the Northwest Side of the city that had blue collar parents. It's still amusing to me that any of this is happening," he said. "I stood there the day the street sign was unveiled. and I looked at people from many different parts of my life, but primarily from the block, and thought, oh my god, what a blessing this group of people is who love me and support me and lift me up."
Although he passed away before he saw it, Senesac knew about the street sign: The honor was years in the making. Hoagland remembered Moreno asking him what Senesac would think of the idea.
"I said, 'he would be overwhelmed and I can't think of anything better'," Hoagland recalled. "In the whole journey from when [Thomas] was diagnosed with cancer I saw him cry only a few times. That was one of them, and that time, it was happy crying."
The sign is something Hoagland encounters every day, when he walks his 16-year-old dog down the block he's called home for 30 years.
"I'm still surprised to see it there," he said. "Like, god, it's real. It still feels not real in some dimensiona little piece of immortality. Doesn't all of us want a little piece of immortality?"