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Local historian discusses Belmont Rocks' LGBTQ history at forum
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-04-24

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Author, scholar and historian Owen Keehnen discussed "Preserving Us: Documenting Life at the Belmont Rocks" April 19 at Columbia College.

Columbia College's Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences sponsored the event, which Humanities and Cultural Studies Associate Professor Carmelo Esterrich moderated.

Keehnen explained the Rocks ( which he called the "uneven limestone slabs that ran from Belmont Harbor to Diversey Harbor" ) were the only safe space in Chicago through the 1970s-90s where LGBTQ people could be out in the open during the day. He noted the Rocks were popular during a time when LGBTQ bars did not have windows or if they had windows they were painted black.

In talking about his own experiences at the Rocks, Keehnen said he came to Chicago from Rockford, Illinois, in the '80s; he was looking for a place to get some sun along the lakefront—and that is how he found the Rocks. He noted that he spent every single day of that summer at the Rocks soaking in the openness and meeting new people.

"It really felt like I was coming home," said Keehnen. "I discovered my tribe in a way that the bars did not provide."

Esterrich asked the nature of the Rocks being simultaneously a public and private space, and how people behaved while in that space.

Keehnen said there were a lot of private spaces at the Rocks because of the unevenness of the limestone blocks so people were able to have sex or engage in other taboo activities without being seen, stating, "They were able to hide in plain sight, so to speak.

As for the city monitoring the space, Keehnen said he was aware of several arrests. Keehnen explained that during his research revealed charges including open alcohol, drug possession, swimming, nudity and indecent exposure.

Answering Esterrich's question about when and how did he decide to work on this project, Keehnen explained that last year while he was riding his bike to work he decided to check out the Rocks because he was early that day. He said that, in 2003, the Army Corps of Engineers decided the Rocks were unsafe so they were bulldozed and smoothed out into flat concrete. Keehnen noted that everything is "safe, clean and sterile now and nobody was there."

"It hit me like a punch in the gut," said Keehnen. "I took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook with the caption 'the Rocks are dead' and the response was immediate."

Keehnen said he got off of work that day and went through the pictures people had posted, and he posted some of his own from the era. He noted that people kept on sharing their own pictures and stories of how much the Rocks meant to them and this is how the project of preserving this history was born. Keehnen explained that "the project really found itself." He said that due to the amount of color photos and other artwork he wants to include this will probably be an e-book so it will not be expensive for buyers.

As for how Keehnen is collecting data and memories of the Rocks, he said it has been pretty informal, with him asking people to send their pictures and remembrances, adding that 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney's office has a lot of information about the Rocks. He added the project is not going to be academic, adding it will be a "big, messy, fun scrapbook" for the community and a "way to understand what the Rocks were because it is such a fragile piece of history."

One thing that has struck Keehnen during this process is how many people in the pictures have died of AIDS.

"The community loss during the epidemic makes preserving our history and the story of the era—the lives lived and lives lost—even more important," said Keehnen.

Esterrich wondered whether this project has made Keehnen see the Rocks differently.

"I was really surprised my personal fondness for the Rocks was so widespread among the community," said Keehnen. "If I regret anything about my time there it is that I did not mingle more and take more pictures"

A Q&A session followed.

Keehnen has requested that if people have photos, memories or material about what the Rocks meant to Chicago's LGBT community, to contact him at OwenKeehnen@yahoo.com .


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