Marea Stamper Thinks Humboldt Park Is the Crown Jewel of Chicago

Here's what the house DJ had to say about her life and times on Chicago's west side.

Feb 3 2016, 5:00am

Photo courtesy of Marea Stamper.

When she's not busy mixing bangers as Chicago's resident RIOT GRRL house DJ, Marea Stamper—a.k.a. Black Madonna—spends her time checking out the architecture around Humboldt Park and avoiding the CTA like the fucking plague. Here's what she had to say about her life and times on Chicago's west side.

VICE: When and why did you first move to Chicago?

Marea Stamper: I moved here after college in 2006 to work for a record label group. I worked in a warehouse that was the size of a city block with a quarter of a million records. They used to have raves in it in the 90s. Unfortunately, since it was across the street from a "recycling facility," the warehouse also had about a quarter of a million rats in it. I saw one once that was the size of a young tabby cat.

I worked about 10 hours a day and lived in a house with all the other employees. It was great and terrible and everything in between. My bedroom was in a converted closet in the basement and there was less than a foot of floor around my bed. It was an incredibly hard job—but I was willing to do anything, anywhere, for any amount of money (spoiler alert: none) to work in the house music industry.

One time, Daft Punk showed up at the house before Lollapalooza and I made their whole tour bus macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. We made beer butt chicken on the grill and hung out all night in the back yard. They took all of us from the label to the festival, and I got to see the show from behind the Pyramid. When they got done they were whisked off stage in wizard robes so no one could see them. It was a crazy way to make a living.

When did you move to Humboldt Park?
My boyfriend at the time—now husband—asked me to move here about three years ago on Valentine's Day.

What was your first impression of the neighborhood?
I don't know any Chicago resident that doesn't have a complicated relationship with the place they live. Humboldt is amazing—let's get that out of the way. That's the most important thing. We have awesome neighbors, big huge trees, and amazing food and architecture. The park itself is one of the crown jewels of the city. It's stunning. I didn't realize how beautiful it was until I moved here and really explored it.

But, like most places in Chicago, this wonderful place is punctuated with moments of unexpected and extreme violence. My husband has almost been murdered twice near our home. They caught the first dude. The second guy actually fired four shots and missed. He didn't get caught. Violence is a thing we're dealing with on a daily basis. And as shitty as it is for me, I know that the amount of violence that you deal with as a person of color in the neighborhood is magnified past anything I can understand. It is a thing that everyone here navigates to greater and lesser degrees.

When I first came here, I realized that hearing gunshots basically everyday of my life was the new normal. One time, an Uber driver picked me up and told me incidentally he had lived in our building in the 1980s and that our condo had been firebombed back then. About a month later, a car got torched six feet from my front door. I woke up when a piece of it exploded. It was so hot you could feel the heat through our brick walls.

How has it changed?
This neighborhood has a long history of demographic shifts, but since the 1950s the neighborhood has been largely Puerto Rican and African American. Humboldt Park is so closely connected with the Puerto Rican community of Chicago, the park is filled with all kinds of Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean music whenever it's warm. The People's Parade takes place in conjunction with the celebration each year. It can get wild but it's great to see the park transformed with carnival rides. Louie Vega played the festival once. I can open the windows and hear the drums from our house.

But as poor people are priced out of our neighboring Wicker Park, gentrification looms. The change in just the last few years has been pretty astounding. Our building has not been affected for the most part, but renters around us are especially endangered. If they leave, with them go many of the most beautiful aspects of this neighborhood. A lot of old buildings have been replaced with ugly luxury apartments that don't look like they belong here.

What is your favorite park-related activity?
The lagoon is one of the most beautiful places in on earth. Walking around it quietly with my husband and dog, looking at ducks and turtles, watching people fishing in the early morning, those are very special moments of peace for me.

Do you have a favorite neighborhood character?
Yeah, there's a guy that used to greet me on my way to Smart Bar every morning like he I was a long lost friend. Every day it was brand new. He didn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish very well, but we always talked anyways. It made me feel good. I was happy to see him.

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you on the CTA?
One time I was listening to "Original Video Clash" on my headphones and the older lady next to me tapped my shoulder to tell me how much she loved that song and how she used to dance to it when she was a young lady. I guess that's just Chicago though.

What are the best places to eat in Humboldt Park?
We eat a lot at a place called Hash. They have a lot of neighborhood-inspired egg dishes. I get the Ukie, which is a Ukrainian hash thing with sausage and sauerkraut. I love breakfast food for just about any meal.

Best places to drink?
Honestly, my corner liquor store, Tip Top. One time my husband accidentally started to tip the cashier, like it was a bar. It's run by this Egyptian family. There's always an enormous security guard in there. They sell Kim Kardashian-scented incense.

Where do you go to grab a cup of coffee?
Dark Matter. They sell a Derrick Carter coffee blend.

What's the coolest shop in the neighborhood?
Botanica Victoria. Victoria is a very ind person and an important, respected fixture of our neighborhood.

What's the worst outfit you've ever worn during a polar vortex?
At one point our house was about 50 degrees indoors and the trains stopped working. The tracks froze and they literally set them on fire to warm them for use. It was unreal. Life just stopped. I couldn't get warm. I do not wear fur, but I dug my husband's grandma's fur coat out of storage.

My husband and his family are Ukrainian immigrants and the coat's gotta be from the old country. I swear to god this thing is like bear fur stuck on a khaki rain jacket or something. It's the most insane item of clothing I've ever seen in my life. I huddled under it on the couch and put it back in storage later.

What is an experience you've had in Humboldt Park that you'd use as a metaphor for the neighborhood as a whole?
The neighbors in our alley do auto work, and one time they were installing a car stereo and for about five hours they played 30 seconds of one song after another at 4,000 decibels. The music varied between trap, old school house, freestyle, and bachata. That's Humboldt for you. And people honking their horn when they come out of the alley. Toot toot, beep beep.


Favorite bus line: None of them. Fuck the CTA forever. Especially fuck Ventra forever. And Rahm, just because. You hear me, Twinkletoes?
Best place to be alone with your thoughts: My bathtub.
Favorite hot dog joint: Hot Doug's. RIP. I had one of the last dogs they ever made. They delivered a box to us at Smart Bar, and it was the greatest day of my life.

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