This Saturday and Sunday, Chicago welcomes the largest street festival in the Midwest, Northalsted Market Days. It’s a two-day free-for-all of over 400 vendors, 40 concerts and drag shows, street food, booze . . . and lots and lots of half-naked men.
You see, Market Days takes place in Boystown, a stretch of Halsted Street in the Lakeview neighborhood that is home to the majority of the city’s gay bars and adult shops (plus plenty of trendy restaurants and unique boutiques for any orientation) and many of its gay residents. While the festival isn’t adults-only, you’ll definitely see some things you might have a hard time explaining to your kids (“Mommy, what’s a speculum?”).
While Market Days is predominantly a party – you’ll see more champagne-slushy stands and margarita vendors than anything else – it’s also a chance to support the local community. The money raised from the voluntary $7 donation goes to support the Northalsted Merchants Association that represents the local business owners. They also profit greatly from the event in the form of extra business during Market Days, both at their restaurants and at booths they operate at the fest. Need a new “special toy”, some knock-off designer sunglasses, a hammock for your backyard, a set of “pitcher” and “catcher” t-shirts, or maybe just an arm full of used books? Market Days has you covered with it’s eclectic collection of vendors. You’ll also find giveaways and contests; last year a friend of mine won two sets of round-trip tickets from Travelocity’s “cash-grab” booth.
If you get tired of sipping frozen cocktails, sampling from food stalls, checking out the merchandise and just taking in some of the more outlandish outfits (or lack thereof) worn by the crowd, you can head over to the concert stage where performers like En Vogue and Jody Watley will entertain, along with some local Chicago bands. For that you’ll have to pony up a bit more though. Wristbands to see the stage run from $30-$50 each.
Given the huge crowds and sensory overload you’ll experience at Market Days, the first time can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few tips for survival.
Bring cash. In addition to the $7 donation fee, you’ll need it for any purchase you make from a vendor. There are ATM machines located around the route, but they often run out of money over the weekend.
Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few hundred thousand drunk people can really take their toll on the porta-potties. Come prepared. Most establishments along the route will not let you use their facilities unless you buy something.
Bring snacks and water. You aren’t supposed to bring booze into the fest (though it’s easy enough to sneak in) but you can bring in some water to stay hydrated and some healthy snacks to keep your strength up.
Wear closed-toe shoes. Especially as the night wears on, your chances of getting stepped on (or worse, stepping in something unsavory) increase.
Bring your cell phone if you plan to meet up with friends and make a plan to meet just inside or outside one of the entrances. Make a plan for if you get separated too. It’s easy to get distracted and wander off from your group.
Bring a camera. You’ll want to document this. Trust me.
Dress to impress. If you’re looking for a hook up, bring your A-game. You’ll have lots of competition. From skinny young guys in nothing but a pair of speedos and some feathery angel wings to older “bears” in full-on leather, you’ll see it all and if you want to stand out, you’ll need to make an effort.
Take public transportation. If you plan on drinking, and even if you don’t, taking the El (Belmont Red Line) or bus is the way to go. Cops are out in full force looking for drunk drivers, and parking around the fest is nearly impossible anyways.
Come with an open mind. Market Days is a party for sure. But it’s also a celebration, of love and acceptance. Everyone is happy and friendly. Whether you are gay or straight, male or female, you’ll be approached or maybe even propositioned, but either way you’ll have a great time.