Gene Lee
Photo Credit: Jasmined

Anyone who spent time in Chicago’s Wicker Park over the last few years probably ran into Gene Lee “the dancing Asian guy.” Insert “weird” or “questionable fashion sense” at your discretion. Sadly, Gene recently passed away.

Gene was important because he represented an increasingly elusive burst of color and character. As our cities homogenize, our street corners fill with banks, and our old buildings are replaced by cookie cutter replicas of the uninspired cinderblock box next door, we’re reminded that it’s the people – especially the local characters – that flavor the city. Gene was one of those people.

Wicker Park has its share of street people and neighborhood fixtures. But most of them are ignored and fade into the chaos of cars, commuters, and city bustle. Gene, however, was impossible to ignore. It was fun to just watch people react to him. They didn’t look down, they didn’t just walk by, they didn’t ignore him—they smiled. They pointed and laughed too, but usually in a “hey, good for that guy!” kinda way. He cheered people up.

It’s so easy to go through your daily routine and never look at what’s going on around you. Gene snapped you out of that funk.

According to his brother, Gene was haunted by addiction and bipolar disorder. When he was dancing it was hard to tell if he was happy, miserable, or like most of us, somewhere in between. But he definitely made a lot of people smile. I hope that’s how he’s remembered.