News & Articles

Uptown’s Perpetual Renaissance: Building, Breaking, Rebuilding

by Michael Vinson

There’s a mural in Uptown. Have you seen it? It’s easy to miss. Hidden by freshly planted evergreen brush, it is positioned along on the western wall of the Red Line’s Wilson station platform, facing the northeast corner of Harry S. Truman College in metaphoric repose. The faces have faded since it was first painted, but each represents one of the many ethnic groups that have made Uptown one of Chicago’s most culturally and socio-economically diverse communities. Smoothed away by the inexorable march of time’s uneasy progress, this mural (and its leafy obstruction) proffers silent testimony to Uptown’s inadvertent marriage of disparate traditions, aspirations and values. That marriage, birthed in hope for renewal and forged in the clash of competing and contradictory interests, has given shape to a community unlike any other in the ethnically enclaved City of Big Shoulders. And yet, the evolution of that very diversity, that colorful texture of parallel universes, unfolded in a decidedly Chicago kind of way. Today’s Uptown is the product of the persistent resolve by some to reinvent the neighborhood and the equally determined resistance of others to those efforts. In his Uptown residence at 4646 N. Hermitage Avenue, poet Carl Sandburg wrote in his 1916 poem Chicago: Come and show me another city with lifted head singing So proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning… Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, Bareheaded, Shoveling, Wrecking, Planning, Building, breaking, rebuilding… If this is Chicago, then Uptown is the most Chicago place on earth. Since its earliest days, Uptown has been fueled by never-ending (and, perhaps, never fully realized) dreams of revivification and resurgence. The community was originally developed in the late nineteenth century as a summer resort for Chicago elites desperate for lakefront property, hoping to escape the congestion of downtown’s commercial district. Later, after the turn of the century, ambitious entrepreneurs drew plans to pit Uptown in direct competition with the Loop as the “real center of Chicago.” These grand visions aimed to make the area that once sprawled from Irving Park northward to Devon Avenue the epicenter of Chicago nightlife. This “long boom” took hold in a decisive way as construction began in earnest. Between 1915 and 1930, land values at the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence soared 800% as singles and young couples flocked to the area to enjoy its bustling entertainment sector, filling the seemingly endless multitude of small apartment units that were being built at a dizzying pace. These urbanites joined 18,000 fellow fun- seekers at weekly live music dances held at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue in the heart of Uptown. A block west, the Green Mill Jazz Club and the Riviera Theatre constantly buzzed with likes of John Dillinger, Al Capone and even a young Frank Sinatra. Farther north at Argyle Street, Charlie Chaplin and ingénue Gloria Svensson (soon thereafter restyled as Gloria Swanson) tinkered with emerging media at Essanay Studios where Chaplin filmed His New Job in 1915. And in 1925, Balaban and Katz opened America’s largest movie palace, the Uptown Theatre. Larger than New York’s Radio City Music Hall, it was promoted as “an acre of seats in a Magic City.” But the magic soon faded. With the end of World War II, job opportunities in Chicago’s defense sector began to dry up and those once-young couples moved out to the suburbs while few moved in to replace them. Landlords responded by dramatically reducing rent prices, which attracted a cacophony of European refugees, indigenous Blacks and poor Southern migrants. The Daley Administration decided that Uptown’s diminishing population made it a useful site for building subsidized housing for Chicagoans displaced by new gentrification efforts in Lincoln Park, Hyde Park and Lakeview. Displeased with what they saw as the potential “pauperization” of their neighborhood, business leaders banded together to “revitalize” Uptown. The proponents of this newest renaissance established community conservation organizations like the Uptown Chamber of Commerce and the Uptown Chicago Commission. A 1961 declaration by the Commission stated, “If we are to strengthen the health and vitality of this community for all, we must retain and attract middle-class families, while providing housing for those of low income…to serve diverse occupation, racial, socio-economic and age groups.”Despite the Commission’s professed desire to invest in the economic well-being of the entire community, many in Uptown viewed calls for “urban renewal” with deep suspicion. These activists rejected many of the conservationists’ proposals, including the building of Truman College, which meant demolishing several housing units. A highly vocal activist coalition formed in response to such reforms, decrying what they believed would necessarily involve the calamitous displacement of thousands. Groups like Organization of the North-East (ONE) voiced concerns about the sterilization of Uptown’s authenticity, troubled that Uptown could indeed become the “next Lincoln Park.” The most vivifying source of that authenticity was the unique ethnic and cultural diversity that had developed slowly across Uptown in the decades following World War II. From Sheridan Park to North Chinatown and Little Saigon, this diversity was and continues to be far more substantive than the mere absence of homogeneity. Today, the community includes Poles, Irish and Russians; Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and Asian Indians; Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans and Chileans. Even the Black population is varied as native-born African-Americans find common and sometimes uncomfortable ground with recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Because of its multicultural make up, Uptown has also become an attractive home for gays, lesbians and interracial couples who were met with antipathy and even hostility elsewhere in town. ONE’s mission is to “build and sustain a successful mixed economic, multi-ethnic community” in Uptown. The concern of groups like ONE continues to be that Uptown’s uniqueness will be washed away by efforts to “revitalize” the community, causing it to look like many other parts of Chicago, and America for that matter. Most tellingly, the original Uptown Store, for which the community was named in 1905, is now home to a two-story Borders Bookstore. The building, breaking and rebuilding of resort and slum, commerce and community, past and present have defined Uptown’s history, and continues to stir up intense passions. There’s a mural in Uptown. Have you seen it?