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The High Ground
A few fateful feet of elevation set the Uptown story in motion.
By Harold Henderson
March 30, 2007
MORE THAN MOST neighborhoods, Uptown is a microcosm of Chicago. Like Chicago, it’s a raging mix of elegant and scruffy that ends in a gilded lakefront. Like Chicago, it looks diverse from a distance and balkanized up close. And like Chicago it has not one history but a kaleidoscopeful. It’s home to peregrine falcons, Mr. Leather, the Aquitania, Jesus People USA, Lincoln Towing, the city’s last cage hotel, the American Indian Center, and what may be the world’s ugliest Buddhist temple. “It is hard to believe that such a compact area contains so much variety,” the late David Fremon wrote in 1990.
Some of that variety, from prehistory to poetry slams, has been shaped by a rise in terrain perceptible only to pedestrians and cyclists. “I cross Ashland Ave and rise up the last block of Winnemac before it intersects Clark,” writes bicycle commuter Nick Jackson at bikesummer.org/2000/ randomroutenick.html. “The preceding blocks of Winnemac are flat, really flat, so flat that the few feet of elevation I gain before I reach Clark take on great significance. They herald my arrival on the elevated ground of the Graceland spit which was once [about 5,000 years ago] a sandy finger of high ground surrounded on all sides by Lake Chicago.”
After Lake Chicago dropped another 20 feet and became Lake Michigan, that high ground served as an Indian trail; then as the Green Bay Trail, used by soldiers, traders, and mail carriers; and finally as Clark Street. Because high ground is ideal for cemeteries, Graceland and Saint Boniface were established east of Clark. Cemeteries attract hungry and thirsty people as well as dead ones, and a century ago Pop Morse’s roadhouse was located at a crossroads handy for funeral processions. The roadhouse was redeveloped as Green Mill Gardens in 1914, and became known in the 1920s as one of the few north-side venues that would hire all-black jazz bands. The gardens disappeared when the Uptown Theatre was built in the early 20s, but the club continued as the Green Mill Lounge, and in 1987 Marc Smith held the original poetry slam there, in one of the best-loved bars and jazz venues in the city.
When University of Chicago sociologists divided the city into “community areas” in the 1920s, Uptown was community area number three, running along the lakefront from Irving Park to Devon, its jagged western boundary defined, as it ran north, by Clark, Montrose, Ravenswood, and the railroad. As Uptown’s reputation declined after World War II, various components tried to bail out, redefining themselves as, for instance, Sheridan Park or Buena Park. Edgewater—that part of community area number three north of Foster—made a complete break and was named a separate community area in 1980.
“As late as 1870 much of the land south of Wilson Avenue and east of Ravenswood was covered by a large pond,” we’re told by Chicago’s 1938 Local Community Fact Book, “along the shores of which were always a number of row boats for the convenience of those who wanted to reach the opposite shore.” Swedes and Germans worked the land until developers started subdividing for Chicagoans who could afford to move out of the smoky city. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, developer John Lewis Cochran set a fateful pattern for the area by favoring mansions near the lake and apartment houses west of Broadway.
Chicago annexed Uptown and much more in 1889, and with the arrival of the el in 1900, the city consumed it. According to the Tribune, property owners that June were “horrified to find their neat gardens invaded by waves of city-dwellers” on afternoon outings. Soon enough those neat gardens were surrounded by waves of residential hotels and apartment houses, and a commercial hub and nightlife center was born.
Uptown is famous as an immigrant port of entry, but its role as new-media nursery is equally huge.For a decade beginning around 1907, George Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson’s Essanay Studios made silent movies on the site of a former celery farm south of Argyle. Anderson (born Max Aronson in Little Rock) became the world’s first western star in the role of Broncho Billy, a hard guy with a heart of gold. He’s said to have lived the part, riding his horse to the local watering hole. Uptown teenager Gloria Svensson, who started as an extra, also anglicized her name—to Swanson—on the way to stardom. Essanay signed Charlie Chaplin in December 1914, at the beginning of his fame. Chaplin made His New Job in Uptown before leaving Chicago weather behind forever.
Even without the allure of movie stars and legal booze, Uptown blossomed in the 1920s as a center for young singles and couples, who lived in small apartments, ate out frequently, and were more than ready to be entertained. An entrepreneur named Miss Mary Dutton built the 1,226-seat Ontra Cafeteria, one of the largest in the country, on Wilson just west of Sheridan and advertised in local movie magazines. Beginning in July 1926, the Aragon Ballroom’s sublime illusion of a Spanish courtyard attracted 18,000 dancers a week to its circular bentwood floor, which rests on cork, felt, and springs. Many more listened nightly to WGN’s live radio broadcasts from the ballroom. With the decline of big-band music, the Aragon fell on hard times, but it survives today as a venue for touring Latino, rock, and hip-hop acts. The second-story box said to have been favored by Al Capone still opens onto the fire escape above the alley next to the el tracks.
Congenial to this lively milieu was the Reverend Preston Bradley. In 1912 he left the Presbyterians and founded his Peoples Church, which at its peak claimed a membership of 4,000. “I am not orthodox about anything,” he boasted, and campaigned for birth control, women’s suffrage, and the New Deal. He edited a magazine called The Liberalist, built an awesome classical temple at 941 W. Lawrence, and in 1924 became the first Chicago preacher to give radio sermons. (The Peoples Church now has a congregation of 50 and a homeless shelter. There’s no connection between the church and Jesus People USA.)
Chicagoan Irna Philips said Bradley’s broadcasts inspired her to create The Guiding Light, a radio serial about a minister who left a light burning in his study and those who came to him for help. The soap opera premiered on NBC in January 1937; perhaps in a nod to Bradley’s iconoclasm, one character had what may have been the first on-air out-of-wedlock baby. The 70-year-old show has long since left behind both Chicago and its ministerial plot device, but CBS TV still airs it every weekday.
Just as the el made Uptown in the 1900s, the extension of Lake Shore Drive to Foster Avenue unmade it in the 1930s. Built on fill, the road cut off the neighborhood from the lake, encouraged shoppers to take their business farther north, and made it easy for anyone living near the Drive to avoid the rest of Uptown altogether. But as its businesses declined its housing stock came into unprecedented demand. The Depression curtailed new construction and an influx of workers during World War II gave property owners ample incentive to slice up their aging buildings.
After the war, the influx continued. When Appalachian coal companies mechanized—mining triple the coal with a quarter as many miners—whole West Virginia clans crammed Uptown apartment houses. When federal bureaucrats began pushing Indians off reservations and into cities, Uptown became a prime destination. When state bureaucrats “deinstitutionalized” thousands of mental patients, Illinois government economized at Uptown’s expense. “By the 1970s,” wrote Loyola professor Ed Marciniak, “the state government had transformed several city neighborhoods into mental wards. . . . The City’s police officers functioned as orderlies.” Other immigrants flocked from Latin America and overseas: China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Iraq.
Diversity? Uptown’s corporate leaders and longtime residents saw only that their once-glittering neighborhood was turning into a slum. They organized as the Uptown Chicago Commission in 1955 and lobbied Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration to designate Uptown for urban renewal. Thirteen years later, in 1968, the city proposed to renew Uptown by demolishing one-fourth of its housing and building a new branch of the City Colleges.
But by that time the cognoscenti considered “urban renewal” a curse, and the New Left fragment of the cognoscenti—members of Students for a Democratic Society’s Economic Research and Action Project, known locally as JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) and including Todd Gitlin and Rennie Davis—had arrived to let Uptown residents know they didn’t have to take it lying down. Truman College did finally open in 1976, but it didn’t “renew” its immediate area, let alone the whole neighborhood.
What urban renewal did accomplish, as DePaul political scientist Larry Bennett points out, was to politicize a neighborhood previously best known for revelry, setting up an endless and inconclusive battle between those who fear Uptown will become a slum and those who fear it will become a replica of Lincoln Park. (Sometimes these two fears inhabit the same person.) Gentrification’s opponents won a key struggle in the early 1990s—arguably one of the great triumphs of Chicago community organizing—by negotiating a ceiling on rents that kept half a dozen high-rises near the lake affordable to their existing tenants. Some of the landlords agreed to stay in the federal program under which the buildings had been built; others were bought out.
Yet gentrification proceeds apace, and includes teardowns and condo conversions, tasteful and otherwise. During the 1990s the percentage of lots occupied by condos increased by 102 percent, while the number occupied by apartment buildings actually dropped. Most of the six-flat rentals present in Sheridan Park when it became a historic district 20 years ago have gone condo.
The locally rooted corporate leadership of the Uptown Chicago Commission—institutions like Kemper Insurance and Uptown Federal Savings and Loan—has moved out or been merged away (another way in which Uptown’s story parallels Chicago’s). And gentrification opponents like the Organization of the NorthEast—an umbrella group for Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, and Ravenswood—have given up trying to stop condo conversions and instead “decided to try to win what they could from the development that was inevitable,” as Nancy Aardema and Sarah Jane Knoy write in Social Policy magazine. The same strategy now animates the citywide Balanced Development Coalition, which grew out of Uptown and Logan Square activism.
In 2005 Roosevelt University sociologist Michael Maly celebrated Uptown’s rolling stalemate on development in his book Beyond Segregation: Multiracial and Multiethnic Neighborhoods in the United States. Uptown, he wrote, “remains as integrated as a neighborhood can get in Chicago”—42 percent white, 21 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Asian as of the last census in 2000—even in the conspicuous absence of a conscious policy. (The demographic data are online at Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning.) You can think of Uptown as the kind of place that’s been home to both Danny Escobedo, defendant in the landmark right-to-counsel Supreme Court case he gave his name to, and Jim Thompson, federal prosecutor turned Illinois governor.
Uptown is bookended by two tranquil Chicago landmarks that are part of it but rarely associated with it: Graceland Cemetery on the west and Montrose Harbor on the east. In the 1860s the cemetery was the center of—what else?—a development dispute. Its state charter allowed it to grow to 580 acres, but Lakeview Township residents opposed its expansion. The locals won out, and the cemetery occupies just 119 acres today. Graceland is the final resting place of Louis Sullivan, and its monuments include his stunning tomb for Carrie Eliza Getty as well as Lorado Taft’s brooding sculpture Eternal Silence. Other permanent residents include pioneer John Kinzie, five-term mayor Carter Harrison Sr., George Pullman, Charles Wacker, Daniel Burnham, and Marshall Field. As usual, Uptown provides both magnificence and its antidote, in this case from Uptown resident Carl Sandburg who described Graceland in 1916 as a “Place of the dead where they spend every year / The usury of twenty-five thousand dollars / For upkeep and flowers.” (See Lynn Becker’s piece on Uptown architecture for more on Graceland the cemetery and “Graceland” the poem.)
Hard as it is to imagine now, in the 1950s and ’60s Montrose Harbor doubled as a Nike missile base, one of three protecting the lakefront from Soviet bombers. The missiles, now long gone, were surrounded by a hedge that survives today. Now known as the Magic Hedge, it’s a refuge for migrating birds (and also, to the great annoyance of some avid birders, for gay men looking to hook up). In A Natural History of the Chicago Region, Joel Greenberg writes about ditching work in the Loop to grab a cab north to spot a brown pelican there.
In Uptown you may look for a migrating warbler and find two guys going at it; you may look for
a magnificent historic theater and find a board-up; you may look for a homeless shelter and find Pensacola Place. In Uptown you don’t always get what you expect, or expect what you get. Anything else would be suburban.
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