Tuesday, June 03, 2008

One Last Look At The Old Uptown

Lately I've been spending a lot of time in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood-- my school is there. I've had some thoughts about it.

Chicago's north side Uptown neighborhood was, at one time, as its name suggests, the night spot in Chicago. The beautiful old Uptown theater, one of the historic Balaban and Katz Theaters, sits physically and symbolically in the center of the neighborhood, handsome, dilapidated and currently vacant. I saw Peter Gabriel there in 1980, just before it was closed. It was owned by the notorious slumlord and convicted arsonist Lou Wolf, who had a habit of sitting on beautiful old dilapidated properties-- and doing nothing with them for years. Wolf finally died a few years back, and a lot of the properties he was sitting on, including the Uptown, are slated for renovation.

Right next to the Uptown is my friend Ric Addy's book and used record store. The store has been in Ric's family for decades, and Ric has run it for over 25 years. It's a very cool place to kill an afternoon, and Ric is a cool guy to kill an evening with over a few drinks.

Ric was involved in a documentary about the MC5 that finally got produced a few years ago. It took years to get done-- Ric would occasionally talk about it, calling it the "MC5 movie." He owned some of the videotapes that it was based on.

I remember a pleasant evening maybe 15 or 16 years ago, going to Ric's store and running into my friend (and Ric's) Bobby Scarpelli, who was a legendary bouncer and bodyguard here in Chicago. He was also my son's godfather. Ric, Bobby and I went to the Green Mill, a few doors down from Ric's store, and had an enjoyable evening having a few beers and chatting.

A few months ago, Ric came into the restaurant and we talked a little bit about that evening-- and how much we miss Bobby, who died just a little over ten years ago at the age of 49. Bobby will be another post.

The Green Mill used to be owned by Al Capone, though it has a history that goes back before that. When Charlie Chaplin owned nearby Essanay Studios, the Green Mill was a favorite watering hole for actors and crew. It has continued to be a movie magnet, with scenes in Michael Mann's Thief and Stephan Frears' High Fidelity being filmed in there.

If you go into the Green Mill, you'll notice that one, and only one booth faces not the stage, where jazz bands still play like in Capone's day, but the door. It was that way so that Capone could face the door in case rival gangsters or the police came through the door.

In the case the police came in, Capone could be ushered out of the Green Mill through the network of tunnels that the Green Mill's basement was connected to (the History Channel has a feature about this).

Uptown's decline began after World War II as families moved to the suburbs. Beginning in the sixties, Appalachians started moving in. The neighborhood I grew up in, Albany Park, was the neighborhood people moved to when they could afford to get out of Uptown. Over time, various ethnicities moved to Uptown. At one time, Uptown had 70% of the shelter beds in the entire city. As a result, it's streets have been filled with the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts and mentally ill people. And criminals. Uptown has long been a very easy place to get mugged in.

But Uptown has also been a "port of entry" neighborhood-- a neighborhood where people who have just migrated to the United States lived until they could move on. Uptown is also filled with immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia and Africa, mixed in with yuppies, white blue collar people and young bohemians.

For decades now, Uptown has resisted the gentrification of the neighborhoods that surround it-- Lakeview, Andersonville, Ravenswood. Changes may be afoot. A Borders opened there a few years ago. A Target is one of the stores that is going in a big central space vacated when a big CTA repair barn went up in flames a few years ago. And new restaurants and bars are opening there.

Uptown's gentrification seems inevitable. Even with the economic downturn, it will happen-- the affluence of the neighborhoods around it have pretty much cast the die. But before that happens, I'm looking one more time over my shoulder.

A couple of weeks ago, Francis Oduro, a 22-year-old student from Ghana who attended Truman College, where I take my pre-pharmacy classes, was shot to death on the 4500 block of Broadway, a block from my school and down the street from the places in these pictures, which are on the 4800 block of Broadway. He was walking down to the el stop I get on when I sometimes take the el to one of my jobs. He was unfortunate enough to be walking next to a gang member who was being shot at. The gang member lived. He did not.

As Uptown turns a corner, I hope it becomes a place where it's safe for the future Francis Oduros to attend college, or even walk down the street. I hope that Uptown can find a way to become prosperous, but stay as diverse and interesting as it is.


Danny Tagalog said...

It's funny how prosperity can strangle diversity isn't it? Let Uptown stay diverse, but without the gangs. WE can but hope...

Hope alls well with the Yens:

From the land of the depreciating Yen;


Suze's Sass said...

Great post. Don't you hate it when the old neighborhood changes - and not for the better. Since I grew up in Philly, going home is both a welcoming and saddening experience.

lulu said...

What about the Brawlroom? No uptown post is complete without a mention of it's faux-Moorish glories. (My grandparents met there, by the way)

As always a lovely post about Chicago; you have a way of making me homesick.

lulu said...

For the record, I found a dead body on the street in Uptown once.

Erik Donald France said...

Love the history, the culture. Cheers!

Bubs said...

You send waves of nostalgia washing over me. Those are great pics. I remember drinking at the Green Mill before it was restored, when it was still a typical Uptown white trash dive bar. A drunk bumped into our table and a razor wrapped in black tape fell out of his pocket and hit the floor. He wandered off, the waitress came up around then, looked down, said "this belong to any a you?" and then dropped it into her apron.

Now I need to hear Lulu's corpse story.

The Lady Who Doesn't Lunch: said...

Every time we're in Chicago I try to sell my husband on taking me to the Green Mill for a beer and he never goes for it. It always seemed really cool to me and there's always a cool sounding band playing there. Maybe next time.