Uptown: A Neighborhood Brimming with History

Uptown History

Among Chicago’s many neighborhood, few have as rich a history as Uptown. It was in Uptown that the film industry began at Essanay Studios before moving to Hollywood, Frank Sinatra got his break at the Aragon Ballroom, and Danny Thomas made his name. At its pre-Depression zenith Uptown was a regional hub of culture and entertainment and while it declined post-WW2, in recent years Uptown has seen tremendous renewal. Today, crowds still flock to the Aragon Ballroom and Riviera and institutions such as Kemper Insurance, Thorek and Weiss Hospitals, and Bridgeview Bank anchor the community. For decades a port of entry for those seeking to better their lives, Uptown is a tremendously diverse and vibrant neighborhood, including a “New Chinatown” along Argyle Street, packed with Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese businesses.

Early History

Uptown’s early settlers built modest houses although Sheridan Road, close to the lake, saw elaborate suburban residences built by wealthy Chicagoans. By the mid-1880s, there were four area station stops: Argyle Park, Graceland-Buena Park, Edgewater (Granville), and Sheridan Park (Wilson). Streetcar lines were soon extended along Lawrence and Broadway, and in 1889 Lake View Township was annexed into Chicago. In 1900, the area received a direct link to downtown Chicago via a line that terminated at Wilson Avenue.

This extension of rail service brought with it an influx of people that would define Uptown. Between 1900 and 1915, population increased by 60% and the area changed from suburban enclave to dense urban center. Early commercial buildings were small and clustered along Broadway (originally Evanston Avenue, renamed in 1913), directly in the path of commuters walking to and from the Wilson L Station built in 1923.

The proximity of the Lake and the area’s excellent access to public transportation offered residents and visitors a variety of recreation and entertainment options, including beaches at Lawrence and Clarendon and at Wilson Avenue. In 1923, the Chicago Daily News noted that “Every cross street for three quarters of a mile north and south along Wilson Avenue leads to a beach.” From 1913 until 1930, when it was filled in for the extension of Lincoln Park and Lake ShoreDrive , Clarendon Beach was the largest and best equipped in the city, offering a wide sandy beach, a promenade, and an administration building that provided thousands of lockers, an assembly hall, a nursery, gymnasium facilities, and swimsuit rental.

Between 1915 and 1926, the area around Broadway between Wilson and Lawrence was the most successful retail, commercial and entertainment center outside of the Loop. 1921 saw the first issue of The Up-Town Advertiser, funded by advertisements placed by area merchants. The weekly paper’s average circulation quickly grew and popularized the “Up-Town” catch phrase. Its popularity led area businesses and organizations to quickly borrow the name. By 1923, the Central Uptown Association was founded – the organization that today is Uptown United.

Post-War Years

Following World War II, the popularity of Uptown as an entertaining and retail destination waned. Historian Roger Guys writes, “By 1940, Uptown was one of the most densely populated community areas in the city with over 12,500 people per square mile.” The large number of cheap and easily accessible apartments turned Uptown into a port of entry for recent migrants. Tens of thousands of white Appalachian and American Indian migrants settled in Uptown during the 1950s and 1960s. This trend continued through the 1970s and 1980s with large numbers of Cubans, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Africans, Koreans, and Vietnamese and Cambodians settling in Uptown.

During this period, residents, business owners, community organizers and public officials all sought to protect Uptown’s character and diversity. In 1955, residents and business owners formed the Uptown Chicago Commission (UCC). In 1966, the UCC successfully secured designation of Uptown as a “conservation area,” a designation under the Urban Community Conservation Act of 1953 that made the community eligible for improvement funds and city planning services that were akin to other post-war urban renewal programs. Other groups were formed to advocate for specific subsets of Uptown’s diverse population. The Council of the Southern Mountains, headquartered in Berea, Kentucky, established the Chicago Southern Center in 1963 in Uptown to serve the Appalachian immigrants. Between 1964 and 1968 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) operated a community organizing project for the poor in Uptown called “JOIN” (Jobs or Income Now). During the 1960s and 1970s, the Montrose Urban Progress Center opened at Montrose and Hazel, the Heart of Uptown Coalition was formed, and a satellite office of the Hull House Organization was formed in Uptown, all joining the campaign to improve living conditions and economic opportunity.

While people still poured into the district, by the mid-20th century Uptown was no longer the entertainment destination it had been in the 1910s and 1920s. Crowds no longer packed dances at the Aragon, and far fewer came to see movies. The Aragon Ballroom remained open until March 31, 1958, when a fire and explosion in the restaurant next door ripped a hole in the lobby and caused extensive damage. Following a $250,000 remodeling project, the Aragon reopened, but was sold soon after. The Uptown Theater was closed in 1981, The New Lawrence Hotel was converted to senior housing in the 1980s and the Plymouth Hotel was demolished in 2003.

Text and photos adapted from City of Chicago’s Uptown Square District preliminary summary.

Uptown’s Historic Designations:

Historic Photos

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-11-43-05-amThe first transit station at Wilson, 1907.
screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-11-45-10-am Opening of the Uptown Theater, 1925.
screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-11-34-17-amView of Lawrence Avenue, 1941.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-11-46-16-am
Protest of poor housing conditions in Uptown, 1960s.
Wilson Avenue in the 1970s.