Over the past 20 years, no neighborhood in Chicago has changed as much as Uptown. At the turn of the millennium, Uptown had such a dodgy image that real estate agents invented all sorts of false names to push their properties there: East Ravenswood, Buena Park, Sheridan Park, Graceland (after the cemetery). A gym in Montrose and Broadway advertised its location as “Lincoln Park North”.
In most places, the word “uptown” conjures up elegance and sophistication. In Chicago, it made potential tenants think of a junky, walking out of his SRO hotel to beg outside a redneck bar.
The redneck bars – the Wooden Nickel and the Red Rooster – are gone. So did greasy spoon diners who served 99-cent breakfasts of eggs, toast and hash browns, and a “Jailhouse Special” with Polish sausage. The Wilson ‘L’ stop has had a makeover and no longer smells like a urinal. And the ORS have been converted into luxury apartments. The Wilson Club Men’s Hotel, a “cage hotel” with latticed ceilings, is now the Wilson Club Apartments, which advertises itself as “located in Chicago’s historic Uptown neighborhood”. The Uptown stigma is gone. The Darlington, “Uptown’s Newest Apartments”, installed a replica of the burnt-out Darlington Hotel sign to retain the building’s “charm and historic exterior”. It’s lovely to look like an ORS, as long as ORS are a thing of the past.
Uptown’s past isn’t all history, however. There are still a few institutions from its pre-gentrification era. Every Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., members of Jesus People USA stage a Black Lives Matter protest outside their 10-story commune on Wilson Avenue, holding signs with the names of victims of police brutality.
Jesus’ people began as traveling missionaries, touring the country by bus, preaching wherever they stopped. In the early 1970s, however, they decided to move to Chicago and establish a ministry for the poor.
“We wanted to be a ministry rather than an indoor community, to be where the people are,” said Ted Jindrich, who has been a member of Jesus’ people for nearly 50 years. “Uptown was absolute ghetto at the time. I remember one apartment, the only source of heat was their stove. Absolute absolute poverty.
The Jesus People started in a church basement in Grace and Halsted, moved to Malden and Lawrence, and then in 1991 purchased the old Chelsea Hotel at 920 W. Wilson Ave. The community, whose numbers have shrunk from a peak of 500 to around 175, occupy the lower seven floors and rent the top three as housing for low-income seniors. The members live in community, pooling their income in a “common purse”.
The people of Jesus played a decisive role in the race for aldermen for the 46th district of 1987, when they voted en bloc for Helen Shiller, who spent the next 24 years trying to ensure that everyone could afford to live in Uptown.
“We were there to serve the poor,” Jindrich said, and they saw that Shiller was too.
To finance itself, the community operates a roofing supply business and a café, Everyone’s coffee, established to accommodate Uptown’s changing demographics. (It’s right next to Upshore Chapter, a new luxury apartment building on the site of a former Burger King.) To fulfill its mission, JPUSA runs Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter on Clifton Avenue. Despite Uptown’s changes, the shelter is still needed, said Ed Bralach, a member of 40 years.
“Uptown is a place of halfway houses and mental health facilities,” Bralach said. “There was a guy standing at Marine and Wilson’s, totally naked. There are still street people, there are still gangs. We heard gunshots here, especially in the summer. We have poor, homeless people.
You can still dine for a dime (OK, under $10) at Jake’s Pup in the Ruf, 4401 N. Sheridan Rd. The menu is spelled out in plastic letters on a plastic board behind the counter. Hot dogs, corn dogs, gyros, pizza puffs. In 1958, Jake Siegel was driving a 151 bus when he spotted the building, which once housed a Walgreens, and decided to leave CTA to become a restaurateur.
“It was really tough when my dad got him,” Jake’s son Randy said. “You had to fight to get in and out. It’s changed, but there’s an element of Uptown that will always be Uptown.
Jake’s, however, hasn’t changed— “What are you going to do?” We sell hot dogs and burgers. This was not necessary, since the Siegels own the building.
“If my dad hadn’t bought the building a long time ago, there would be no way we were in business,” Randy said. “Not in a corner. The only way I’ve been in business is that we know everyone and everyone knows us: poor, rich. People arrive by limo from Lake Shore Drive. A block from here are mansions. Governor Thompson lived here. Few companies survive that long – or want to survive that long.
When the tattoo factory opened at 4441 N. Broadway in 1976, the tattoos suited the character of Uptown, which still had a large Appalachian migrant population. Founder Pete Collurafici’s first tattoo was a “Born to Raise Hell” demon. Today, the tattoos still fit the Uptown persona: youngsters chilling out next door at Drink and Ink after getting needled with their custom designs. The Tattoo Factory thrives because tattoos have become more upscale and artistic at about the same rate as Uptown. Along the walls are framed tattoo art racks representing the likes of the original clientele: the Grim Reaper wrapped in a Confederate flag; a skull wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette; a naked woman in a martini glass with a pair of dice below, labeled “Man’s Ruin”.
“Most people bring their own art,” the woman at the counter said. “We actually haven’t used them since 1992. They’re just fun historical stuff that people like to look at while waiting for their tattoos.”
The last old-style sign in Uptown hangs in front of Max’s Place, 4621 N. Clark St., a bar whose name has nearly been erased from the worn wooden sign above the metal door. Max’s passes the test of a real bar: it serves a neat Jim Beam with a beer chaser for only five dollars. It’s cash only, with an ATM on the corner, and the jukebox still works on CDs. A rainbow flag hangs on one wall, a Back the Blue flag on another. A patron can sit in the bar’s twilight all day, sip bourbon and listen to bartender Karen Marzano tell the story of the tavern and Uptown:
“Chez Carol is older than us, but it’s been renovated and they have new owners who don’t know anything about the neighborhood. I grew up here. I am 52 years old. We used to bring a lot of hicks here. There was a line outside at seven in the morning, elders. You could recognize alcoholics because of their red faces. I’ve been coming here since I was a baby. My mother used to drink here. They were calling me to pick her up. I wish you were here in the 80s. This bar was full of people at nine in the morning. I felt safer then, because now you don’t know where everyone is from. This is one of the bars that is always the same. It is not renovated. It’s still the same as when they opened it. It’s a dive bar. A dive bar is a bar that has everything limited. Limited customers.
At the bar, two Bosnian men watched the USA-Norway curling match.
“This building is for sale,” Manzano said. “Half a million. I hope they don’t put the bar out.
Uptown still has a one-story library, Bezazian, built in 1956 and long overdue for an upgrade. He still has Sun Wah BBQ on the corner of Argyle Street, where braised ducks hang by their necks from hooks in the front window. See them while they last. To quote Chicago author Stuart Dybek (who in turn quoted Greek author Heraclitus), you cannot enter the same street twice. Uptown is always changing, faster than anywhere.