Uptown neighborhood guide

The heart of Uptown has long had an entertainment focus, beginning in the early 1900s with the opening of one of the very first movie-making studios and one of the country’s largest movie palaces.

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Uptown is about 6 miles north of downtown Chicago. With Lake Michigan as its eastern boundary, Uptown has some of the city’s top beaches. It is also home to the Victorian-era Graceland Cemetery where many Chicago notables have been laid to rest.

The heart of Uptown has long had an entertainment focus — beginning in the early 1900s with the opening of one of the very first movie-making studios and one of the country’s largest movie palaces, plus a vibrant jazz scene that flourished even during Prohibition. Today, Uptown is still known for its nightlife — and a thriving ethnic food scene.

Uptown is a mix of old and new, glitz and grit. The clues of her glamorous past are visible in the ornate buildings and bold marquees of her iconic theaters. There are also glimpses of rougher times when the neighborhood fell from her glory days. Uptown has a colorful past and none of it’s hidden.

The spirit of Uptown has a hearty dose of inclusion. Uptown is one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods. You’ll run into all sorts of people on the street, from different backgrounds, ethnicities, incomes and ages. It’s a true eclectic mishmash of people where all are welcome.

Several people I talked with in the neighborhood describe it as “Chicago’s Ellis Island.” It has served as a port of entry to Chicago for immigrants throughout decades. It was also once deemed the “Loop’s little brother” when it was the entertainment hub for the city in the 1920’s. Along with the arts and entertainment, there was plenty of shopping. It was THE neighborhood to visit and enjoy.

Uptown’s location, access to beaches and plenty of transportation have always made it a desirable destination. It’s a historic neighborhood that is experiencing a surge in investment and development. The hope is it manages to maintain its diversity while restoring its rightful place as an arts and entertainment hub for the entire city.

History of Uptown

The Uptown Theatre built in 1925, was once the crown jewel of the Balaban and Katz theater chain and the nucleus of the Uptown entertainment district of the 1920s. | Sun-Times Archives

The Uptown Theatre built in 1925, was once the crown jewel of the Balaban and Katz theater chain and the nucleus of the Uptown entertainment district of the 1920s. | Sun-Times Archives

During the 1850s, railroads built lines that connected Uptown to the rest of the city. The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Rail Line and then the Northwestern Elevated Railway Company built lines north and where the railroads opened stations, communities sprang up.

These settlements included Buena Park, Sheridan Park and Edgewater. All three were annexed by Chicago in 1889.

In 1900 the first North Side ‘L’ line pushed through the area with a station at Wilson Avenue. With access to the train lines, the area experienced huge growth. More people started to move into the area. The three distinct communities lost their separate identities and blended together. By the 1920s the whole area was referred to as Uptown. (Later, Edgewater would be considered its own neighborhood.)

Bright Light District

The arts and entertainment scene was anchored by the world famous Essanay Studios. Essanay’s roster of stars included Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. Founded in 1907 by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson, Essanay Studios operated at 1333-45 West Argyle Avenue until 1917 (at which point all remaining operations were consolidated in California where most of the movie industry was centralizing).  Hundreds of early movies were filmed at this location, including Chaplin’s “The Tramp” and the very first movie about Sherlock Holmes.

Essanay Studios is now part of St. Augustine College. The school’s auditorium in the 1333 W. Argyle St. building is called the Charlie Chaplin auditorium and the building was deemed a landmark by the City of Chicago in 1996.

The Green Mill began as a bar called Pop Morse’s Roadhouse in 1907. The bar and beer garden was mostly filling the demand of mourners that would come over from the nearby Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries. In 1910, it became the Green Mill Gardens. It was expansive. Much of the space occupied by the Gardens was taken over by the Uptown Theater when it was built. The name was an ode to Paris’ Moulin Rouge (which translates to red mill).

The Green Mill has an unparalleled jazz history having featured greats like Von Freeman, Kurt Elling and Billie Holiday. It also is famous for its mob history. During Prohibition, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, an Al Capone associate, owned the bar. Part of the lore includes that the tunnels under the bar were used to smuggle in booze. Whenever Capone entered the bar, his favorite table (situated so he could see both doors) was reserved for him and the bandleader would stop whatever he was playing and perform Capone’s favorite, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

In 1986, Dave Jemilo restored the bar after decades of neglect, and tried to keep its history and aesthetics intact and preserved. A new chapter will be coming soon to the Green Mill, as Jemilo plans to expand with a space next door. The iconic Green Mill has been featured in movies; a few include High Fidelity, Prelude to a Kiss, Soul Food, Oceans 12 and The Break-Up.

Uptown has an abundance of grand theater houses. The Riveria Theater was completed in 1917 by architects George and C.W. Rapp (Rapp & Rapp).  It was originally built as a movie theater for Balaban & Katz – a very popular movie chain that started in Chicago in 1916. In 1986, the Riveria Theater was transformed into a nightclub that hosts concerts and events.

Movies were so popular that Balaban & Katz opened another movie theater less than a block away from the Riveria in 1925. The Uptown Theater was a movie palace in the truest sense. The Spanish Baroque Revival movie palace was designed by Rapp & Rapp – the go-to architects for the movie chain.

Uptown got its name from the Uptown Store which was once at the heart of the commercial center of the neighborhood. | Tanveer Ali/Sun-Times

Uptown got its name from the Uptown Store which was once at the heart of the commercial center of the neighborhood. | Tanveer Ali/Sun-Times

Uptown Theater patrons experienced a luxurious, six-story grand lobby designed to imitate the palaces of Versailles or St. Petersburg with its accented with statues, paintings and tapestries that were reproductions of the world’s masterpieces. The 46,000 square foot building held 4,381 seats, known as “an acre of seats in a Magic City,” that created an unparalleled experience for audience members of vaudeville acts, movies and then later television broadcasts.

The Uptown Theater closed in 1981. There have been several renovation attempts with the latest being an effort by Chicago-based concert promoter, Jam Productions and Farpoint Development that are hoping to renovate and restore the theater with $75 million dollars – a mix of public and private funds.

Uptown’s Aragon Ballroom was built by brothers Andrew and William Karzas in 1926 as a public dance hall with high standards of conduct among patrons. It attracted tens of thousands to big band concerts with its extravagant Moorish style architecture. Men were required to wear jackets and ties and women, semi-formal evening wear. And tuxedo-clad floorwalkers prevented visitors from dancing too closely.

Along with all of the bars, entertainment and music venues, Uptown was also a fashion and shopping mecca outside of the Loop. In 1915, Loren Miller opened a branch of his Loren Miller & Company department store (later it became Goldblatt’s) at Broadway and Lawrence.

A changing community

With access to great entertainment, shopping, green space, beaches and transportation, there was a boom in housing. Many single and young people were drawn to the neighborhood’s vibrancy. An influx of apartment hotels were built and seemed the epitome of modern urban living. The focus was on services, like cleaning and cooking and amenities like gyms and swimming pools. It was a chic way to live, similar living in a hotel or luxury resorts with variety of renting options – for a single night, weeks or months.

A mural near Argyle Street in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A mural near Argyle Street in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

So you get the picture that Uptown’s glitz and glamor was driven by the music, arts and entertainment industry during her heyday. The neighborhood’s elements of grit, scruff and tenacity resulted from what happened next. The stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression, resulted in loss of businesses and residents. Large apartments were carved into rooming houses. The hotels were converted in single room occupancy units. The excess of housing resulted in cheap rents which attracted people that were either down on their luck or just starting out, like immigrants.

The 1940s and 1950s saw influx of minorities including African-Americans during the “Great Migration,” Latinos and new immigrants. These immigrants included a large wave of southern whites from Appalachia, Native Americans from the Midwest, and even Japanese immigrants from Internment Camps. (The American Indian Center left Uptown in 2017. Established in 1953, it was one of the country’s first urban community centers and became the model for many relocation centers around the country.)

As immigrants would become established and climb the social ladder, a newer mix of immigrants from East and West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America replaced them. A range of social service organizations continue to make their home in Uptown and the neighborhood continues its tradition of being a port of entry and welcoming immigrants to Chicago.

In the late 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood developed a reputation of being rough. Jobs were scarce, substandard housing grew worse and the nightlife became seedier. There were issues with drug use, arson, alcoholism and mental illness. Crime rates soared, protective metal gates were the norm on store fronts and CTA commuters often avoided Uptown stations. About this time Edgewater seceded from Uptown and became its own official Chicago community area.

Urban renewal, including the 1968 decision to relocate Harry S. Truman City College laid the foundation for a turnaround. The city and developers argued the city projects were necessary to replace substandard housing and rid Uptown of blight, while many city activists saw it as an effort to rid the neighborhood of undesirable residents- several city blocks were razed and vulnerable residents displaced. This discussion centered on change, gentrification and improvements continues today – especially as it pertains to the construction and renovation of apartment buildings.

Ji Suk Yi explores the history of Uptown in “The Grid.”. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

Ji Suk Yi explores the history of Uptown in “The Grid.”. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

One example is the renovation of the Lawrence House, once the luxurious Lawrence Hotel. Developers restored the often out of code, heavily fined SRO into market-rate apartments for young professionals, restoring and adding amenities and creating tenant commercial space. The downside, despite some units being set aside as affordable housing and relocation assistance, is the belief that many people who rely on public housing and on the edge of homelessness are displaced by these developments.

Uptown is currently undergoing another type of renewal and hoping for a resurgence to recapture its place as an entertainment destination in Chicago. Its access to transportation is excellent and with infrastructure investment, it’s easy to see that beautification of the neighborhood is underway. The Wilson L stop restoration cost $203 million and there are plans to establish a Chicago Market grocery cooperative in the Uptown station’s restored Gerber Building. The Market will feature a coffee bar, sustainably farmed produce, as well as workshops, classes, and live performances.

In 2016, Argyle from Broadway to Sheridan was remodeled as a “shared street” – there are brick pavers and no curbs which makes it very pedestrian friendly.  It’s been great for public events, like the Argyle Night Market. Each Thursday in the late summer, Argyle Street turns into a market featuring regional farmers, dishes from local restaurants and live performers. There’s also the Lunar New Year Parade which kicks off at the Argyle Red Line top every year.

As mentioned before, the biggest and most exciting renovation project involves the Uptown Theater. The Community Development Commission voted to approve a $75 million rehabilitation and up to $13 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) assistance was approved by the Commission in November 2018. The restoration efforts are being led by concert promoter Jam Productions and Farpoint, a Chicago-based real estate developer. Construction is scheduled to start in the summer of 2019!

Where to eat and drink in Uptown

No arena showcases Uptown’s diversity more than its multi-ethnic restaurants. There are all types of cuisine in the neighborhood, but it’s best known as an enclave of authentic and delicious Asian and African mom-and-pop establishments.

Argyle Street proudly displays the sign “Asia on Argyle” at the CTA Red Line stop. It may seem strange that a Chinese-style pagoda is on display in an enclave often referred to as “Little Saigon.” But it makes sense when you take into account that historically many of the South East Asian settlers of the neighborhood were ethnically Chinese.

Pho 777 in Uptown. | Ji Suk Yi/ Sun-Times

Pho 777 in Uptown. | Ji Suk Yi/ Sun-Times

“Our community settled here post Vietnam War, after 1975 and ethnic Chinese were business owners who lived in Vietnam but then also became Vietnamese refugees; many ethnic Chinese have hybrid identities and can speak multiple languages,” said Tuyet T. Ngo, Chief Executive Officer at the Vietnamese Association of Illinois.

Chinese Americans wanted to create a Chinatown North – a new “Chinatown” option. As an alternative to the Armour Square location, Uptown’s Argyle Street was spearheaded by the Hip Sing Association. (At the same time the On Leong Association was building the Chinese business district in Armour Square.) President Jimmy Wong of the Hip Sing Association purchased almost all of the property on the three-block stretch of Argyle in 1974.

Wong’s vision of a Chinese business district didn’t take off as planned, but in the 1980s, another Chinese-American businessman, Charlie Soo, created the the Asian American Small Business Association and pushed to create a more ethnic identity for the neighborhood – including the Argyle Red Line stop improvements.

The first Vietnamese restaurants and businesses were established in the early 1980s. As more Vietnamese arrived in Chicago, they were able to settle on Argyle in Uptown because of the safety network established by their community that would often help new refugees establish credit and acclimate. Many families that knew one other from Vietnam would share apartments.

Many South East Asian immigrants and refugees were guided by resettlement agencies to this satellite location of the crowded Chinatown on Cermak and Wentworth. Housing was more affordable, and it was one CTA line away from big Chinatown. No need to make any connections!

Asking who has the best pho in Uptown is a question that’s sure to end in a heated debate. My suggestion is to try out a different restaurant each time you visit. Each restaurant showcases its own speciality from different regions of Vietnam.

Ji’s Uptown picks

I’ll give you a few of my suggestions, but please know this list isn’t definitive. Every time I go to Argyle, I discover something new. For pho, I often frequent Hai Yen, Pho Loan, Pho 888, Pho Viet and Le’s Pho.

For the “bun bo hue” – the spicy, sour, salty, and sweet soup many swear by – Cafe Hoang as the place to go. My favorite “mi ga” – chicken pho – is at Nha Hang Vietnam. For a broken rice platter or “com tam” head to Pho 777. For a banh mi sandwich I suggest Ba Le.

For Vietnamese groceries head over to Tai Nam Food Market. On the weekend the parking lot of the grocery is mayhem. Often the cars waiting to get into the lot back out onto Broadway creating a traffic jam. So probably better to explore on a weekday.

A fantastic introduction to Ethiopian food awaits you at Demera. Located directly across from the Green Mill, on a corner that’s great for people watching, Demera has been open since 2007. Owner and chef Tigist Reda wants you to feel her culture’s warmth and hospitality. Sharing a meal with loved ones is truly communal. All of the stews (wot),sauteed meats (tibs), injera and a plethora of vegetarian options are served with injera—a traditional sour, tangy flatbread with a spongy texture. You eat with your hands and use the bread to scoop up or wrap the perfect bite.

Be sure to check out Selam Ethiopian Kitchen and Grace’s African Restaurant for Ghanaian cuisine.

If you’re seeking dim sum in Uptown, head over to Furama. Since 1985, the giant, two-story building has been a staple in the neighborhood. It’s cavernous and can feel very empty but they do serve dim sum every day, all day, so the upside is that whenever you’re craving it, it’s available. Furama also hosts events and weddings.

Other places to check out:

  • Sun Wah is famous for its Peking-roasted duck feasts. Sun Wah received the 2018 America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation. Opened in 1986 by owners Eric and Lynda Cheng, three of their children— Michael, Kelly, and Laura — now run the business and moved the restaurant into a larger space in 2008. It’s still BYO, and it’s a fabulous place for a large group outing. The duck is carved table side and served with steamed buns, slivered green onions and hoisin sauce. The carcass is whisked away and turned into a soup and fried rice.
  • Hon Kee has been open since 1981 and has recently undergone a complete renovation. Run by brothers Paul and Terry Tsang, the restaurant has a large menu highlighted by a selection of seafood, with live tanks of crab and lobster that ensure freshness. Its other speciality is barbecue – from roasted duck to bbq pork.
  • Silver Seafood is all about fresh seafood. Select your fish from the tank and the restaurant steams it for you perfectly. It definitely doesn’t look like much from the outside, but you’ll get the full picture once you’re inside. It has an extensive traditional menu or you can just ask the server for help.
  • Immm Thai specializes in Thai street food and khao rad gang or rice and curry dishes. There’s a buffet-style steam table where you can view the varieties available and select one or a combination. You’ll also find a variety of papaya salads, noodle soups and entrees.
  • Futatsuki Ramen is an alternative to all of the pho restaurants in Uptown. The restaurant is a small operation with a concise menu of a few appetizers (like gyoza and chicken karage), curry rice and one type of ramen –  tonkotsu or pork ramen. On Sunday and Monday, you can also order katsudon – a breaded pork cutlet with eggs and broth served over rice.
  • Inside the Lawrence House FLATS building you can visit a location of Heritage Coffee and Larry’s Bar. Heritage has several locations and is a mash-up of two concepts – bicycles and coffee. The bicycles are made in Chicago, but there aren’t any up for purchase at the Uptown location. However, there’s plenty of coffee.
  • Larry’s Bar shares the same owners of Heritage and is a local, accessible cocktail bar. It’s a cozy bar where you can enjoy a hand crafted cocktail or a beer. Because it’s in the Lawrence House, you can take your cocktail out into the large lobby where there are couches and tables and hang out with friends.
  • If you’re looking for even more coffee options there’s First Sip on Argyle. First Sip is run by sisters, Erin and GiGi Hoang, who are second generation Vietnamese-American. Their parents own Cafe Hoang restaurant. Along with fresh pastries, they also serve up tea. In addition to serving Intelligensia coffee, they’ve come up with inventive drinks that incorporate flavors like rosewater, lavender, jalapeño, turmeric and even charcoal.
  • Everybody’s Coffee is a great neighborhood coffee shop that serves baked goods and sandwiches from Baker Miller. It’s a fantastic space that’s great for meetings, studying and reading.
  • Ka’Lish owners have called Uptown home since 1996. Husband and wife, Andy and Gina Kalish, wanted to create “something transformational” with their entirely plant-based eatery. They didn’t want to be a vegan restaurant that attracted just vegans but wanted to attract everyone who loves really good food. Eventually, the idea to transform the entire building, 100 feet of storefront, became a mission.
  • Longacre is a sit-down restaurant that serves up the Detroit style pizza of Longacre Pizza Squared (a fast service spot where pizzas can be taken to go or bought by the slice) along with a variety of entrees that are both plant based and feature meat and seafood. Longacre also serves a vegan pizza.
  • Big Chicks and Tweet are two establishments run by Michelle Fire. She took over Big Chicks in 1986. The location had been a bar since 1944. Fire had worked as a bartender in a LGBTQ bar before Big Chicks so she wanted to make sure that her current establishment was just as welcoming to everyone and anyone. Fire would cook meals on Sundays and hand out plates for free to patrons. In 2003, she opened up Tweet, next door to Big Chicks. Tweet serves breakfast and lunch and is packed for brunch on weekends. After you put your name on the list, you can go sit at the bar in Big Chicks and have a bloody mary or mimosa while you wait for your name to be called.

One more thing

A hidden gem in the neighborhood is Graceland Cemetery. It may not be the best to visit in winter but during the seasons when the greenery is in full bloom or during fall colors, it’s incredible.

Built in 1860, it encompasses 119 acres of beautiful landscape, architecture and art. It’s as much park as it is cemetery and the headstones, sculptures and mausoleums are spectacular. It’s other-worldly, serene and beautiful. I’ve driven by the cemetery countless times and only recently took the time to venture inside. The more than 2,000 trees and shrubs have been certified by the Chicago’s Morton Arboretum which it helps manage.

Graceland is the final resting place for many famous Chicagoans and there are plenty of stories, history and lore. You can grab a map at the office and visit the grave sites of Daniel Burnham, Marshall Field, George Pullman, Jack Johnson (first black heavyweight champion boxer) and Ernie Banks. There are also arboretum maps to help you find and identify the shrubs and trees.

Rubye Lane also contributed to this report.

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