Over the past 20 years, no Chicago neighborhood has changed more than Uptown. Back at the turn of the millennium, Uptown had such a skeevy image that real estate people invented all sorts of bogus names to push their properties there: East Ravenswood, Buena Park, Sheridan Park, Graceland (after the cemetery). A gym at Montrose and Broadway billed its location as “Lincoln Park North.”
In most places, the word “uptown” connotes swank and sophistication. In Chicago, it made prospective renters think of a junky, emerging from his SRO hotel to panhandle in front of a redneck bar.
The redneck bars — the Wooden Nickel and the Red Rooster — are gone. So are the greasy spoon diners that served 99-cent breakfasts of eggs, toast and hash browns, and a “Jailhouse Special” featuring a Polish sausage. The Wilson ‘L’ stop got a complete makeover, and no longer smells like a urinal. And the SROs have been converted to luxury apartments. The Wilson Club Men’s Hotel, a “cage hotel” with chicken wire 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 burned-out Darlington Hotel sign to maintain the building’s “charm and historic exterior.” It’s charming to resemble an SRO, as long as SROs are history.
Uptown’s past isn’t all history, though. There are still a few institutions left over from its pre-gentrification era. Every Sunday, from 1 pm to 2 pm, members of Jesus People USA conduct a Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of their 10-story commune on Wilson Avenue, holding placards with the names of police brutality victims.
The Jesus People started out as itinerant missionaries, traveling the country in a bus, preaching wherever it stopped. In the early 1970s, though, they decided to settle down in Chicago and establish a ministry for the poor.
“We wanted to be a ministry versus an inward community, be where people are,” said Ted Jindrich, who has been a member of the Jesus People for nearly 50 years. “Uptown was an absolute ghetto at that point. I remember an apartment, the only heat was their stove. Absolute utter poverty.”
The Jesus People started out in the basement of a church at Grace and Halsted, moved to Malden and Lawrence, then, in 1991, bought the old Chelsea Hotel at 920 W. Wilson Ave. The community, whose numbers have dwindled from a high of 500 to around 175, occupies the bottom seven floors and rents out the top three as low-income senior housing. The members live communally, pooling their earnings in a “common purse.”
The Jesus People played a decisive role in the 1987 46th Ward aldermanic race, when they voted as a bloc for Helen Shiller, who spent the next 24 years trying to ensure that anyone could afford to live in Uptown.
“We were there to serve the poor,” Jindrich said, and they saw that Shiller was, too.
To fund itself, the community operates a roofing supply business, and a coffee shop, Everybody’s Coffee, established to suit Uptown’s changing demographics. (It’s right next door to Upshore Chapter, a new luxury apartment house on the site of an old 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 for 40 years.
“Uptown is a place of halfway houses and mental health facilities,” Bralach said. “There was a guy standing at Marine and Wilson, totally naked. There’s still street people, there’s still gangs. We’ve heard gunshots out here, mostly in the summertime. We’ve got poor, homeless.”
You can still dine on 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 used to house a Walgreens, and decided to quit the CTA to become a restaurateur.
“It was really rough when my dad had it,” Jake’s son Randy said. “You had to fight your way in and out. It’s changed, but there’s an element of Uptown that will always be Uptown.”
Jake’s, however, has not changed — “What are you gonna do? We’re selling hot dogs and hamburgers.” It hasn’t had to, since the Siegels own the building.
“If my dad hadn’t bought the building a long time ago, there’d be no way we’d be in business,” Randy said. “Not on a corner. The only way I’ve been in business is we know everybody and everybody knows us: poor, rich. People pull up in limousines from Lake Shore Drive. One block away from here is mansions. Governor Thompson lived here. Not too many businesses survive this long — or want to survive this long.”
When the Tattoo Factory opened at 4441 N. Broadway in 1976, tattoos suited the character of Uptown, which still had a large population of Appalachian migrants. Founder Pete Collurafici’s first tattoo was a “Born to Raise Hell” devil. Today, tattoos still suit the character of Uptown: young people relax 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 roughly the same rate as Uptown. Lining the walls are racks of framed tattoo art representing the tastes 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 underneath, labeled “Man’s Ruin.”
“Most people bring in their own art,” the woman at the counter said. “We actually haven’t used those since 1992. They’re just fun historical stuff people like to look at while they wait 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 almost been rubbed clear from the worn wooden signboard above the metal door. Max’s passes the test of a real bar: it serves a Jim Beam, neat, with a beer chaser, for just five bucks. It’s cash only, with an ATM in the corner, and the jukebox still runs on CDs. A rainbow flag hangs on one wall, a Back the Blue flag on another. A patron can sit in the all-day dusk of the barroom, sip bourbon, and listen to bartender Karen Marzano narrate the history of the tavern, and of Uptown:
“Carol’s is older than us, but it’s remodeled and they got new owners who don’t know shit about the neighborhood. I grew up here. I’m 52. We used to have a lot of hillbillies come in here. There used to be a line outside at seven in the morning, the old times. You could tell the alcoholics because of their red faces. I’ve been coming here since I was a baby. My mom used to drink in here. They used to call me to get her. I wish you would have been here in the ’80s. This bar was wall-to-wall people at nine in the morning. I felt safer back in the days, ’cause now you don’t know where everybody’s coming from. This is one of the bars that’s still the same. It’s not remodeled. It’s still the same as when they opened it. It is a dive bar. A dive bar is a bar that has limited everything. Limited customers.”
At the bar, a pair of 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 single-story library, Bezazian, built in 1956 and long overdue for an upgrade. It still has Sun Wah BBQ around the corner from Argyle Street, where braised ducks dangle by their necks from hooks in the front window. See them while they last. To quote Chicago author Stuart Dybek (who in turn was quoting Greek author Heraclitus), you can’t step into the same street twice. Uptown is always changing, faster than anywhere.