Cultural History

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Uptown is a vibrant neighborhood with a unique history. It has played many roles: a shopping, entertainment, and dining destination for the city’s elite; a port of entry for immigrants; a caring place where neighbors find a guiding hand; and a home to generations of visual and performing artists. Its residents are proud to call Uptown home and passionately support its broad range of businesses, social service agencies, and arts organizations. Uptown is fortunate to have several active block clubs, thriving community gardens, a stunning collection of public art, and an extensive network of parks and unique outdoor spaces.

In its early days, German and Swedish farmers populated the area. It soon attracted the attention of developers who, by 1890, had turned what we know today as Gordon Terrace and Hutchinson Street into a suburban refuge for wealthy Chicagoans. Hutchinson Street’s historic homes still preserve the luxurious charm of those early days.

Uptown saw a surge of development in the early 20th century when the Northwestern Elevated Railway Company and the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Rail Line were extended to Bryn Mawr, allowing suburbanites and servicemen stationed at Fort Sheridan and Great Lakes Naval Base easier access to the big city. Land speculator John Lewis Cochran had influenced the railroad companies so that their tracks would be laid near his developments. These routes made Uptown one of Chicago’s most populous residential centers.

Additional commercial and residential development soon followed. In 1915, Loren Miller opened a branch of his Loren Miller & Company department store (later Goldblatt’s) on Broadway south of Lawrence. He named it the “Uptown Store” to differentiate it from its downtown counterpart. In typical booster fashion, Miller convinced city officials to recognize the Lawrence and Broadway intersection as Uptown Square, thus giving the neighborhood its name. Miller, alongside other local business owners incorporated the Central Improvement Association in 1923, which became Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown in 2005.

By the 1920s, Uptown was a shopping and entertainment destination. From 1907 to 1917, Essanay Studios made Uptown the heart of the American film industry. Later, hotels were built to accommodate an influx of visitors and new residents: the Sheridan Plaza, the Lawrence House Hotel, and the since-demolished Edgewater Beach Hotel, among many others. The Riviera Theatre, the Uptown Theatre and the Aragon Ballroom drew huge crowds. Luxury apartment buildings were built along Winthrop and Kenmore Avenues. Thousands of worshipers flocked to the People’s Church on Lawrence and tuned their radios to hear the renowned Unitarian minister, Preston Bradley.

As with many urban communities, the Great Depression, World War II, booming suburban development, and white flight all changed the neighborhood. Many building owners converted large apartment units into smaller ones. Previously luxurious hotels were turned into single-room-occupancy units for those with scarce financial resources. Due to its affordable housing and transit access, Uptown became an appealing option for recent immigrants and Chicago’s poor. But even during the hard times, major companies and institutions such as Combined Insurance (later Aon Insurance), Kemper Insurance, Thorek and Weiss Hospitals, and Uptown National Bank (now Bridgeview Bank) kept their base of operations in the neighborhood.

The 1940s and 1950s saw an influx of new immigrants to the community: migrant Appalachian Americans from the South, Native Americans from the Midwest, and Japanese Americans returning from internment camps. Many social service agencies opened to meet their needs. As these populations settled into the city and moved up the social ladder, a newer mix of immigrants from East and West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America replaced them. Thus, today, Uptown remains one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and it still welcomes immigrants and refugees from across the globe.

The slow but steady rehabilitation of Uptown began with many urban renewal projects, such as Harry S Truman College in the mid-1970s and the recognition of Buena Park as a historic district in the mid-1980s. Later, Castlewood Terrace, Argyle Street, and Sheridan Park, along with many of Uptown’s outstanding landmarks, were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Neglected rental apartments were rehabbed or converted, new construction replaced abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and established institutions like Bridgeview Bank, Weiss Memorial Hospital and, more recently, Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, expanded or built facilities in the area. Wilson Yards, the retail and housing complex anchored by Target, replaced underused CTA tracks and many key historic structures were beautifully restored.

Restoration continues in Uptown with the renovation of the CTA Wilson Station and the historic Gerber Building, plus restorations at Somerset Place Apartments, the Lawrence House, and many other historic buildings. In 2016, Argyle Street from Broadway to Sheridan Road became the first “shared street” in Chicago. Using brick pavers and eliminating curbs, the innovative design is perfect for hosting events like the Lunar New Year Parade and the popular Argyle Night Market.

The intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway was renovated in 2017 with new sidewalks, decorative street lights, and a new plaza near the Riviera Theatre. In the coming years, the Chicago Transit Authority plans to completely rebuild the Lawrence and Argyle CTA stations and over a mile of 100-year-old tracks and viaducts.