There was a time, in its Roaring '20s heyday, when Uptown lived up to its name in more than one way. Yes, it stood higher than the Loop on the Chicago city map, but it also represented a glamorous step up from much of the rest of the Windy City.
In his book, "Guide to Chicago Neighborhoods," author and Tribune reporter Ron Grossman recaptures that age. "Between the World Wars, Wilson and Sheridan marked the center of what the Chicagoan magazine of the day called 'a city within a city,' a glittery district dotted with big movie palaces, fancy department stores and dance halls hosting Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Jan Garber and all the other famous names of the swing era."Ensuing decades would not be so kind to Uptown. Chic "Wilson Avenue girls" and their Aragon Ballroom suitors married and fled to the suburbs. Uptown began a slow slide, morphing into a low-rent district known for crime, grime and arson fires.
That slalom bottomed out in the 1970s, when urban pioneers swooped in to grab architecturally stunning vintage homes and commercial buildings at bargain prices. Three decades later, Uptown continues on with an inspiring revitalization.
"Uptown is in a renaissance," said Christie Hahn, executive director of Business Partners, the Chamber for Uptown, which has been the area's business association since 1923. "That's because of passionate, dedicated business owners, residents and elected officials who really care about this neighborhood."
It's a story not unlike that of many rediscovered Chicago neighborhoods. But here it has a twist, owing to the preservationist zeal of residents. "We have this great commercial stock," said Suellen Long, president of Bridgeview Bank Uptown, who in her 38 years as an Uptowner has shepherded renovation of many homes and commercial buildings as a resident and businesswoman.
"In other neighborhoods, older buildings are torn down and replaced. Here, we're saving them, and in many cases taking them back to their original splendor."
There are few better examples than the bank Long is head of, which for decades was known as Uptown National Bank. Beneficiary of a $16 million renovation, the 1920s-era Art Deco palace is the second largest terra cotta structure outside the Loop, and serves as an Uptown anchor, hosting special events and public gatherings.
A bank as urban neighborhood icon? In Uptown it's fitting, because millions of dollars have poured into homes and businesses in the last few decades. Investment in the commercial district has made this a destination for diners, shoppers and music and theater lovers. "Now on a weekend night, it's very lively and exciting," Long said.
"You can dine at a white tablecloth restaurant like Marigold. You can head to an ethnic restaurant like the Demera Ethiopian restaurant, or you can have a burger at the Crew Bar & Grill and go next door and catch a show at the Green Mill."
Uptown theater lovers flock to lively comedy improv performances at Annoyance Theatre, as well as stagings at Pegasus Players, Black Ensemble Theater and Profiles Theatre, Hahn said. The Riviera Theatre regularly packs 'em in for rock shows, and the Aragon delivers entertainment from boxing to big name musical acts, she added.
Then there's shopping. "What people don't realize about Uptown is there is a lot of retail here," Hahn said. A favorite is Shake Rattle & Read Book Box, she said. "People will find thrift retailing, which is really important in this economy," she said. "And there are a lot of really fun gift-type shops around Argyle Street."
A lakefront community, Uptown also welcomes those who prefer sunning to shopping. Montrose Beach has the only dog beach in the city, and is a haven for in-line skaters, joggers, anglers, soccer players and kite flyers, Hahn said. For beauty, serenity and Chicago history, many Uptown denizens and visitors seek out Graceland Cemetery's leafy green confines, the final resting place for some of the Windy City's biggest names, from Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, to Potter Palmer and Marshall Field.
And because Truman College has been here since 1976, Uptown also has an academic side. Residents can pursue career-oriented studies in skills from automotive technology to cosmetology, or brush up on their dance, yoga, photography or art. Truman College also enhances Uptown's multi-ethnic flavor, drawing students from 140 countries. "We are a reflection of the community," said spokesman Clifton Daniel.
Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) believes its multi-ethnic nature may be Uptown's greatest quality. "I like this neighborhood because it's so diverse," she said.
"Embedded in the community is the opportunity for people from all walks of life to have a good quality life and realize their fullest potential."
When it comes to shelter, buyers and renters alike appreciate the extra helping of elbow room served up by Uptown's spacious homes, condominiums and apartments. That generous space is a byproduct of the neighborhood's larger lot sizes.
While typical Chicago city lots measure 25 feet wide by 125 feet deep, some of Uptown's parcels bulge out to 50 by 170 or longer, said David Panozzo, an associate at Coldwell Banker Gold Coast Office in Chicago, and an Uptown resident since 1993.
Panozzo added, "Compared to Lakeview and Lincoln Park, the units are considerably less expensive for what you're going to get."
Typical Uptown single-family homes fetch from $700,000 to $900,000, but some go as high as $2.5 million or more, Panozzo says. As for condos, two-bedroom, two-bath units range from $275,000 to $400,000, depending on size.
Make no mistake, Uptown's renaissance is still a work in progress. And not everyone is turning cartwheels over changes to the community. Dick Uyvari and his life partner, the late Joe La Pat, were among the first rehabbing and renovating homes in Uptown in the mid 1970s.
The influx of new residents in the last 15 years has left Uptown altered, he feels.
"There were some positives, in that prices went up and buildings were fixed," Uyvari said. "[But] people don't seem as interested or invested in the neighborhoods as they were before. It's become more impersonal."
Long likes what's transpired in that time, but says Uptown can be even better. "There are wonderful structures that need to be purchased and rehabbed," she said.
At the top of her renovation wish list are the CTA Red Line stations at Wilson and Lawrence Avenues. Transforming these eyesores "would be a boon to residents, to businesses, and to our economic growth all the way around," she says. "For years there's been talk, but now it's time for action. Hopefully we'll be in line for that."
On the issue of crime, residents seem to agree that perception lags reality. Uptown is a safer place than it once was.
Said Long: "On crime, I don't think we're any different from any other neighborhood."
Uyvari adds that crime problems have always been overstated. "In the 35 years I've lived here, I was never once accosted, robbed, attacked or otherwise hassled," he said.
If you haven't seen the revived Uptown, it's time to step up and visit, Hahn said.
"I love this neighborhood," she enthused. "Uptown has something for everyone."