May 13, 2008

Uptown Travel Guide


Uptown is the result of a divine message received by men with a tremendous amount of money in the early 1920s. Here, by the lake, there was to be an entertainment district of such magnificence that it would shift the entire center of Chicago to the north, and within a few years, overtake even Manhattan for supremacy in the nation. Up went canyons of Art Deco magnificence: hotels, department stores, palaces of music and the arts; all in accord with the vision. Ever see a movie where cigar-chomping gangsters escort gorgeous molls into a damn good jazz club? That's the Green Mill. Where thousands of earnest teens dance their hearts out for a famous live radio broadcast? That's the Aragon Ballroom. And the crowning achievement was the Uptown Theater, the "acre of seats in a magic city," where every man could see a movie like a king.

But there was the small matter of the stock market crash in 1929. Right as Uptown was reaching its peak, new construction slammed to a halt and Uptown never recovered. Needing tenants, many buildings were carved up for low-income housing, and maintenance was lowered to match the rent. There was still revelry, but it was seedier, and less of a destination for the fresh-faced teens of yesteryear. Unlike other parts of the city, which were reinvented by changing fortunes across the decades to come, Uptown stayed on the mat, beaten down by poverty.

At last, though, Uptown is reaping the rewards of that heritage. Years of cheap living created a diverse community that's still resident there today, highlighted by the amazing Southeast Asian pocket on Argyle between Sheridan and Broadway. (It's sometimes mistakenly known as "Little Saigon" or "North Side Chinatown," but it's too diverse for one label.) For the first time in decades, the entertainment district is growing again, with the survivors holding strong and joined by some great new options. In an area where a dilapidated pancake house from the 1950s still counts as new construction, the seedy atmosphere of Uptown can be absorbing like few others in the city, and makes for a memorable night out.

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