The Battle for Uptown

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Danny Lyon, Two youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, a neighborhood of poor white southerners, 1974
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 555950, DOCUMERICA Collection

Behind a leafy residential block in Uptown, five brightly colored murals on a row of garage doors form a living history of the neighborhood, extolling virtues of diversity and memorializing the community’s struggle to preserve affordable housing. One mural depicts “Tent City,” a 1988 protest to demand new scattered-site public housing. Another recalls a traumatic period in the 1970s when areas of the Uptown–Edgewater neighborhood experienced as many as 400 fires in a single year, resulting from physical neglect, vandalism, and documented cases of arson for profit. The murals include references to the truly exceptional character of the neighborhood, including its thriving theaters and exotic terracotta architecture, which gives Uptown its sense of place while contributing to its desirability for redevelopment (“Starbux [sic] Coming to a Hood Near You!”). Although the events depicted in the murals seem removed from this quiet street, Uptown has been defined by a multigenerational struggle to protect its most vulnerable inhabitants from the violence of urban renewal, and the slow, but no less dramatic transformation of market-driven gentrification.

Uptown is an island of economic diversity on the wealthy North Side, shaped by migration, immigration, advocacy, and, perhaps most of all, the extraordinary conditions of the area’s original development. In 1900, Wilson Street became the northern terminus of the local Northwestern elevated train, and this formerly suburban area quickly transformed into one of the largest shopping and entertainment districts in the city, with dozens of new commercial buildings, dance halls, and theaters constructed along Sheridan, Broadway, Wilson, and Lawrence. High land values in the 1920s encouraged the construction of ever-larger apartment buildings alongside major commercial strips and luxurious graystone six-flat family apartments on more residential streets. The population doubled in size, and as banks and luxury retailers flocked to Uptown, newspapers speculated that this northern shopping district might grow to eclipse the Loop.

Uptown pioneered a new residential type during this period, known as apartment hotels, offering a growing class of single professionals and couples a cosmopolitan lifestyle free from the drudgery of housekeeping and long commutes. Ads compared the Lawrence Apartment Hotel in Uptown to a “fine club,” with luxurious lobbies and a dazzling array of modern services including an indoor driving range, gymnasium, pool, and rooftop solarium.[1] As social life was paramount, apartments in these hotels were very small, often occupying only a single room, and were rented fully furnished with stylish furniture and china, a small “buffet kitchen,” and Murphy beds that could be folded away during the day. Rent included maid and linen service, and meals could be taken in the hotels’ lavish public dining rooms and cafés. Although the Lawrence was one of the largest of the 70 apartment hotels constructed in Uptown, all 400 of its one-room apartments were fully leased before the building was completed in 1929, only seven months before the stock market crashed.

Uptown’s population soared during the Depression as the large stock of housing proved attractive to migrants and, later, war workers, seeking jobs in Chicago. Hotels were converted to rooming houses, larger apartments were subdivided, and Uptown developed a reputation for its many taverns and rowdy entertainment, causing a steady stream of middle-class families to move to the suburbs. Uptown became particularly well known as port of entry for white migrants from Kentucky and surrounding states as automation transformed mining and lumber industries in the South. Generous estimates place the southern migrant community at 40,000 by 1970, or around half of the total population of the neighborhood. Many of these new Uptown residents lived in extreme poverty in overcrowded and deteriorated housing stock, a situation exacerbated by an almost total lack of supportive services. This distinctive yet vulnerable population became the subject of much media attention in the late 1950s, with regular newspapers articles offering sensationalistic portrayals of this “hillbilly heaven,” depicting the poverty, folk traditions, and lackluster morals of the white poor in Uptown.[2]

Media exposure drew an unlikely new group to Uptown in the 1960s: the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As part of an attempt to forge alliances between student political activists and urban working-class communities around the country, the SDS sent representatives to Uptown to organize the local population under the banner of JOIN (Jobs or Income Now).[3] Soon after its arrival in 1964, JOIN began to shift focus from unemployment to more pressing issues facing neighborhood residents, including housing conditions, abusive landlords, and police brutality. The block-by-block nature of JOIN organizing effectively developed local leadership, and the group had modest success with rent strikes against slumlords. Soon local activists began organizing new groups that would form part of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s short-lived Rainbow Coalition.[4] In 1965 the Hull House opened an office in Uptown offering a range of social services, and in the later 1970s created the Housing Resource Center, an institution that achieved a “quiet revolution” managing scattered-site public housing with dignity and principle during the Chicago Housing Authority’s near-collapse in the 1980s.[5]

After producing numerous surveys documenting conditions of “blight,” in 1965 local businessmen in the Uptown Chicago Commission (UCC) successfully lobbied the city to designate Uptown a conservation area, making it eligible for projects funded by the Department of Urban Renewal (DUR).[6] Following a general shift in national politics with the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, however, only one urban renewal project was proposed for Uptown. Uptown was one of four neighborhoods in Chicago selected for Johnson’s Model Cities program, which focused on investments in human capital and engaged community participation in inner cities to structure new services in education, job creation, and public health. Although Model Cities was plagued by corruption in Chicago—Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration absorbed much of the program’s funding and manipulated community partnerships—this demonstration program provided an important opportunity for political mobilization in Uptown.

One of Uptown’s most important organizing campaigns was an attempt to prevent the clearance of 11 acres of “blighted” housing occupied by southern migrant families to build a new junior college, now known as Harry S. Truman College. After initial proposals in 1968, neighborhood leader Rev. Chuck Geary quickly formed Voice of the People and the Uptown Peoples Planning Coalition to oppose the project. These groups used a variety of tactics to oppose the city’s plan, including an alternative redevelopment scheme for the area called Hank Williams Village, resident-led cleanups, and an unrealized plan to pool funds and install a large migrant family in the “plush apartments” of the newly completed Marina City complex downtown.[7] This project galvanized a new generation of activists and organizers working on tenants’ rights, including the still-active Voice of the People and Organization of the Northeast (ONE), and the Heart of Uptown Coalition that launched former Alderman Helen Shiller’s 24-year career in Uptown. Protesters won substantial concessions from the city, including the substitution of commercial land for a block of apartments on the site, yet the human cost of this nine-year struggle was substantial. Supported by the DUR, landlords in the target area used extreme tactics to evict tenants. Buildings were burned to the ground, thousands of residents were displaced, and police harassed protesters to discourage participation.[8]

By the late 1960s, Uptown had diversified dramatically. Southeast Asian immigrants settled on Argyle Street, attracted by affordable housing and vacant storefronts offering opportunities for new local businesses. The African American and Latino population also grew rapidly from 1960 to 1970, with many seeking housing in Uptown after being displaced from North Side renewal projects and gentrification in Old Town and Lincoln Park. Beginning in the early 1960s, an influx of patients from state mental hospitals arrived in the neighborhood as the result of national legislation promoting deinstitutionalization. This group added to Uptown’s large transient population, finding refuge in run-down SROs and nursing homes or living on the streets. Specialized residential facilities in former hotels were soon established to provide appropriate care, but Uptown still contains as much as one-third of the city’s sheltered care facilities.

Despite these massive population shifts, the neighborhood was stable enough to encourage substantial real estate speculation. Reporters in the early 1970s boasted that Uptown’s diverse and “gutsy” character might prove appealing to the young and trendy, following the march of gentrification along the northern lakefront.[9] Neighborhood activists feared the impact of projects like Pensacola Place, an upscale high-rise complex built on a city block razed by William Thompson, a developer with ties to the Mayor. Slim Coleman and the Heart of Uptown Coalition filed a lawsuit to block the project in 1975, delaying construction for several years and forcing Thompson to make provisions for displaced low-income residents, including an allocation of 20 percent Section 8 apartments within the complex.

Despite a variety of forecasts and fears, redevelopment did not have a dramatic impact on Uptown in the 1970s for several reasons, including the recession and perhaps a real sense that development in Uptown was more difficult because of strong activist networks. The housing stock continued to age and decline, and over the course of the next decade—roughly from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s—thousands of apartments were lost to abandonment and fires. These conditions created new pockets of drug dealing and crime, and, at the same time, artificially depressed prices for solidly built six-flats attracting condominium developers and new middle-class residents. When Helen Shiller was elected in 1987, this situation was largely unchanged.

Uptown’s many vacant lots were littered with abandoned cars and trash, and private developers continued to make slow but steady condo conversions. Under her watch, Uptown become a functional neighborhood with the much of the same infrastructure (street lights, trash pickup) as its more affluent neighbors. The neighborhood also acquired a Starbucks, new condo buildings with units selling for over half a million dollars before the housing market collapsed in 2007, and a Target, which is the commercial anchor of the 2010 Wilson Yards TIF district. Unlike aldermen in neighboring areas, however, Shiller was defined by a prominent focus on the rights of low-income residents in the ward. One of the most tangible outcomes of this work was affordable housing. By her estimation, Shiller added or preserved over 4,000 units of affordable housing in every type of building, including vintage walkups, 178 apartments in Wilson Yards, and several large subsidized buildings that were purchased by residents, guaranteeing affordability and self-governance in perpetuity.

Despite her successes, Shiller is a polarizing figure and has been criticized for pushing low-income housing in a neighborhood more saturated than most, being unresponsive to gangs and crime, and refusing to embrace the extraordinary wealth that has transformed nearly every one of the district’s neighbors: Andersonville, Lakeview, and Lincoln Square. In recent years, more affluent Uptown residents embraced techniques of community organizing (blogs, demonstrations, and lawsuits) to express their dissatisfaction  and document the petty clashes between a growing population of white young professional homeowners and the many less advantaged factions who have lived in Uptown for decades.

Directly across the street from the Wilson Yards Target is the new headquarters of Flats Chicago, a brand created by developer Jay Michael to transform studios and SROs in former residential hotels into “big style in smart spaces.” Uptown’s hotel buildings have long proven stubbornly resistant to forces of gentrification, functioning as flophouses or well-managed low-income housing run by nonprofits such as the Lakefront SRO Corporation, and for-profit affordable housing developers like Peter Holsten. Several buildings in the Flats stable are distressed properties (one of the major targets of the current Alderman, James Cappleman), with multiple building violations and reputations for crime, purchased by Michael for as little as 20 percent of the previous owner’s debt. To his credit, Michael is working with local housing organizations to discuss new options for the displaced residents of his buildings. Yet, if his current plans to purchase nine buildings in Uptown go forward, it will result in a net loss of hundreds of units for the poorest of the poor.

There is some irony to the fact that the swinging singles “Flats lifestyle” promoted by Michael mirrors the ideal promoted by the first developers of Uptown hotels, including the formerly glamorous Lawrence Apartment Hotel, now a mismanaged and decrepit property under consideration for Flats treatment. Perhaps this new wave of development will not prove substantial enough to transform the character and population of the neighborhood, just as several large projects over the years have not fulfilled worst predictions. As the real estate market becomes ever more creative, however, Flats may herald the last era of “slum clearance” in Uptown and turn back the clock on 80 years of advocacy, agitation, and self-determination.


[1] “New Lawrence Apartment Hotel,” Chicago Daily Tribune (Mar 26, 1929): 28.
[2] Albert N. Votaw, “The Hillbillies Invade Chicago,” Harper’s Magazine 216:1293 (February 1958): 64–65.
[3] Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 97.
[4] Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 14.
[5] Alexander Polikoff, Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 205–209.
[6] Larry Bennett, Neighborhood Politics: Chicago and Sheffield (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 80.
[7] Clarus Backes, “Poor People’s Power in Uptown,” Chicago Tribune (Sep 29, 1968): I46
[8] Roger Guy, From Unity to Diversity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants in Uptown, Chicago, 1950–1970 (Lexington Books, 2007), 108.
[9] Robert Cross, “Uptown’s future: Are the swingers at the gates? Uptown Trend-setters discover the charms of Uptown,” Chicago Tribune (Sep 29, 1974): H20.

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