Down on Uptown

Inside the Myseterious Shrinking Neighborhood

By Ted Kleine

Last fall I was evicted from my place on Winona, in northern Uptown, because my landlord wanted to turn the building into luxury apartments. Along with 30 other tenants, some of whom had lived in the building since the Kennedy administration, I was given exactly one month to find new digs.

I wanted to stay in Uptown, even though both apartments I’d lived in there had rats and wheezy old heaters that couldn’t have warmed a dinner roll. I liked Uptown. Uptown was funky. The Lakeview Lounge was only a block from my building, and I went there almost every night to play Dwight Yoakam on the jukebox and listen to the regulars tell stories about the Korean war. If I wanted to eat out, the Vietnamese barbecue joints on Argyle served dinners for under five dollars. So as soon as my eviction notice arrived, I started riding my bike around the neighborhood, looking for Apartment for Rent signs. I found one on Dover in front of a building called Ravenswood Gardens. It looked like a Motel 6 without the swimming pool or ice machine.

“Why is this called Ravenswood Gardens?” I asked the rental agent. “I thought this was still Uptown.”

The woman bristled. “Uptown starts on the other side of the alley,” she said, pointing east toward Truman College and the Wilson el stop. “This is East Ravenswood.” Someone had just spent a lot of money refurbishing this building, and he wasn’t going to scare off new tenants by calling it Uptown Gardens.

Uptown is disappearing. According to maps of the city’s Planning Department and the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, it’s the area bounded roughly by Irving Park and Foster, Lake Michigan and Ravens-wood. But according to real estate people it doesn’t exist. In a condo ad the word “Uptown” draws as many callers as “We spray for bugs.”

“Uptown has a negative connotation,” admits Scott Kruger, a real estate agent with Koenig & Strey. Like most real estate brokers, Koenig & Strey advertises its Uptown properties under a number of pseudonyms, including Buena Park, Sheridan Park, East Ravenswood, and Lakeview (for a building at 4102 N. Kenmore, a block into Uptown).

Until about 20 years ago Uptown was Uptown; in fact it was more than Uptown. Back in the 20s a University of Chicago sociologist named Ernest W. Burgess partitioned the city into 75 “community areas,” labeling the entire lakefront between Irving Park and Devon “Uptown.” The city adopted his map and still uses it to draw census tracts and track demographic information like housing prices and median family income. Not all of the community areas are distinct neighborhoods (Burgess lumped Ravenswood and Lincoln Square into the same area, and his West Town included Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, and what some people are now calling Eckhart Park). But the map has been changed only once. In the 70s home owners north of Foster decided that the lowlifes around Wilson and Broadway were giving Uptown a bad name, so they lobbied the Planning Department for their own community area. Edgewater seceded in 1980, and though remnants of the old name live on (Uptown Auto Service at Broadway and Hollywood; Uptown Spring Wheel Service at Clark and Granville), Uptown has continued to shrink on Chicagoans’ psychic maps.

Everywhere else the word “uptown” connotes swank and sophistication, but here it makes people think of a newly released mental patient emerging from his SRO hotel to panhandle in front of a redneck bar. Nelson Algren would have loved it, but young computer programmers probing north from Lakeview in search of cheap condos on the Red Line get nervous. The local real estate industry assures them that Uptown is “on the other side of the alley” from wherever they’re thinking of buying.

This is why the area west of Broadway between Lawrence and Montrose, once known as the “Heart of Uptown,” in 1987 became Sheridan Park (the neighborhood’s original name when it was a newly built subdivision in the 1890s, before it was annexed to the city as part of Lakeview). The new name is an effective marketing tool until people find out where Sheridan Park is. A few years ago a friend of mine answered an ad for an apartment there; when she learned it was two blocks from the Riviera Theatre, she hung up. Eventually she moved into another part of the Neighborhood Formerly Known as Uptown, near Greenview and Montrose. It was billed as Graceland, after the cemetery, a more desirable neighbor.

Despite its history the name Sheridan Park is a new one on Edward Hartung, whose family has operated Felix Lock Service on North Clark since 1916. “I don’t know why they call it Sheridan Park,” says Hartung, who is 77. “The real estate people started that. You never heard that until recently. And south of Foster, some of them call it Andersonville. North of Foster, that’s where it used to start. It seems like they had such bad publicity in years past, so when they wanted to sell real estate, they wanted to call it something else. The way things are going so fast, you don’t know what the name is.”

To find out whether the new names are sticking, I called some businesses in Uptown and asked, “What neighborhood are you in?” The answer usually depended on the age of the business and the relative squeamishness of its target customers. The Tattoo Factory at Montrose and Broadway gladly copped to Uptown (can you think of a better neighborhood to get a tattoo?). But the World Gym right across the street claims in the yellow pages that it’s in “Lincoln Park North,” and the Jewel next door to it is in Lakeview. Arnold’s, an old-fashioned diner at Irving Park and Broadway, is in Uptown, but Michael’s, the new sports bar a half block north of it, is in Buena Park. Zephyr, the ice cream shop at Wilson and Ravenswood, is in Ravenswood, but the American Indian Center just a block east is in Uptown. And Lolita’s Cafe, a new drag nightclub/Mexican restaurant way down on Clark and Montrose, is in Andersonville.

Much of this difference is generational; people moving into a neighborhood tend to accept what the real estate people tell them. “I don’t think Mama De Rosa or Tony the Painter, who have lived on the block for 50 years, are coming up with these cute names or these mythical boundaries,” said Lino Darchun of Coldwell Banker. “It’s the marketing people.” Chicago has far more blighted neighborhoods–Austin, Humboldt Park–but their names are not disappearing, because there’s no big demand for real estate there. If there were, Austin would probably become “East Oak Park.”

The Chicago Association of Realtors asks its 6,500 members to observe community area boundaries when describing properties, according to deputy CEO Bob Dougherty. Members can search for properties in a computer database called the multiple listing system (MLS), which assigns each address a code corresponding to its community area. So if a realtor were looking for properties in Lakeview, he would find addresses only between Diversey and Irving Park. The Kenmore property that Koenig & Strey is peddling as Lakeview would show up on the MLS as Uptown.

But while realtors are prohibited from using the official community area names to describe properties outside the designated boundaries, they’re free to use informal neighborhood names that sound more attractive–if Andersonville sounds better than Uptown, that’s OK. When Burgess drew his map, he included Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and Uptown, but he omitted Andersonville and Ravenswood, among others. So for association members Uptown is frozen forever between Foster and Irving Park, but Andersonville can grow. It used to be the four blocks of Clark between Foster and Bryn Mawr, now, for some people (especially those who own property in the area), it reaches east all the way to Broadway and south all the way to Lawrence.

Not surprisingly, as Uptown has contracted, Lincoln Park has grown. On Burgess’s map Lincoln Park extends west to the river, but according to Lino Darchun, 30 years ago the name was associated with “hippie, flower child stuff” and used only for the area “east of Halsted, maybe even east of Clark Street.” Darchun bought a house near Lincoln and Armitage many years ago. “I don’t remember moving into Lincoln Park,” he says. “I remember moving into the north side.” But as art galleries and golden retrievers proliferated and the neighborhood became one of Chicago’s most expensive, the name “Lincoln Park” crept westward, obliterating Old Town Triangle, Ranch Triangle, Wrightwood North, and Park West. Only the river halted its march in that direction, but it has since breached its northern border at Diversey. You can find ads for Lincoln Park apartments as far north as Belmont.

But while the names of neighborhoods change as often as maps of the Balkans, the city wants to keep the community area boundaries fixed. According to city demographer Marie Bousfield, the old boundaries allow the city to track the population and income level of each community area from one census to the next. “We like to do historical analysis, and we don’t like the names to change,” she says. At the same time, she admits that many of Burgess’s boundaries are obsolete and that residents should feel free to call their neighborhoods whatever they want. “In 1920, when [the community areas] were created, they were very homogenous,” she said. Now, “an example of the most heterogenous community is the near north side, where you’ve got the Gold Coast and Cabrini-Green. The realtors tend to use neighborhoods that are different completely from the community areas. They tend to be more homogenous.” Uptown, she says, is falling out of use.

Gary Keller, cofounder of the Uptown Historical Society, insists that his neighborhood will regain its old prominence in the next few years. Once the Uptown Theater is restored, he says, residents will begin identifying themselves with that landmark. “Once that area’s transformed,” he says, “people will consider themselves ‘Uptown.'”

But “Uptown” may one day sound as quaint to Chicagoans as Abyssinia or Zanzibar sounds to today’s geography students. Last month I walked by my old building on Winona. It’s been gutted, and there’s already a sign out front promising that its luxury apartments will be ready for occupancy this summer.

“What neighborhood is this?” I asked one of the workmen.

“I think it’s Edgewater Beach,” he said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.