Old tune for a new Uptown

By Heather McGraw

An idea that originated in the 1970s is gaining traction with Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and others giving the Uptown neighborhood a new face and title as the city’s primary music district.

In an interview on WXRT-FM on March 2, Emanuel briefly mentioned turning Uptown into a music district similar to the theater district of the downtown area.

Many advocates for the project believe it will kick start revitalization for the neighborhood by causing economic growth and development.

“We’re very excited Mayor-elect Emanuel wants to take a stronger look, from the city side, at devoting more resources to the area and taking a more planned approach,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, president and CEO of Uptown United, an economic development community organization for the neighborhood.

Cutler said enhancing the thriving retail, commercial and restaurant district that already exists in the area is important to the organization.

“Ideally, we would play a large role in creating more of a cohesive plan for growing the entertainment district as we have throughout our work here,” she said.

In a 2000 study conducted by the Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, D.C., the group found an important element of the revitalization of the neighborhood was the renovation of Uptown Theater.

The historic theater received Chicago Landmark status in 1991 but had already been closed for 10 years. In 2008, the theater was purchased by JAM Productions, a live entertainment promotion group based in Chicago. JAM co-owner Jerry Mickelson said the company didn’t buy the theater to let it sit there and waste away.

“We’re not in this to play around,”Mickelson said.“We’re in it to renovate that theater and bring it back to life.”

According to Mickelson, renovating the theater will be a $70 million project, but that won’t stop JAM from getting it done.

Mickelson said reopening the theater would mean huge economic development for the Uptown neighborhood.

“It’s clearly going to help revitalize that part of town,” he said.

Brian Hudnut, chairman of the ULI advisory services panel that published the 2000 report, said the ULI recognized the potential of the area then, and the group continues to think its recommendations are valid.

Hudnut said the ULI was concerned about deterioration and suggested doing anything possible to prevent it, especially on the Uptown Theater.

“It’s an architectural gem,” Hudnut said. “It seemed to us like a venue very much worth saving.”

The area has always been somewhat of an entertainment district, but bringing life back to it is crucial for live music and culture in general, according to Alex Jorge, special events coordinator for the Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence Ave., another music venue in the Uptown neighborhood.

“[Uptown] getting the attention it deserves is really refreshing,” Jorge said. “Especially [because] a lot of theaters in this area are really underappreciated, including the Uptown Theater.”

The architecture and history of venues like the Aragon, Uptown and the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway—a famous jazz venue and known hangout of infamous Chicagoan Al Capone—provide a different aesthetic and feeling than seeing a performance at a place like the United Center, according to Jorge.

“[The venues] tell so many stories that when you walk into [one], it really educates more than just entertains,” he said.

Although reopening Uptown Theater would mean direct competition for the Aragon, Jorge said from a cultural and artistic standpoint renovation to a neighborhood like Uptown should be supported by everyone, especially considering the area’s historical significance.

“If our neighbors can succeed and thrive, then the area itself can come back to life the way it once did in the ’20s and ’30s,” Jorge said. “Then the whole city would be a better place.”