Pulling at the seams: Uptown’s decades-long heritage of diversity beginning to crumble

By Copy Chief

“Hey, man, can I have a smoke?”

Startled from his private thoughts, Tobias Elder tried to keep walking past the man who asked him for a cigarette. The man looked like he could be a gang member, Elder says, and Elder was not in the mood to barter over cigarettes, so he tossed him the whole pack and tried to move on.

To his surprise, the man followed him and looped an arm across his shoulders, asking what was wrong. When Elder told the man his father had just died, the man squeezed Elder’s shoulders sympathetically and said, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay,” before slipping the cigarettes back into Elder’s pocket and walking away into the streets of Uptown.

“That’s what this neighborhood used to be like,” says Elder, an 18-year resident. “Everybody respected their own space. They didn’t really care who you were.”

Uptown is a rough patch in the gentrified quilt of Chicago’s North Side. The surrounding neighborhoods are all high-cost, low-diversity areas with inflated monthly rents, but Uptown has remained significantly more affordable and is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago.

Delicate Chinese vases sit beside trimmed bonsai trees on the crowded windowsills of battered shops beneath the Argyle Red Line stop, and around the corner on Clark Street, the weary sliding door of a Korean market squeaks closed behind a shopper with arms full of freshly-butchered pork, hoisin sauce and bok choy. To the east down Lawrence Avenue, the high-end houses give way to the aged landmarks near the Riviera Theater, where the 1920s charm draws concertgoers from across the city and suburbs. And to the south on Broadway, Mexican markets have served customers for the last four decades.

“I would say Uptown is even more diverse than New York City in the sense of a single neighborhood where people are living,” Elder said. “Much like the rest of Chicago, there’s neighborhoods where there are pockets of culture [and] racial differences. Here, it all seems to meld into one.”

Uptown is not all roses and neighborliness, though—it has a slightly higher crime rate than adjacent neighborhoods. A shooting left two injured and one dead in Uptown on Sept. 15, according to a Sept. 16 Chicago Tribune report. The shooting spurred the media to question how well police are battling gang violence in the area. Media spotlighting of gangs and rashes of violence on the streets have reflected negatively on the neighborhood. Dark alleys where the homeless formerly took shelter are now illuminated and police patrol formerly quiet blocks. As a result, violence has significantly decreased in the area in the last two years—there have only been 1,271 violent crimes in the neighborhood in the first nine months of 2014 versus 1,524 in the same period of 2013, according to City of Chicago crime data—but diversity has declined. While the battle to control violence continues, low-income residents are being quietly pushed out of the neighborhood by inflating rents.

A decade ago, former alderman Helen Shiller was at the helm of the 46th Ward, battling with the City Council and then-mayor Richard M. Daley to maintain affordable housing options and single-room occupancy units in the neighborhood.

Shiller argued that the preservation of Uptown’s affordable housing made it the last haven for low-income individuals along the North Side lakefront. Throughout her 27-year career as alderman, she received sharp criticism from other politicians and political commentators like Chicago legend Mike Royko. In a 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune, immediately after Shiller was elected, he wrote, “[Uptown] also has a new alderman, Helen Shiller, and she has a vision of what that seedy old neighborhood should be in the future. And apparently her vision is that Uptown should remain a seedy old neighborhood.”

Royko’s attitude was common, according to Denice Davis, Shiller’s former chief of staff. But allowing Uptown to be scrubbed of its low-income residents will take the culture with it, she said. Alderman James Cappleman, who won the seat in 2011, has voiced his support for real estate development and has favored business interests. Cappleman, known for his 2013 stunt of inviting a private farmer to round up some of the ward’s pigeons and shipping them to Indiana for private hunting, is a controversial figure among residents and in the media.

Violence in the neighborhood gets more than its fair share of publicity. While the area does have its gangs and has been historically more violent than nearby communities—Davis said her son, daughter and grandson have all had guns pulled on them—the only time Uptown gets significant attention is after a shooting, as in the case of a gang-related shooting injuring five people that took place on Wilson Avenue in August 2013. But eliminating violence from any neighborhood is impossible, Davis said.

“To me the only place where there is no crime is heaven,” Davis said. “I’m not going to tell you nothing’s ever going to happen to you, but I can tell you not to live in fear. I believe that the reason why Uptown is still the way it is, is that contrary to popular belief, even people who are newly moving to Uptown or to the 46th, they’re moving there because of the diversity.”

The danger is that the neighborhood’s innate diversity that Elder enjoys and Shiller advocated for is now beginning to crumble.

Between 2000–2012, the black and Hispanic populations of Uptown decreased by 0.7 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. The white population, however, increased by 6.3 percent in the same time period, according to the U.S. Census.

The neighborhood, first annexed by the city in 1889, has changed its face many times. Through the 1920s, the area was a hub for the film industry, featuring staples such as the Uptown Theater and Essanay Studios, 1333 W. Argyle St. When the film industry moved to Hollywood, Uptown changed its face again to embrace the thriving Prohibition era with night clubs and illegal taverns. From 1930–1960, Uptown was far-and-away white. The neighborhood was initially made up of young singles and couples, but by the 1930s had become an upscale, costly area, according to a 1990 report from the Chicago Local Community Fact Book.

The tension began in the 1950s when large numbers of Appalachian emigrants began to settle in the neighborhood. Victims of the coal industry’s rapid industrialization, the primarily low-income, poorly educated residents came to Uptown for the inexpensive housing and chance for jobs.

Ric Addy, who has owned the book and record store Shake Rattle & Read, 4812 N. Broadway, since 1972, said he remembers the Appalachian residents being a major part of the neighborhood.

“When I moved here, it was all hillbillies,” Addy said. “I knew a lot of them. Willie Nelson would play at the Aragon [Ballroom] and they’d all go. It was them, and it was American Indians.”

The Native American population centered around the American Indian Cultural Center, 1630 W. Wilson Ave., and grew in the 1960s when the government formulated policies that encouraged Native Americans to integrate into urban areas, according to the Local Community Fact Book report.

Davis said she has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and remembers a time when Uptown felt more like a cohesive neighborhood than a collection of blocks and streets composed of different ethnic groups.

“Condo owners are being told when they first move in, ‘Oh, watch out for those low-income people,’” Davis said. “Low-income people are blaming condo people for the developments going up in the area and displacement. And there’s fault on both sides, but it’s not being addressed.”

Davis announced that she would make a run for alderman of the 46th Ward against Cappleman in the February election to change the direction of the neighborhood. Her main goals are to restore some of the 1,200 SRO units lost in Uptown in the last year and to provide more resources for current residents, she said.

Cappleman has failed to listen to the voice of his constituency, Davis said. During a number of construction hearings, he approved the projects despite objections from the neighbors, she said. Because many of his campaign donations have come from real estate developers or landowners, according to his D-2 campaign donation forms, she said his loyalty lies with them.

“And he’s done that over and over within the past 2 1/2 years or so,” Davis said. “The city of Chicago has lost over 2,200 units of SROs. [The City Council] put a moratorium on SRO [closures] because 1,200 came from Uptown.”

The moratorium was first proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen Walter Burnett (27th Ward) and Ameya Pawar (47th Ward) in July and officially enacted Sept. 9, effective Sept. 19. Called the “Single-Room Occupancy and Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance,” the City Council effectively tied off the city’s bleeding affordable housing market—for six months. After that, the SROs will be under the gun again.

ONE Northside, a nonprofit advocating for equal opportunity housing, is currently working with the city to develop policies to better protect affordable housing options that still exist, according to Alyssa Berman-Cutler, president and CEO of Uptown United, an organization that works with ONE Northside.

Berman-Cutler said she did not think Cappleman’s main interests were in real estate. She said the development in Uptown is a change for the better, updating the area to be more modern and livable rather than letting violence and dilapidation continue.

However, she said the organization sees the importance of preserving affordable housing. The ARO, short for the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, has existed since 2003 and requires 20 percent of a building to be affordable housing in particular districts. ONE Northside is working with the city to strengthen the ordinance. Currently, many developers would rather pay the $100,000 fee to waive the requirement than provide the affordable housing because the fee to bypass the law, called an in-lieu fee, is less than that of producing a unit. Berman-Cutler said the average price of building a single unit in a gentrified neighborhood like Lincoln Park or Lakeview hovers around $200,000–$300,000 based mostly on property value and estimated rental costs.

“It is too cheap [for developers] to be able to pay your fee in lieu,” Berman-Cutler said. “We’re hoping to increase that cost.”

Cappleman invited the community to a public hearing about the upcoming renovation of the Wilson Red Line stop at Harry S. Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave., on Sept. 16. While ensuring economic development and public safety are his main goals for the neighborhood, Cappleman said several times that he also wanted to preserve diversity in terms of job availability.

“We really wanted to celebrate diversity, and one way to celebrate that is to recognize all the different types of food,” Cappleman said in an interview. “I work very closely with Uptown United and all the other chambers [of commerce] to see what we can do to help businesses grow, especially in Chicago, which is known for its small businesses.”

But Jeff Littleton, a local artist who said he has lived in Uptown on-and-off since 1966 and a noted Cappleman critic, said preserving diversity is impossible without income diversity. If the real estate development continues in Uptown at its current rate, the neighborhood will gentrify quickly, he said. Littleton, who lives in an SRO, said the alderman has fought attempts to expand affordable housing requirements on behalf of developers.

“When poor people move involuntarily, they’re worse off than they were before,” Littleton said. “[The gentrification process] tears things down. It’s uncontrollable—we are resegregating.”

Littleton claimed that real estate interests are counter to the best interest of low-income and minority residents. He said other Uptown residents have expressed concern at the number of homeless shelters in the neighborhood, but the shelters all serve different populations. If real estate development continues at the current rate, there may not be enough resources for everyone, he said.

“[Real estate development] is speculation on somebody else’s dislocation,” Littleton said. “It’s the same old story in a different way when it’s 32 families being moved for an eight-flat condo.”

Davis said the community’s loss of voice will oust low-income and minority residents.

“I believe that you can have development without displacement,” Davis said. “We can’t keep taking away from everyday people.”

However, Elder disagreed. He said without additional investments in the area, businesses will be unlikely to establish themselves there, and Uptown will never progress. He said balancing affordability with economic development is a delicate task but not impossible. Emanuel’s March 2014 plan to invest in business development in Uptown to encourage business and infrastructure development seemed promising, but so far there has been no action, Elder said.

“I agree with what Rahm is trying to do, but I don’t see anything being done,” Elder said. “If you’re going to do that, you need to develop the infrastructure to do it and to entice businesses that are going to support that kind of infrastructure. Otherwise it just becomes a destination spot and then people leave, which is what they do now.”

Cappleman said his office’s primary goal is to increase the business presence in Uptown, and with further development of the Wilson Red Line stop, more businesses can move in. More businesses mean better public safety as well because businesses do not tolerate even petty crime, he said.

“Since they did that, business development and business sales have increased because people feel like it’s safer,” Cappleman said.

Gentrification is a common problem in cities nationwide. In San Francisco, a series of protests in 2013 spurred the social justice group Causa Justa to research and publish a report about whether it was possible to have economic development without displacement. It came up with six principles to avoid displacement: The protection of vulnerable residents, preservation of affordable housing, stabilization of existing communities, non-market-based approaches to housing development, making non-displacement a regional priority and including residents in the planning process.

San Francisco is currently one of the most unaffordable cities in the country, with median rent hovering around $1,447, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. Addy, who said he lived in San Francisco in the 1970s, said the majority of the hippie population lived in Haight Ashbury, which is now one of the most expensive regions of the city.

In New York City, anti-gentrification movements have fought for years to preserve affordable housing to no avail. Elder said he remembers the days when rent was affordable. Although the city had rough patches, middle-class people could still live there. When then-mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented militant policies to clean up the streets in the mid-‘90s, the homeless began disappearing and violence decreased, but it came at the cost of city officials essentially rounding up the homeless and deporting them from the city, he said.

A few years ago, Elder was visiting New York City and drove through the Meat Packing District on the city’s West Side. When he lived there in the ‘80s, he said it was known to be a bad area in terms of crime and homelessness. These days, it is scrubbed as clean and glitters with as many high rises as the rest of Manhattan. Elder said his taxi driver told him the city had just broken a record—no shootings in a year.

“But what was the price it took to get here?” Elder said. “I said, ‘I remember the Giuliani days’ and he just looked at me. That was a dark period for the city. Is that the price? I don’t think Chicago should go down that path. I don’t think it’s necessary.”

*Clarification, 9/24/14: In the original version of this story, Denice Davis, aldermanic candidate for the 46th Ward and former chief of staff to former alderman Helen Shiller, was paraphrased to say, “…allowing Uptown to be scrubbed of its grime and low-income residents will take the culture with it, she said.” The use of the word “grime” was not intended to imply that Davis does not support improving existing buildings. 

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