Uptown from its beginnings

Uptown In the early 20th century would have seemed an unlikely place to kindle a  rebellion against the worst excesses of capitalism. A land speculator named John Lewis Cochran had organized the building of mansions along Uptown’s Lake Michigan shore, but favored more modest multi-family housing further inland. Business leaders hoped that by naming one of the area’s main streets “Broadway”, and calling the area ”Uptown”, they could give it the glamour and glitz of New York City. 

                                               Uptown Theater 1929:


During the 1920’s Uptown was considered to be a middle class, even swanky neighborhood, whose architectural legacy can be seen today in some of the large ornate buildings that still exist. Uptown became a summer resort destination and a major entertainment center.  Stars like Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin made films in the Essanay Studios. Jazz greats played at the legendary Green Mill (still open near Lawrence and Broadway) and at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Ave (now the Aragon Entertainment Center). 

Uptown from the Great Depression to the 1960’s

During the Great Depression economic upheaval in the American South would  radically change the Uptown neighborhood. As mining and agriculture went into decline, thousands of white Southerners moved to the North seeking work. Landlords began cutting up older formerly elegant Uptown homes into poorly maintained apartments which they rented out to new arrivals. This process accelerated in the post World War II period. Much of Uptown became a distressed working class neighborhood with high levels of poverty accompanied by myriad social problems.

Some people called Uptown in the 1950s-1960s “Hillbilly Heaven” because of the southern migrants who moved there, many of them from Appalachia. People came with their traditions and culture, doing their best to adapt to the harsh urban environment of Chicago. And like migrants from other locations, they found landlords and employers eager to exploit them, while also facing mindless prejudice from the bigoted and uninformed.

In a particularly infamous newspaper series published by the Chicago Tribune, reporter Norma Lee Browning compared southern migrants to a “plague of locusts” with “the lowest standard of living and moral code of all,”— as if Chicago was uniformly a place of pristine moral values before their arrival.

Albert N. Votaw, executive director of the Uptown Chicago Commission accused southern migrants of bringing a “suspicion of landlords, bosses, police, principals…”—— as if in a city known for its brutality and corruption such suspicion was a bad thing.

There was pushback from Trib readers with one southern migrant saying that blaming  “hillbillies” for the all problems of Chicago was “crazy” In a letter to the editor she wrote,” Just as not all native Chicagoans are gangsters neither are we all saloon patrons and Skid Row inhabitants”

                                                                                   Uptown children in 1965


By the mid 1960’s Uptown contained  what future Black Panther organizer Bob Lee  thought was some of the worst slum conditions in Chicago. He had never imagined that whites could be forced to live like that. But the rebellious spirit of the 1960’s was also present in Uptown as southern whites joined with radical students in the Jobs Or Income Now (Join) organization. They engaged in protest meetings, marches, sit-ins and strikes against both the slum conditions and the violence of the Chicago police. 

The most radical group in Uptown was the Young Patriots Organization who allied with the  Black Panther Party (African American) and the Young Lords Organization(Latino) into a multi-racial Rainbow Coalition that came to oppose the entire system of capitalism and racism. Though relatively short-lived as an organization, the Young Patriots shattered the stereotype of southern migrants as hopelessly racist, reactionary dumb “hillbillies.”

Radical organizers in Uptown  believed strongly in the Chicago tradition of “Make no small plans”. They  proposed to build a Hank Williams Village that would create decent homes for the poor whites of Uptown along with necessary social services: 

“The Village was designed as a cooperative community with a town hall for meetings, child care and recreational facilities, a medical clinic, and a hotel for migrants. There were wide pedestrian streets, low-income housing, communal spaces, and generous numbers of trees.’—-Hank Williams Village: Chicago’s Best Urban Plan That Never Happened

Instead powerful real estate interests in league with Mayor Daley wanted to push southern migrants out of Uptown. They put the present Truman College on the location planned for the Village. At the time this was called urban renewal —-which community activists bitterly referred to as “poor peoples’ removal”. Today it is  called “gentrification” The southern migrant population began to disperse and be replaced by Asians, Latinos  African-Americans and other groups.

Uptown from the 1970’s to today 

But the radical legacy of 1960’s Uptown lived on, as working class residents battled both poverty and attempts remove them . The Intercommunal Survival Committee continued the Rainbow Coalition method of radical community organizing combined with direct social services, as did its successor, the Heart of Uptown Coalition. In 1975 former Young Lords leader Jose “Cha Cha“ Jimenez ran on a platform derived from the original Rainbow Coalition and won 39% of the vote. 

                                                                                              Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez 


When a then relatively unknown state senator named Harold Washington first ran for mayor in 1977, he lost, but did well in Uptown because of his progressive agenda. Helen Shiller, who along with Walter “Slim” Coleman had started the Intercommunal Survival Committee, was a Washington supporter in all three of his mayoral campaigns. After 2 attempts she gained a City Council seat in 1987. Shiller fought for the rights of  Uptown working class residents for her entire 24 year career as an alderwoman, retiring in 2011.

                                                                                   Helen Shiller in 2011  


Today gentrification and removal of working class residents are still  burning issues in Uptown. The current alderman James Cappleman, allied with Mayor Emanuel and powerful real estate interests,  wants Uptown to become an extension of the pricey Lakeview neighborhood to the south.

 But the tradition of multi-racial working class organizing that the original Rainbow Coalition created lives on. The struggle continues…

                                                                                      Uptown Today