If we were able to step back in time one hundred years, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago would be a fascinating place to visit. Before the Great Depression, the area was a vibrant destination. Al Capone frequented the neighborhood, trafficking below the city streets through underground tunnels.¹ In his spare time, he frequented The Green Mill, a vintage jazz and entertainment bar illuminated with glowing neon green lights that still welcome visitors to Broadway Avenue. Charlie Chaplin launched his career at Essanay Studios here.² The Aragon Ballroom, Riveria Theater, and Uptown Theater all opened their doors in the years just prior to the Great Depression. All three remain today, reminding residents and visitors of Uptown’s heyday in the Roaring Twenties. Modern day development does not come close to replicating the architecture of this bygone era.
When the Great Depression visited Uptown, it bestowed the same fate on this community as many others around the country. The housing stock began to fall into disrepair and landlords subdivided the neighborhood’s beautiful mansions into smaller units in order to turn more rent for their properties. Unlike urban neighborhoods that experienced White flight, Uptown had a different story. By the 1950s, Uptown began to receive a wave of poor Appalachian Whites that were migrating north in search of work. By the middle of the 1960s, Uptown was predominately White, with forty percent of the community on welfare³. Uptown had effectively become a White slum, nicknamed “Hillbilly Harlem.” It was plagued with many of the problems faced by impoverished communities throughout the city. Predatory lenders, unethical employers, police brutality and housing displacement were among the struggles faced by the new residents of the Uptown neighborhood. A concentration of social services organizations opened locations in the community to provide support to those in need.
Uptown became a community experiment in social welfare and activism. During the 1980s, the State of Illinois mandated a hugely disproportionate concentration of housing for people experiencing housing instability and/or mental health disorders to be located in this neighborhood. More social services arrived to provide more support to vulnerable populations.
In the late 1980s, Helen Schiller was elected as alderwoman and began her twenty-four year career in Uptown. She was often highlighted for her work in preserving affordable housing in the neighborhood, because Helen successfully held back a significant amount of market rate development. Depending on which side of the table you sat on as a resident, she was either a visionary housing advocate or a blockade that diverted resources from the community and held impoverished conditions in place. Nonetheless, Helen did not act alone; Uptown was a community full of activists. The first ever successful tenant buyout of a HUD affordable housing complex took place early in her tenure. The tenants restructured the ownership model into cooperative housing.
The neighborhood had tremendous character and diversity. Its affordability brought large immigrant populations from all over the world. At one point, over eighty different languages were spoken within its small 2.4 square mile radius. Uptown was eclectic, and wrestled with its own share of crime and gang activity. Let’s fast forward to 2012, the year I began my own work in the community and the year Helen Schiller retired. The new alderman was ready to open the doors to development.
In my first year in Uptown, I parked my car on a side street every day and walked past visible signs of poverty before entering the credit union that was my workplace. People lounged on milk crates all day long on the sidewalk nearby. It was not uncommon to see individuals in the grip of substance abuse stumbling down the street. The Lawrence House, across the street from the credit union, had permanent scaffolding over the facade. The same group of middle age men loitered daily in front of the entrance. The 344 unit high rise building had originally been designed as a hotel for wealthy early 19th century guests. At some point, it was turned into an affordable senior building and eventually fell into disrepair. In February 2012, the gas to the entire building was shut off, leaving many senior citizens without heat in the cold Chicago winter weather. It went into receivership shortly afterward.
In June 2016, the Lawrence House reopened as a transit-oriented luxury high-rise outfitted with one-bedroom units and micro-studios. The development boasts an on-site coffee shop, bar, gym, roof-top deck, and pool. The outdoor patio is adjacent to a Catholic church, where needy locals regularly line up on the stairs to wait for services from the food pantry. Developers in Chicago can skirt the Affordable Housing Ordinance, which requires a minimum of ten percent of units in new developments be affordable, by paying into the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund. This fund is then used to build affordable housing in other parts of the city. In Uptown, they are encouraged to do so. In 2017, the neighborhood still hosted the largest density of individuals with mental illness of any Chicago ward as a result of the concentration of housing and social services here.⁴ Those who prefer more market rate housing in the neighborhood argue that the objective is simply to deconcentrate poverty, a perspective that has some merit. And many affordable housing projects do actually fail to address the housing needs of those experiencing severe poverty. Most of these individuals live well below an area median threshold determined to meet affordability standards for such projects.
One one warm summer afternoon, I parked my car just north of The Lawrence House and began my normal walk to work. As I passed the building on this particular day, I witnessed an interaction I will not easily forget when I think about affordable housing. I noticed a man to my left standing next to the building. He was neatly dressed in business casual clothing. He held a dog leash and fiddled with his phone while he waited on his pet. Just then, a scruffy looking white man with graying hair rode by on a bike. He paused next to the man holding the leash. “You live here?” he asked. “Yeah,” the other man replied, barely looking up from his phone to make eye contact. “Is it nice?” the man on the bicycle asks. “Yeah,” the dog owner replies, still looking disinterested. “Good!” the man exclaims angrily. “I lived there when it was shitty.” Although I do not know anything about this person’s situation, it seemed evident that he had not wanted to leave his home.
Society largely defines community in one of two ways.⁵ Most commonly, we define community as geographic space. Community is also the associations and inter-connectedness we experience with people. Throughout much of human history, these two aspects of community were fairly inseparable. Our community associations were predominately centered through schools, civic groups, clubs and religious organizations in local geography. Technology has changed this equation.
Our primary communities no longer have to be local, because we can now build forms of community all over the globe. If we have resources, we can afford to travel and visit our geographically distant relationships. Communities with less financial resources often place emphasis on local relationships and networks, out of necessity.
Gentrification fractures community.
When a neighborhood gentrifies, it has been collectively determined that community is a matter of buildings, businesses and houses rather than people and their relationships. Perhaps this is because there is profit to be made in housing development, and policies have not incentivized collective consciousness. It might benefit us all to recover our place-based definitions of community.
This series will explore gentrification over the next several weeks.
Read Parts 1–3
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying: Part 3
The Suburbs Are Historically Significant
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again: Part 2
White Flight is My Story
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again
Three Times in Ten Years is Too Much
³Sonnie, Amy and James Tracy. 2011. “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and the Black Panther Party: Community Organizing in Radical Times.” Melville House Printing.
⁵ Papacharissi, Zizi, editor. Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. Routledge, 2011. Parks, Malcolm: “Social Network Sites as Virtual Communities”, pgs 105–123