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Chapter One: The ‘City within a City’

Uptown formed late, in relation to Chicago’s other lakefront communities. But when investors set  focus on the underdeveloped area about 7 miles north of the Loop between Lake View and Evanston, the place exploded. Booster optimism soared to the point that they christened the community “Uptown” and renamed Evanston Road “Broadway,” envisioning a crossroads that rivaled mid-town New York City. The community’s accessibility, its rapid growth, and the density of expendable income resulted in a hub for Jazz Age commercialized leisure. Jazz clubs, major theaters, dance halls, speakeasies, and restaurants made Uptown one of the places for young whites to be seen. Uptown became a place for newcomers to the city with dense yet available housing, and a cultural space used by the entire region.

But the boom went bust in the 1930s. Uptown’s retail dominance of the region north of the Loop faltered, as it suffered the same decentralizing crisis as cities around the country. Innumerable apartment buildings sat empty. Many landlords took whatever rent they could get, a resignation that resulted in once-glamorous buildings turning into flop-houses and single-room only (SRO) hotels. The end of World War II briefly reversed the trend, as returning veterans and their families scrambled to find housing. Now landlords subdivided their buildings in an effort to maximize the profit based on the demand. But as new housing became available on the fringes of the city and the suburbs opened for urban whites, Uptown’s dense housing once again started to empty out.

Intersection of Sheridan Road and Montrose Avenue, looking north, 1937. Illinois Department of Transportation Chicago Traffic photographs, Department of Special Collections, The University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Intersection of Sheridan Road and Montrose Avenue, looking north, 1937. Illinois Department of Transportation Chicago Traffic photographs, Department of Special Collections, The University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The neighborhood is best understood through the conceptual lens of the “Three Uptowns.” The first, “Low Rent Uptown,” consisted of thousands of small apartments mostly in the dense central portion of the community. Uptown’s small and tightly-contained African American population existed here, in an area many dubbed the “Segregated Block.” The second Uptown, “Silk Stocking Uptown,” stood in contrast to the first. The small mansions in low-density Buena Park and the staid single family homes in Lakewood-Balmoral defined Silk Stocking Uptown. Although much smaller in number, these largely WASP elites dominated the discussion about urban redevelopment through the 1950s, viewing themselves as stewards of the entire community. The third Uptown, “Commercial Uptown,” included financial institutions, as well as commercialized leisure from high-brow to low-brow. Many ‘exotic’ themes typified the substantial number of restaurants, lounges, taverns, and venues along Broadway, Wilson, and Bryn Mawr Avenues.

1950OnePlusPerRoom

Density was among the leading characteristics for postwar Uptown.

Together, the “Three Uptowns” defined the community, both physically and conceptually. This was the backdrop against which developers toiled, that provided for a diversity of housing, economic status, and cultural elements for material in a fight against what many viewed as postwar economic decay and a loss of neighborhood prestige.

 

Chapter Two: Albert Votaw and Liberal Urbanism

Economic and social elites formed the Uptown Chicago Commission (UCC) in 1955. The UCC represented a consensus redevelopment ethic that transcended political affiliation, with a goal to promote Uptown as a community worthy of urban renewal and conservation attention from the Chicago bureaucracy, the federal government, and Uptown residents and business leaders.

Albert Votaw (1956).

Albert Votaw (1956). Quaker scion, leftist intellectual radical, noir newspaperman, and first director of the UCC. (Sun Times/author’s collection)

A newcomer became the voice of the Uptown Chicago Commission (UCC) during its first five years of existence, despite all the UCC leaders and members from the well-established financial, political, and cultural fabric of Uptown. Albert N. Votaw accepted the board of directors’ offer to become the commission’s first executive director in 1955. In an era that saw professional planners at their height of power, the UCC chief was cut from an nontraditional cloth. Although well-educated, Votaw held no degrees or certifications in urban planning. Yet he was not without relevant experience in conservation and redevelopment. During his time in Uptown Votaw promoted a vision of liberal urbanism. As a liberal, he believed that redevelopment was possible through the perfection and expansion of the economic structures in place. Like many planners, Votaw called for public funding and policies to be used to prime private solutions to problems in aging cities. As an urbanist, Votaw considered the density and heterogeneity of the city as assets more than challenges.Uptown’s particular economic, residential, and cultural diversity mingled with Votaw’s liberal urbanism to create an era of redevelopment that brimmed with potential despite considerable barriers.

In the late 1950s Votaw went to work crafting the UCC’s image as one that included not only corporate executives, but also housewives, rooming house operators, and even residents of the all-black “Segregated Block.” Votaw’s particular path to urban redevelopment reveals important themes related to the challenges of “saving” the postwar city. His evolution distills several social, political, and intellectual currents that contributed to the diminution of the American left, all against a backdrop of critical urban issues. On the one hand, Votaw’s life before he came to Uptown confounds assumptions about urban redevelopment leaders: his radical leftist early ideas seemingly contradicted his later commitment to middle-class market-based control of space. On the other hand, this same background provided a path that led to interaction with—and even, at times, embrace of—the economically and socially diverse Uptown “city within a city.” Votaw’s vision culminated with the UCC’s 1957 community conservation proposal, which called for limited clearance of ‘blighted’ apartments and a rhetorical embrace of economic and residential heterogeneity.

 

Chapter Three: Between the ‘Hillbilly’ and the ‘Newcomer’

Demographic and cultural dynamics beyond the control of the self-appointed community stewards in the UCC came to Uptown in the mid-1950s. Uptown’s availability of low-rent housing and access to unskilled employment made the area one of the primary destinations for thousands of working-class and poor whites pushed out of the South and Appalachia by shifts in the regional labor economy. These migrants presented a direct challenge to elite and middle-class aspirations for a diverse yet docile redeveloped Uptown. UCC leaders attempted to control Uptown’s shifting cultural landscape by asserting themselves as experts on what social scientists and cultural commentators described as ‘The Hillbilly Problem.’ Euphemistically referred to as ‘Newcomers,’ these southern and Appalachian white low-income migrants prompted complex middle-class and elite notions of whiteness and cultural behavior in a diverse urban setting.

1960 So Whites

Map depicting the most conservative estimate of the number of whites who moved from the south to Uptown between 1955 and 1960.

This chapter explores a variation of the redevelopment ethic that moved beyond infrastructural renewal, into the realm of social engineering. UCC leaders worked alongside city officials in attempts to establish a pilot “Newcomers Center” that would assist black, white, American Indian, and Latino migrants to the city. In an indication of the UCC’s potential relevance, the city agreed to locate the pilot center in Uptown. Simultaneously, Votaw and the UCC surveyed the low-income southern white migrants in their midst. Survey results conflicted with many assumptions of the Hillbilly Problem discourse, yet Votaw and Uptown boosters persisted in painting the population as maladjusted and even dangerous.

Editorial cartoon accompanying "Hillbilly 'Invaders' Shock, Terrify Chicago with Primitive Habits," Charleston (WV) Gazette, March 6, 1957.

Editorial cartoon accompanying “Hillbilly ‘Invaders’ Shock, Terrify Chicago with Primitive Habits,” Charleston (WV) Gazette, March 6, 1957.

Chapter Four: Diversity and Cultural Programming

By 1958 the UCC was frustrated with the City of Chicago’s lack of action on the 1957 Uptown conservation plan. Policy insiders who called Uptown home informed the UCC’s early planning efforts, particularly Chicago Land Clearance commissioner Ira Bach and Uptown alderman (1959-1963) and former head of the South Side Planning Board Morris Hirsh. Yet early UCC requests for renewal funds went nowhere. The City’s Community Conservation Board had yet to declare Uptown an official conservation area. Out of this frustration, Votaw and the UCC expanded efforts to promote Uptown as a proving ground for the conservation and renewal of a diverse and dense community. The redevelopers now turned more than ever to using culture to gain the attention of officials and garner support within the neighborhood.

This chapter includes two case studies that reveal the on-the-ground complexities of implementing the local, national, and international cultural ideals on which the redevelopment ethic rested. First, Votaw and his allies carefully assembled a coalition of 26 Uptown clergymen who endorsed the stalled UCC conservation proposal. The heads of two synagogues, the priests from four Catholic parishes, and ministers from mainline Protestant congregations composed some of the expected aspects of the coalition. The inclusion of several non-Western congregations, ranging from Buddhists to Assyrian Congregationalists, fit well with the UCC’s promotion of Uptown as an urban haven for cultural diversity. Curiously, Votaw passed on the opportunity to publicize a Southern Baptist storefront reverend who was a steady supporter of redevelopment. The cultural baggage of low-income southern whites was of significant weight.

The second cultural program undertaken by the UCC involved the commission’s Uptown Folk Fair, a weekend street festival that ran from 1959 to 1962. The Uptown Folk Fair featured a carefully crafted lineup of performers and exhibitors that the UCC hoped would promote Uptown as a harmonious, culturally diverse neighborhood worthy of conservation and urban renewal. Belly dancers, judo fighters, a powwow, calypso music, “Negro Spirituals,” bagpipes, a “Restaurant Garden of Many Lands,” and an “Oriental Fire Dance” were among the attractions. Despite an intense publicity campaign, the fair was lightly attended. Fair planners had little success in drawing the attention of low-income southern and Appalachian whites, either as attendees or performers. As the commission turned more towards massive, professional urban renewal plans, the fair lost its cosmopolitan and multicultural focus, before being abandoned in favor of efforts aimed directly at the local and federal urban renewal bureaucracies

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Chapter Five: “I Feel TERRIFIC”

Redevelopers remained optimistic even in the face of indifference from the majority of Uptown residents and the local and federal urban renewal bureaucracies. UCC leaders turned towards the professional urban planner Jack Meltzer, fresh off the implementation of the Hyde Park urban renewal plans, one of the most significant the nation had yet seen. After two years of surveys, Meltzer’s firm produced a plan that called for the radical remaking of Uptown’s built environment. Blocks of dense low-income housing would be cleared in favor of mid-rise office buildings, middle-class apartments, and surface parking lots. The UCC devoted the entirety of its energy to selling the plan to both city urban renewal leaders and Uptown residents. Uptown redevelopers were confident that their commitment to Meltzer and the comprehensive nature of his plan would finally bring to reality their aspirations. Albeit in a diminishing focus, Meltzer and UCC leaders maintained the theme that Uptown could be redeveloped without displacing low-income residents.

Eccentric insurance corporate magnate W. Clement Stone personified this faith in development through determination and modernization. The millionaire rose to prominence on the back of a Horatio Alger-like rags-to-riches narrative, a nontraditional philanthropic causes, and an almost cult-like formulation of a self-help regimen he deemed “Positive Mental Attitude.” Stone guided his Combined Insurance Company through a bold expansion in Uptown even as the neighborhood wrestled with a growing poverty and an accelerating loss of prestige. The Mid-Century Modernistic architectural style of Stone’s new headquarters also reflected a desire for a new era in Uptown, as did several other Modernistic buildings that appeared in Uptown in the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

W. Clement Stone demonstrates one of his classic self-affirmation mantras, said to be the foundation of his financial and personal success.

Chapter Six: Cracks in the Redevelopment Consensus

The 1959 election for Uptown’s alderman exposed weaknesses in the redevelopment foundation. Morris Hirsh, a Democratic, one-time professional planner, and recent transplant to the ward, unseated three-term Republican alderman Allen Freeman in a narrow and contentious election. Both were active members of the UCC and redevelopment advocates. By 1962, UCC leaders needed to expend much greater than expected energy defending the Meltzer massive urban renewal plan. Apartment building owners expressed concern over potential clearances. The Chicago Transit Authority flatly rejected the call to re-route traffic from busy Broadway. Representatives of the “Segregated Block” denounced the proposed demolition of their homes, citing the ways that Chicago’s race-restrictive housing market left them with ‘no place to go.’ Low-income southern white migrants expressed their problems with the plan through apathy and a steadfastly independent use of residential, recreational, and residential space. City officials continued to slow-play Uptown redevelopment plans.

Precinct vote totals for the 1962 Urban Renewal Bond election. Density, home ownership, and distance from Uptown's low-income apartments were the leading determinants for precinct results.

Precinct vote totals for the 1962 Urban Renewal Bond election. Density, home ownership, party affiliation, and distance from Uptown’s low-income apartments were the leading determinants for precinct results.

Even it had resident or bureaucratic support, the Meltzer plan could not have become without a major cash infusion into the city’s urban renewal coffers. Mayor Richard J. Daley presumed an easy fix to this problem, by proposing a $22 million bond vote. Daley based the bond campaign in Uptown, serving as guest of honor at a promotional parade hosted by the UCC. In a stunning defeat some dubbed “Chicago’s Tax Revolt,” city voters defeated Daley’s bond. In Uptown, where urban renewal was so dependent on bond approval, the bond won by only a narrow margin. As with the 1959 alderman election, the neighborhood electorate showed a sharp spatial divide between single-family homeowners and residents of apartments. Voter apathy among low-income residents neutralized any pro-Democratic turnout. The 1963 alderman election witnessed even greater vitriol and divisiveness, as Republican and UCC board president Robert O’Rourke defeated Morris Hirsh. The campaign saw charges of antisemitism, corrupt voter registration, and pro-Republican bias among UCC leaders.

Uptown redevelpoment suffered a major blow in 1965, when Kemper Insurance announced that it would move its headquarters from Uptown. The corporation had called the neighborhood home since the 1920s, but employees and executives had grown increasingly pessimistic about Uptown’s future after 1960. With the end of prospects for the Meltzer plan—with its proposal for a subsidized insurance corporate campus custom made for Kemper and Combined Insurance—Kemper turned to the suburbs. A coordinated effort between Daley, Alderman O’Rourke, and the socially progressive and sometime radical priest John J. Egan to retain the corporate giant was to no avail.

 

Chapter Seven: New Leftists, Poverty Warriors, and Rebel Nuns in a Community on the Brink

In 1964 the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) initiated the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP). Echoing the settlement house movement of America’s earlier ‘urban crisis’ of the late-19th and early-20th century, middle-class young adults relocated to low-income communities. Their aspirations went beyond social work. These New Leftists hoped to organize poor and working-class people around the work of changing the economic and social structures believed to be the cause of poverty. Uptown was a natural choice for the cornerstone of ERAP—a ‘community union’ known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). The neighborhood’s concentration of white poverty made it a prime location for white activists, who searched for ways to extend the spirit of the southern civil rights movement to community activism in the north as they became marginalized by the rise of Black Power.

JOIN organizers consisted of many of the leading lights of the New Left: Casey Hayden, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Rennie Davis, Michael James, and Todd Gitlin, among others. They found organizing poor people on a community basis easier in theory than in practice. Yet some locals were receptive to the JOIN message, and a small but effective ‘indigenous’ protest movement sprang up in the mid-1960s. That many of these local activists were non-white indicated the shifting politics of diversity in Uptown. Tenants in ultra-low rent housing led pickets and eventually rent strikes against exploitative landlords. Welfare recipients held well-publicized sit-ins at city offices. And the Uptown Goodfellows, a group of young tough southern whites, shifted their focus to politics—specifically an anti-police brutality campaign. The Uptown establishment, in general, greeted JOIN activism with dismissal at best and outright hostility at worst.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

Yet JOIN was far from alone in bringing calls for social change to Uptown. The War on Poverty created a path to Uptown for dozens of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Many Uptown VISTAs were attached to the new Hull House branch in Uptown, an extension and legacy of Jane Addams famous settlement house. While most VISTAs professed liberal reformist ideals anathema to the New Leftists in JOIN, others pushed Hull House to organize low-income residents in ways similar to JOIN. VISTAs encouraged tenant’s unions and led Uptown’s open housing movement. The board of directors of Hull House-Uptown—which included progressives alienated from the UCC-led redevelopment movement—reflected VISTA activism by maintaining a critical stance towards new urban renewal plans and the local War on Poverty-affiliated “Urban Progress Center.”

A third group offered yet another perspective on poverty and culture after 1965. The Glenmary Sisters were a Catholic order of sisters religious dedicated to work among Appalachians. Based in Appalachia, several sisters followed the postwar migration to Uptown. Isolation from Catholic authorities had encouraged unconventional attitudes and social work tactics within Glenmary. Once in Uptown, exposure to the grinding inequalities of urban life—and the liberalizing promises of the Second Vatican Council—pushed many sisters to reform the way they dressed, the time spent outside of their cloister, and the ways they addressed the structural causes of poverty. In 1967, led by sisters in Uptown, the vast majority of Glenmary Sisters chose to resign from the order instead of capitulating to demands by their archdiocese to roll back their liberal reforms. The renegades formed the lay Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), and intensified their educational and cultural outreach to poor Appalachians in the mountains and Uptown. Like JOIN, VISTAs, and Hull House-Uptown workers, the Glenmary Sisters/FOCIS embraced the ‘folk’ culture of Uptown’s low-income residents, particularly country music.

Chapter Eight: Uptown Symbols in Revolution

This chapter is under construction. Check back soon for updates. 

Uptown assumed a vital place among symbols of the ‘revolutionary’ late-60s and early-70s. The idea of a poor neighborhood that attracted outside radicals and served as a crucible for homegrown served well many cultural interpretations of “The Sixties.” Uptown radicals—many still with a southern twang, but a growing number of Latinos, American Indians, and African Americans—popped up in films such as the groundbreaking documentary “American Revolution II,” about events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention, and the classic cinema verite “Medium Cool.”

Low-income, southern white organizers found a distinct voice of anti-racism, cultural pride, and local political power. From the ashes of JOIN and the Goodfellows rose the Young Patriots Organization. The Patriots proudly wore a Confederate battle flag on their berets, yet advocated tolerance. The group found community organizing difficult, as the promising Sixties turned into the weary Seventies. It faded away, but not before operating a health clinic and publishing a four-volume collection of poetry written largely by Uptown locals.

In what was in many ways a symbolic summary of the turbulent era of protest, an group of low-income Uptown American Indians burst onto the scene in 1971 withe formation of the Chicago Indian Village (CIV). An Alinsky-trained but militant-minded Ojibwe migrant led the CIV, relying on a dedicated band that included the homeless, alcoholics, and non-Indian allies. The CIV conducted several high-profile occupations in and around Uptown through 1973, all along skillfully using a peculiar image of urban Indianness to great effect with the media.

Chapter Nine: Surviving the Seventies

This chapter is under construction. Check back often for updates.

 

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