To understand the identity crisis in Uptown, walk down the 900 block of West Wilson Avenue, just off of Lake Shore Drive. Just past Clarendon Avenue stands Uplift Community School, one of the first to open under Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 initiative. A sign in front reads “Arai,” the name of the middle school in the same building that is being phased out this year.
Down the street a bit, two men lean on walls in front of Friendly Towers, a 10-story former hotel that provides housing for seniors on the top three floors and apartments for Jesus People USA, a religious community on the lower floors. Next door is Thrifty Food Mart, which displays a sign in the window telling customers the store accepts debit cards from state aid programs for low-income families and children.
Then, one door down, bam—a buffed, new six-unit condo building surrounded by a cold, black wrought iron fence. A “for sale” sign out front for one of the trendy units didn’t last long. It was there, then gone in two weeks.
All of a sudden it doesn’t seem like Uptown, the last bastion of affordable housing and longtime first stop for many immigrant groups that came to Chicago.
The neighborhood’s resilience dates back to the start of the 20th Century when Swedes settled Uptown. Germans and Irish followed. In the 1950s, Appalachian whites and Native Americans made their homes in single-family homes that had been split into apartments. Since then Asians, Africans, African Americans, Eastern Europeans and just about every ethnic and racial group imaginable has settled Uptown.
Unlike other pockets of Chicago, Uptown made its identity not by belonging to one group, but by belonging to everyone.
That spirit still thrives and is evident at two specialty public schools. Uplift is the brainchild of three childhood friends who grew up in Uptown. They joined forces with other like-minded neighborhood teachers who believed in grow-your-own public education.
At another nearby school, Passages Charter, as many as 15 languages would be heard if all of the children slipped into their native tongues.
Holding fast to its character, Uptown has taken a few lumps. Most striking, says community organizer Thomas Walsh, are coinciding shifts in housing and demographics.
During the 1990s, Uptown had the fifth-largest increase in the number of new owner-occupied units among the city’s 77 community areas, says Walsh, who co-authored the Uptown Housing and Land Use Study published in 2002. That increase translated into 3,043 new units of owner-occupied housing, a rise of 71 percent.
At the same time, Uptown experienced a loss of more than 3,000 children age 17 and under, according to Walsh’s report, which was published by the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University Chicago.
It’s a matter of debate whether the housing boom is good news or bad for Uptown, or what effect it has had on declining public school enrollment in Uptown. But Walsh has little doubt that Uptown’s housing boom is pushing out working-class families with children.
“If anybody can come up with a different analysis of why Uptown lost 3,000 kids,” he says, “I would be surprised.”