Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wilson Men's Club

Things I miss seeing in Uptown:

Rows of posters for upcoming concerts plastered along gray, grimy walls
Patients from Wilson Care spilling out in the morning in their pajamas to buy cigarettes
The lady in leotards standing at the corner with her boom box, jiggling defiantly
The escapee from Weiss Hospital with IV tubing poking out of his hand, his blue gown open in the back for all to see

Now add to that list:

The last of the old pay-by the night/week hotels that cater to the down-and-outers. This type of facility is by no stretch of the imagination a hotel or even a club, but offered a bed. I’ve never been inside the Wilson Men’s Club but I heard that men sleep in cages made of chicken wire. That is before there were improvements. Now I’ve heard there are walls—they just don’t go all the way down to the floor. Cubicles.

I suppose it’s strange to miss seeing these things. I mean shouldn’t I be glad it’s cleaner, safer (comparably). Sure! Uptown is getting an L station re-do; it now has a Target. I don’t want to go back to the 80s when landlord set fires and the cops were called every other night to break up street fights.

Yet there was something authentic to the diversity that made Uptown, Uptown.

Uptown has always had an eclectic mix of poor white, African Americans, and Native Americans. In 1952 the Bureau of Indian Affairs initiated its Relocation Program. Thousands of Native Americans—with Federal promises of relocation assistance and counseling—left reservations and moved to Chicago. Between 1950 and 1970, Chicago’s American Indian population grew from 775 to 6,575, according to census records. The largest concentration was in Uptown. By the 1980s, Uptown saw an increase of refugees escaping the killing fields of Cambodia or boat people from Vietnam. Southeast Asian immigrants settled on Argyle Street. African American and Latino populations also grew rapidly from 1960 to 1970, after being displaced because of gentrification in Old Town and Lincoln Park. Also beginning in the early 1960s, an influx of patients from state mental hospitals arrived in the neighborhood as the result of deinstitutionalization.

According to Area Chicago, an article by Alison Fisher entitled “The Battle for Uptown” “Reporters in the early 1970s boasted that Uptown’s diverse and ‘gutsy’ character might prove appealing to the young and trendy, following the march of gentrification along the northern lakefront.”

Gritty and gutsy are two adjectives that certainly define Uptown.

And since 1990 there has been a steady march of gentrification that is slowly eroding what makes Uptown, Uptown. From the July, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reporter, Uptown has lost 269 of its 652 Native American residents between 1990 and 2000, according to the census. Today white residents make up 42 percent of the population, up from 39 percent. There has been a rapid shift in condos and in the first 2 months of this year the average listing in Uptown was  $262,052, with the median sale $165,000. Though not as expensive as Lincoln Park, Lakeview, or neighboring Andersonville, according to a 2011 article in Chicago Real Estate Daily “Uptown sees decade’s biggest uptick in home prices.”

Jump to 2013:
This snippet from Area Chicago, article by Alison Fisher, “The Battle for Uptown.”

Uptown’s hotel buildings have long proven stubbornly resistant to forces of gentrification, functioning as flophouses or well-managed low-income housing run by nonprofits such as the Lakefront SRO Corporation, and for-profit affordable housing developers like Peter Holsten. Several buildings in the Flats stable are distressed properties (one of the major targets of the current Alderman, James Cappleman), with multiple building violations and reputations for crime, purchased by Michael for as little as 20 percent of the previous owner’s debt. To his credit, Michael is working with local housing organizations to discuss new options for the displaced residents of his buildings. Yet, if his current plans to purchase nine buildings in Uptown go forward, it will result in a net loss of hundreds of units for the poorest of the poor.
There is some irony to the fact that the swinging singles “Flats lifestyle” promoted by Michael mirrors the ideal promoted by the first developers of Uptown hotels, including the formerly glamorous Lawrence Apartment Hotel, now a mismanaged and decrepit property under consideration for Flats treatment. . . . .
Flats may herald the last era of “slum clearance” in Uptown and turn back the clock on 80 years of advocacy, agitation, and self-determination.

Good bye diversity. And, what ever happened to that lady in leotards at the corner of Sheridan and Wilson? She was out there rain or shine, in snow and blistering heat. And what about that guy who used to walk around dressed like a character out of Dickens with a dress coat, top hat, and cane who looked a little bit like Prince?

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