Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part one)

Chicago’s Loop, and Lake Shore Drive, have an array of dazzling architecture, and as Chicago residents we can take a great deal of pride in those accomplishments.

From the urban dweller’s view, there’s a lot to like about Chicago: consistent (if imperfect) mass transit, walkability , and an ever growing network of safe space for bicyclists.

It’s a testament to having planning in place, and diligently following those plans.

Daniel Burnham’s plans for Chicago have now been in the rearview mirror for more than a hundred years, but those plans have served the city magnificently. Our miles of open lakefront space – part of the plan – is, in my eyes, the jewel of the city.

But Chicago is not just the Loop, and some of the challenges that face Chicago are as wide and as deep as any facing Detroit, Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities.

The issues of segregation, racial and ethnic divides and centuries of political corruption in Chicago run deep.

For me, there are two buildings I’ve learned about that tell the story of their Chicago neighborhoods. They are symbols of the challenges those neighborhoods face now.

One is the Uptown Theater in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and the other is the building that housed the now-defunct Brach Candy factory on Chicago’s West Side.

I’ve learned about both of these buildings because my personal story intersected with the story of these neighborhoods.

After a long break from academia and years in the corporate world, I resumed my work for a BA in 2011.

I did my first year of coursework at Uptown’s Truman College. I was the editor of the student newspaper, and more often that not, the tone of our coverage was grim. My first issue included a story about a student being shot near campus. Subsequent issues weren’t much sunnier.

Photo from Chicago Tribune article.

Photo from Chicago Tribune article.

Uptown has a unique set of challenges. It was a neighborhood in decay as early as the 1950s and 60s, and its inexpensive housing proved to be a magnet for immigrants coming to Chicago. Later, when government cuts closed mental hospitals across the state, Uptown was the no man’s land where buses would dump those patients, with no transitional plan or resources.

I interviewed Alderman James Cappleman – who had served for years as a social worker – and he talked about some of the specific challenges Uptown still faces, with an enormous homeless and mentally ill population and a gang warfare issue (five gangs fighting over the same turf).

In the midst of Uptown sits the once-majestic Uptown Theater.

It seats 4,500 people – at one time, it was the biggest theater in the country, and still ranks high on the list. It was built in 1925 and closed to audiences in 1981.

For 30 years, the theater has sat empty, and it’s faced a number of issues since – weather and water damage, theft, and a few unplanned tenants (including peregrine falcons).

For the last several years, talk about two big projects for Uptown – the renovation of the theater, and the renovation and modernization of the Wilson CTA Red Line stop – have dominated the conversation about renewal here.

The future of the el stop appears to be on track; renovation and rebuilding starts soon. The theater’s future is more unclear. Jam Productions bought the theater for a little over $3 million, but it will easily cost $70 million to repair and renovate – possibly as high as $100 million.

The idea is to make it a grand palace once again, and the cornerstone of a new entertainment district in Uptown. I’m all for this plan, though I think a few things need to happen to help it along.

One is that a sizable parking garage should be built between the Uptown and the two nearby theaters (Riviera and Aragon) to bolster the infrastructure in the area.

Parking is almost always an afterthought in Chicago planning – and understandably not a main focus in an urban planning environment centered on using existing transit.

But Uptown – and the Uptown Theater – will need to draw a big audience to sustain this project, and planners will need to cast the net a little wider and think about ways to accommodate regional audiences.

And I think having one single large theater space would be a mistake. Keeping a grand space is key, but multiple use space would benefit the theater’s long-term health. I think a smart architect can create a few smaller spaces without diminishing the grand scheme of the existing theater space.

It’s still not a definite “go” at this point. But I really hope this happens. It’s a promising start and a ray of hope for a neighborhood that, quite frankly, needs all the hope it can get.

Tomorrow: Part Two – The Candy Factory. 



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