The Bright Lights of Uptown

Vol. XI No. 4 - SUMMER/FALL 2000

By: Angela Schlater

The heart of the Uptown neighborhood lies at the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway. A local businessman, Loren Miller, Sr. proposed the name “Uptown Square” for this intersection, and in 1927 the city council approved the name.

This “Uptown” neighborhood is the night-time playground and pleasure area of north-side Chicago. Observe it from perspective… You will see a distant city of electric lights. The atmosphere has a hazy golden glow. Huge moving-picture theater signs, rows of yellow street lamps, moving “L” trains over Broadway, lighted stores and restaurants, traffic of automobiles and surface cars and movement of people all these elements compose a motion picture of life and activity not greatly different from that of Times Square in the eastern metropolis.
“Uptown Grows in 37 years” Northside Sunday Citizen, June 9, 1931

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, local newspapers such as The Uptown News and The Northside Sunday Citizen, featured articles similar to the one from which the above excerpt was taken. These articles portrayed the identity of this neighborhood as a bona fide “bright light district:” an exciting, bustling, and most of all, entertaining area to visit.

Several factors came together to create the built environment of Uptown. National prosperity, a larger population of young people, and jazz culture directly affected how the neighborhood developed and the built environment grew. Together, these factors created the identity of Uptown as an entertainment district.

The development of the built environment in Uptown was in response to the growth of mass culture and the culture of consumption. The early part of the twentieth century emerged as an important era of cultural flux in the United States, and evidence of this can be seen through the lens of Uptown.

At the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 there were two very different attitudes about leisure and entertainment: one was the mainstream, middle class “highbrow” type of entertainment, and the other was the marginal, working-class, “lowbrow” type of entertainment. By 1920, however, the working class and “lowbrow” types of entertainment, such as movies and dancing, steadily gained popularity and began to play an important role in urban life. Both movies and dancing were important components of the entertainment environment of Uptown. Nickelodeon theatres were popular in Chicago as early as 1900 and by 1913 there were over 600 nickelodeons in Chicago. With the creation of motion pictures, a new medium existed that catered to the dreams, hopes and fantasies of working class Americans. People could sit in a movie theater, such as the Riviera or the Uptown, and venture into a fantasy world, through the rich décor of their surroundings and the stories on screen.

Public dance halls were also extremely popular, much to the consternation of many Protestant middle class reformers. Through the 1910s, excessive alcohol consumption was a problem in public dance halls. Reformers made numerous attempts to eliminate drinking and regulate the types of dancing. Settlement houses held sanctioned dances in an effort to protect women. These efforts prompted private dance hall owners to present their spaces as respectable places. The Aragon ballroom was built in 1920 with this in mind. The owners of the Aragon did not serve alcohol and decorated lavishly in an attempt to bolster the sense of respectability of their ballroom. Due to the extravagant decor and surreal atmosphere of many ballrooms and dance halls, they also became places for people to fantasize and escape their lives.

The booming retail market in Uptown became another important attraction for entertainment seekers. Retail was an industry related to both motion pictures and dancing.

Once motion picture fans viewed the accessories and accoutrements of movie stars, they began to covet these things for their very own, and a new market arose. Shopping became the most obvious manifestation of the culture of consumption in the early twentieth century. It was also one of the earliest ways for women to engage in public life. The culture of consumption was urban and secular, full of color and spectacle, and built on sensuous pleasure and dreams. It had a transforming effect on women, who were the chief consumers. Loren Miller & Co.’s Uptown store, located at Broadway and Racine, played an important role in bringing shoppers to the Uptown neighborhood throughout the 1920s. Before the Loren Miller & Co. store opened in Uptown, the Wilson Avenue corridor was known for fashion and shopping. The transition northward was a natural one. The north side newspapers of the early 1900’s are filled with ads from local department stores, such as Loren Miller and Meek & Meek Men’s store on Wilson. Sheridan Road was also known as a fashionable street for clothing and homes, “Sheridan Road: the great shopping street and boulevard, where fashion is on parade.” These stores were significant parts of the culture of consumption that had taken hold in Chicago and served as an important component of the entertainment district in Uptown.

The public spaces of Uptown created an area of entertainment and a pleasure-tour of Uptown in 1927 says it best:

This wide spacious square, where three important streets intersect, is the crossroads of “Uptown,” where the brilliance of night-time electric incandescence reaches a glaring climax. Here are the monster, lighted signs of two luxurious motion-picture theaters which throw a golden glow almost over the entire square and lights up the white terra cotta façade of a skyscraper bank building across the street. Nearby a famous “Uptown” night club attracts the sun dodgers and is a rallying point for the beaux monde of the area.
John Drury, “Byways of the city” Chicago Daily News February 16, 1927.

Within a three block radius one could visit the Uptown or Riviera Theaters or dance to a band at the Aragon Ballroom. One could visit Loren Miller & Co. on an afternoon shopping trip and eat lunch at the cafeteria underneath the Uptown National Bank. The buildings and streetscape created this atmosphere, and gave Uptown the label of an entertainment and “bright light” district.

Editor’s note: The author, Angela Schlater, is a PhD candidate at Loyola University in Public History/American History. She made this presentation of the Uptown Historic District to the State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in September. On November 4, 2000, she made a slide presentation to the Edgewater Historical Society General Meeting at the Edgewater Library.