[Editor’s note: This feature story is courtesy of a Medill School of Journalism student. It was published recently on an internal Northwestern University web site. Thank you to writer Naomi Nason for her research and attention to detail.]
Uptown Theater: A Community’s History Endangered
By Naomi Nason
Cracked bricks and a dirtied exterior define the vacant building on North Broadway in Uptown Chicago. To a passerby, the building is merely a rundown outlier on a street filled with bars and restaurants. But a step back from the decaying structure reveals a familiar and almost majestic marquee, proudly displaying “Uptown.”
“There are thousands of people who go by it every day and see this wonderful building. It’s just a commanding presence,” said Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, which has its museum and archives in Elmhurst, Illinois, in offices above the York Theater.
The imposing theater which once seated more than 4300 people and debuted some of America’s most classic movies and musicians, has been left empty since 1981. With the building’s condition in more dire straits than ever before, the Uptown Theater has been once again placed on Landmarks Illinois’ “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.”
“We are trying to bring attention to the fact that it’s at a critical point. If restoration doesn’t happen soon for this building it will keep deteriorating,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmark Illinois. The theater’s 1991 distinction as a Chicago landmark keeps it safe from demolition, but its acknowledgement on the endangered list is a reference to the tens of millions of dollars worth of renovation work needed to bring the theater back to working state.
The theater’s new owners as well as Chicago politicians and theater advocacy groups stand behind the restoration push, but facing an Uptown demographic which is heavily immigrant based and younger than ever, there remains the concern that the community just no longer cares.
“What’s there to save?” asked 20-year Uptown resident Alan Dolgia? Though he’s lived in Uptown for most of his life, Dolgia says he has never viewed the theater as important to the community. Fellow Uptown resident Juliana Wilhoit said she thinks the theater just takes up space. To Dolgia, Wilhoit and the many post-college aged Uptown residents, the theater has only ever been empty and rundown.
This most recent endangered listing is not the first time that the Uptown Theater has been acknowledged by Landmark Illinois. The theater first appeared on the list in 1996 and then again in 2001, both times receiving large amounts of community support. In 2008, after passing through the hands of a number of private owners, the Uptown was bought by a limited liability corporation. The new owners, as well as 48th ward alderman Mary Ann Smith have stated support for the renovation project which is involved and costly.
“The job is not yet done. You have a private owner who is willing to do the renovation, but civic support is needed,” said Andy Pierce, a volunteer with the advocacy group “Friends of the Uptown.” The group currently plays an active role in gaining support for restoration of the theater.
Pierce, as well as fellow “Friends” member Bob Boin, participated in a 2006 documentary by Michael Bisberg and John Pappas called “Uptown: Portrait of a Palace”. The documentary, which brought together the Uptown’s most active voices, was meant to shed light on the theater as a community issue. Pierce organized “Friends” in 1998 but said he realizes his work is far from done, “You realize you’re in it for the long haul and what you do this year or the next might not have an impact, but it’s about the long term.”
With the Aragon and Riviera venues both nearby, theater supporters are hoping to use the renovation of the Uptown to turn the neighborhood into an entertainment haven. A study done in 2000 by the Urban Land Institute determined that focusing efforts on renovating the Uptown Theater and organizing community action behind it is the key to revitalizing the Uptown community.
DiChiera said that Landmark Illinois has been aware of this issue since the Uptown’s closing in 1981. She said that the community has always been pulled between its lower income residents and the desire for new development. ULI’s study recognized the slow gentrification of the area and the increasing affluence of the Uptown neighborhood, but suggested that the efforts to recreate an entertainment district in Uptown would best expedite this process.
“I think that would help Uptown quite a bit. It would lessen crime and make this area a more desirable place to live,” said Uptown resident Jill Holcsclaw. After moving into the neighborhood in February, Holcslaw said she feels like the opening of a number of shops and restaurants in the area has increased Uptown’s affluence significantly and a restored Uptown could only improve the district.
Though he understands that the road to a renovated Uptown is long and difficult, Pierce said “It’s a landmark and it’s not going to go away easily.”