“Down the Shore to Uptown” by Henry Justin Smith


Down the Shore to Uptown

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Chelsea Hotel, Uptown, Chicago. (Click to enlarge)

The Chelsea Hotel at 920 Wilson was originally built in 1923 and is now home to Jesus People USA, a Christian intentional community. (Click to enlarge.) Postcard courtesy CRCC collection.

It seems valuable to give these glimpses of what is now often described sweepingly as the “farther North Side.” People cling to the old names, although, to the casual eye, there is a solid stretch of streets and roofs. In a sense, the identity of villages remains. It is usually at those original centers that one finds the groups of brilliant shops, the public halls, theaters, and junctions of thronged transportation lines, to which the surrounding residents look for what they need.

But the character of the far North Side is distinct. It is a region of the apartment-dweller. One who explores it will find rather a surprising number of the good-natured, somewhat worn wooden dwellings of the village days; he will discover stone houses of some pretensions; he will espy many a vacant lot which, for all one can tell, may be a goodly trysting-place. But, in most parts of that region, the “improvements” of the modern age have consisted chiefly of buildings in which many families live together comfortably or restlessly, friends or strangers.

There is a danger of exaggerating the artificiality of life in such places. It is true that some of the flat-dwellers are birds of passage, shifting their pathetically simple furniture from Birdcage Manor to Goldfish Villa, or back again, with every spring. It is a fact that numbers of them remain tenants all their lives, never setting foot on an inch of soil that belongs to them. “The delicatessen for cuisine; the radio for education,” someone wrote. Yet there is no proof that people with these tastes, making sociologists look grave, are any worse citizens than many who have gardens and mansards of their own.

Uptown Broadway Building, 1926. (Click to enlarge.)

The Uptown Broadway Building was built in 1926. Currently, plans are in place to restore the building for retail, office, and club space. (Click to enlarge.) Image courtesy University of Minnesota, Manuscripts Division, Northwest Architectural Archives.

On the contrary, the number of improvement clubs, literary groups, women’s organizations, and so on, flourishing in this realm of the apartment-building is no less than elsewhere. The flaring movie house is offset by the community house and the church. In the great high schools young people lively enough for any escapade are organized into groups that make them think, that draw them toward music and art. And parent-teacher societies are as influential here as elsewhere.

From the life in pretty flats, as from the really over-crowded districts in other parts of the city, the instinct of many people is to escape. Thousands of them come from small towns. They perch briefly in some cage—“modern apartments, one to three rooms”—until they can choose a spot on one of the enormous breezy spaces that lie so close at hand. Often whole battalions of families, whole societies of young husbands and wives, migrate together. In some suburb or far corner of the roomy city, on the plains or amid the groves, they set up neat doll-houses, with lawns and avenues as spick and span as a magazine page. There in their brand-new sections they do a bit of pioneering, with plumbing that works, and with a notable habit of organizing. They have their civic associations, parent-teacher associations, dramatic clubs, new members committee, Fourth-of-July celebration committee, and even publicity committee. The object almost seems to be to make every resident a committeeman.

Meantime there are always enough newcomers or confirmed apartment-dwellers to keep janitors busy. There are nearly 450,000 people who live east of the Chicago River and north of what is generally considered the border of the near North Side. Something like 300,000 live in wards that border the lake; while toward the west, in regions opened up within recent years, populations have doubled. Great tracts were vacant land as late as 1920. As for the situation nearer the lake, up to the nineties some of the suburban railroad trains took on board only a single passenger each morning.


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