“Down the Shore to Uptown” by Henry Justin Smith

Down the Shore to Uptown


Building at Wilson and Clarendon, Uptown, Chicago (click to enlarge)

Rublof and Wolack building, 1921. This gorgeous terra cotta building once stood at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Clarendon in Uptown, Chicago. It housed the Beach View Gardens and the Bulldog and Whistle pubs. (Click to enlarge.) Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries, Manuscripts Division, Northwest Architectural Archives.

The elevated railroad system serving the northeasterly region, the interurban traversing it, the steam lines, buses, and private automobiles now convey tremendous cargoes of people daily, back and forth. Observed superficially, they seem mostly young. They are brisk, up to the minute, well enough dressed; in some cases, too well. It is a little overwide a generalization to designate them, in a mass, as devotees of the delicatessen, the sandwich shop, the chop suey parlor, and the beauty salon. Yet many of them must be, or there would not be such flourishing industries of that sort at the chief bright-light centers.

One of those centers, not five-minutes away from the place where the poet Field lived among his trees, is Wilson Avenue, between Broadway (the old Evanston Avenue) and the lake. A slight observation would make one imagine that no staid residents cared to live thereabouts. But all kinds of people go there. One day in a recent year fifty thousand persons were counted passing the corner of Wilson and Broadway. From Wilson Avenue to Argyle, and beyond, Sheridan Road is frequented by youths with no obvious business, couples yawningly in search of new amusements, girls in garish costume, women of blasé aspect, leading poodles equally blasé.

“Bluff… Three-room flats… Installment furniture… Chop Suey… Life on Credit.” Such are the hints thrown out by that land of streaming lights, that mob of lightsome people. Churches seek to lure them with large-lettered placards, but more amble by than go in. As a sharp observer, Ralf Gall, writes:

Boys in dogskin coats smoking dollar pipes; hatless, hoping to be mistaken for college men. Girls in high-heeled slippers, fur jackets, boots, in light colored galoshes. They stand before the jewelry store near Broadway, and arrange themselves at the glass. They stand before the music shop farther down, and do the same thing. They hesitate at the gift shop—“Well, what’s it to you?”

Sheridan and Wilson, Uptown, Chicago. (Click to enlarge)

Sheridan Road and Wilson Avenue. The Sheridan Plaza was built in 1919 as a luxury hotel and at the time was the tallest building in Uptown. Today it is an apartment building. Image courtesy Library of Congress, DN-0076017, Chicago Daily News Collection.

Wilson and Sheridan… People with nothing to do but stand in the orange hut solemnly drinking orangeade. The girl in white shoves a goblet into a thing that spurts water on it; pushes down the pump handle; and there you are—another dime gone.

North and south on Sheridan…Fellows and girls; men and wives; greybeards and their mamas. Store fronts are arranged like cages for white mice, with little race tracks in and out around walls and posts. The girls pull the fellows to a standstill, and they wander about the race tracks… Easter hats are out, displayed on the heads of futuristic wax models… Dresses, frocks, and “formals.” Purple—Lord, what a purple! Red, like salami sausage. Blotting paper green Banana yellow. Oodles of machine lace, and sweat-shop beading and embroidery. That riding habit—“who says a girl can’t wear a derby?” And that golf outfit—m-m-m-m!

After twelve… People without overcoats hurry into the eat shop on Clarendon Avenue. (Gene Field’s house was a few blocks south.) They buy ham, dill pickles, cream, and a half pound of coffee. Going to be a little party up in Eddie’s room… High school kids just from a dance crowd into the waffle shop, where white-jacketed fellows are frying waffles right in the window… Throngs pour out of the great dance hall. Pumpkin-colored cabs block traffic. Coppers cuss.

If it be summer, along the beaches from north to south, Lawrence Avenue, the old Wilson Beach, Clarendon, Buena Avenue, Hogan’s Alley, boys and girls arrive from all over the North Side in cars. Or, if they live in the furnished rooms of the Wilson Avenue district, they walk along the streets in bath-robes… Boys and girls light fires and sit around them, occasionally chirping up in sentimental song. A piece of roofing-iron keeps off the wind. Driftwood is flung on. The sparks fly… The lake, with its curl of white, rolls dark and dreamlike before them.

Clarendon Beach, Uptown, Chicago.

1920s bathing beauties enjoy the rays at Clarendon Municipal Beach, first opened to the public in 1915. Image courtesy Library of Congress, DN-0073283, Chicago Daily News collection.

Many a sociologist, which might scorn such vignettes as meaning nothing, has studied Uptown Chicago—to use its commercial name—and has both marveled at its sudden growth and analyzed its types. These scientists have found the city a rich laboratory, and in the Wilson Avenue district they observe a center of fragile domesticity, of married couples both members of which earn pay-checks, of women in defiant independence. Children are relatively few. Both husband and wife have their main interests outside the home. The families thus emancipated live, and prefer to live, in rooming-houses, in kitchenette apartments, in residential hotels. Over the portals of any number of the buildings of old Buena Park one sees signs offering such miniature “homes,” sometimes with emphasis on the presence of “sleeping-rooms,” and often adding, as a great inducement, “shower-baths.”

Ernest R. Mowrer, of the University of Chicago, published in 1925 a study which found that there were sixty-eight divorced for every one thousand population in the Wilson Avenue district. He mentioned as underlying causes what he called the “restlessness of women” and the “romantic complex.” Mr. Mowrer’s data have since found support in court records which show that in a summer month of 1930 the divorces in the 48th ward, approximately the region Mowrer studied, reached the number of twenty-one, the largest proportion in the city. It is interesting to add that the same statistics show no divorces at all in a West Side ward, the 31st, and a striking decrease in divorce figures all over the West Side, as compared with those of the North Side. But desertions—that’s another story.

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