Idiot Soldier at the Last Northern Frontier

[from Jargon Chicago, January 4, 2008]

When Thadeus Wong bought the Uptown Broadway Building for a cool $1.1 million in 2003, he probably wasn’t thinking about the perpetual mystery he was about to foist onto a part of town that for so long has wondered when it was going to get a taste of that sweet, sweet municipal facelift going on everywhere else. He probably wasn’t anticipating the legends that would eventually spring forth from the bookstore set to open across the street, nor was it likely he was licking his chops over the $4 million the city would later hand over to cover the cost of the seemingly endless renovation of that hulk at 4707 N. Broadway.

Even more unlikely is that he foresaw the tired refrains that would echo through the area as the layers of dropcloth fell from the façade of the building:Uptown Chicago

“Wow, Uptown sure is coming up.”

“I bet that’ll look nice when it’s finished.”

“When is this area going to get better already?”

While the past two decades have seen good fortune smile both suddenly and relentlessly on other parts of town – Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, Logan Square, and now (at an alarming and arguably overly-enthusiastic rate) Washington Park – the question no one seems ready, willing or able to answer is the one about both the everything and the nothing going on together at the Uptown Broadway and everywhere else around it. About Lawrence and Foster. About those condos and storefronts, all dressed up with no place to go. About the invisible, unspoken block-by-block divisors east of Sheridan. About what the hell are they doing at Wilson Yard anyway. Faded, weather-beaten signs that say things like “Coming Soon” and “Going Fast!” That sushi place no one’s ever been to. That guy who’s been singing “Hello Dolly” under the Red Line stop for years now. The largest abandoned theatre in America.

About Uptown as not only a part of the city that refuses to die but, more importantly, as a part of the city that refuses to live.


I was 23 when I moved here for the first time, and like most idiots coming directly from the suburbs my checklist for a city apartment wasn’t really all that exhaustive or well-informed. Is there a bar nearby? Yes. How about a train station? Yep. All-night taco place? Sold!

An old co-worker liked to talk a mean game about all the scrapes and trouble he got in back when he lived in the city. Breaking and entering. Robbing drug dealers. Burying friends and relatives at 22, 19, 14. It was hard not to believe him, considering the street- and prison-issue tattoos that covered his arms and neck and the way his eyes would focus on something none of us could see when he started talking about his former life. Not like some tough guy bragging to people who didn’t care, but like an old soldier trying to forget the war he fought not because he believed in it, but because he didn’t believe in anything at all.

He once asked me where I lived.

“Oh,” I said, preparing to address him as the big-city ambassador I thought I was, “I live on Wilson.”

Co-worker went silent, finally getting out the words “Damn kid, maybe you really are crazy.”

I knew it wasn’t the same Wilson he knew from his day, but whatever. Who needed crime figures or landlords that had any reason to give a damn about the state of their property? Who cared about those decrepit abandoned buildings that were mysteriously catching fire in the middle of the night? All I knew was that just around the corner was an army surplus outlet, next door to that was the used record store that sold me an Iron Maiden greatest hits CD for $5 and four blocks away was the greatest bar in the world. I was in heaven, and what did he know anymore anyway? Uptown was changing, at least according to everything I heard and read. On the rise, or its way up, or whatever it was they kept printing in those pamphlets and flyers telling me to please please please re-elect Mary Ann Smith. There were all those new developments breaking ground. And a Starbucks coming soon. And a Jimmy John’s. These obviously meant great things were in store, or at least great things as my idiotic suburban upbringing had defined them.

I’d often walk past that building on the corner of Leland and Broadway on my way through the neighborhood. No one knew what was going on in there, just that the place was awfully big to be so empty and so completely hidden from passersby. Sometimes when the wind blew the tarps back, you could see the intricate carvings along the entryways and maybe peer inside this empty former beauty queen of an office complex.

On its own, the place was a total eyesore, the kind of half-gutted, half-crumbled hellhole best left for dead or used as the cover shot for a book on dying American cities. The thing was, if you looked around and looked closely, you got the idea that maybe this place used to be beautiful. Like maybe all of this was, this whole stretch of Broadway with the Howard Street train roaring through it every 4 to 20 minutes and the streets bustling with life instead of longing, neighborly vitality instead of needful venom. Reflex made you say buildings like that, or the one next to the Riv, or the one at Foster, were a decaying wreck, but then you realized that to make something that big and ugly, someone probably had to start with something quite grand and opulent. This was more than simple neglect; this was our neighborhood’s three-story answer to thousands of antique cars rusting out on lawns throughout middle America or millions of women sitting on the edges of beds, staring at reflections of their younger selves in photographs full of youth and grace and wondering where it all went.

People speak fondly of Uptown’s golden age, to be sure, but they’re not talking about the neighborhood of twenty years ago the way people talk about the glory days of Rogers Park, or even anything later than Englewood’s moment in the sun in the late 1950’s. No, these are people talking about places they went almost a century ago. Unlike so many other parts of town, the problem isn’t that Uptown hit bottom overnight and stayed there forever; the problem is that Uptown never had the decency to hit bottom in the first place, instead just holding steady in that strange urban purgatory of being not all that bad, but at the same time not being all that great either.

So it wasn’t all that hard to stand there on the corner the way I did so many times, take in the whole scene, smile the way old Thadeus probably did when he signed that huge check, and you could say out loud that “Someday, baby, this is all gonna get to be real sweet again. And I’m going to be standing right here when it happens,” the way Sinatra might if he were so inclined to gamble over and over again on land deals that kept coming up snake eyes.


Five years on, the scene around that corner is still pretty much the same. The surplus store remains, but the record shop and bar are long gone. The Uptown Broadway building is still ambiguously under construction. The Borders that opened in 2004 is reportedly looking to dump its lease. That guy still sings “Hello Dolly” outside the Wilson stop. The Uptown Theatre sits empty without owners and purpose. Most of the storefronts along that block of Broadway are still vacant, either because tenants have already come and gone in the space of just a few short years or simply because no one ever wanted to move in. The Riv has since found someone new to look after it, but no one would claim anything’s been done to actually improve the place, and if their biggest competition is the still-mostly-unused Aragon around the corner there’s really no reason for any business-minded owner to even bother.

Just down the street, the Night Ministry’s mission of mercy bus sets up shop every Tuesday night, handing out meals and giving free health exams to whoever needs them if they just stop by when the bus pulls up at Wilson and Broadway. The Ministry bases its routes on public health reports and what services already exist in the area for those in need; since there’s only the one bus at their disposal, they really only serve the most absolutely desperate of desperate areas.

They’ve been a fixture in this neighborhood for some time now; longer than Borders, longer than the sushi place, longer than the newly-opened banks, coffee shops and sports bars combined. The condos may never quite take off, the homeowners and real estate agents may curse the empty promise of buying up a small piece of this part of town, and the long-awaited development boom may never really come. Meanwhile, in the shadow of that Red Line train that keeps rattling overhead and racing away into the night, survival gear and handouts carry on uninterrupted.