Gentrification is an ongoing fact of life in Chicago that’s too complicated for me to tackle here. But I will say that on this walk, that fact presented itself in an obvious way. This sign above, for me, says a lot: the area between Irving Park (4000 North) and Lawrence (4800 North) is generally referred to as Uptown. For people of my father’s generation, that name has an indelibly negative connotation: it’s one of Chicago’s “bad neighborhoods,” and notably, one of only a couple that get that label that are on the north side. “Buena Park,” though it does, I believe, refer to an actual piece of parkland somewhere near here, is quite obviously also the real estate industry’s attempt at re-branding for this region of the city. This sign represents some later act of civic compromise I suppose.
Gentrification or no, north of Addison (3600 North), Broadway just becomes a whole bunch more mundane. Above is the BP station at Irving Park, one of many places I crossed on my walk that I had been in over the past 15 years, at one time or another, but had left very little impression. I’ve never lived anywhere along this stretch, but it has always been near other places I either did live or frequent. In some way Broadway functions like that for the whole north side – it’s sort of close to a whole bunch of things, but it itself isn’t really a destination. It’s a very mundane backbone for a lot of very mundane experiences, and given that it was cold and rainy on this day, that effect was magnified. This BP station is one I went to because when Brooke and I lived in Irving Park (about 4.5 miles west of where this photo was taken), we’d often turn of of either Lake Shore Drive or Broadway on our drives home. And so this was a gas-station we’d go to in that time.
As I preceded north, I was thinking about this question of whether Uptown is a “bad neighborhood.” Honestly just having heard my father voice that opinion through the years, probably starting before I even knew I was listening, it was an inescapable intuition, a sort of fear I involuntarily entertained as I walked. I took this picture because it looked like a great illustration of the tension within the neighborhood: high-rise public housing on the left, low-rise condo development on the right. That might not be true (I didn’t investigate) but it sure looked the part.
A few almost completely nondescript blocks further, almost to Wilson (4600 North) I saw this public school building. I’m not much of a photographer but the image on the right sort of shows you that there’s a stately, well-landscaped public space on the east side of Broadway, right in front of the school. Googling it now shows me that this is (or was) an elementary school, one that is slated for closure because of declining enrollment. This site (by no means official) seems to suggest it was closed in 2010. It’s quite possible some other entity is using it now. If nothing else, the outside is a reminder that there was a time when Chicago put a lot of time and effort into building a whole network of neighborhood schools. Other than a few high-profile building projects for selective-enrollment facilities that cater to wealthy residents, I’m not sure anything like that is happening now. In case you’re wondering, here’s a brief bio of Graeme Stewart, the school’s namesake.
The intersection of Wilson and Broadway appeared to be among the “worst” – lots of broken concrete, shuttered storefronts, a disembodied urban space. I saw two people huddled under an umbrella (a young woman in casual clothes and a middle-aged man in a suit) and the man was saying a prayer for the woman. It was a strikingly intimate moment, though he was speaking very loudly, and obviously I didn’t stop to take a picture.
I ride the el to work, pass by Wilson and Broadway every day along the tracks you can see above. I’ve never gotten on or off at Wilson, so far as I can remember, but when I was down at street level, I saw that this now closed train station looked like it was, at one time, quite large, with ornate stonework on the outside. Currently, the CTA is rebuilding the Wilson stop, making it a transfer point for the purple line and red line, adding two more tracks to make that happen, which is making the neighborhood look even worse right now, because there are clusters of blocked off street corners, pylons in different states of completeness, and the like. I don’t know if the street-level station is part of the rehab project. If it is, it didn’t look like they’d done anything with it yet.
A couple more blocks north, Lawrence (4800 North) and Broadway, as any “history of Chicago”-type thing you can watch on PBS will tell you, was at one time (like, the 1920’s?) a trendy night-spot. Because of that, there are now some grand old decrepit concert venues that have lived an extended afterlife. In some ways, this area is still a trendy night-spot, but not in that bustling, ballroom-dance nostalgic way you see in those old pictures they always run out.
This is the Riviera. I’m pretty sure I saw Sonic Youth and Stereolab there in 1999 or 2000. Though I was there to see Sonic Youth, I remember liking the Stereolab set better. Except that I do think Sonic Youth played “Schizophrenia,” and though I was actually not even that familiar with most of their albums back then, and hadn’t even heard Sister, I remember a nearby audience member (someone I didn’t know) was really enthusiastic about hearing this song, which led me to go back and listen to it too. As cheesy as it sounds, there was something really moving in his appreciation, the satisfaction he took in hearing, and then singing along to the first “I went away to see an old friend of mine…” and this glow came over his face, a glow I didn’t feel for that song then, but a glow I recognized, and somehow felt right then, anyway.
A few years after that (in 2004 I think?) I saw the Pixies at the Aragon (marquee visible in the distance). I really never go to all that many concerts – I always wish I went to more – but even so that Pixies was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. This was the big reunion tour (though now it’s 11 years ago), and they played “Gigantic” twice. I remember thinking how odd it was that that just happened, at two different times in the show, and no one seemed to care (neither did I, but it was still odd). I also very clearly remember hearing “Something Against You” and while listening to that, thinking that if Frank Black wanted to lead a riot, at that moment, he’d be able to get the crowd to do anything he wanted them to do.
I’ve been to the Green Mill several more times than either of those other two places, even though I really don’t know anything about jazz. It’s just a place that’s a little easier to find your way into, have a couple of drinks, etc. But it looked like it was totally shut down as I walked by it – I even wondered if it was abandoned – but the internet now tells me otherwise.
Argyle (5000 North) is where I’ll end this segment of my walking tour. It’s got a cluster of Vietnamese restaurants, and I ate lunch at this one, the most trafficked of them. I’ve been there several times over the years. It’s one of those places that has like 500 items on the menu and it’s a little tough to decide (since the contents are translated, and some of the items’ translations so similar to some other items’ translations). I had #40, which I think is a pretty common order, it was just pho with an assortment of beef-related meats in it.
That just leaves the last stretch – Argyle to Devon (6400 North) – a little less than two miles, about the final third of my journey.