A Portrait Of Uptown: The Faded Glamor Of A Community In Flux

By Lauren Whalen in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 18, 2015 5:33PM

Since its establishment in the early 1900s, Uptown has been a hangout for the glitterati, a refuge for immigrants, and a home for academics and artists.

Photographer Matt Tuteur has been capturing the constantly-evolving neighborhood in photos since 2005, spending hundreds of hours trying to capture Uptown in all its complex, gritty glory.

Tuteur first discovered the neighborhood in 1995 while exploring Chicago for graffiti art, and in 2005 made the decision to "aggressively photograph" people and events in Uptown. His decade-long creative journey hasn't always been easy: some accused him of being with the police.

In the shots above, Tuteur documents the neighborhood's more recent history, from mid-2000s onward. He started to "aggressively photograph" the area, as he puts it, back in 2005, hoping to "showcase the people of the 46th ward with dignity." Since this project began, he's shot new immigrants exploring the neighborhood, the Chicago Police Department's controversial "stop-and-frisk" process in action, and adorable father-son moments. Tuteur also chronicled construction on the Wilson Station, which began in 2014 and will ultimately make the station a transfer point between the Red and Purple lines.

The story of how Uptown came to be really begins at the turn of the 20th century, when Uptown was a getaway for city dwellers eager to live by the lake.

At first, many new residents of the burgeoning neighborhood built homes on empty lots. Then luxury apartment buildings sprang up on Winthrop and Kenmore Avenues. From 1907 to 1917, Uptown was the beating heart of the American film industry thanks to Essanay Studios.

Then came the Roaring Twenties. In part because of Uptown's proximity to public transportation, it became a hub for live entertainment during those years. Concert halls and jazz clubs that people still flock to today—think the Aragon, the Riviera and the Green Mill—sprang up. It was, as one Tribune reporter described it, "a glittery district dotted with big movie palaces, fancy department stores and dance halls hosting Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Jan Garber and all the other famous names of the swing era."

However, the neighborhood's swinging tune changed during the Great Depression— specifically in 1933, when the extension of Lake Shore Drive to Foster Avenue made it possible to bypass Uptown for shops even further north. Suddenly, it wasn't such a hub of entertainment, and the apartments lost their glamor. Lower rents attracted recent migrants and the city's poor to Uptown. The state began releasing mental health patients to the neighborhood's smaller apartments and halfway houses.

When a wave of activism swept through America in the '60s, it took firm hold in Uptown. In 1966, long-standing Uptown establishments and loyal residents formed the Uptown Chicago Commission, among other community organizations, with the goal of improving local conditions without pricing out lower-income residents. Social service organizations began springing up as quickly as the luxury apartment buildings of the early 20th century, including the American Indian Center, the Lakefront SRO Corporation and a federal Urban Progress Center. When Truman College was built in 1976, it displaced several hundred residents, and prompted protests.

Some Uptown residents, irked by the neighborhood's new diversity and social consciousness, found ways to protect their interests. Residents of northern Uptown reclaimed the name "Edgewater" and achieved recognition as a distinct community area, effectively cutting Uptown's population in half. The wealthier areas of Buena Park (between Graceland Cemetery and the lake) and Sheridan Park (between Graceland and St. Boniface Cemeteries) distanced themselves soon after, winning historical landmark status and cementing their image as distinct neighborhoods.

But Uptown still thrives today. The area attracts immigrants from all over the world, and despite that initial pushback, Truman College has become a beloved local landmark. Look closely, and you can actually see every era of Uptown history in the neighborhood's streets, where chains like Target coexist with age-old institutions like the Green Mill.