"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


The Breakdown
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
An overview: Uptown.  On any given street: grime, well-kempt restaurants, bums, yuppies, the waft of garbage, the aroma of authentic Asian cooking, weirdos, hipsters, whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, the homeless curled up in an alley, the upper crust walking home after their last martini, the thunder of the “L”, the light gleaming off the signage of a legendary concert venue.

The community area of Uptown is technically made up of about eight or so smaller neighborhoods.  But, you never hear anyone say they’re from Margate Park, or Truman Square, or Clarendon Park.  Save for some who may point out they reside in Buena Park (perhaps for fear of being associated with the rest of the community area), you’re not from a smaller neighborhood, or visiting a tiny section of the area.  No, you’re from Uptown, or you’re visiting Uptown.

Uptown is diverse in ways that go beyond statistics, although those numbers certainly verify its diversity.  It’s an area that’s been developing for the past century, and will continue to do so for many, many decades.  Block-for-block, Uptown isn’t the most attractive or pedestrian-friendly neighborhood by any means.  But for an overall unique and often unexpected experience, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fascinating place in the entire city.

The boundaries: Throughout the entire community area, the northern boundary is Foster Avenue, and the eastern border is Lake Michigan.  To the south, the boundary is Montrose Avenue from Ravenswood Avenue to Clark Street.  Then from Clark to the lake, the southern boundary is Irving Park Road.  To the west, the border is Ravenswood Avenue from Foster Avenue to Montrose.  Then from Montrose to Irving Park Road, the western border is Clark Street.

Population make-up: Uptown consists of twelve Census tracts, and remains one of the most racially diverse community areas in the City.  As of the 2010 Census, the population was 51% white, 20% black, 14% Hispanic, and 11% Asian.  However, the white demographic is the only one of the four that has seen a population increase since 2000.

Like many Chicago neighborhoods, Uptown has seen a substantial population decline overall, losing over 11% of its population from 2000 to 2010.  However, it is still the 12th most populated community area in the City.

A brief history: Uptown has an extensive and sometimes tumultuous history.  In its early stages, it grew from farmland to a neighborhood of wealthy and middle-class residents.  The 1910s and 1920s saw Uptown become one of Chicago’s major entertainment hubs with the addition of the Riviera, the Uptown Theater, and the Aragon Ballroom (all of which are still standing today, although the Uptown Theater is not currently in use and is in GREAT need of a multi-million dollar renovation).  During the Great Depression and World War II, the make-up of the area changed.  It became the home of an incredibly diverse population, but throngs of these new residents were crammed into units that once housed fewer people.  Construction stalled during this time and into the 1950s, save for more upscale condos built along the lake, and the majority of residents had to live in aging housing stock.  Increasing poverty, crime, and blight caused residents of Uptown’s northern half to band together and form a separate community area, Edgewater.

Broadway, just south of Wilson, on a rainy day.
Since that time, and moving forward into today, Uptown has faced something of an internal conflict.  On one hand, with great access to public transportation and a lakefront setting, the area has often been alluring to developers.  At the same time, many have advocated for maintaining a high level of affordable housing.  Perhaps nobody has represented this more than the controversial Alderman of much of Uptown over the past two decades, Helen Shiller.

A result of an incredibly hectic century is Chicago’s most financially and ethnically diverse neighborhood.  The community area is home to “New Chinatown” (a misnomer: it’s mostly Vietnamese and Korean), one of the seven City Colleges, a still-thriving entertainment district at Broadway and Lawrence, and an incredible array of ethnic dining options.

Getting there: If you’re taking the “L” there are multiple options along the Red Line.  Argyle will drop you off in the heart of New Chinatown, Lawrence takes you directly to the entertainment district, Wilson drops you off at Truman College and a retail corridor along Broadway, and the Sheridan stop is technically in Lake View but is less than a block from Uptown’s southern border (Irving Park Road).  Metra is also an option.  If you take the UP-North line to Ravenswood station, you'll be on the western edge of Uptown at Ravenswood and Lawrence.

If you’re taking the bus, you have multiple east-west options: Foster (92), Lawrence (81), Montrose (78), and Irving Park (80).  There are also a few buses that head down Wilson (78, 145, 148).  But let’s say you wanted to do something crazy and go north-south, well then you could take these routes: Clark (22), Broadway (36), Sheridan (151), and Marine Drive (136, 144, 146).

It will leave you wahnting more.
Sun Wah BBQ (5039 N. Broadway)
A touch off the beaten path of Argyle-district Asian eateries, Sun Wah is just around the corner from the train and the main drag.  You may have noticed the crowds if this is your hood.  And if not, you probably noticed the gaggle of glistening ducks hanging in the front window.

Michael’s Take: Bang for your buck, Sun Wah may be one of the City’s best restaurants.  It’s always crowded and has an exceptional reputation.  For an appetizer, we went with deep fried scallops.  You get over a dozen of them, crispy and piping hot.  I also had a small order of BBQ duck, the “small” order being a quarter.  This results in about ten pieces of hot, greasy, delicious meat with an ever-so-slightly sweet and wonderfully crispy skin.  My only complaint, watch out for tiny bones.  If the bones weren’t an issue, it’d be about as perfect a Chinese dish as I’ve ever consumed.  I also had shrimp dumpling soup with a savory miso-like broth and dumplings loaded with chunks of shrimp.  Wash it down with a Tiger lager (Roar!), and then some hot tea to make me feel better about myself.  All in all, way too much food to even finish (embarrassingly, three lingering crispy scallops were taken away by our waiter after we threw in the towel).  Grand total, including Laura’s soup, tax and tip, was just under $40.  That’s awesome.

The artist at work.
Laura’s Take: Sun Wah is always packed with all manner of people. For good reason – they have something for everybody in their enormous menu (don’t forget to flip over your menu – there’s another one on the reverse side).  It’s hard to decide among noodle and dumpling soups, fried rices, BBQ meat platters, noodle dishes, and a large seafood selection of whole fish and shellfish. I ended up ordering the duck shrimp dumpling noodle soup.  The name was a little long to order almost to the point of being ridiculous (no numbers on the menu), but it was heaven in a bowl.  Everything you could want: nice flavorful duck broth, tender dumplings filled with shrimp, pork, and mushroom, delicious egg noodles hidden underneath, chunks of perfectly cooked duck with lacquered skin, and a few sprigs of bok choy to give you something fresh and crispy.  Alongside we had fried scallops as an appetizer (although they did come out last) with a few dipping sauces.  The tea on the table is actually really good, too.  Expect a pot to be on your table as soon as you sit down.  It comes hot enough that it will be a challenge to even hold your tea cup at first, but by the end of the meal, it’s the perfect flavor and strength to settle everything you just ate.  As with a lot of venues in Uptown, the crowd that you’ll find enhances the atmosphere.

That's 25% of a duck right there.
Anything Else We Missed: Ignorance is not bliss.  Don’t make the same mistake we did.  Reserve a table a couple days in advance and MAKE SURE YOU TELL THEM that you want the Peking Duck.  Otherwise you’ll be watching every other table in the restaurant savoring what you didn’t think to request.  They bring out a stunningly glazed duck and literally slice and shave it apart right in front of you.  In about five minutes you’ve got a piled plate of duck meat just waiting to fill the empty baos sitting on your table.  From my understanding it’s about $36 for one, but it looks like it feeds 3-4 very fortunate human beings.  Finally, there is some beer and wine for purchase, but Sun Wah is BYOB with a $3 corkage fee.

Shrimp and Pork Dumplings.  Duck.  Bok Choy.  Broth.

If it was good enough for Scarface...
The Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway)
At Broadway and Lawrence, the heart of Uptown and its entertainment sector, sits the Green Mill.  It’d be unassuming if it weren’t for the gaudy neon-green sign that looks like it hasn’t been altered since the ‘20s, even if most of the light bulbs have recently been changed.  Unlike the Aragon and the Riviera that attract big name alternative rock acts, the Green Mill is more than happy to be that little history-laden lounge that hosts small and sublime jazz performances.  Ownership has clearly invested in this landmark.  Kind of like staying at a Holiday Inn Express, seeing a show at the Green Mill may not necessarily make you more cultured, but you’ll feel more cultured by kicking back and savoring one of Chicago’s great gifts to the music world.

Laura’s Take: Being a huge fan of live music of any kind, I had an awesome time at the Green Mill.  It’s what everyone tells you – that it’s a great venue – but it was still fun to be transported to another 
A petite stage hosts an array of top-notch musicians.
world in that small, dark, cozy jazz club.  Maybe it’s the location that makes it unexpected, or the tiny size that makes it feel so special when you get a seat by the stage.  The intimacy of the stage requires a lot from the performer, but both times I’ve been there, the act has delivered and I’m reminded why I go out to see musicians do their thing live.  Based on what I could tell, and the Cosmo that I ordered, the place can also craft a fine beverage.  The whole experience of being there sort of makes you want to order one of those classic cocktails, so I would suggest giving in to temptation.  During the show that we saw, which was Sheila Jordan performing with the Bradley Williams trio, the place filled up before start time (9pm) with those who knew they wanted seats, and every bit of excess standing room was disappearing by 11 or so.  Come for an authentic, relaxing and edgy escape from the real world.

Michael’s Take: I’d wanted to go to the Green Mill ever since I first heard about it, and finally went with Laura.  I was not disappointed.  The vintage neon sign may signal “sleazy” to some, but the interior is beautifully kept up.  Drinks are a little pricey, and there’s a cover on weekend evenings, but you’re paying to enjoy a show in a legendary Chicago music venue.  We were fortunate enough to catch Sheila Jordan’s annual stop at the Green Mill, having no idea she was singing there (or who she was until she got up on stage).  The Detroit-born singer has been performing in jazz lounges since the ‘40s and, even today at 82 years young, puts on a helluva show.  She still has some pipes, and thrives on improvising lyrics at times during the show.  The Bradley Williams trio supplied impressive supporting piano, bass, and percussion for Ms. Jordan as well.  The Green Mill is a Windy City icon with an intimate setting, and taking in a show here is mandatory for any Chicagoan even remotely interested in live jazz.

Anything Else We Missed: The Green Mill has been around over 100 years, and was a favorite hangout of Al Capone.

Aw yeah, that's the money shot.
Gigio’s Pizzeria (4643 N. Broadway)
I hope you’ve seen the exterior of Gigio’s beckoning from the Red line. It has so much character that you’ve gotta wonder what’s going on inside.  Be forewarned, it’s good.  Almost too good.

Michael’s Take: I love my deep dish pizza.  It’s still the best pizza in the world.  But I try to be open-minded and ate, gulp, New York style pizza.  You know what, it’s not easy for me to say, but the stuff at Gigio’s is actually really good.  I will concede that it’s a nice convenience to be able to order a slice and basically have enough for a light lunch.  Hey, I loved Garibaldi’s as a kid (does anybody remember them?).  At Gigio’s, the crust is just a little crisp, so you get a scosh of crunch instead of solidified pizza-flavored grease.  Maybe the place isn’t the epitome of immaculate, but c’mon, it’s a pizza-by-the-slice joint by the Wilson Red Line.  Uptown isn’t about “pretty”.  It’s rugged, it’s blue collar, it’s hardcore.  If a couple crumpled napkins on your table are gonna bother you, go sip your $15 cosmo on Rush Street.  At Gigio’s, you come for the pizza, and you stay for the…….pizza.  At about $3 a slice, who are you to argue?

At Gigio's, they are pleased to serve you.

Laura’s Take: So I was pretty excited to try what I have heard is excellent thin crust/ NY-style pizza, which is without question the only real pizza (please disregard conflicting statements above).  Gigio’s delivered, especially in the crust, price, and let’s just say, that vintage pizzeria vibe.  There’s an oven, a cash register, a counter, and some bare bones booths.  Do not come expecting fresh coats of paint or anything resembling decoration, but do come anytime up until midnight during the week or 2am on weekends if you have the crave.  The only thing I would have changed about my slice of pepperoni would have been to remove some portion of the cheese load, but the grease content and crust factor were right on.  The crust had that authentic, yeasty, crispy perfection.  And finally, no, I will never pat off the grease.  That’s what makes it good. 

Anything Else We Missed: You don’t just have to get it by the slice.  You can order a whole pizza.  They have more than pizza too: mostaccioli, spaghetti, ravioli, Italian beef, Italian sausage, meatball sandwich, and an assortment of sides that have been fried to the point of deliciousness.

The Bar on Buena (910 W. Buena Avenue)
It's that bar!  On Buena!
Buena Park makes up the southern portion of Uptown, and usually has the reputation as the “nice” part of the community area.  If you didn’t know it, you’d think you were in East Lakeview.  Bar on Buena is a standout; not just in Uptown, but in the entire City.  It’s a comfy bar with a killer beer selection, good food, and a chilled-out crowd.  It’s right in between Sheridan and Broadway, so it really feels more like a neighborhood tavern than a trendy bar on a major commercial corridor.  So, before you dismiss Uptown as a place to hang out on Friday night, go check out Bar on Buena and you just might find a new favorite spot.

Laura’s Take: This bar is a longtime favorite of mine, probably because it introduced me to just how great the beer pubs in Chicago can be.  It’s tucked away in a corner on the border of Lakeview and Uptown, and you get the feeling that the people coming in made it a destination.  There are many regulars here, who easily make themselves comfortable for a spell at their regular bar stool.  There are flat screen TVs, but they are not the focus necessarily.  If you want a bigger meal and/or want your own private space, the far wall is lined with elevated booths.  Otherwise, find a nice high top at the window and prepare to try some great beers that you’ve never had before.

So many taps to choose from...
Michael’s Take: This is a really great bar.  Coming back, I’d forgotten how small it is.  I can’t imagine it can hold much more than 50, and that’d be cramming them in.  Like any beer-lover’s dream, it’s got about two dozen different ales on tap, half of which I’d never heard of until I got there.  Oh and the fries there, ludicrous, in a good way.  Something about fries served in cone-shaped paper that lets you know you’re in for a treat.  Maybe it’s just a mental thing, I dunno.  They come with an aioli that’s just delightful too.  Great atmosphere, and the bartenders are always knowledgeable and helpful when selecting a craft brew.

Anything Else We Missed: The dude next to us said he orders the Buffalo marinated turkey breast sandwich every single time he goes.  It looked solid, and he was from Detroit, so it was probably pretty good.

Looking southward down Broadway, toward Lawrence
Uptown: The Final Tally
Uptown is truly an eclectic neighborhood.  Its grit, wear and tear are balanced in the oddest way by its first class food, architecture and entertainment.  Uptown is a place to come when you want to get more for your buck, either in your dinner out or your apartment lease.  Whether you want Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Chinese bakery, world-class jazz in a city known for it, or suburban-like housing options, somehow it is all found in Uptown.  Its streets may require a little extra tolerance, street smarts, or some nose plugs from time to time, but for those who enjoy living on the edge a little bit, maybe it all adds up to the perfect neighborhood.

Our Tour de Uptown

The Pagoda-like Red Line Station at Argyle

It's a nice day for a white wedding at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church

Uptown (red) in relation to the Loop (blue)

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