The Riviera Theatre, constructed in 1917, began as a movie palace. Today, it's a popular concert venue and one of the cornerstones of Uptown's entertainment culture. (Photo by Jacquelyn Thayer, May 26, 2013)

The Riviera Theatre, constructed in 1917, began as a movie palace. Today, it’s a popular concert

venue and one of the cornerstones of Uptown’s entertainment culture. (Photo/Jacquelyn Thayer)

Uptown Eyes Entertainment District

By Jacquelyn thayer and Amanda Bergmann

PostedMonday, June 10, 2013

Dave Syfczak, Uptown native, caretaker of its historic Uptown Theatre, and a Chicago police officer, sees the possibilities for the North Side neighborhood's entertainment future in its past.

“If you go back to the early days of Uptown, this area was generally about entertainment,” Syfczak said. “Back in the ‘teens and ‘20s, Uptown was a port of entry for people coming to the city. You look around; the local architecture reflects that.

"If you were a young single person coming to Chicago, this was where you landed – Uptown. This was the Lincoln Park of the ‘20s. Uptown was loaded with entertainment, shopping, cafeterias, everything a young single person would need.”

While Uptown has suffered a poor reputation for several years, creation of an entertainment district in the community could bring development, from the boost of job creation to increased tourism and business investment.

With summer music festivals and concerts approaching, Chicago is ready to host fans from across the nation. As one of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, Uptown could establish itself as a year-round hotspot for music lovers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to highlight the eclectic neighborhood – one of seven “Opportunity Planning Areas” he identified in March – with the creation of an Uptown music district, an entertainment-focused zone akin to the Loop’s Theatre District.

Uptown is already home to several well-known and historic establishments, from the Aragon Entertainment Center, more traditionally known as the Aragon Ballroom, and Riviera Theatre, which host dozens of concerts a year, to the shuttered Uptown Theatre.

The community is also home to the Wavefront Music Festival, a celebration of electronic dance music set to kick off its second year in June.

A poster on the shuttered doors of the Uptown Theatre reminds passersby of the town and theater's history. (Photo by Jacquelyn Thayer, June 1, 2013)

A poster on the shuttered doors of the Uptown Theatre reminds passersby

of the town and theater’s history. (Photo/Jacquelyn Thayer)

One major step would be the restoration of the Uptown Theatre, which has been closed for business since 1981. The former movie palace was purchased in 2008 by Jam Productions, which also owns the Riviera.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Jason Roberts, who writes for the blog Media Spin Chicago. “Now that we have new leadership and ward, it’s finally going to get done. It’s been talked about probably ever since [the Uptown Theatre] has been closed, but ever since I lived here which has been about 10 years.”

Syfczak said local music institutions have not weighed in yet as work is still in the planning stages.

“It’s very preliminary right now, as far as the departments,” Syfczak said. “I know there’s chatter between the Department of Planning, the Department of Landmarks – they need to all get together and get this thing moving in a more forward direction. I think we’re just a little past the talking stages.”

The cost of remodeling the Uptown Theatre would be $63 million, according to Ald. James Cappleman (46th).

“I actually support using tip money or city funds with the collaboration with Jam because creating that type of business will create tax revenues for the city,” Roberts said.

However, organizations like the Theatre Historical Society of America (THS), of which Syfczak is a board member, may help cut the costs of the remodel due to their mission.

Archive Director Kathy McLeister said THS exists to encourage the preservation and use of historic American theaters.

“I don’t think we should pay for all of it, but it would probably come from a TIF [tax increment financing] zone, public private collaboration between Jam and the city,” Roberts said. “That’s the only way it can happen and it’s worked in other cities and it’s worked downtown.”

One point of contention surrounding the talks is concern over the city’s interest in supporting music as an industry. Music critics such as Jim DeRogatis of Sound Opinions have cited the city’s failure to establish a central music office similar to the Chicago Film Office that serves to attract Hollywood productions.

“I don’t think it would be necessary for the city to have a separate music department like that,” Roberts said. “Tourism and cultural affairs is sufficient enough.”

But more concern has been raised over the question of Uptown’s safety as a business and cultural destination. Although the community is not among Chicago’s most violent, gang incidents and robberies have been an issue in pockets of the area in recent years.

However, according to the Chicago Tribune, crime reports in Uptown between April 25 and May 25 were down from the same period last year. Violent crimes are down 30 percent, while property and quality-of-life crimes have declined by 40 percent.

“The issues in crime in this neighborhood are way overblown, they are only in small pockets and I believe it’s perfect,” said Roberts. “You can walk there, the El is there, there’s a parking lot right down the street from Uptown and they may just have to build another one.”

Syfczak agrees.

“Crime is not an issue as the Aragon and Riviera operate without any impact because of the area,” Syfczak said. “You have crime all over the city. Crime is not unique to Uptown.”

Both Roberts and Syfczak believe that increased business in the area would improve its image.

“I think that many times these issues come to matters of perception and media attention,” Syfczak said. “Perceptions can be changed and as more focus is drawn to good news, attitudes will change.”

Roberts said he is encouraged by Cappleman’s efforts. Since taking office in 2011, Cappleman has led a charge to establish Uptown as an area of growth, with more than $100 million in public funds already secured to support private developments.

“As soon as the new alderman took office, businesses started popping everywhere around here,” Roberts said. “I think he’s more business-friendly. I believe it’s with his leadership it has a much better chance of happening.”

A planned $203 million reconstruction of the Wilson Red Line Station may also foster additional growth in Uptown.

The CTA plans to submit a contractor to its board for final approval in August, and a “notice to proceed” with the three-year project could be issued in September, according to DNAinfo Chicago.

Syfczak said public transportation is abundant in the area, which would help with drawing crowds to the venues without creating traffic congestion.

“You have the Red Line here, all the surface routes – the Broadway bus, the Lawrence bus, the Sheridan Road bus two blocks to the east, the Clark Street bus four blocks to the west,” Syfczak said. “There’s currently a new Metra station under construction at Lawrence and Ravenswood. That would bring all the North Shore and downtown people to the area.”

The Lawrence Red Line El stop is located across the street from the Aragon, in the heart of the community’s existing entertainment zone, which includes The Green Mill lounge. The neighborhood is also bound by the Argyle Red Line stop to the north.

“Returning the area back to an entertainment district would just be bringing it back to its roots,” Syfczak said. “Along with getting the theater reopened, a lot of other businesses would follow, such as restaurants, clubs – it would be a good thing for the area. It’s a handy location here to the city, and for the first time we have a mayor who’s a Northsider who has a vision.”

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