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There Goes the Neighborhood
After 47 years, the Uptown Snack Shop is being forced out

Expanded ArchitectureChicago Plus posting from February 21st, 2006


I can remember as a kid how impressed I was by the Wilson Avenue "L" station. It was one of those places that, for ultimately unfathomable reasons, I often found myself in during my dreams, It had a spacious entry and a workingman's version of a grand staircase. The first floor was an arcade, complete with one of those coin operated cases from which you tried to extricate toys by manipulated a chronically uncooperative steam shovel. Today, that staircase seems so much more spartan than I had remembered, one of its two split stairs closed off, and leaking so badly that a CTA employee stood watch cautioning exiting passengers to be careful not to fall on the slick puddles of water. The space once occupied by the arcade has lost its latest tenant, and is now boarded up.

A new Border's, the great symbol of Uptown's gentrifying revitalization, remains an isolated island among persistently derelict streetscapes, including the Riviera Theater just down the street. Does anything impart a neighborhood more of an aura of fornlorn sadness than a theater, bringer of light and the raw energy of dreams both sacred and profane, sitting dark on a Friday night?

Just the other side of Lawrence is the massive tomb of the long-shuttered Uptown Theater, a 4,000 seat movie palace at the most extravagant scale that has resisted all efforts to revive it. Plastic sheeting has begun to crawl over it as if it were ivy, covering areas where terra cotta has had to be removed before it crashed to the street.

It was the Friends of the Uptown, a dedicated group of enthusiastists dedicated to saving the theater, that passed on an angry editorial, Uptown Snack Shop Kicked to the Curb, on the 47 year old restaurant being given 30 days notice to vacate, forcing its closing on February 25th. Unlike a rubber-stamp styled Starbucks, the snack shop is a completely personal affair. The closing notice in the window carries the names, "Ted, Pete, Alex, and Sandy and Karen," the three brothers who co-owned the snack shop, and its two waitresses. Who would sign such a closing post for a Borders, the kind of place where no one knows your name, and you don't know their's? It's the tradeoff we're making everywhere, without a second thought - the familiarity of standardization bought with the abolition of personality.

The Uptown Borders is a personification of this tradeoff. The classically-styled exterior, which for most of its life was a funky, sparingly maintained Goldblatts Department Store, has been beautifully restored back to its earliest years, soon cut short by the Great Depression, when it was built as a bank, complete with tall, twin Corinthian columns framing a corner entrance and an arcade of huge arched windows along its second floor. The interior, however, has been gutted and a completely generic interior inserted into the shell, blindingly lit and completely indistinguishable from a Borders anywhere else. Comfortably familiar, almost disconcertingly characterless.

Which brings us back to the Uptown Snack Shop, which has the kind of effortless authenticity that some theme park-like developer will pay a lot of money to replicate some day. The classic metal coat rack, the gumball machine, vintage Coke syrup dispenser, turquoise-colored booth seats, the small, square boxes of cereal - it's all there, lovingly maintained. Unlike the Uptown or Riviera, it's a completely viable business. So, of course, it has to be forced to shut down. After this Saturday, it will be gone. Can a 7-Eleven be far behind?

Most people think of Nighthawks, Edward Hopper's famous painting of a diner late at night, as a portrait of loneliness, but when you look at the way it's light pierces the darkness like a beacon, it's also a kind of oasis. Years ago, I overheard a woman lament, "The neighborhood just isn't the same since the Hastee Tastee closed," referring to corner coffee shop that had just been replaced by a Dunkin Donuts. At the time, I thought it was a pretty funny thing to say. Now, I'm not so sure.

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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.




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