Will Chicago’s Music District find a rhythm in Uptown

Uptown. It has been up and coming for years now, according to many residents, realtors and really optimistic business owners.

Seemingly, it should be. It is bordered by the lake, easily accessible by public transit, and richly diverse in population.

But, sights of blight are common here, as is some crime- in higher numbers than in many neighborhoods nearby. It is also a hangout for many of the city’s homeless, as reported in multiple media outlets lately.

What could save it? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he hopes the answer to that is music.

“It’s unique in the country,” Emanuel told WGN’s Randi Belisomo Wednesday during an interview in his 5th floor office at Chicago City Hall. “Nowhere else in the country do you have turn of the century theaters, art deco style, within a block of each other.”

Emanuel has proposed the creation of an “Uptown Music District” with inviting lighting, signage, gateway identifiers and street scaping along Broadway and Lawrence. A “people plaza” at Broadway and Racine and  “people street” on Clifton could be shut down for outdoor performances.

Alderman James Cappleman (46th Ward) says easier business licensing would streamline the opening of more venues and up the project’s tempo.

“There was a study done by the Urban Land Institute in 2000, and it said to really encourage economic development, three things had to happen here,” Cappleman said during an interview in his Uptown ward office. “We had to get a big box store, and we got Target. We had do something about the Wilson train station, and we’re doing that now. And we had to do something about the Uptown Theatre.”

Uptown Theatre owner Jerry Mickelson is working to reopen the shuttered treasure, and he sees it as the linchpin of the area’s potential boom.

“It’s logical, it makes sense,” Mickelson said when giving a tour of the theater at Broadway and Lawrence to WGN-TV.  “Just like downtown made sense for the theater district, this makes sense for the music district.”

Under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago directed close to $90 million dollars in tax increment financing during the early 1990s to downtown theater, live in the Loop.  The Oriental and Chicago Theatres along with the Cadillac Palace stand as a theatrical triumvirate, as could the Aragon, Riviera and Uptown Theatres in this neighborhood further north. Mickelson owns the Riviera too, just south of the Uptown.

“Theater is about economic development, the opportunity that rehabbing it offers, because once it’s open it will bring back businesses that have left and new businesses that will want to be here,” Mickelson said. “The Uptown Theatre is the catalyst that will get all of this going, and everybody recognizes that.”

But Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill Jazz Club down the block on Broadway, says crowds and the lack of parking are problematic- especially if the Uptown reopens.

“You know, there’s five thousand people at the Uptown Theatre to see Englebert Humperdink or something, and all these blue hairs come in and they say ‘hey look at this over here, it’s the Green Mill, I want to hear about this history,’ and everyone’s telling them to be quiet, it just changes the whole vibe of the joint,” Jemilo said.

Music critic Jim DeRogatis says folks like Jemilo don’t have anything to worry about- not any time soon.

“We had this much ballyhooed cultural plan that cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it doesn’t mention an Uptown Music District, an arts district, once,” DeRogatis told WGN-TV during an interview at Chicago Public Media.

If it does happen, DeRogatis says the neighborhood needs parking structures- municipal ones like you will find in other music cities Memphis and Austin. Seattle and Nashville have offices of music, serving as liasons between venues and city agencies. Chicago’s Film Office serves to attract Hollywood productions, but there is no such department for music, DeRogatis argues. That is despite a University of Chicago economic study which showed music’s multiple billion dollar impact here- far more than that of the movies.

Emanuel says Chicago’s music scene is on par with that of any other, and he characteristically enumerated the reasons why.

“They have offices, and we have the largest music event in the world- Lollapalooza,” Emanuel said. “Number two, Pitchfork. Number three, we have Blues Festival. Number four, Gospel Festival. They have offices, and we have events. I would take events over an office.”

DeRogatis says it is all talk from City Hall.

“Mayor Emanuel gives a lot of lip service to being a music fan,” DeRogatis said. “He loves Wilco. Well that’s great. But when he mentions music, that’s the only sentence we get. All in all, absolutely nothing substantial has happened for this ‘music mayor’ yet.”

Uptown could be that substantial something.

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