by: Jonah M. Lefhotlz
The longest I’ve ever stayed at one residence in all of my 31.5 years was my grandma’s house, in Omaha, NE. And that was just because she owned it and it was always a place my mom and I, or my mom and my other siblings, or just I could go to when there was no place else to go. Cumulatively, I’ve probably lived at my grandma’s house for about 7 years. The second longest place I’ve ever lived has been in Uptown, Chicago, on the corner of Sunnyside and Sheridan. I moved to Uptown after an engagement fell through, and I needed to get my own place. My home has seen different roommates, but I’ll have been there for 3 years at the end of July. That’s kind of a big deal; it says something about the neighborhood and it says something about staying put which, for me, has been a challenge in my life.
Its boundaries are Foster on the north, Montrose (from Ravenswood to Clark) and Irving Park (from Clark to Lake Michigan) on the south and Lake Michigan on the east and Ravenswood (from Foster to Montrose) and Clark (from Montrose to Irving Park) on the west. Uptown is the perfect place for a gritty queer that wants to experience everything they might have missed elsewhere. There are other gritty queers (and pretty queers), and other people with real faces and thickened skin, and thin skin (me) and different people displaying all the hues of the skintone rainbow. There is no lack of diversity in Uptown. My street is hopping, there are always people out, talking to one another, and people here actually greet and smile at each other, if one makes an effort to seem affable. Uptown doesn’t seem to have integrated any sort of pretentiousness into its personality.
There are some things that I love near my apartment. Number one is its proximity to Lake Michigan, my solace. And then there’s that lady on Sheridan and Montrose that is always drunk and dancing around. Sometimes she brings a crockpot of slow-cooked food to her bus bench-mates, and sometimes she impersonates Austin Powers poorly and kind of makes me uncomfortable, but she always makes me crack a smile or laugh. There’s Jake’s, on the northeast corner of Montrose and Sheridan, right across the street from Austin Powers’ home base. It looks really seedy and I don’t want to know about their pest control situation, but the woman behind the counter at Jake’s, who works from open to close, calls me “honey” and always knows what I am going to order: usually a grilled cheese to stay, unless I’m in running clothes, and then I want an ice cream cone to go. My heath needs are met at Howard Brown Health Center, where I have been going for nine years for my checkups and counseling and bloodwork and STI tests; Howard Brown is also the reason I chose Chicago as my new home when I decided to move away from Nebraska – Howard Brown offered psychotherapy (back when you had to get a letter to start hormones) and gave me my first (and most recent) prescription of testosterone.
A quick walk or bicycle ride away from my home base is Big Chicks and Tweet, where a queer can go dance it out on the first Thursday of the month at Formerly Known As, or if you’re hungry and poor they have a free barbeque on Sundays (with the purchase of a drink that doesn’t have to be alcohol!) and dollar burgers and veggie dogs on Monday nights (again, purchase of a drink is encouraged, possibly enforced). Just a couple blocks from me is Uptown Bikes, which I should go to really soon because my brakes are failing, and the people that work there are awesome and they don’t intimidate me. My favorite diner, the Golden House Restaurant and Pancake House (which I just call the Golden Pancake) is right off of Broadway and Lawrence and they have vinyl booths that your thighs stick to if your shorts are too short and you can enjoy all your calories for the day in one sitting – I always bring out-of-towners there for breakfast. Next to the Golden Pancake is the Riviera which is one of my favorite Chicago music venues. Just north of the Riviera is The Green Mill where you can go and pretend you’re swanky and get yelled at by the bouncer for talking to your friends during the Jazz sets and where Al Capone used to have his own table, back when Uptown was a fancier and bustling entertainment district.
Uptown has history. In the first quarter of the century, it housed a lot of glamor. You can see glimpses of its past at places like the Green Mill, which famous for being a speakeasy during Prohibition. There is the Riviera, the Aragon Ballroom, and the now boarded up Uptown Theatre. My favorite building in all of Chicago is in Uptown, the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It’s huge, ornate, and pink. It used to sit on the waterfront before the waterfront got filled in with sand and the lake was pushed back. Fabulous movie stars stayed there. If the walls could talk, I would ask them what Bette Davis was really like, and what Marilyn Monroe’s voice sounded like the morning after a long night.
Close to the North end of Uptown is Argyle street, where you can get Pho to fix your hangover, or you can get super cheap tofu and vegetables and other delights at the large Broadway Supermarket or smaller Tai Nam. There are shops lining Argyle boasting dead chickens and tanks of sea creatures in the windows and it smells like fish. There’s also Ba Le, on the West side of Broadway, which has delicious Vietnamese/French sandwiches. And if you want dim sum, there’s Furama on Broadway, just South of Argyle.
There’s a lot of crime in Uptown, and a large police presence, and if you are afraid of people asking you for change or talking or yelling to themselves, or at you, Uptown may not be for you. I’ve witnessed a lot of violence while living here, and my corner is one of the worst areas in the neighborhood, but I ‘ve learned a lot about the way things work since living here. I’ve been infuriated by seeing people stopped and searched for being something other than white. Last Summer I saw a man get shot and that was life-changing as well. The image of his large frame frailly crumbling to the ground will always come to mind when I look at the Northeast corner of Sunnyside and Sheridan. This Spring I heard shots and then saw a woman pushed to the ground in the crosswalk and then pulled aside by some men as another man took her bag will also never leave my mind. These aren’t necessarily good things, and may have exacerbated the PTSD I’ve got from a messed up childhood, but they happened, and I saw them and sometimes seeing the injustices in life gives one perspective.
There are things I’d change about this neighborhood if I could; I’d make it more bicycle friendly, I’d change the way the police interact with their fellow humans, I’d make room for the displaced mentally ill, and I’d like to see people from different walks of life interact more, but I still love Uptown. It’s affordable and real, and there aren’t double-wide strollers hogging the sidewalk (ahem, Andersonville) and I only see seas of white people at Target.
I may be moving from my apartment at the end of July, because of problems with my landlords and the building, and I’m a little sad about that. I’ll miss the bargain rent pricing and the huge space, and the people and obviously the food (since over half of this piece is about food), and I’ll miss the humanity and people I identify with, who aren’t afraid of things being a little rough or whose lives don’t fit the picture of the American Dream we are raised to seek. I’ll miss the still beautiful buildings and the urban decay, and I’ll also miss fantasizing about the potential of the buildings that have long since been left to deteriorate. Luckily, Uptown is easy to get to, so I can come back at any time. I love it.
Jonah M. Lefholtz is a student and care-taker in Chicago, IL. He recently came out as a femme male and his life is better for it! He likes spending time with his family and friends, has two cats, and appreciates complexity.