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Uptown in the News  

August 24, 2005
Uptown mural captures soul of Argyle Street
By (Angela Caputo)

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one Uptown mural speaks volumes about places the community has been and where it’s going, neighbors say.

An historic crossroad of culture, at Winthrop and Argyle streets, images captured in “The Roots of Uptown” have given neighbors and merchants a whole new view from the same beaten path they walk each day.

A series of open doors represent the waves of people – Jewish, Swedish, Japanese, Indo Chinese and Ethiopian – that have walked through into the community over the past century.

The local landmark St. Augustine College, for example, comes to life as a place with a history beyond lectures and books. The former-Essanay Studios site, is immortalized as the place where Charlie Chaplin shot a silent movie and some of the nation’s first cowboy movies were ever filmed.

Movie stars who were born on the humble blocks and left families behind as they rose to fame are also captured as are merchants who built their own prominence by making their way to local shops and doing business day after day.

Through planning the mural both people who hope to see a return to Uptown’s earlier days of glamour and others who see the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants as its deepest roots were able to see through one another’s eyes – sometimes for the first time.

Seeing Charlie Soo, a businessman once nicknamed the mayor of Argyle Street, along side jazz great Charlie Parker who jammed at local clubs, merchant Kelly Cheng who owns Wye Trading, 1119 W. Argyle St., said, “It’s not just any picture. It’s a picture about us.”

And that’s the spirit that lead artist and DePaul University professor Brother Mark Elder said he tried to capture in the community portrait. “the mural brings in a message of pride and equality in a neighborhood that makes people feel better about their community,” he said.

Neighbors and merchants first came together a few years ago to organize a campaign to fund the project that most see as beautification. Countless meetings generated new conversations between stakeholders who often work side-by-side in isolation, participants said.

“It was a fantastic vehicle for people to work together on a project and not just a project, a lasting project," said Uptown Community Development Corporation, Executive Director Joyce Dugan, a key organizer. “It’s a representation of 100 years and it could last 100 years.”

Conversations between merchants, restaurateurs and block club members centered on both style and substance. They settled on the realistic trompe l’oeil, incorporated bats that people made their way to the United States on and captured images of fame and glamour. Digging up old photographs and raising $27,000 to get the painting started were also undertaken. But one of the greatest accomplishments has been bringing the community together, participants say.

The project has helped to diffuse tension in a changing neighborhood where visions of the future are often divided.

“In the beginning a lot of the residents moving into new condos and townhouses wanted (Argyle Street) to look like their homes,” Cheng said.

They recently clashed over security bars: Merchants wanted to keep them while homeowners thought that they made the neighborhood look seedy.

The mural helped those same residents and business owners to see eye-to eye and collaborate on bringing the community up together.

“Now we are all working together as one community,” said Cheng, who is the interim executive director of the Asian American Small Business Association, which represents most businesses on Argyle.

Schwarz, a Winthrop/Kenmore Block Clu8b member, said that she hopes the project is “the beginning of many beautification projects … that (the community) needs.”

Watching “people walking by really stop and take a look,” Cheng said she sees most people agree and want to see more projects unfold. “You can see it’s bringing up the spirit of the neighborhood.”

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