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Neighborhood Group, CPD Awarded for Making Uptown's Argyle Street Pedestrian Friendly

Photos by Dave Suarez for Uptown United

There was a time not long ago when Uptown residents arriving home from work were nervous about exiting the Argyle Red Line station.

“Four or five years ago, a lot of people would get off the train, put their heads down and book it to Sheridan or Broadway as quickly as they could,” said 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman.

Despite the presence of several lauded restaurants — many of them owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants — there was a sense that this particular stretch of Argyle Street between Kenmore Avenue and Sheridan Road was failing to live up to its potential.

Osterman remembers gang presence, public drinking and loose cigarette sales contributing to an intimidating atmosphere, especially after dark.

The result was a block that neighbors avoided. In turn, business owners had trouble attracting clientele. The lack of pedestrian traffic meant that those engaging in illegal activity were free to do so without fear of repercussions. In short, Argyle Street was struggling.

That was then. Fast forward to 2017, and the story is remarkably different.

Argyle is now home to a thriving business community that supports dozens of local jobs. In the summer months, the block is lined with sidewalk patios. All year long, neighbors stop to linger as they make their way to and from the train. At night, far fewer storefronts are shielded from the street by menacing security gates.

While many people and programs have played a role in this turnaround, most community leaders agree that a single initiative has been the primary catalyst: the Argyle Night Market.

Uptown United, a community organization, and the Chicago Police Department, together created the Night Market, a street festival that has breathed new life into a block on Uptown's Argyle Street.

A collaborative initiative between Uptown United and the 20th District of the Chicago Police Department, the Night Market is a weekly summer event that brings together residents, business owners and visitors.

In addition to providing opportunities for local vendors to connect with community members, the event injects a regular dose of vitality into a previously derelict block. In the four years since its founding, the Night Market has become a vital tool in the effort to enhance public safety and foster meaningful connections between Uptown residents.

For their roles in having cultivated this wildly successful initiative, Uptown United and the Chicago Police Department were recently awarded the Excellence in Neighborhood Revitalization and Economic Vitality Prize — one of MetLife Foundation’s Community-Police Partnership Awards. Since 2002, this collaborative effort between the MetLife Foundation and LISC has recognized partnerships that exhibit demonstrable accomplishments in advancing the well being of communities across the country.

Out of a pool of more than 400 applicants, the Uptown United-Chicago Police Department partnership is one of only eight to have been selected as a 2016 recipient. In addition to nationwide recognition, the organizations will receive a $15,000 prize to support future community building initiatives on Argyle and throughout the neighborhood.

The best version of ourselves

Uptown United Executive Director Martin Sorge describes the Argyle Night Market as “halfway between a street festival and a farmer’s market.”

The nighttime scheduling of the event — initially intended to populate Argyle during hours in which it was usually deserted — adds a celebratory feel that’s in keeping with many of Chicago’s summertime festivals. Meanwhile, the presence of local restaurateurs and food vendors allows for a culinary experience unlike anything else in the city.

These days, it’s easy to take the Night Market for granted. It’s become such a beloved part of the neighborhood’s annual entertainment lineup that many assume it was always destined to be a hit. But when Uptown United staffers began planning the inaugural market in 2013, its long-term success was anything but assured.

Uptown United Executive Director Martin Sorge describes the Argyle Night Market as “halfway between a street festival and a farmer’s market.”

Though Sorge wasn’t yet a part of the Uptown United team in those early days, he’s heard plenty of stories about organizers working tirelessly to connect with local business owners and solicit their support.

“This really was a grassroots approach,” he said.

This effort to enlist local restaurateurs was crucial. Rather than cast the widest possible net and invite vendors from the citywide festival circuit, Night Market organizers wanted to create an event that allowed residents and visitors to bond over the deeply personal menus of the restaurants lining Argyle Street.

For Alderman Osterman, this meant designing a market that allowed Uptown residents to address their public safety challenges while collaboratively leveraging their unique cultural assets to highlight “the best version of ourselves.”

Local police officers played an important part in working with vendors and residents — many of whom were hesitant to spend time on Argyle in the early days of the Night Market — to create an atmosphere that was safe and inviting.

Staffers in Alderman Osterman’s office asked for increased police presence during the first Night Market season to combat the impression that the corner of Argyle and Sheridan was unsafe after dark. The local commander agreed to provide the officers, and Uptown United hired two off-duty officers for supplementary security.

In addition to their primary role of patrolling the area, officers have worked with local businesses and residents to ensure they each play their part in keeping the corridor secure before, during and after the Night Market. Sorge said officers regularly dialogue with businesses owners and residents to ensure concerns are addressed and the event lives up to its potential as an economic and social boon for the neighborhood.

Many restaurants on Argyle Street between Kenmore Avenue and Sheridan Road are owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants.

Sorge said ongoing communication with the police department has been key in allowing the Night Market to succeed over the long haul. He recommends that other community organizations interested in revitalizing problem areas invest early in developing relationships with local police.

“Your role as a neighborhood organization sometimes means acting as a bridge-builder between local businesses, residents and the police,” he said. “Use your particular program or area of expertise to help make the job of the police easier. For example, we help businesses with installing security systems, improving facades and discussing best practices for business and neighborhood safety.”

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department said the agency is honored to be recognized alongside Uptown United.

“The Argyle Night Market is a prime example of how police departments and community organizations can come together to foster positive relationships with our city's residents and businesses,” the statement said. “By working together with Uptown United to host the Argyle Night Market, we were able to build upon an existing partnership to present an event highlighting the diversity found within the Uptown community. This event and partnership provided our officers an opportunity to interact with residents in a welcoming social environment, allowing them to further cultivate meaningful relationships with the public they serve.”

It's been a vehicle for bringing people together

In the years since the Night Market debuted, it has grown in ways its original planners could never have imagined. While they struggled to attract visitors during its earliest seasons, last year’s series drew more than 20,000 people to eight markets between July and August.

Its success means year-round benefits for Uptown.

“These little things that people just think of as fun events can have a much bigger impact,” Sorge said. “The Night Market has been a way to keep the unique identity of this neighborhood while also engaging people of all different backgrounds, supporting local businesses and having a great time.”

Its ability to bring together people of different circumstances has been particularly important. According to Census estimates, Uptown counts a significantly larger proportion of Asian immigrants and people of Asian descent than most Chicago communities. A focus on embracing that cultural heritage while pursuing inclusive economic development has allowed the Night Market to produce substantive gains for everyone in the neighborhood.

“If you’re there at 7 o’clock on a sunny summer evening, you see people of every race and from every socioeconomic background enjoying the market,” Alderman Osterman said. “It’s been a vehicle for bringing people together.”

That neighborhood cohesion has been an integral component of Argyle’s turnaround. Since the founding of the market, the Argyle business district has seen decreases in theft, battery, narcotics possession, assault and criminal property damage by margins of more than 60 percent. Osterman and Sorge attribute those decreases in part to people’s increased newfound willingness to spend time on the street.

Individual residents have also reaped important benefits. Inspired by new interest among residents and visitors alike, local business owners have been more willing to invest in physical improvements. Young artists, having been given the opportunity to perform at the Night Market, feel more included and invested in the future of their community.

Looking ahead, Sorge said residents should expect another successful season in 2017. While specific plans are still in the works, the prize money they will receive as part of their award will likely allow for enhanced programming and outreach.

Additionally, a recent physical transformation of Argyle Street provides reason for optimism. The block that hosts the market was recently transformed into Chicago’s first “shared street” — a space that encourages pedestrians, cyclists and drivers to slow down and more deeply interact with each other and their environment. Sorge said the new layout naturally lends itself to congregation and celebration.

As for Alderman Osterman, he too expects another great season. Having seen the effects of the Argyle Night Market over its first four seasons, he said the event is a testament to the skill and capacity of Uptown United.

“It’s not something that’s easily done,” he said. “You need leadership, partnership and vision, and Uptown United from day one has understood the potential benefits and has been willing to do the hard work to enact it.”

For more information, contact Jake Ament at (312) 422-9573 or

Posted in Economic Development, Uptown


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