"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


The Hidden Side of Chicago's Bike Routes: Uptown and Rainbo Gardens

Moving south down Clark Street, through the heart of Uptown, the gentrification taking place in one of the Northside Chicago's last great “dirty” neighborhoods is hard to ignore.

Once lined with filthy bodegas, run-down body shops, greasy taquieras, roach infested Laundromats, and grubby whole-sale outlets filled with sweat-shop clothes, change is sweeping through like a firehose blast. There are now 6 sushi restaurants in the three-quarters of a mile between Winnemac and Bryn Marr. The African and Arabic restaurants are now gourmet wine shops and pet boutiques, gay gyms and lesbian bookstores predominate, and the Hopleaf is featured on Check Please at least twice a month by some Trixie who was finally convinced to venture north of Irving Park for the first time in her life. Once a low-key, secret-spot for the cool-kid-beer-snob set, you can’t even get a booth in there on a Tuesday night anymore.

As implied above, I have mixed feelings about Uptown’s transformation, as do many people. Take for instance, my first trip to the Green Mill in 1997; I’d moved to Chicago the week before. I’m glad that the sight of the woman taking a shit in the middle of Lawrence Avenue across from the Red Line station is not likely to be experienced by another newcomer, at least for the time being. But, hanging out at the Saxony Lounge, now the Uptown Lounge, and laughing about that sight over a 75 cent Pabst while waiting for the cover charge at the Green Mill to go down will also never be experienced again, either.

Yet, as Uptown is coming out of a long dormant period as one of the Northside’s rougher areas, some things about the neighborhood will never change, in both ways good and bad. The country bar, Carol’s - a mecca for Gulf War vets and hipters alike, is still on the corner of Clark and Leland, across the street from a brand-new bank branch. The Green Mill, the Aragon, and the Riviera will hopefully be there for a long time, and someday the Uptown Theater will join them once again. And as long as Alderman Helen Shiller keeps the rehab and section 8 housing prominent, it will always be a somewhat grubby place.

However, one of the most tragic losses - historically speaking - for the neighborhood was The Rainbo. If you lived in Uptown before 2003, you might have known the Rainbo, at 4812 N. Clark Street, very well. In its final days it was a pretty fun hipster hangout: a late night roller rink and the original venue for the Kinetic Playground, now a half-mile east, just past the Lawrence Red Line Station. It was well known for its annual New Years Eve bash, featuring well-known nationally touring acts, including G. Love and Special Sauce.

The rock music legacy of Rainbo and the name Kinetic Playground goes much farther back in time, however. In 1968, three partners opened the “Electric Theater” for a show on April 5th, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In spite of the citywide curfew, attendance was strong that night. However, soon a copyright feud erupted with a club of the same name in New York, and the owners were forced to change the name. Over the years, such names as The Small Faces, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jetro Tull, Frank Zappa, and even Led Zeppelin performed at the venue.

Still earlier, you would’ve found Olympic hopefuls and the 1961 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks training on the ice-skating rink that was installed 1957. It also housed a professional bowling alley.

Prior to this era, and the urban blight which completely desiccated Uptown beginning in the late 50’s, Rainbo’s legacy was just as, if not more colorful.

Originally a railhouse on the outskirts of the city in the 1890’s, the structure went through several expansions, including a stint as a very popular outdoor music garden called Moulin Rouge Gardens, fashioned after it’s namesake in Paris, before being bought and reopened as Mann’s Rainbo Room, in 1921. Musical acts featured there through the first part of the Twentieth Century included Ruth Etting, Isham Jones, Frank Westphal, Ralph Williams, and Sam Wagner. It was here that Ted (Curly) Healy and Moe Howard asked Larry Fine to join their comedy act.

Despite all that talent, Rainbo had a difficult time during Prohibition, turning a blind eye to smuggled-in liquor, and running illicit gambling operations. Fronted by a newly installed sports arena in 1927 that featured vaudville, jai-alai, boxing, and wrestling matches, Rainbo was raided several times by federal authorities from 1920 – 1928, eventually resulting in a shut down in that year, and the owner brought up on gambling charges.

Reopened in 1929, the hard times continued through the depression. Its draw mostly came from the jai-alai and boxing matches, as well as continued gambling and vaudeville at the indoor casino - reopened as the “French Casino” during the 1933 World’s Fair. The Chicago mob exerted a fair amount of control over the establishment, via the Nitti Gang (John Dillinger spent his birthday there in 1934, the day before he was killed by G-men). It was shut down in the early 1930’s for selling liquor to minors and wouldn’t reopen again until after World War II, again featuring wrestling matches, largely in ignominy as Uptown began its slow decline into urban decay.

Today, 5 years after being destroyed for condos, Rainbo Gardens exists partly in name only, as Rainbo Village. A completely modern complex, it is still surrounded by much of the grubbiness of the earlier years, although even that is slowly being spit-shined by the gradual march north of Chicago’s up-and-comers.

Tip a hat to the Rainbo as you pedal past, and every once in a while, give more than a passing thought to what it once was.



Erik said...

I had wondered what the basis for the "Rainbo Village" name was!

Biciklista said...

When I first moved to the US in 1994, I lived a few blocks away (Argyle btwn Clark&Glenwood). It was a popular hangout for the crowd that went to my H.S. The neighborhood indeed was different. I laughed my ass off when I saw a CLTV real estate feature on the Rainbo Village, and was made aware of the fact that I am getting old(er).

Vadim said...

If anyone reading this commutes through Uptown by bike, I'm trying to lobby the Department of Transportation to put a shared bike lane on Broadway (from Diversey to Devon/Loyola).

If you're interested, come join the campaign:


All you have to do is agree to send a letter if we get 100 members. Tell your friends!