An Unexpected Mural on Howard Street brings back the 1970's

The Howard in the days when it showed movies.

1621 W. Howard Street, Chicago IL in Rogers Park, formerly the Howard Theater, now affordable rental apartments

Mural on the back of the old Howard Theater Building, visible from the Howard El platformYou can see the mural on the back of the old Howard Theater from the el platform

The Howard Theater was built opened in 1917 and showed feature  films until November 1975. It closed when a chandelier fell into the auditorium.

When the Red Line pulls into Howard Street, you can’t miss the mural painted on the back of a building once that was the Howard Theater. It is totally unexpected,  the big blue leaves and orange circles are cut by balconies of the apartments inside.  The mural faces a parking lot and can be seen from the el platform.  I love the whimsical painting, which seems to be unrelated to the building’s function.  It is wonderful and  unexpected art. Seeing this mural brought me back to the years I lived in Rogers Park, not far from the Howard Theater.

In the 1960’s, Howard Street was the city limits of Chicago and Evanston. My first apartment after college, in 1969 was on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park. It was a nice place, near the beach, the bus, the el and my job.

Actually I didn’t have a job yet, but I jumped at the chance to move out of my parent’s house and have a place of my own. Eventually I worked two jobs in order to live there, and getting to those jobs took me to Howard Street.

Howard Street was  hub of the area.    It was a transfer point, several bus lines and three el lines met there, the Howard line, the  Evanston Line and The Skokie Swift.  The green and silver  CTA  bus and the brown and yellow Evanston bus routes started and ended there.

The Howard Theater and the El station were the anchors of the neighborhood. There were lots of businesses on Howard Street in the early 1970’s, The Northshore Bank on the other side of the El, a Walgreen’s, a violin shop, clothing stores, a shoe repair shop, dry cleaners, a dime store, a shop that sold parts for making jewelry, a candle store,  run by my brother’s  friend.  Howard Bowl, where the teachers from my school bowled on Friday after school and Pivot Point, a beauticians’  school made up the business district. Gale Elementary School was just north of Howard Street. In the 1970’s, hippies moved into the many apartments buildings in Rogers Park, and older residents moved to the suburbs. On the corner of Howard and Paulina, there was a guy selling the  “Seed”, an alternative newspaper. There was a line of restaurants on Paulina; Talbot’s  served steak and barbeque ribs, The Villa Girgente had inexpensive Italian, La Choza had Mexican. Those restaurants moved or closed, replaced by places that sell jerk chicken, smoothies and coffee.

The Howard Theater was next to the el. It was a place on its way down, the kind of theater that had sticky floors and smelled of popcorn and cigarettes.  It was a place where you could go if the weather was hot and your apartment had no air conditioning. I saw  “Woodstock” there, the management didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on in the theater auditorium, so most of the movie goers recreated the ambiance of Woodstock while they watched the movie. The Howard Theater closed in 1975 and stood empty until 1999.  Howard Street started a slow slide down and became a street of empty store fronts and empty lots.

The neighborhood became dangerous. Many of the empty buildings were torn down and replaced by vacant lots. Street gangs came to the neighborhood, and from time to time, Gale School was put on lock down. There were attempts to renovate the Howard and its neighborhood, but nothing worked out. Finally, a plan to build  affordable rental apartments inside the theater building worked. The Northshore Bank building was replaced with a big parking lot, a fitness center and a  grocery store. A park and field house next to Gale School replaced some of the vacant lots. Gale School got a brand new building for the upper grades. A community garden was planted in front of the school.  Rogers Park is slowly gentrifying as buildings go condo. New businesses have opened on Jarvis and Morse, south of Howard Street. The el is still there, not much about it has changed, it’s  just as crowded and gritty as it always was.

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  • Good article. :)

    There was a head shop or hippie shop located near the Howard theater that sold items such as prism glasses, incense, blacklights and posters. For the life of me I can't remember the name of that shop?

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    The Spectacle! I was just thinking about it and googled it and found this question.

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    As a teenager I used to buy rolling papers and pendants there. I also sold beaded wares there.

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    Now that I think about it I'm not sure if the Spectacle was the head shop on Paulina near Howard or if it was a head shop on near Dempster on Chicago Ave. in Evanston.

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