Can a closed movie palace define a sense of place?

October 23, 2013

Yolanda Perdomo

WBEZ/Yolanda Perdomo
The Portage Theater opened in 1920. Most recently it showcased second-run and silent movies.

I’m standing in front of the shuttered 1,300-seat Portage Park Theater. It opened in 1920, back during the silent film era. Its cream-colored terra cotta tiles and giant marquee can can be seen up and down the street. But it’s been shuttered since May when its owner Eddie Carranza closed the building. That move displaced art shows, second-run movies
and a winter farmers’ market, all the kinds of things that make up the essence of a community anchor, according to David Perry, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

“Most people would suggest that anchor institutions are things that if
they leave, diminish the place immensely,” Perry said. “So the question is,
the  Portage Park Theater, with its physicality, with its place, is this still Portage Park?”

Well, it depends who you ask. Several groups that used the theater have moved on. The Northwest Chicago Film Society now shows its movies at the Patio Theatre about two miles away. The Silent Film Society took its annual festival to Des Plaines.
And there’s no word yet on whether there will be a winter farmers’ market in the theater lobby, or anywhere in Portage Park.

With all of these institutions gone, some are rethinking what makes a community anchor, and if one’s even needed anymore.

“My philosophy is you don’t put your eggs in one basket from an economic development
standpoint,” said 45th Ward Ald. John Arena. “You can’t just rely on one thing to be the thing to sustain you and that sustains you and sustains your foot traffic.”

He’d like to see the Portage to reopen. But Arena thinks we’ve moved beyond the idea
of any single place being an anchor. Instead Arena is working to fill vacancies with several businesses including Chipotle and a Jimmy John’s.

“Because the market is too unpredictable,” Arena explained. “We don’t know how long the theater is going to be sustainable. And if one show doesn’t produce, does that close the theater? Who knows?”

But UIC Professor David Perry disagrees.

“If they are place-based, I would simply say they have the potential to be an anchor,” he said. “If they’re simply profit-based, and they could change tomorrow and change again tomorrow, (it) is probably something that (I) would advise against.”

He pointed to another anchor, the 70-year-old Sears celebrating its anniversary a block away. Perry noted that the giant retailer wasn’t enough to retain other business along the street.

But Perry said all the empty storefronts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. He sees opportunity in all these vacancies the alderman is trying to fill. The Filament Theatre Ensemble opened right across from the Portage. And that’ll keep the sense of place alive, he said.

“One of the reasons Chicago works even better than San Francisco or New York is that it’s got neighborhoods like this where community theater can move into,” Perry said.. “Place matters in all sorts of different ways.”

A few blocks away, at the Portage Park Farmer’s Market, Todd Crnovich ducked the raindrops as he wandered among the stands. He bought honey from the same vendor he sought out during the winter, when the market moved into the Portage Theater lobby. Crnovich was OK with the alderman's plans to bring in some chain restaurants.

“So I’m not explaining to my kids, ‘That’s daddy’s old comic shop, that’s where daddy saw movies before he went home.’ I’d like to be able to take my kid to a nice restaurant over there and take a walk with her and experience Portage Park,” Crnovich said “But that whole strip … it’s nothing but memories.”

Crnovich also would like to see the Portage reopen as a movie theater. But there are reports that a new tenant would use the venue for concerts. Owner Eddie Carranza couldn’t be reached for comment. The  theater website claims: “movie and music theater operator coming soon.”

Crnovich has mixed emotions about that possibility. He has fond memories of going to shows himself as a teen. But as a 38-year-old father, today he sees things a little differently.

“Sure it’ll bring money to the community,” Crnovich said. “It’ll also bring what comes with concerts and venues like that. Kids acting goofy. Learning how to be adults and doing stupid things. Do I want that in my neighborhood? Of course not.”

The future of the Portage Theater is still in question. It has landmark status, and is largely protected against demolition. And after more than 90 years here, Professor Perry said it’ll continue to define the sense of place here in the neighborhood.

“But it (the area) needs more than a Chipotle and a Jimmy Johns. In a very real sense it’s going to require a substantial number of stores, “ Perry said. “In the sense that Sears is an anchor of a mall, Portage Park Theater could be an anchor of the street. It could be.”

How likely that is could depend on the Portage Theater owner, who’s been coy about his plans. 

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