Rejuvenating an Aging “Asia on Argyle” in Chicago

In the 1960s, Chicago restaurateur Jimmy Wong purchased property in Chicago’s Uptown with the vision of creating a new Chinatown. The neighborhood, now known as Argyle, is home to dozens of Asian-owned businesses and restaurants. In recent years, several factors have resulted in its economic decline. Now, community members are looking for new ways to revitalize the area. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

For most people in Chicago’s Uptown, there’s a go-to neighborhood for grabbing some quality Asian food. 

Tucked right off the Red Line, Argyle’s streets are lined with business signs featuring various Southeast Asian cuisines. The smell of Chinese pastries wafts down the street. Multiple stores shelve bamboo plants in outdoor displays and West Argyle Street alone hosts at least five pho restaurants. 

But in between these shops sit other former storefronts with boarded windows. Some are dark inside. One shop right by the station still has family photos taped to its windows. Hac Tran, a longtime Argyle community member and cultural specialist through the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, said the neighborhood has seen at least nine businesses close since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Several of these now-closed businesses had been around for 30 or 40 years. They boomed in the 1970s, as a large influx of refugees and immigrants flocked to Argyle as a result of the Vietnam War. Their presence defined the historic district and ultimately gave the neighborhood its name, “Asia on Argyle.”

Rising costs in the area, gentrification and constant construction affected some of these once-bustling spaces. Tran said others closed down after owners’ saw their children go off to school and enter into careers separate from the family business. 

“Some did close because there was no succession plan,” Tran said. “[For] the older generation, this is their livelihood … [But] their kids didn’t want to take over. There was no one else who wanted to take over.” 

As the neighborhood ages, Tran said it’s time to start thinking about how Argyle can continue to appeal to a new, younger generation of Asian Americans. 

Sany Nguyen, a founder and co-creator of Celebrate Argyle, thinks part of the solution lies in social media. She moved to Chicago in 2013 to attend law school and ultimately discovered a passion for food blogging as well. Coming from California, she said she was used to a sizable Asian population, one she didn’t immediately discover in her new city. 

After exploring Chicago and finding Argyle, Nguyen said she really wanted to showcase the neighborhood, especially since she felt it wasn’t highlighted much. As a Southeast Asian, she found comfort eating dishes she grew up on and felt a connection to the neighborhood. Her commitment only grew as the area started struggling. 

In April 2020, Nguyen started establishing food pantries to support those affected by business closures, giving about 200 food baskets to the community monthly. When the winter weather suspended her operations, she joined other community members in finding a different solution, which came in the form of Celebrate Argyle. 

The organization aims to spotlight various businesses in the area through social media and digital marketing campaigns. Nguyen said providing complimentary marketing to businesses helps expose new people to Argyle. It officially launched in February 2021 and established a physical space in May of the same year. 

“A lot of people were staying home and so all they’re doing was just really browsing social media, and so we capitalized on that by starting the Instagram Celebrate Argyle,” Nguyen said. “We've already highlighted nine different restaurant businesses, with each of them having their own individual one-minute video that sits on our platform and sits on many other platforms.” 

Other local businesses are starting to attract younger populations. Tran said the First Sip Cafe, which has been running since late 2017, is a multigenerational favorite. There are plans for a new ramen spot a block outside of the main plaza, and a couple of other, younger businesses moving to the area. Tran himself is also a co-founder of Haibayo, which started as a social event based in Southeast Asian culture, but has since expanded to promote various local businesses as well. 

Various organizations are also helping to put on community events, including the Argyle Night Market and Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. For Tran, maintaining Argyle’s success is about finding a way to balance economic and financial challenges with a community desire to keep this cultural hub alive. 

One project that will affect the neighborhood in the coming years is the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red–Purple Modernization Program. The project looks to rebuild various parts of older CTA lines to accommodate those with disabilities and meet new capacity needs.

Phase One of the Red and Purple Modernization program (RPM). Image courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority.

Tran finds the project important — especially because it provides more accessibility to older residents in Argyle — but also said CTA closures will impact business in the area. He said some owners have expressed concern over the project.

“What [the CTA’s] offering is free business campaigns, marketing, social media marketing, free filming and photography for the businesses,” Tran said. “There's no actual monetary anything to support the businesses.”

Nguyen added rising costs have made housing unsustainable for some of Argyle’s Southeast Asian residents, forcing them to leave the area. Parts of Uptown are also being impacted by gentrification. 

“That's something that we worry about — we’re losing this history,” Nguyen said. “We're losing these businesses that are adding to the culture of Chicago, that are adding to the diversity that makes Chicago unique.” 

But the efforts to start spreading awareness around Argyle are starting to pay off. In Celebrate Argyle’s first year and a half, Nguyen said the organization attracted more than 2,000 followers, fundraised thousands of dollars and has seen hundreds of people attend its community events. 

Nguyen hopes to see her organization continue to boost the neighborhood. Although Chicago is a diverse city, she said she’s noticed how rare it is that different races and ethnicities intersect with each other. Through these community initiatives, she wants people to get to learn about and grow more comfortable with different cultures. 

Both Nguyen and Tran agree Argyle is a neighborhood worth fighting for. 

“It’s critical to honor any diaspora,” Tran said. “That's what makes any city of value. Honoring our cultural differences and sharing with others, our culture and our histories and our stories … it’s vital to being an American.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here