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Where I stand on the Hyde Park question

Warning: what follows is actually just a long-winded plug for a blog I stumbled upon today: Hyde Park Progress.

Is the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park a good place to live, or is it a place to commute into because you wouldn't dream of actually living here? From 1989 until early 1993, I lived in Hyde Park. I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and my memories of the neighborhood were great. So great that ever since I left the U of C I've been trying in various ways to get back. In 2006, I succeeded. I'm now one of the few U of C emergency medicine residents who actually chooses to live in Hyde Park.

I still love the neighborhood. But. . . since I moved back, the rosy glow of old memories has worn off. I've started to notice Hyde Park's flaws. Yes, it does have flaws. There are, I now admit, rational reasons why so many people who study and work at the University of Chicago don't choose to live here. The best reason, by far, remains the fact that Chicago has so many world-class urban neighborhoods. You've got to pick the one you like the most. I will never argue that living in Bucktown or Lincoln Park or the West Loop sucks.

But, we were talking about Hyde Park's flaws.

As much as I love Hyde Park, my return to the neighborhood has convinced me that it has problems. In no particular order, they are:

  • Not enough commercial activity. A lot of folks complain about the lack of retail, but the problem extends beyond that. For example, last summer when my car broke down on lake shore drive, I had the hardest time finding a towing service in the neighborhood, and then I couldn't find a garage on the south side that would fix Subarus. Solution: pay tons of money to tow my car up to a garage near North and Elston. I was in Chicago, but it felt like I was in Last Chance, Colorado, needing to get my car, somehow, to a real city like Denver where someone could fix it. Weird feeling.
  • Not enough nightlife. It's not like I'm asking for a bar on every corner. Not every vibrant urban neighborhood has to be like Wrigleyville (and thank God they aren't). But one of the pleasures of living in a big city is being able to go out at night to hang out. In Hyde Park, there's maybe one or two coffee shops in the whole neighborhood open after 8pm, and none after midnight. (The Dunkin Donuts doesn't count, sorry.) You can count the number of restaurants open after about 10pm on the fingers of one hand, and after midnight? Nada. For an ER resident working strange hours, this sometimes hurts. We actually do better than most people think with actual bars, even though no one who doesn't live here (and many who do) have no idea where the bars are. The Cove? Falcon Inn? The UofC Pub? I challenge any of my residency colleagues to tell me where these places are. I bet you can't do it.
  • No hotels. We have a Ramada, but if you want to visit Hyde Park and the Ramada's full, Chinatown is your next closest bet.

    Looking at lists like this, you can see that the problems boil down to not having as much economic activity (day and night, commercial and residential) as we could given our population density and our central location in a world class city. When graduate student Amadou Cisse was shot and killed this winter in front of his apartment south of the Midway, the most insightful comment about the killing that I saw was from someone writing into the Maroon saying something like this: Forget about all the solutions the University is proposing -- more police patrols, more safety phones, more nighttime shuttle buses around the campus. Instead, focus on getting more nightlife in the neighborhood. More businesses, more bars, more restaurants all mean more pedestrians at night and fewer opportunities for dumb-ass teenagers with guns to find some solitary soul out on the sidewalk with no one around to witness the easy armed robbery and murder.

    Unfortunately, this view that I've come to hold -- that Hyde Park needs more economic activity -- doesn't seem to be shared by all the residents here. I'm slowly coming to believe that there are a group of old-timers in Hyde Park who exert a significant influence on neighborhood events and are committed to defending the status-quo without much ability to discriminate between change that improves and change that degrades. For them, any change is a threat, and so they oppose it.

    Several episodes got me thinking that this might be the case. First, there's an abandoned building about two blocks south of where I live called Doctor's Hospital, and last fall the University proposed tearing it down to put up a hotel. Perfect! But the neighbors bitched and complained, saying that a vibrant hotel in hotel-starved Hyde Park was inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood, and that the old building which has sat vacant and boarded up for several years now ought to be preserved. And so it sits, boarded up and vacant still.

    Then there's the stink about the proposed high-rise condo planned for the parking lot at the corner of 56th and Cornell. Say what you will about the architecture, but it's hard to say it's less beautiful than the current parking lot is. Nonetheless, there's plenty of neighborhood opposition, with people whining about blocked views and about how the design isn't right for the neighborhood. As if the neighbors don't live in the middle of a CITY, and as if the character of Hyde Park is somehow defined by three-story limestone buildings built in 1924.

    Finally, Harper Court, a collection of retail units on 53rd street, many of which are vacant because the design isn't conducive to pedestrian traffic. Plans are floated every year about refurbishing this area on a busy commercial street, but progress is agonizingly slow in part because the neighborhood activists almost always complain about any proposal. I suppose they'd like to keep it the way it is forever.

    Now that I've arrived at my mature evaluation of Hyde Park -- a fabulous place with a few problems -- I have to say that the Hyde Park Progress blog is pretty fabulous too. I don't always agree with them, of course, but they seem to get it right most of the time.

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