Recently, the Hyde Park Interwebs and listhosts have been quiet. Even the Hyde Park Herald has been pretty tame of late, suggesting that maybe crazy goes on break when the weather gets nice—but that doesn’t mean that the fight to improve Hyde Park is over.
Remember, this is a community that flipped out when the Hyde Park Bank on East 53rd Street took down its clock and had a meltdown when Dr. Wax (some record shop in Harper Court that I’m pretty sure no one ever went to) temporarily closed shop.
There are three big battlegrounds that will likely dominate the near future of Hyde Park, the debate over whose changes (however marginal) have for decades been dominated by a rather vocal and often eccentric minority.
A brief review of these areas of contention makes one thing clear: Positive change has no chance of occurring without the active involvement of everyone in the community.
1. Preservation. Many in the neighborhood would not mind some more places to shop and the addition of jobs to the neighborhood. Sadly, the Hyde Park Historical Society and its subscribers have a very different set of interests.
The Historical Society is kind of like a crazy ex-girlfriend desperate to rekindle something long dead. Presently the Doctors Hospital, the Harper Theater, and St. Stephen’s Church all stand in the way of proposed development. All of these buildings are somewhat charming but have long passed their useful life and now just sit empty.
Yet the Historical Society isn’t interested in finding something to do with these eyesores; it just wants to block any proposed change to them.
2. Retail. With the purchase of Harper Court last week and Harper Theater a few years ago, the U of C now owns a considerable chunk of decent retail property. If the community lets the U of C tear down these buildings there is a good chance that Hyde Park could get the sort of retail center that it deserves.
However, this is all predicated on Hyde Park residents letting businesses in. Don’t hold your breath.
For some reason, many residents around here have absurdly high standards. There seems to be a utopian vision of 53rd Street as an eclectic mix of neighborhood-owned shops and restaurants, similar to something that might be found on the North Side.
Unfortunately, this vision hasn’t created interest in bringing in shops and restaurants. Instead, it has led to animosity toward anything that is a national chain or owned by someone who isn’t a Chicago native. Some in the neighborhood might care about the distinction, but in the presence of so many empty storefronts, it makes a great deal of sense to compromise.
3. Population Density. We can talk all we want about development in Hyde Park, but we are wasting our time if we lack the population density to sustain it.
Thankfully, developers (unlike retailers) are actually interested in Hyde Park. A 10-story condo building will soon break ground at East 56th Street and South Cornell Avenue; a 30-story apartment complex is in the talks for the lakefront; and with any luck St. Stephen’s will soon be replaced by a decent-sized apartment complex.
But nothing unites Hyde Park residents more than the threat of more neighbors. It seems like some community members are deathly afraid of running out of parking spots—there might be tons of them, but you know why 57th Street is closed to oncoming traffic (cutting off dozens of shops from the MSI and lakefront)? Because people are worried of losing their free street parking.
Solstice on the Park (the condo building to go at East 56th Street and South Cornell Avenue) had no chance of getting off the ground until it showed nearby residents that parking would remain easy. The chief reason we’ll probably never see the 30-story lakefront condo? Because it is going to be built on a parking lot (that’s double the loss in parking!).
Even our lovely Alderman Leslie Hairston attempted to take away a bus stop for four extra parking spots.
Never mind that there are simple solutions to parking crunches like permits or, God forbid, meters. Somehow parking has become a right, even if it retards the neighborhood’s growth in public transportation options, retail, and jobs.
Luckily, there is an easy solution to these battles: democratic processes. The Co-op vote showed us the extent to which there is a disconnect between the average Hyde Park resident and the average Hyde Park Herald reader (all 50 of them).
The town-hall approach to change in Hyde Park is broken. Far too often it has just created an opportunity for activists to coalesce, shutting out the average member of the community.
This might sound like a shady tactic, but policy decisions ought to be guided by the best interest of the people; for too long these sorts of choices have been left up to Historical Societies, labor unions, and others with a vested interest. Only democracy will expose the disconnect between the radicals and the mere residents.
Alec Brandon is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.