Silent majority finds its voice in Co-Op debate

By Alec Brandon

I owe the residents of Hyde Park an apology.

Over the past year this column has had more than its fair share of philippics against Hyde Park residents. I’ve denounced their selfishness, myopia, and ignorance.

This hasn’t been very hard. We’re talking about people who have consistently blocked development on 53rd Street, fought to save the Co-Op from its inevitable demise, and will soon be turning their attention to blocking the U of C’s planned demolition of the Doctors Hospital for the construction of two badly-needed hotels (and the creation of hundreds of jobs).

The amazing thing is that while some Hyde Parkers offered to donate tens of thousands of dollars to save the Co-Op and tried to convince people that the whole vote was a U of C–engineered conspiracy, most Co-Op members didn’t buy any of it.

Co-Op members didn’t just vote to shut down the store; they overwhelmingly demanded to close shop. Out of over 5,000 votes, 61 percent supported Proposal A.

If you look at the situation on its face, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Co-Op was a terrible store. It had been poorly run for nearly a decade; of course it should close. But, leading up to the vote, the discussion in Hyde Park was largely dominated by the small group of residents who thought differently.

For years this group has managed to hijack the political process in Hyde Park by showing up in droves to community meetings and screaming their heads off.

One of the most notorious outlets for opinions of this group is the Hyde Park Herald. Right before the vote and in its immediate aftermath, the Herald made little attempt to distinguish reality from ideology. I’m not referring to its staff editorials, which every week proposed more desperate and inane plans to save the failed grocer. Opinion is fine by me, but it needs to stay in the opinion section.

The Herald staff became so radicalized that it lost any notion of what a news story is supposed to do—convey correct and objective information to readers. When voting was underway, the Herald published a front-page story on the Co-Op receiving a $2.5 million “commercial loan.” They briefly noted that this loan was conditional on two things happening: having the Co-Op’s multi-million-dollar 47th Street lease forgiven and the U of C easing up on the $1.2 million it is owed.

Both of these things were about as likely as Chris Dodd winning the Iowa caucuses, but that didn’t stop the Herald from portraying the loan as the savior of the Co-Op.

The worst of the Herald’s coverage came in the aftermath of the vote to close the Co-Op. You’d think after being rebuked by 61 percent of the Co-Op’s membership, it would tone down its rhetoric, but objectivity be damned. The Herald’s front page headline read: “Co-Op Board Rejects Member Pleas.” While this statement is technically true—they did reject some of the members’ pleas—it is like saying that the electoral college rejected the pleas of American citizens when it didn’t elect Ross Perot to the presidency.

But, it gets even worse. The article went on to document the community meeting that preceded the Co-Op board’s final vote and how the brave and valiant Bruce Sagan (who happens to be the Herald’s owner and probably penned the article, which was mysteriously missing a byline), had promised half a million to the Co-Op to save it.

Sadly, Sagan and his staff weren’t the only ones who couldn’t understand why anyone would want to put the Co-Op out of its misery. Based on descriptions in the Herald and elsewhere (particularly the “Hyde Park Progress” blog), the meeting that preceded the vote to close the Co-Op was completely out of hand. A standing-room-only audience decried the closing of the store and demanded the board vote against the wishes of its members. Supporters of the University’s plan who spoke up were booed and drowned out by the crowd.

Unfortunately, this sort of meeting is the model for how policy is made in Hyde Park. When a developer wants to build a high-rise for condos, a public meeting is called. Of course, all the radicalized Hyde Park residents who don’t want anything to change show up and go nuts about “protecting” the neighborhood, and in process convince our aldermen that the ideas put forth at these sorts of meetings are representative of what Hyde Park residents want.

Hyde Park’s aldermen are culpable here. For years they have taken these sorts of meetings far too seriously. If they really want to represent their constituents, they’d be smart to go beyond just calling meetings and work toward gauging the real attitudes of their wards. For too long the community meeting approach has allowed a handful of radical residents to block the community from getting the sort of change and development it desperately needs.