Hyde Park activism misses the Point

By Alec Brandon

If you look around Hyde Park, you can still see vestiges of the last big push by its community activists. “Save the Point” read torn bumper stickers and sun-worn signs adorning residential windows around town.

This movement dates back to 2001, when the Chicago Park District proposed replacing the structurally unstable limestone steps that go down to the lake at Promontory Point with a concrete and steel concoction. The reception the city got was chilly at best, and since then, Hyde Park residents have sought to block the city’s plans in favor of keeping the limestone steps at the Point. There has still been no agreement between the city and Hyde Park on how the Point’s revetment will be adapted, but it is pretty clear to anyone who has followed the story that Hyde Park activists have won. There isn’t likely to be any concrete at the Point anytime soon.

Unfortunately, this heartwarming story of advocacy has been grossly misconstrued by Hyde Park activists. The past few years have seen community “leaders” try to block even the smallest changes to Hyde Park’s status quo. They have demanded that the U of C bring in an operator to the abandoned movie theater in Harper Court (as opposed to knocking it down and putting in shops), threatened legal action to keep Harper Court an artisan cooperative, tried to stop the construction of condominiums across the street from the Windermere, and now—worst of all—they have threatened to block the U of C’s proposed construction of a Marriot and a Fairfield Inn on the site that presently houses the Doctors Hospital.

Community activists have confused the groundswell of popular support they received when trying to “save the Point” with popular support for keeping Hyde Park the way it is, regardless of the ramifications. And while the Point revetment was a fairly open-and-shut case—the city wanted to change public land for the worse—tearing down the Doctors Hospital and putting in two hotels is far more complex.

For starters, this issue concerns private property, not public land. The fact that so many community activists had the opportunity to actually buy the Doctors Hospital last year means that the threshold needed to block the U of C’s actions is much higher than in the case of the Point. These activists attempt to meet the threshold with a twofold argument.

First, they cite the beauty and architectural importance of the Doctors Hospital and wish that the U of C would just adapt the present building. I don’t mean to be insensitive to these claims, but has anyone ever heard of Schmidt, Garden, and Martin (the building’s architects)? It is one thing to preserve buildings that are great American landmarks. It’s another to save a building so that a few architects can come and look at it every couple of decades. Put simply, the Doctors Hospital isn’t a landmark in any sense of the word.

But on top of that, the prospective hotel company has made it clear that there aren’t really any other feasible sites for a hotel in Hyde Park and that renovating the Doctors Hospital is not an option—it is, after all, a 1920s-era hospital. So that means protecting the Doctors Hospital is tantamount to ensuring that an empty, boarded-up building stays that way for generations to come. The Hyde Park Historical Society might think the building fits in beautifully with the surrounding architecture, but I just find it depressing.

The second part of the anti-hotel argument involves the past labor practices of White Lodging, the company that would manage the new hotels. This means that activists don’t like how White Lodging hasn’t allowed unionization in the other hotels it manages.

So let me get this straight: There are presently no jobs created by the Doctors Hospital, and the U of C wants to put in two hotels, a Starbucks, and a restaurant that would create, oh I don’t know, more then zero jobs.

This isn’t a case of a company coming in and potentially destroying union jobs, like Wal-Mart is often accused of doing. The U of C would be creating hundreds of jobs where there are none, and the community is upset because they aren’t union jobs. Talk about missing the bottom line.

But more to the point: Is the direction these leaders are taking us where we want to end up? “Malaise” would be too gentle a word to describe the condition of Hyde Park. Bringing in a hotel might make finding a parking spot a little more difficult, and allowing commercial development might mean that a few old buildings will be torn down, but these are small prices to pay for the jobs it would create and the new life it would breathe into our dead neighborhood.

Too bad all of this is lost on our self-appointed community arbiters.