Hyde Park Harold’s

Harold’s Chicken Shack first opened on June 22, 1950, the brainchild of a black southerner named Harold Pierce.

By Mahmoud Bahrani

Traja Bailey, a teacher fom Fort Wayne, Indiana, walks into the Harold’s Chicken Shack in Kimbark Plaza. Born and raised in Chicago, Bailey is sporting a bright red Chicago Bulls jacket. She sits with her friend Stephanie Zimmerman in the booth farthest away from the door, almost directly parallel to the bulletproof glass partition that separates cashier from customers. Bailey has a half chicken meal, with hot sauce, and Zimmerman has the same, but with mild. Just before the two are about to leave, Bailey gets a phone call from her uncle.

“I’m at Harold’s, duh!” she says as she laughs into the phone when he asks her where she is.  She smiles.  “He just asked me to bring him some wings, and he lives right around the corner.”

A week earlier, two U of C first-years, Timothy Salazar and Devon Range, occupy the same booth. Salazar is from Byron, Minnesota, west of Rochester, and Range is from Cleveland. It’s Saturday evening, and the two have decided to eat at Harold’s before going out for the night. They’ve been here a few times before—enough, as Salazar says, “to get a good craving.” Both have the half chicken meal, with both hot and mild sauce.

“It’s definitely part of the experience of living in this area,” says Salazar of going to Harold’s. “It’s definitely a Chicago thing. It’s not like Five Guys, which you can get somewhere else.” Salazar and Range found out about the place from second-years in their dorm, and they intend to continue the cycle next year. “If [future first-years] like chicken, then I’ll send them to Harold’s,” says Range.

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Harold’s Chicken Shack first opened on June 22, 1950, the brainchild of a black southerner named Harold Pierce. Born in 1917 in Midway, Alabama, Pierce moved to Chicago in 1941 with his wife, Hilda Hernandez, and opened up a chicken, chops, and steaks restaurant, which he named H & H, short for Harold and Hilda. In 1950, Pierce made the decision to sell nothing but chicken and renovated a restaurant on 47th Street and Woodlawn Avenue into the original Harold’s Chicken Shack. Pierce expanded as the recipe became more and more famous, serving what was then being called “the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line.”

Up to the late ’70s, racism limited Pierce’s opportunities for expansion exclusively to black neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side. New Chicken Shacks began to open left and right, filling the void left by other fast food joints which were slow to set up shop in impoverished black communities.

“He was opening his chicken shacks all over the South Side, long before any of these fast food chains were opening in black neighborhoods,” said Mike Sula, a writer for the Chicago Reader. “The guy was serving his community. He was providing something that the big chains wouldn’t.”

For Pierce, it was less about an opportunity to serve his own community and more about the racial barrier which prevented him from serving the white community. “They’d kick my ass out of the white neighborhoods,” explained Pierce in 1975.  “So I got to stay in the ghetto.”

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Given the history of Harold’s, its location on 53rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue might be one of its most important chapters. Hyde Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, yet there’s still a history of conflict between the University and the rest of the community. Places like Harold’s, where students and community members meet with a common goal in mind, paint a portrait of how Hyde Park neighbors interact and relate to each other.

Love of Harold Pierce’s secret recipe brings both students and community members through the front door, across the scratched and dirty linoleum floors, and to the bulletproof glass to order. Everyone gets a receipt and waits for his or her number to get called. In these closed and cramped quarters, with nothing to do but wait, eyes drift to cell phones and newspapers, trying to find ways to pass the time until numbers are called. Communication is restricted to other people within an already established in-group, whether that group be composed of students or anyone else who happens to have a craving for chicken. As one of the few organic meeting places of community members and students, one can’t help but look at the the self-imposed separation and see a mirror image of the invisible barrier between students and Hyde Park residents.

“You see all walks of life in here, but on the street, all walks of life are not going to speak to each other,” says Kenneth Carr, an engineer from Palatine, a northern suburb of Chicago. Carr was eating at Harold’s because he happened to be in the city, and he makes a point of visiting the Shack whenever he gets the opportunity. “Some people come over here and can hold a conversation. Some people get their food and keep going,” Carr continues.

“People ain’t sociable like they used to be,” says Zimmerman as she munches on fries. “It’s fast-paced, go go go all the time.” Bailey, sitting across from her, agrees: “People just aren’t as friendly as they used to be. You don’t start up a conversation waiting on your food anymore. You just want to get your food, and enjoy it, and enjoy the rest of your night.”

In a world of Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and Angry Birds, all in the palm of your hand, maybe any kind of uncomfortable interaction is a lot to ask for. But it seems like it has less to do with the technological options available and more to do with an attitude of interaction being overrated.

“No one comes to Harold’s to make friends or network; there’s other places for that,” says Michael Pace, a South Side resident. “I’ve never felt the need or desire to look outside of the University community to bond with other people,” says Cliff Boldridge, a fourth-year.

It’s hard to fault Pace or Boldridge for their logic—Harold’s is first and foremost a restaurant, not a place for community bonding. And with all the support structures that the University puts in place, there isn’t a lot of incentive to branch outside of the University community. Perhaps this is less a problem specific to the University of Chicago and Hyde Park and more a problem that every diverse neighborhood faces. How do you branch out of your comfortable in-group when your in-group is so… comfortable?

“It’s not a reflection on the community,” says Bailey. “People just are not as friendly as they should be. You’re waiting on your number to get called so you can get up and go.”

Get up and go. That looks like the direction in which the Hyde Park community is heading.  And unfortunately, no amount of fried chicken, or any outside force for that matter, seems to be enough to help us change course.