U of C/Hyde Park history

“University of Chicago” and “neighborhood” are not the same thing

By John Gamino

You may not notice it right away, just from walking around, but the one-way streets and dead-ends in Hyde Park form what is essentially a maze. This is not without purpose. From the south, you can only get in by poking through South Ellis or Woodlawn Avenues, from the west, East 51st and 55th Streets. And, inside the neighborhood, almost no street runs continuously for more than a few blocks.


This neighborhood was designed and built with the University’s interests in mind. Hyde Park was annexed by the city of Chicago in 1889; the University arrived in 1892. For the first 50 years or so, most people in Hyde Park were white, and most were of the upper-middle or upper class. It was an elite neighborhood with an elite university. But things began to change around World War Two; Chicago’s black population increased by 42 percent between 1940 and 1950, due in large part to the ongoing Great Migration. Areas to the north and west of Hyde Park were soon predominantly black (from 1930 to 1950, the black population in Kenwood rose from 1 percent to 84.7 percent). University administrators considered moving the school to Arizona or New Mexico for a time, or at least the Chicago suburbs.


In the prewar years, neighborhood “improvement associations” had worked to “maintain the color line,” often with University support. One way of doing this was through restrictive covenants, legally enforceable agreements that prevented selling and renting to non-white people. From 1933 to 1947, the University spent more than $110,000 on “community interests,” more than $83,000 of which went towards the protection of restrictive covenants. Many of the restricted properties, in Hyde Park, Washington Park, and Woodlawn, were owned by the University, and while it sought to disassociate itself from the covenants publicly, its influence was well-known: *The Chicago Defender* called the covenants “the University of Chicago Agreement to get rid of Negroes.”


When the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants unenforceable in 1948, urban renewal became segregation’s new modus operandi. Cheap tenements and other properties with signs of wear were purchased and redeveloped, pushing poor, especially black, residents out of the neighborhood. Sounding very much like The Chicago Defender, Lawrence A. Kimpton, the University’s president from 1951 to 1960, called urban renewal a strategy for “cutting down [the] number of Negroes” in the neighborhood.


By 1958, redevelopment plans were in place that covered much of the land from East 47th Street to East 59th Street, over an 855-acre territory. The plans called for removing “blight” and the construction of a “compatible home” for the University. In all, after the plans were pushed through the City Council, 193 acres were demolished, 30,000 people were displaced, bars, jazz clubs, and other businesses were pushed out, and 41 acres were claimed as additions to the UChicago campus. Over the next decade, Hyde Park’s black population would fall by 40 percent.


These are, of course, only certain facts about the University’s history in Hyde Park, though they are facts, and they are undeniable. It is important to convey them here because you’re not likely to hear them anywhere else—and not all of them are in the past. When plans were announced for a slew of developments at Harper Court in 2012, David Greene, an executive vice president of the University, called it “enlightened self-interest for us.”


One shouldn’t expect the University to go out of its way to apologize for the consequences of restrictive covenants and urban renewal. Yet one might expect it to acknowledge more than it does, to not brush these consequences off as problems (the more popular word here is “tensions”) of a pre–civil rights era gone by, as if everything were OK now. If you go to the “History” section of the University’s website, for instance, you will read that Hyde Park was “once a solidly middle-class neighborhood,” but that, in the early 1950s, “it began to decline.” By this account, the only things “profoundly affected” by the subsequent measures of urban renewal were “the neighborhood’s architecture and street plan.” If you go to the page on Kimpton, you’ll read of a conflict between “some Hyde Park activists” and others who “recognized that the University’s power, money, and prestige were crucial in pulling together the government and private resources needed for redevelopment.” Once this happened, “things happened quickly, sometimes more quickly than the community expected.”


Today Hyde Park is, nominally, one of the few racially integrated neighborhoods in the city. The University has made moves to embrace the surrounding community, notably with the construction of the Arts Incubator in next-door Washington Park, and certainly not everyone who shops at and benefits from Harper Court is a student or a member of the faculty. But “enlightened self-interest” means embracing Hyde Park and the South Side only when it is convenient. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of rent-burdened residents in the neighborhood—those who spend more than 30 percent of what they earn on rent—rose from 43 percent to 58 percent. This was before the Hyatt, the proposed Whole Foods, the Promontory, A10, Yusho, Chipotle, Five Guys, Akira, and the pop-up boutique Sir & Madame.


Today the University thankfully, obviously, does not go about changing the neighborhood the same way it did in the 1930s or the 1950s. But this does not mean its relationship with the neighborhood no longer needs to be critically examined. One thing hasn’t changed: The University still has trouble seeing Hyde Park as something separate from itself.