Breaking ground and breaking through barriers

By Milton Watkins

Living around the University and its hospital for some odd years I have witnessed the groundbreaking of Regenstein, D’Angelo Law, and Crerar Libraries, as well as many other types of structures. The neighborhood has seen many changes, from having four or five grocery stores on 55th Street to the Co-Op being the main grocery store and the largest in the neighborhood. It used to be that one could buy milk, bread, and other staples from one of three small stores in west Hyde Park. However, now shopping locations are limited for people living west of Ellis Avenue. In the 50s the neighborhood and the schools were like a small United Nations, consisting of people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as foreign countries. There was more tolerance and diversity within the community prior to urban renewal, which took place in the 1960s. Even with the expansion of the campus there are still people who have lived in Hyde Park their entire lives, yet have no connection to the University or even knowledge of it. In the coming years I see Hyde Park and Kenwood becoming one big community, no longer separated by economic and cultural boundaries. More banks, restaurants, stores and even two shopping malls have opened up in this community. West of Dorchester on 63rd Street and at 61st and Greenwood townhouses are being built, with prices ranging from $278,000 to $315,000. These are all signs of the renewal of the Hyde Park community.

During the 1960s, the first complete decade of urban renovation, the total population in Hyde Park decreased by 12,000; African Americans constituted more than half this number. Still, they made up nearly a third of the population in 1970. Overcrowding in housing was reduced, despite the number of units for housing having dropped by more than 20 percent throughout the decade.

Thirty-one thousand people resided in Hyde Park in 1980, a record low over the past 60 years, and a total decline of about 40 percent since the peak in 1950. The black portion of that number remained more than 30 percent. While it was being called a community of mixed races, two of its main areas remained particularly divided, ethnically speaking. These areas were the section closest to the University of Chicago (nearly 86 percent white), and the northwestern corner of Hyde Park, being almost 88 percent black.

Hyde Park’s population continued to see a decline throughout the 1980s down to less than 29,000. Current counts show a small increase in the ration of non-white residents to white residents, while the total of European white ethnic groups has declined by about four percent. To date, 2,500 people of Asian descent are residing within the community, most of whom are Chinese. Aside from the two areas mentioned earlier, the community remains pretty well integrated. Those areas still show about the same ethnic divisions.

The presence of the University can be seen in the community by the apparent eagerness of its residents to get to work in a timely fashion. On average, workers are reporting to work inside of a half-hour, perhaps due to the white-collar nature of most of the jobs in the community in hospital, University, and dormitory positions.

There are several groups, notably The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), which provide leadership for change. The University of Chicago is helping as well, both officially and informally, in areas as diverse as planning and urban renewal in Woodlawn, and by strengthening the community’s educational, social, and medical services. It should be mentioned here too that the National Housing Act establishes a formula whereby each dollar expended by the University of Chicago for urban renewal earns $3 in federal funds that the City of Chicago may spend on urban renewal wherever it wishes to. The total of such credits that will accrue to the City will exceed $40 million, of which the City proposes to use a substantial fraction in Woodlawn.

Nevertheless, urban renewal dollars are not the entire solution to Woodlawn’s problems nor to those of all the other “Woodlawns” in American cities. People who are confined to ghettos because of race, cultural heritage, inability to learn at school and lack of marketable skills need a better chance than they now have to get out of those ghettos. Educated people can play a part in bringing this about even if they do no more, when they find themselves with people who are obviously uninformed about the social problems of the inner-city, than to expose the fallacies and state the facts. To do so has been one of the objects of this article.

The neighborhood continues to have an impact, and the concern of the University for its surroundings and for the level of city services must continue. Hyde Park residents move around a lot. Sixty percent lived in another residence five years ago. The households are typically small, as are the housing units. One in five housing units is a condominium. The need for decent homes at affordable prices and the lack of available land in the eastern and southern Hyde Park areas has prompted renewal of the area west of Ellis Avenue and north of 55th Street. In the same area, the University of Chicago bought and converted a church home for the aged to be used for student housing at 5445 South Ingleside, which opened as Maclean Hall in 1991. If rehabilitation of West Hyde Park continues, it will provide further housing needed for middle class residents. This will cause concern for the low-income residents who are displaced. In the near future, I see this University and Hospital expanding north to 47th Street and past 63rd Street to the south. We see more student, faculty and staff coming each year, from all parts of the globe.

Part of Regenstein Library was renovated two years ago. Construction is still going on at the Regenstein. A new computer lab will be installed on the A level, and a new dock is now being built. Last September the Chicago Transit Authority began routes all through the University. There are new townhouses being built north of 46th Street and a new co-op and mall were recently opened on 47th Street east of Woodlawn. Given all these projects, the University and Hospital must buy more land soon in order to keep up with its programs. With the inevitable expansions, I see this University and Hospital becoming one of the largest in the nation.