Max Grinnell, a student in the School of Social Service Administration and author of the book Images of America: Hyde Park, Illinois, spoke to a crowded room of longtime residents, members of the sociology department, and students at 57th Street Books on Wednesday.
Grinnell's book, a pictorial history of Hyde Park, charts the University' interest in the development of the neighborhood from the founding of the University of Chicago through post-war attempts at urban development.
Grinnell discussed the history of urban renewal in Hyde Park, focusing on subjects that were not fully explored in his book due to page limit and the number of photos required.
"Hyde Park was the site of the first large-scale federal urban renewal project," Grinnell said.
Grinnell spoke about the University's efforts to acquire properties, including a lot north of 57th Street and Ellis Avenue, for the possible expansion of the University hospital, and a suitable site for the power plant that now stands on 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue.
"There was a long interest beginning in 1920 in Harper between 57th and 59th Streets," said Grinnell, "The University wanted it for its proximity to a rail yard for the loading and unloading of coal."
Grinnell described the resistance to development of many area residents. He read a letter dated January 30, 1923 of one angry resident who objected to the influx of black citizens.
"If your plans are carried out, the residents on the street, one after another, will move out," the resident wrote. "The homes will not remain empty, but less desirable tenants will come in, possibly colored in a word, the whole neighborhood will deteriorate."
According to Grinnell, racial tensions and economic concerns often influenced redevelopment plans in the neighborhood. The Southwest Hyde Park Redevelopment Corporation, headed by the University's president and vice president, sparked a controversy in its decision to label a block where St. Claire Drake, a famous black sociologist with a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University, lived a blighted area. The University planned to use a federal urban renewal grant to convert the area to dormitories.
Drake protested the label, claiming that the decision was made because there was "a porch board loose." The case went to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled the block a conservation area.
Grinnell also mentioned several tidbits of Hyde Park history that did not go into the book. During the late '60s, the University purchased 28 properties in Hyde Park in hopes of creating a new community named "University City."
The University City plan included renaming the railroad station University City Station, and forming a University City little league and other community youth groups. The plan included an express highway across the Midway, through 61st Street.
Grinnell recounted efforts of the Hyde Park Kenwood Urban Renewal Committee to redevelop 55th Street, a commercial center of the Hyde Park community during the late '50s. The shops and clubs included a major jazz club called the Beehive where jazz legend Charlie Parker played briefly.
Many residents among the 50 that Grinnell interviewed considered the bars and clubs of 55th Street west of the railroad tracks seedy establishments.
Others bemoaned the loss of arts establishments such as the Beehive. Another building, located at the site Harper Court stands now on at 53rd and Harper, was an artist colony for such literary notables as Theodore Drieser, Carl Sandburg, and Sherwood Anderson. The Compass Players, the campus improv comedy group that became The Second City, used to perform at a space demolished in order to build the 55th Street fire station.
"The artist colony was maybe what Greenwich village was 50 years ago." Grinnell said.
Grinnell collected photographs from the University of Chicago's Special Collections department and the Harold Washington Library, as well as longtime Hyde Park residents and employees of the University.
Grinnell's project represents a year's worth of research.
Grinnell, who studied history and geography in the College, became interested in Hyde Park social history while talking with locals who attended the Sinai temple on 54th Street and South Shore Drive, a synagogue demolished after 1998. Many of the residents were critical of the University's actions over the last 50 years.
Grinnell is planning to use the interviews collected over the course of his research in an oral history project. He is also hoping to draw a map of land-use from 1960 to 2000. "There are only land use maps until 1950," he said.
Grinnell hopes his history will give an unbiased account of the urban development of Hyde Park.
"I wanted to show the broad range of opinions both about the urban renewal project and the University of Chicago's actions," Grinnell said. "I think any observer would say that without the vigorous efforts of the University of Chicago, there might have been serious problems in Hyde Park"
Images of America: Hyde Park, Illinois is sold out from the University Bookstore, but 57th Street Books has recently received a new shipment of copies.