Living in Hyde Park and the South Side of Chicago has made for an exciting last couple of months. Accounts are told of people bumping into Barack Obama in the most unexpected places, like the gym or the grocery store. And folks back home are eager to listen to stories about our special neighborhood, graced by the presence of royalty. If it were all a play, we had the best tickets.
The good news is that the fun’s not over: Hyde Park will soon be stirred up again as another round of voting in October will determine the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games. Should Chicago win, the main stadium and the swimming complex will be built in Washington Park, less than a half-dozen blocks west of our main quad. So it seems that once again we have front-row seats to a drama that will escalate toward the end of the year.
As a well prepared spectator, one must bear in mind some important themes that will recur throughout the coming show. In the 2008 presidential elections, the major theme was race. And now with the 2016 Olympic Games bidding, I propose that an important theme ought to be social sustainability. Social sustainability, analogous to environmental sustainability, posits that basic living conditions for members of a community continue to be met, even in occasions of mega-events like the Olympics.
If the 2016 Games is going to be like any other Olympic Games of the past, this is how it’s going to unfold: As was the case in Beijing, direct evictions or indirect relocations due to increasing rent will affect thousands of residents during the process of getting our city in shape. As the deadline looms, legal protection for the evictees will be minimized, and public discussions with local communities will be set aside. All the while, sponsors will gain increasing influence in decision-making processes that lack transparency. Amidst excessive exuberance, the dichotomizing logic—that if you are not completely in support of the Games, you are against them—will prevail. And after it’s all over, though the city administrators will boast of a successful Olympics that reaffirmed Chicago’s standing in the world, we will have further marginalized the already marginalized.
As students, we live in a campus bubble, and it is admittedly possible to ignore what happens outside of it. But other than the above concerns, there are two significant additional reasons for why you—yes, you—should be interested in promoting social sustainability.
First, you have a stake in protecting housing rights as a resident in Hyde Park. Each year, about half of the students in the housing system move out to apartments in adjacent areas. However, if the wave of beautification and gentrification takes over the neighborhood, a suitable—reasonably priced and nearby—apartment will become harder and harder to come by. Considering all the hot money and speculators that a mega-event like the Olympics will attract to the neighborhood, the only affordable housing option left for you may be to stay in the housing system, which may become very crowded as the years pass by. Nevertheless, as a student, you are in less of a predicament since the University will (read: had better) aid in your search for housing, or perhaps even directly provide off-campus housing. On the other hand, non-University-affiliated residents of Hyde Park will face unwelcome rashes of rising rent and may end up having to move out against their will. The University’s relationship with its surrounding community has never been exactly cordial, and we all have a stake in getting on better terms with our neighbors.
Second, you have the power to make a difference. You are a constituent of a university that will possess enormous political clout if the Olympic Games do come to Chicago. The University owns large tracts of land and many buildings on the South Side and has recently purchased even more land beside Washington Park. And the University being such an integral component of Hyde Park, it would not make sense to run an Olympics in Washington Park without close collaboration with the U of C. If enough students—or, even better, administrators—were to express concern over social sustainability in the area, planners would certainly take it into consideration. It is worth noting that the students of the University of British Columbia are at the center of activism for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, which claims to be the first socially sustainable Olympics.
Admittedly, more than seven years stand between now and the 2016 Olympics, and Chicago has not even secured its position as the host city. However, the bargaining power of the Hyde Park community will reach its peak just before the winning city is announced in October this year. Because the International Olympic Committee will be anxious to gauge the support of local communities, our bid committee will be most willing to negotiate and placate any concerns until then. But once the host city is announced, the deadline-oriented mentality will start to roll in, and it will get harder and harder to introduce any measure that could be seen as hindering the smooth progress of Olympics preparations. It’s definitely not too early to start thinking about social sustainability.
Social sustainability in Hyde Park is worth the concern. We are currently in a unique bargaining position to bring about the change that we want to see and prevent those things that we do not. Now is the time, I say: We can turn this show into our show.
Shin Kim is a first-year in the College.