The new urban renewal

Ann Marie Lipinski takes charge of the U of C's plan to engage with the surrounding community.

By Tim Murphy

Courtesy of Maroon File Photo

GREY CITY

  /  

June 2, 2009

Ann Marie Lipinski came to campus this past fall with a bold but uncertain mandate. Her mission, as outlined in her conversations with University President Robert Zimmer, was to do what once might have seemed oxymoronic: Make the University of Chicago into the new model for how an urban research institution should interact with its community.

It’s not so much the scope of the plan that seems out of place. It’s an agenda in line with a University never afraid to dive headfirst into the fog of big ideas—the University of the Great Books, the nuclear chain reaction, and padded football goalposts.

It's a gothic enclave built to endure like the White City never could, and one that, on its master campus plan, proudly picks up the mantle of Chicago master planner Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans; they have no power to stir the soul."

Big plans the U of C has always had in abundance.

But it’s the setting that makes this new ambition different. How could the University of Chicago, the institution that sided with the tenant organizations of A Raisin in the Sun in supporting racially restrictive housing covenants, that bulldozed half of Hyde Park and a mile-long stretch of Woodlawn, become a model for civic engagement?


Finding the answer to those questions will be the primary responsibility of Lipinski, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Chicago Tribune, who left the paper last June amid a major shake-up on North Michigan Avenue. For Lipinski, the newly created position of vice president for the Office of Civic Engagement presented an opportunity for a fresh approach to a familiar challenge.

“I used to talk to my newsroom about behaving as Chicago’s leading citizen, and how would you comport yourself professionally if that’s what you believed, and how would that inform the kinds of stories you would choose to do,” Lipinski said.

In Lipinski’s view, there are two conflicting legacies the University must build upon: The grand, outward-looking ambitions of its founding and the dark, insular legacy of urban renewal. The University can’t go forward without recognizing the lingering distrust of many in the community, nor can it look to revert back to the founding narrative that emerged at a time when the Cubs were still the National League’s dominant franchise.

“Both of those histories are real,” Lipinski says. “I had been here about a month when I had a conversation with somebody who said to me, ‘What we all have an opportunity to do now is create a third and new narrative for the University,’ or a third chapter.”

That third way is still a largely uncharted path, but the University’s recent work in public school education offers a glimpse of what a new model might look like. The Urban Education Initiative (UEI), a University program inherited by Lipinski, has been successful enough in its brief existence to see one of its top administrators, John Easton, leave to take a job in the Obama administration. When the UEI started, it did so with grand ambitions—an Education Week column by three U of C administrators, including Lipinski’s predecessor, Hank Webber, proclaimed that the initiative would be “John Dewey for Today.”

The initiative blends University-operated public charter schools (it currently runs four, all on the South Side), empirical analysis from the Chicago Consortium on School Research, and teacher-training from the Urban Teachers Education Program (UTEP), to form a three-pronged approach to inner-city schooling. At its best, it provides a clear example of the University marshalling its “intellectual and human capital,” as Lipinski puts it, toward a mutually beneficial result.

Liz Kirby, principal of Kenwood Academy, a public high school on East 51st Street, has been a vocal supporter of the University’s efforts in education and says she has constructed a set of policies for her school that reflect Consortium research.

“Their work has helped us make sure that we can give students as much help as possible to realize that dream [of going to college],” Kirby said.

According to Kirby, the Consortium’s data spurred Kenwood to place extra emphasis on students’ ninth-grade progress and to close the campus during lunch to students whose GPAs fall below a certain point. The goal is to find the strongest indicators of success in college, and build toward them. After Consortium research indicated that filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was one of the biggest roadblocks to attending college, Kirby simplified the process this year. The result, she says, has been a 13-percent jump in the number of Kenwood Academy graduates going on to College.

Through new research-driven policy programs like the UEI, Lipinski believes the U of C can use its intellectual strength for mutual benefit. It’s the urban planning equivalent of soft power.


Engagement in policy reform can go a long way toward constructing a new town–gown narrative, but there’s a physical, more personal element that must still be reconciled. In an interview with TIME Magazine last month, First Lady Michelle Obama, who grew up in nearby South Shore, captured a view of the University held by many in the city. Even as the largest employer on the South Side—and the place where Obama’s mother worked as a legal secretary—the U of C left the impression of an island isolated from its surrounding communities.

“I never set foot on campus. We came through, we picked [my mom] up, we left,” Obama told TIME. “It was sort of like another world that didn’t belong to me…. It was a very foreign place, even though it was a stone’s throw [away]. It had an impact on my life.”

For all the certifiable good, both academically and communally, done by its researchers, faculty, and students, it may not be the new technocratic model that colors local perception of the U of C; instead, a new era of good feelings could depend on how well Lipinski and her office deal with ground-level decisions.

In recent months, the closing of women’s health clinics, allegations of patient dumping at the U of C Hospital emergency room, and aggressive development policies have defined the challenges the U of C faces in improving its image.

Even as the Urban Health Initiative seeks to improve access to health care on the South Side, the announcement in May that the Medical Center would shutter a women’s health clinic on East 47th Street drew criticism from outside and inside the University. Mishka Terplan, the U of C doctor who runs the clinic, warned at the time that the move, and others like it, would create a disparity between where well-off patients and poor ones receive care. Likewise, controversy over changes in the hospital’s emergency room policy drew criticism from community groups and observers, as well as a national organization of ER doctors.

Lonnie Richardson, head of the Woodlawn-based group Southside Together Organizing for Power, alleged that the policy unfairly targeted low-income residents.

“We are being pushed out of the neighborhood but people should still be able to use the emergency room,” Richardson said.

Lipinski, though, says the bad publicity should not detract from the larger progress being made.

“You always worry about good and important work being overshadowed, including by [these] issues,” Lipinski said. “I think that can be compounded by a lack of understanding—both within and outside of the University—of all the truly remarkable work going on.”

Just as significant as the perception that the University is disengaging on critical services are the suspicions that can swallow up goodwill. This past summer, when it was reported that the University had bought up property west of Washington Park, Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell raised a storm by warning against University encroachment on the community. Lipinski insists that the Washington Park investment is just that, and not an act of land speculation ahead of the 2016 Olympics. The park is “one of the great jewels of the park system,” she says, but is seen by many as a boundary rather than a resource.

The immediate reaction to the purchase suggests that while isolation can foster sentiments like those expressed by Michelle Obama, the process of breaking down those boundaries can be just as problematic.

The question of what to do with existing real estate can spark dissatisfaction as well, as it did last fall when the University’s plan for a hotel at the site of the old Doctors Hospital on Stony Island Avenue was defeated by a referendum that banned alcohol sales in the precinct. Lipinski has emphasized the need for communication on questions of retail and other development projects, pointing to the recent 53rd Street redevelopment and Harper Court process as indicative of an approach that constructively incorporates all viewpoints.

Openness and receptiveness, however, are not mutually inclusive.

“Often in the corporate world, whenever management wants to do something that wouldn’t be good for [the rest of the company], they say ‘Oh, we just need to communicate about it,’” said James Withrow, a former chairman of the Co-Op Markets board, who blogs about the neighborhood at Hyde Park Urbanist. “Sometimes the policy just isn’t very good.”

David Hoyt, who contributes to the blog Hyde Park Progress under the name “Chicago Pop,” suggested that the administration as well as the community are both still stuck in a “grudge match” mentality over urban renewal.

“Its reflex response to many issues is to just kind of hunker down and get in a bunker,” Hoyt said of the University. “I think there’s a lingering legacy that results in the University not wanting to take [its] case out to [its] neighbors and lay it out there.”

As the University continues to plan developments south of the Midway and the prospect of a Chicago Olympics just one block from campus inches closer, the ghosts of community relations past will undoubtedly linger. How Lipinski, and the University as a whole, handle the practical challenges—as well as the continued growth of research-driven reform—will determine whether the new model creates a narrative worthy of the U of C’s big plans.

“I feel like there is an opportunity for this institution to continue to do a lot of what it is doing and step up in other ways, in manifest ways, and be that city, behave as Chicago’s leading citizen,” Lipinski said.