The general consensus at the U of C seems to be that if you go south of East 60th Street, you’ll end up as the subject of a UCPD security alert. The blocks that line the bottom part of campus are, as an unwritten rule, off-limits. It is an area with a stigma established during O-Week and reinforced until graduation. Most descriptions render it a horrific combination of gang warfare, housing projects, and decaying restaurants, buildings, and sidewalks. Regardless of whether any of this is founded in truth, the negative and almost fearful attitude toward the neighborhood seems to permeate the student body.
People forget, however, that about 1,100 undergraduates—more than one third of all students in campus housing—live on East 60th Street in Burton-Judson and South Campus. The street is also home to the Law School, Midway Studios, multiple graduate buildings, Hyde Park Day School, and perhaps most importantly, the future campus landmark that is the Logan Arts Center. The new home of the Chicago Theological Seminary will be on East 61st Street. Two fraternities and a burgeoning number of apartments populate the supposedly taboo section of Hyde Park and Woodlawn. And yet, unlike the relatively developed areas on East 57th Street and the blocks north of campus, there is an unnerving lack of places for students to eat, meet, or just hang out. Even more disconcerting is the dearth of ongoing development.
This isn’t to say that the area south of East 60th Street is a complete commercial wasteland. Places like Robust Coffee and Backstory are fun, high-quality cafés that serve as both cultural and communal beacons. They are also the exception to the rule. For such valuable assets, many undergraduates haven’t even heard of them. Other places like Daley’s Restaurant and Jamaican Jerk Choice offer cheap and tasty fare, but the south-of-60th stigma rules out almost all student business.
In short, we need more—more development in the area, and more awareness of what north Woodlawn already offers. Increased development in the area is necessary not just to complement the mushrooming level of student activity on or near East 60th Street, but to commit the University to a healthy, productive relationship with a detached community. A project similar to the renovation of Harper Court would do wonders to the image of the Woodlawn area, and it could snowball into a more comprehensive redevelopment project.
The University of Chicago is in a unique position: The Hyde Park community is very closely predicated on how the University treats or prioritizes certain developments. This is an opportunity to better the student experience and make a statement to the broader populace. By investing in a neighborhood that has been historically and unfairly labeled, we can revitalize the area and, more importantly, revamp our attitudes toward it.
Practically, University students and employees would provide more than enough business to reinvigorate the neighborhood. Students constantly complain about the absence of such college staples as cheap diners, coffee shops, and, above all, Chipotles. As the center of campus shifts south, there’s a chance for those long-wished-for businesses to come in and fill the commercial vacuum.
But before that happens, we have to tweak our judgmental perspectives. We should ignore an outdated stigma and use our dollars to demonstrate a real interest in north Woodlawn; at the same time, the University should match greater student demand with new development in the community, and thereby do an act of genuine social service. So next time you’re in the area, don’t settle for a Jimmy John’s delivery or a walk to the dining hall: head on over to Jamaican Jerk Choice and see for yourself how good going south can be.
The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an Editorial Board member.