It has not been a good year for some of Hyde Park's more beloved institutions; the City of Chicago continues to threaten the Point, the Hyde Park Theater closed, and the Harper Court Foundation (HCF) removed the chess benches from Harper Court.
This last development is particularly disturbing because it was entirely senseless. Despite facing neither shoreline erosion nor bankruptcy, the HCF felt an ill-defined sense of crisis strong enough to warrant the highly-popular benches' removal. Indeed, the benches were especially notable because of the various groups of Hyde Park residents they brought together on a regular basis.
Regardless of how one feels about the game of chess, the crowds of players and spectators who consistently gathered at the benches for decades and the recent 70-person protest by Friends of Harper Court Chess (FHCC) demonstrate the enormous popularity of the benches and the key position they occupied in the broader culture of the neighborhood.
We at the Maroon find the HCF's decision particularly worrisome because it comes as a moment when the future of 53rd Streetslated for controversial, if arguably needed, redevelopment through TIF financing and chain-store constructionshould be democratically discussed and planned. 53rd Street is a key fault line in the social geography of the Hyde Park-Kenwood community; thus any development plan must take into account the social functions of the street as well as its economic potential.
The HCF's obstinacy is curiously reminiscent of an earlier mindset that one can find as far back as the turn of the nineteenth century, in the panic of urban elites over working-class immigrants' uses of the street, but is more commonly located in the 1950s urban renewal projects that are notorious for sterilizing Hyde Park sociability. Bricks and mortar projects provide jobs, a fresh look to a neighborhood, and a certain satisfaction that "progress" is ever-underway, but they can just as easily wipe out more elusive public sites of congregation that prove impossible to reconstruct.
However progressive the HFC may see itself, the decision to remove the benches smacks of a way of thinking that has been discredited by the social sciences, policy makers, the popular press, and residents. Bring back the benches.