April 17, 2007

Hyde Parkers need to realize the benefits of capitalism

This weekend I made my way to the North Side to catch a ball game at Wrigley Field. I rarely leave Hyde Park, so it’s always a shock for me to see what a vibrant Chicago neighborhood looks like. But, in many ways, the North Side is the same as Hyde Park—both have people with lots of money and both have loads of people in their early twenties with disposable income. So why is the North Side so awesome while Hyde Park sucks so much?

Well, the obvious difference between the two is their commercial offerings. The North Side has some, and Hyde Park doesn’t. I’ve lived in Hyde Park for nearly three years now, and over that time I have seen far more businesses close than open. The latest blow is the all-but-guaranteed closing of the new Borders bookstore on 53rd Street. And outside forces are likely only to exacerbate Hyde Park’s commercial woes. If Hyde Park doesn’t do something quickly it risks becoming utterly irrelevant to potential business owners and investors. As commercial destinations keep moving southward (as they have, into neighborhoods like Bridgeport), Hyde Park residents will increasingly choose to do their shopping elsewhere.

To most people this would be a serious cause for concern. I don’t know about you, but I’m not content with a Hyde Park whose commercial offerings are limited to sandwich shops and cafés. Without businesses and shopping centers that bring people together, vibrant neighborhoods start to lose what makes them unique and become a place that people exclusively call home.

But the people of Hyde Park seem completely oblivious, focusing their attention and outrage on utterly irrelevant (and counterproductive) issues.

My favorite example of the sorts of issues that the average Hyde Parker cares about is last year’s controversy over the potential sale of Harper Court. Harper Court (located at East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue) is run by a non-profit foundation whose goal is to provide a sanctuary from market forces to an eclectic mix of businesses in order to economically and culturally develop Hyde Park and Kenwood, whatever that means.

Far from being an “artist’s colony,” Harper Court is essentially a lackluster collection of dilapidated shops. Thus, for anyone interested in seeing Hyde Park’s commercial and employment offerings increase, the sale of Harper Court to a for-profit would be reason to celebrate. But not in Hyde Park. No, word of the sale prompted months of top-notch investigative reporting by The Hyde Park Herald and an endless flurry of letters to the editor decrying the prsopect of Hyde Park giving up on its little nook of

The other bogeyman in the lives of many Hyde Park residents (the first being capitalism) is the U of C. Now, I know that the U of C has had a controversial role in the history of Hyde Park, but that doesn’t mean everything it does is cause for concern. In fact, while I’ve been here, I’ve seen the University all but trip over itself trying to address the often inane concerns of Hyde Park residents.

Just look at the University’s handling of the Meridian Theater. A couple of years ago it bought the depressingly vacant building. But instead of being happy (or even indifferent) that something was being done with an eyesore, Hyde Park residents lit into the University with demands to maintain the building’s facade regardless of their plans and to try to find a proprietor to run a movie theater out of the building again, as if there wasn’t a reason the prior owners closed up shop. The University then tried to sell the idea to 37 businesses and even offered to subsidize the venture, to no avail.

The whole process was an absurd waste of time. Instead of giving the University a list of non-negotiable demands every time it buys a piece of unused property, residents would be smart to try to support the University’s goals by commercially developing Hyde Park, instead of thwarting them. I mean, the University is essentially a Daddy Warbucks that has shown it is willing to lose money in order to improve the offerings of Hyde Park. How can that be a bad thing?

But more to the point: If Hyde Park residents don’t want to run the neighborhood’s commercial future into the ground, there needs to be change. First, it’s time to get rid of the ridiculous barriers to entry that have allowed the Co-op to maintain its monopoly and require potential businesses to jump through every possible hoop imaginable before they can open. (Why do you think it took so long for Istria to open?) Second, residents need to become more accepting of for-profit businesses and chains, even if that means compromising the founding goals of Harper Court or seeing the composition of certain areas of shops change.

If you were to combine these changes with a more unified approach by the University and Hyde Park residents, the neighborhood could actually have a bright future ahead. It’s too bad all of this is likely to fall on deaf ears.