October 31, 2008

Hyde Park block attracts thousands of South Side trick-or-treaters

Last Halloween, Hyde Park resident Susan Weingartner doled out 2,200 pieces of candy—all before 7:30 p.m.

“This year we bought 2,500,” she said. “People look at you in the store like you’re crazy, but maybe this year we’ll last till 8.”

It’s become a South Side tradition: Thousands of children flock to Weingartner’s block each year—South Harper Avenue between East 57th and 58th Streets—where the candy is plentiful, the residents are welcoming, and decorations run the gamut from tombstones to animated monsters fully clothed and posed on the porches.

Along with stocking up on candy, Weingartner and her husband, Tom, have a reserve of decorations, regularly adding new pieces. They said the decorations vary on the rest of the street. In years past, particularly dedicated neighbors have set up street-spanning lines of ghosts, constructed fountains to spray unsuspecting passersby, and held live haunted houses on porches. One year a mysterious saxophonist showed up to play eerily in the mist.

“It’s a performance,” Tom said.

The block-wide Halloween tradition has been running since at least the early 1970s, according to residents. Razorblade trick-or-treating scares prompted homeowners to start a tradition on their own block, which contains exclusively single-family homes.

According to GSB professor Sam Peltzman, who lives on the block, it was a quiet affair until then-alderman Larry Bloom wrote a column in the Hyde Park Herald inviting more families to join the festivities.

“He wrote, ‘You should all come.’ So they came,” Peltzman said. “Now we draw kids from all over the South Side.”

The crowds ballooned, and now residents prepare each year for a flood of several thousand children—plus their parents. Police close off the block to traffic as the crowds flood the sidewalks and street. Peltzman said he doles out candy with both hands.

But, according to residents, it won’t be possible to glimpse the decorations until Halloween. Before that day, just a few pumpkins will bedeck front steps and porches. When the full works go up, decorations will span entire yards and fill windows, like Macy’s storefronts—except with monsters. Porches will transform into haunted houses, complete with corpse-hauling wheelbarrows, ghost-toting trees, and homeowners awaiting trick-or-treaters with candy bought in bulk.

Homeowners had prepared for days in anticipation of visits from local children, who arrive in stages by age, with toddlers trickling in at 4 p.m., followed by grade-schoolers and finally middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, ending soon after dark.

The block’s special Halloween ambiance is drawn partly from its past. Its Victorian buildings, some in slight disrepair, are the perfect setting for macabre Halloween scenes.

Over the years, the block has seen families coming from as far as Indiana to attend the festivities.

Reporters and local TV crews have covered the event as well. Harper Avenue legend has it that the event has even attracted Barack Obama, with daughters Malia and Sasha in tow.

“The story goes, he was here in a mask,” Susan Weingartner said. “People say there were Secret Service agents around a guy who looked like him.”

Despite crowds, the night is more focused on treats than trickery. In the 18 years Weingartner has decorated her house, only one mask was ever stolen, and no one has even smashed a pumpkin. In fact, the tradition attracted her so much that when the Weingartners bought the house, they persuaded the owner to sell before Halloween so that they could give out candy.

“This was our dream when we bought this house,” she said.