February 3, 2009

Soul food for thought

Harper Court renovations should not include the removal of Dixie Kitchen.

[img id="77228" align="alignleft"] For almost 15 years, johnny cakes, jambalaya, and peach cobbler have lured countless Hyde Park residents, including the current president, to the austral gem of Harper Court—the Dixie Kitchen. If the University had its way, it would be gone. The plan to shut down much of Harper Court is part of a proposal to revamp the perpetually struggling plaza by attracting national retailers and creating additional area housing. Owner Paul Andresen, who also owns the adjacent Calypso Cafe, isn’t giving up his locale without a fight.

The Southern-style restaurant, which opened in 1994 to rave reviews, refused to close its doors on the January 1 deadline, prompting the University to hand Andresen a reprieve until June of this year. It was a small victory for one of Hyde Park’s most lively establishments, which has received heavy publicity since the recent unearthing of a 2001 episode of the WTTW’s Check, Please! in which Barack Obama reviews the Dixie Kitchen during his time as an Illinois state senator. In the YouTube-able clip, Obama raves about the peach cobbler, noting what he comes to expect during his visits to Dixie Kitchen: “food that tastes good, for a good price.”

With the request for proposal deadline now closed, the University will soon select a developer, who will meet with key members of the community to establish a plan for Harper Court. This, of course, means driving out many of the current occupants, including Dixie Kitchen, C’est Si Bon, and Calypso Cafe. Calypso’s lease was scheduled to run until 2012. To ease the transition the University has offered buyout proposals, which thus far have not pacified Andresen, who estimates the costs of moving to a new location to be a crippling $700,000–$1 million. One of the major sticking points is parking, something the owners do not believe to be adequate at the proposed locales on East 53rd Street. This is simply not the kind of pressure the University should be putting on one of Hyde Park’s few, true establishments. Fundamentally, it represents a move in the wrong direction.

The displacement of this capital of crayfish only serves to further the assertion that the University exerts its will without regard for the community’s desires. Ardent supporters of the eatery have offered to circulate a petition, but so far Andresen has turned them away, hoping that an amicable solution can be reached. In recent years, town–gown relationships have soured over the Co-op–Treasure Island transition, the tearing down of the Doctors Hospital, and most hilariously, the relocation of the #171 bus stop. These constant squabbles increase animosity on each side,and make it more difficult for the sides to work together in the future should something of value need to be accomplished. It remains to be seen whether the community will rally around any of the restaurants come the revised June deadline.

Whatever the outcome, when the University moves forward with reconstruction it should look for unique and attractive businesses that satisfy demand for dining and retail functions in the area with fiscal viability and staying power, something that has plagued Harper Court for years. Oh, wait; there already is a place like that—which is exactly why the University should grant clemency to the Dixie Kitchen.

Moving the Kitchen to 53rd Street is likely to result in a loss of the homey feel that defines it, evidenced not only by its residential appearance but by its quaint (and misleading) full name: Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop. A proper proposal would include retaining Harper Court’s centerpieces (including the Chicago-jazz mecca Checkerboard Lounge) and surrounding them with a mix of retail options and housing that properly reflects Hyde Park as a whole. After all, we’re talking about branding an area here. Harper Court should represent the eclectic composition and history of a neighborhood that is home to the President and bidding to host the 2016 Olympics. How is this accomplished by stripping it of its soul…food?

Steve Saltarelli is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.