August 20, 2009

"The 800-pound gorilla does not have to break pottery every time it moves."

Chicago Pop has a great post today on Hyde Park Progress about the Hyde Park Herald and its latest editorial railing against the University. Demolition finally commenced several days ago at Harper Court - a cell phone shot of the tragic remains of Dixie Kitchen circa Tuesday morning above - and apparently Ann Marie Lipinski, director of the Office of Community Engagement, opted not to give the Herald advance notice. The Herald is furious!!!!!! at this injustice and begins its Wednesday diatribe as eloquently as ever: "We are a little piqued. Actually, we should really say we are very, very piqued."

Chicago Pop writes:

So what's the problem? It appears to be the fact that there is a new "Office of Community Engagement", headed, as we know, by Ms. Anne Marie Lipinski. The Herald feels that, despite its name, the Office is not Engaging. Or, to be more precise, it is not giving the Herald the information it wants. So here's my question: given the way the Herald writes its editorials, why should it? What or who does the Herald represent, exactly? The "community"? That seems doubtful. So why should anyone cooperate with them?

Because the Herald's site is finnicky, I've typed up the editorial (titled "Searching for U. of C. cooperation") below:

We are a little piqued. Actually, we should really say we are very, very piqued.

You see, last week, we went to see the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, its new title for those in contact with the broader neighborhood and city, and its relatively new director, Ann Marie Lipinski.

We were (and are) concerned about the lack of interaction between the university and the community, particularly since the university has taken on the role of remaking many parts of the neighborhood.

We understand the “town and gown” difficulties and we know it is not easy to be the 800-pound gorilla, but there is an old history of cooperation and perhaps, we thought, it could be established again. The 800-pound gorilla does not have to break pottery every time it moves. The bad will created by lack of communication to the community with such things as the Doctors Hospital fiasco or the buying of land west of Washington Park does not have to keep repeating itself. And it could be a real disaster if there is not general agreement on the development of the Harper Court/city-owned parking lot/53rd Street site.

So we asked to come and talk. And we did, for more than an hour, about the 61st Street garden and the plans for the Harper Court and 53rd Street area and other subjects. And we talked about the need for open communication between the university and the community.

Regarding Harper Court, we wanted to know what the timetable might be. When would things start happening, we asked. Lipinski said there was a timetable but would not divulge what it was despite out asking the question five different ways. “They are equal partners with the city” was the stock answer. However, we left the meeting with a vague sense of hopefulness.

That hopefulness lasted less than 24 hours. The following day we were stopped in our tracks by a giant tractor tearing the heart out of the Dixie Kitchen space in the southeast building at Harper Court. The demolition of the Court was underway and no word to us and no word to the general community was given.

The director of the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement knows exactly how we now feel. She herself is a journalist. She spent many years directing the efforts of the Chicago Tribune to bring the news to its readers. She spent many years dealing with news sources that did exactly to her what she did to us. We bet she even knows the names we are calling her.

But the pique of the Herald Staff is not the issue. We will get over it.

What matters is the university’s apparent lack of interest in any meaningful, open communication.

What is most remarkable about the Harper Court circumstance is that in its original creation, it was the best example of open communication and cooperation between the university and the community.

The original leader of the Harper Court Foundation was Muriel Beadle, the wife of the president of the university. The university led the campaign to create it. The Harper Court committee, under Mrs. Beadle’s direction, carried on an extensive discussion with the community on what needed to be added to the neighborhood and what kind of business and services needed to be saved from the Urban Renewal wrecking ball. Harper court [sic] needed $120,000 in capital to get started. The university put up $20,000 on the condition the community would raise the rest. More than 500 Hyde Parkers contributed a minimum of $100 each to make it all happen, and the $100,000 was raised. And so Harper Court opened filled with businesses, services and artisans the community collectively wanted.

And so in the midst of Hyde Park struggling to find its way through the complex problems of remaking itself through the Urban Renewal program came this strange little collection of buildings which said, “We are all in this together.”

That was once the university’s position. Might it ever be that again?

The Herald's bit at the end about Harper Court being some kind of erstwhile utopian experience for the University and its neighbors is laughable, not to mention that the depiction of the shopping center as an area teeming with vendors and artisans completely ignores the increasingly desolate reality of empty storefronts that led up to the University's purchase of the site last year. "That [the sentiment of "We are all in this together"] was once the university’s position. Might it ever be that again?" Obviously, it still is - Harper Court is community development, and the positive repercussions of a reinvigorated (or, you know, existent) 53rd Street retail center will go far beyond the U of C's students, faculty, and staff.

As to the Herald's claim that "[w]hat matters is the university’s apparent lack of interest in any meaningful, open communication" - "meaningful" is the key word here. Handing a calendar to a small group of steadfastly vitriolic, ignorant, and closed-minded neighbors with access to a printing press (but apparently not copy editors) would not be meaningful. The University is seeking to improve neighborhood relations and Lipinski is indeed in charge of connecting the school with the greater community and vice versa, but (correctly) assuming that the Herald's radical editorials seldom speak for the neighborhood is hardly cause for concern. ("Editorials," of course, also means "news stories" in Herald land: the A1 headline of the same issue is the very neutral "U. of C. abruptly begins demo of Harper Ct.", and the paper is notorious for running opinion pieces, with or without bylines, on its front page.)

As Chicago Pop points out, all Lipinski's supposed snub did was avoid "giving our local paper everything it needed to run another loopy editorial summoning all old Harper Court die-hards to come chain themselves to fences, lamp posts, and railings in order to block demolition."