January 10, 2013

Off-center for the arts

The new year is, for many, a time of improvement. For the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP), 2013 will be a year for starting completely anew. On January 1, SHoP—a community arts venue in Hyde Park—moved out of Fenn House, located near the northwest corner of 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, its home since September 2011. The First Unitarian Church, which owns Fenn House and is based in the adjacent building, leased the property to SHoP for a below market rate. Now, however, the church plans to sell the 6,000–square foot building as a residential home; listed at $1.195 million, its sale is currently pending, according to a December 27 Hyde Park Herald article. Fenn House has a long tradition of serving as a space for community enrichment, and in light of its pending sale, the University has a responsibility as a steward of the community to ensure that independent endeavors like those it housed still have the opportunity to thrive in Hyde Park.

First Unitarian purchased Fenn House in 1952 with the aim of expanding its own educational facilities. After a spell playing host to classes for what was then the Graduate School of Business, Fenn House began its decades-long history as a center of community-oriented pedagogy. Blue Gargoyle—a nonprofit program that provided residents of the South Side with tutoring, literacy training, counseling, GED prep, and child care—operated out of Fenn House until its closure in 2009 due to financial difficulties. The program brought together community members of all ages, educators, and student volunteers, all under Fenn House’s roof. Speaking to the Maroon in 2009, a former Blue Gargoyle staff member called the organization’s closure “a devastating loss to a lot of people and the community.”

Unfortunately, now that SHoP is out in the cold, Fenn will be the site of another such loss. SHoP acted as a bona fide center for artistic expression and education, but, as with Blue Gargoyle, its success as an institution lay in its ability to draw in the whole of Hyde Park, not just UChicago students. Its status as a fully independent and self-defined organization broadened its potential offerings; in a single week it could host a slam poetry reading, intimate talks, arts and crafts activities, and a weekend flea market that would draw not only large crowds but also diverse ones.

As with Blue Gargoyle’s closure, the decision to end SHoP’s lease was financially motivated, with a First Unitarian representative claiming that the church could no longer reasonably afford to subsidize SHoP’s tenancy. While the project appears to have the financial backing of Ken Schug, a member of First Unitarian Church who offered this summer to buy Fenn House on behalf of SHoP, it is discouraging to see that the University seemingly has no interest in the matter. UChicago is undoubtedly a stalwart, especially in the financial sense, of Hyde Park and of the South Side in general. Yet, in spite of both that reality and the oft-stated claim that it is proud to be a part of the city of Chicago—and its recent push to have its students share that pride, in thought and in action—the University has made no public effort to ensure that SHoP will have a place in Hyde Park, where the project has already accomplished great things as a cultural center and where its true potential remains even greater.

With the Logan Center now a vibrant part of campus life, the University has laudably expressed a heightened level of commitment to the arts and cultural exchange. However, by failing to perpetuate Fenn House’s role as a thriving center for the Hyde Park community, and by not offering any assistance as SHoP searched for a new home, the University missed opportunities to cultivate local and independent arts and service initiatives. Such efforts are capable of an impact similar to that of the Logan Center, but with the added important benefit of coming directly from the community. And if the University does not demonstrate a willingness to support such endeavors, all its rhetoric about a sense of belonging to the city of Chicago may, like Fenn House, be empty.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.