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The President’s Neighborhood

Chicago’s Hyde Park has hosted a world’s fair, nurtured a great university, pioneered urban renewal, and served as both home and crucible for Barack Obama.

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Hyde Park—Past, Present, and Future. Click to view full map (pdf file)


It’s not easy these days to pay a visit to James and Pauline Montgomery. You can’t even turn onto the 5000 block of South Greenwood where they live, or park any closer than a block away. Concrete barricades are set up at both ends of the street, and police and Secret Service sentries man the checkpoints. “It’s inconvenient,” James Montgomery says. “I don’t like it.”

Seated in the living room of his grand home—the mansion built in 1892 by the lumber baron William Goodman, who later would endow the Goodman Theatre in memory of his son—Montgomery admits that he sees the necessity for the security. After all, this is the street where his friend President Obama lives, just two doors down. Montgomery tends to drive by and wave at the cop on duty at the checkpoint. “But I look in the rearview mirror,” he says, laughing.


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Hyde Park, in black and white

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Your guide to the President’s neighborhood

That is because, before he became Chicago’s first African American corporation counsel, serving in the Harold Washington administration, Montgomery worked for years as a trial attorney on such cases as the successful civil suit against the Chicago Police Department in the 1969 deaths of the Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. So he knows all the things that can go terribly wrong in police encounters. He also has a long memory, an awareness that this inclusive community did not spring up fully formed. There were no concrete barricades and police and Secret Service agents in the early days. There didn’t have to be. There simply were places a black person did not go—and Hyde Park–Kenwood was once such a place.

According to a 1922 report entitled “The Negro in Chicago” authored by the Commission on Racial Relations, property owners in the community once had an express policy to “keep out undesirables,” who were defined as “Negroes.” Early on, there was violence—even some cases of firebombing of homes. After 1927, residents adopted restrictive covenants, prohibiting the sale of homes to African Americans. Even as there were University of Chicago law professors trying to abolish those covenants, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the university’s progressive president, supported their use, thinking them essential to maintaining a stable campus community.

Eventually, the covenants were neutralized as a result of two Supreme Court decisions: Hansberry v. Lee, argued in 1940 by Earl Dickerson, who in 1920 had become the first black U. of C. law grad, and Shelley v. Kraemer, argued in 1948 by the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Shortly thereafter, sparked by the leadership of the Rev. Leslie Pennington of the First Unitarian Church and Rabbi Jacob Weinstein of KAM Isaiah Israel, the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference was formed in 1949. “Hyde Park said out loud, ‘We want to be an interracial community,’” recalls Bruce Sagan, who began covering the issue after taking over as publisher of the Hyde Park Herald in 1953.

The conference formed block clubs to mount a massive public information campaign among residents and began its own policing efforts to monitor housing violations—especially the illegal conversions among unscrupulous landlords who tried to wring more profits out of apartment units by squeezing more poor people into them. “And the wonderful thing was that it was middle- and upper-middle-class blacks and whites who were there saying, No, we’re not going to let this happen here,” Sagan notes. “That was a big change in America.”

Community leaders also worked to overcome the bank redlining of the community by urging the formation of a savings and loan to approve home mortgages. “People here were actively engaged in the process of integration,” notes Carol Moseley Braun, another graduate of the U. of C. law school. “Sometimes they got it wrong, but most of the time they got it right.”

As for the university, it adopted an aggressive strategy, one that would put it in conflict with a significant sector of the Hyde Park–Kenwood community. In 1952, under the leadership of a new chancellor, Lawrence Kimpton, and benefiting from its powerful connections at all levels of government, the university moved quickly and decisively. It formed the South East Chicago Commission, under the direction of Julian Levi, a Hyde Park native and U. of C. law grad who would later head the city’s planning commission. The commission’s efforts at urban renewal—which some critics dubbed “Negro removal”—centered on land clearance, often without prior consultation with the local community. It also worked at renewing existing housing through a three-part process engaging the university, the city, and the developers. The plans, according to Sagan, called for clearing and rebuilding 193 acres—41 of them went to the university—and eventually displaced some 30,000 people.

Judge Mikva and others have characterized Levi’s tactics as ruthless, but even Mikva acknowledges that Levi was trying to save the University of Chicago. “If he could have saved it all black, he would have saved it all black,” says Mikva. “If he could have saved it all white, he would have saved it all white. If he could have saved it integrated, he’d save it integrated.”

Today, the combined population of Hyde Park–Kenwood is 44,200, based on 2003 estimates; people of color—African American, Asian, and Latino—make up roughly half that number. That doesn’t mean racism has been completely eradicated, as is evident from the community’s undervalued housing stock. “Quite frankly, Hyde Parkers have benefited from the economics of racism,” says James Grossman, who posits that houses are cheaper there because people don’t want to live on the South Side.

This is based, in part, on a misperception that the community is a high-crime area. According to the Chicago Police Department annual report for 2007, Hyde Park–Kenwood had fewer than half the number of crimes reported in Lincoln Park and Lake View. “I could have lived anywhere, and I do care about my precious children,” asserts Diane Silverman, the president of Urban Search, a real-estate brokerage firm. “Hyde Park is a safe community.”

* * *

It’s 5:30 p.m. at the Ray Elementary School, where visitors are greeted by a sign on the door reading “Children First.” The afterschool programs ended 30 minutes ago, but the kids are still running through the halls. Actually, they have the run of the building, many wearing stick-on tattoos and body jewels, playing ring toss and loop darts and basketball shoot with a diverse group of friends and parents.

Bernadette Butler, the school’s principal, is selling caramel corn and Affy Tapples, answering questions, pointing pupils to attractions, and considering requests from parents who want to get their kids registered in the highly regarded school—even though they don’t live in the district. Welcome to “Festival Night,” the carnival-themed fundraiser that has been a mainstay of this school for years.

The event provides an opportunity for the community to come together in support of an elementary school with a significant reputation. Even in a community where private schools such as Montessori, Akiba Schechter, and the University of Chicago Lab School have greater resources and smaller class size, new families still seek out Ray School, which is often included on local real-estate listings as a neighborhood enhancement.

Ray, says Butler, is a school where children learn early about the value of difference (it helps that the students’ parents speak 30 different languages). Butler recalls the essay about the presidential election read by a biracial student over the school public-address system. The student wrote that, because of Obama’s great success as a biracial person, she had come to understand the meaning of her own identity. “She had everybody in tears,” says Butler, recognizing the uniquely teachable moments that occur every day in a place like Ray School.

* * *

As always, there are new issues engaging the Hyde Park–Kenwood community—not the least of which is the ongoing expansion of the University of Chicago. The Woodlawn neighborhood to the south has been showing increasing signs of a university presence for some time. Recently, though, the school’s acquisition of property west of Washington Park caused a public outcry. Remembering the urban renewal experience in Hyde Park, residents of the Washington Park neighborhood worried aloud that the university was moving forward with a similar plan for land clearance and removal of residents in anticipation of a joint city-university development. The city’s campaign to host the 2016 Olympics fuels that concern. “It really is a very powerful issue right now,” says Salim Muwakkil, a Hyde Park resident and the senior editor of In These Times. “It ties into this longstanding suspicion of the motives of the University of Chicago—the gentrification motives—that a lot of people have long suspected the university of harboring.”

On another front, there is the decade-long debate about shoring up the 1930s-era limestone seawall at Promontory Point, the manmade peninsula extending into Lake Michigan east of 55th Street. Many residents have opposed plans to replace the old wall with what they consider an ugly stone and concrete revetment. “The issue is not whether we should fix it or not,” says Barbara Flynn Currie, the Illinois House majority leader, who represents the Hyde Park community in the state legislature, “but whether we fix it in a way that is respectful of and responsive to the kind of place this was when it was first designed. So this has become sort of a community rallying point.”

* * *

It is the end of the day now and Leon Despres is ready for dinner. Maybe a person has to have passed the century mark—and enjoyed a good afternoon nap—to be able to calmly confront these different issues.

But on this particular evening, looking out from his condo window, Despres prefers to ponder future challenges. Even after a lifetime of advocacy in Hyde Park, being part of the conversation continues to be a driving force in his life. Tonight he considers aloud the possibility of a Barack H. Obama Presidential Library at the University of Chicago. “He represents the ideals of Hyde Park,” says Despres, who thinks he just might start to lobby for the library.

Additional research by Kyle Betts and Ben Strauss

Illustration by Clare Mallison


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