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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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An aerial view of Hyde Park in the 1950s


It’s half past brunch at the Medici on 57th Street. The place is thick with conversation. And graffiti. Words provide sustenance around here. “Hyde Park is a nourishing space for discourse—on a variety of levels,” notes James Grossman, the vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library who served as a coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago (2004).


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Hyde Park, in black and white

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Your guide to the President’s neighborhood

The burgers and “garbage” pizza get a lot of well-deserved attention in this space, where the University of Chicago campus and the rest of the Hyde Park–Kenwood community get blended like the Med’s milk shakes, and where the talk can float between pop culture and the Bulls and politics and, of course, poststructural literary criticism. It’s a place where the waiters—often brainy U. of C. students who have been heard to work their way into the table talk—wear “Medici on 57th Street” T-shirts that boast Obama eats here. “Hyde Park is a very small town,” Grossman says. “You engage because these people are your neighbors.”

People from outside the community don’t always seem to get it. “Berkeley with snow” is how the conservative Weekly Standard distilled Hyde Park. Considering the source, that was hardly a compliment. “And it’s not true,” says Grossman. “On any level.” He should know. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Berkeley, and has taught history at the U. of C.

This is not a place of extremes, not all black and white. Gray matters in the nuanced, multilayered discussions that connect people in Hyde Park. “They value the content,” says Grossman. This is an inclusive place of ideas. “And the inclusive thing,” Grossman insists, “is to create an environment where all ideas are acceptable to voice. And I think this is a place that is closer to that than many other places in the United States.”

If Barack Obama is, indeed, the face of the richly diverse Hyde Park, it is not just because of his blended race. It is also because of his blended ideas.

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A lot of elements have come together in this place where Enrico Fermi produced the first sustained nuclear chain reaction and the residents produced Chicago’s first sustained desegregated community. There is, most notably, a world-class, Nobel-generating-machine-of-a university. But there are also historically activist synagogues and churches; a socially and politically engaged group of residents who are curious about the way things are and the way they might be; and people who have the vision to reimagine a world—and the wherewithal and the ability to make that world a reality. Still, the assessment and reassessment continue. That is why, as a community, Hyde Park is both an impressive achievement and a work in progress. The process in getting to this point—building and rebuilding the community—hasn’t always been pretty. But, true to form, it has always been the subject of debate.

Even the boundaries of this “village within the city” can create some discussion. Put two Hyde Parkers together and you just might get three different views. Although Hyde Park and Kenwood actually started out as two separate neighboring suburbs of Chicago, in contemporary consciousness they are collapsed into simply Hyde Park, or Hyde Park–Kenwood. A 1978 map published in Jean F. Block’s Hyde Park Houses shows the combined neighborhood extending from 47th Street on the north to 61st Street on the south and from Cottage Grove on the west to Lake Michigan on the east. The Chicago Police Department’s 2007 annual report draws the northernmost boundary for Kenwood at 43rd Street, but includes what many people in the Hyde Park–Kenwood area refer to as “North Kenwood” (north of 47th Street), which does not have the same historical connections to the Hyde Park–Kenwood area. There is at least agreement that 51st Street is the line between Hyde Park and Kenwood.

Wherever you draw the lines, you can see it all clearly from the tower building of Cornell Village, a condominium and townhouse complex that takes its name from its address on Cornell Avenue—a street that takes its name from the founder of Hyde Park, Paul Cornell, a 19th-century lawyer-cum-developer. As you take in the panoramic views of what has become Hyde Park, there are glimpses of Cornell’s vision for the 300 acres of land he purchased in 1853—a vision of a quiet little suburban resort and residential town seven miles south of Chicago. With an obvious eye to promotion, he named it Hyde Park after the elite Royal Park of London, which—coincidentally—later would become known for its “Speakers’ Corner.”

Gazing out from the 24th-floor condo of Bernadette and Richard Butler, to the east, just off the lake, is the Hampton House, where Mayor Harold Washington lived. That was the site of Cornell’s Hyde Park House, a hotel for well-heeled guests, like Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there after President Lincoln was assassinated. To the west you can gaze down at Harper Court, and the Southern-themed Dixie Kitchen and the Caribbean-spiced Calypso, two restaurants owned by Carol Andressen. “Both restaurants have been very successful and profitable because they draw blacks and whites together in a community where they feel comfortable together,” says Richard Butler, who has invested in both places.

Then there are the train tracks that run all the way off the edge of the distant horizon to the south, connecting Chicago to Memphis and Jackson and New Orleans. Amtrak passenger trains and freight trains run on these tracks, as do the electric commuter trains of Metra. This once was the Illinois Central line, which began to run through Hyde Park in 1856 after Paul Cornell struck a land-grant deal with the railroad to connect the community with Chicago. Later the trains were electrified to cut down on pollution; commuter traffic had grown to more than 200 trains a day after Chicago annexed Hyde Park in 1889—four years before the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park created yet another building boom.

Both Illinois Central connections—from the Deep South and to downtown Chicago—transformed Hyde Park–Kenwood. Cornell thought the trains would provide convenient transportation for rich city residents headed for their stately weekend homes and luxurious residential hotels, as well as for middle- and working-class people with jobs in the Loop. But the Illinois Central also provided a convenient escape from the brutality of Southern racism for thousands of African Americans who would settle in Chicago’s so-called Black Belt to the north and west of Hyde Park–Kenwood.

Finally, looking south from the Butlers’ condo, you can see the University of Chicago, founded in 1891 on land donated by Marshall Field and with money donated by John D. Rockefeller. It would be the U. of C. that would lay the foundation for a new brand of independent, reform-minded politics for which Hyde Park would become known.

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Photograph: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center


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