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).
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
The future president with his barber, Zariff
From another high-rise window—at the aptly named Vista Homes on 58th Street and Stony Island Avenue—Leon Despres gazes out at Jackson Park and across Lake Michigan. Even at 101, Despres has an impressive recall of distant memories, summoning up names and dates on this early spring day. (On May 6th, as Chicago went to press, Leon Despres died in his Hyde Park home.) A lawyer educated at the U. of C., Despres was elected to the city council as an independent representing Hyde Park’s 5th Ward in 1955—the same year Richard J. Daley was elected mayor. “Yes, we came in together,” acknowledges Despres, whose 20-year career on the city council was marked by his fights with the mayor. Daley’s response was to cut off the alderman’s microphone as he addressed the council. “I had to get it out in sound bites,” Despres recalls.
“So he’d be yelling without the microphone and Daley would order the sergeant at arms to escort Leon Despres out of City Hall,” recalls Stephen Lyons, a writer and an assistant to the chancellor for communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That’s Hyde Park. You turn off the microphone, but they’re still going to keep talking, making their point until you haul them out of there.”
In retrospect, the confrontations between Daley and Despres were likely unavoidable, given the alderman’s penchant for reform. In that, he was in tune with the neighborhood’s long-standing reputation for progressive political change, which can be traced to Charles Merriam, a U. of C. professor of political science who served as an alderman in the early 20th century. That independent reform movement was carried on by the likes of the U.S. senator Paul Douglas, a U. of C. economics professor; Charles Merriam’s son, Robert, who served as an alderman and U.S. congressman; and the federal judge (and former U.S. congressman) Abner Mikva, a U. of C. law grad. Their efforts were bolstered by a strong chapter of the Independent Voters of Illinois/ Independent Precinct Organization. “It did help that they were able to elect people to public office who could provide some resources to the social movements that occurred with Hyde Park backing,” observes Dick Simpson, who represented the North Side’s 44th Ward as a reform alderman from 1971 to 1979. (Today Simpson heads up the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.)
Recalling Despres’s tenure in the city council, Simpson is critical of the early black aldermen, who he thinks had been co-opted by the Richard J. Daley Machine. “They wouldn’t even speak up on integration issues or oppose discrimination,” he recalls. Fortunately, the African American community had a strong advocate in Despres, who was white. “He was seen in some periods as the only black alderman in the council,” Simpson says.
As for Despres, racial equality stood near the top of his political agenda. “The main obstacle to improvement of the city was the practice of racial discrimination and segregation,” he says. The Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood would serve as a laboratory where, for better and worse, residents would try to resolve some of those problems.
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"People here are pretty regular,” notes Zariff, breaking out the clippers for a newcomer to his barber chair at the stylishly cool Hyde Park Hair Salon. By “regular” he means people who are unpretentious, grounded, and comfortable with themselves. People more interested in making a difference than in gauging the differences between people. They include Carol Moseley Braun, the former U.S. senator and ambassador to New Zealand who used to take her son in for haircuts and simply sit around and wait—just like everybody else. And, most famously, they once included Barack Obama. “You ask him how he is, and he wants to turn it back to you,” says Zariff. “He wants to know how you are. He always wants to know what people are thinking. What they’re talking about.”
Zariff has been cutting Obama’s hair in his shop for about 15 years—that is, until the curiosity seekers got a bit unmanageable. So, on election day, before the victory speech, Zariff cut Obama’s hair at an “undisclosed location,” he says with the discretion of a Washington insider. After he was done, Zariff stuck around Grant Park for a respectful moment. Then he returned to Hyde Park for an election night party at the barbershop, to be with the regulars in a place where the original Obama chair now sits off to the side, surrounded by a bulletproof glass partition—a shrine dedicated to one of the regulars who made good.
Inauguration day in Washington, D.C., was a different matter. “I was right there when he raised his hand,” notes Zariff. “I got choked up and had to say, ‘Wait a minute, get it together. This is just Barack.’ But it wasn’t just Barack.”
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These days, during quieter moments, when there are no victory parties or autograph seekers, when even the regulars give him a break, Zariff likes to gaze through the shop’s glass doors. There is a great deal to reflect on in the beautiful stained glass windows of the church across the street. That would be the United Church of Hyde Park, the church that grew out of the union of the First Presbyterian Church of Hyde Park (the first church formed in the neighborhood, in 1860), the Hyde Park Methodist Church, and the Hyde Park Congregational Church. Paul Cornell, Hyde Park’s founder, was a charter member of both the Presbyterian and the Methodist churches. It should be no surprise that unity is a recurring theme at the neighborhood’s houses of worship.
That’s evident at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, a synagogue on South Hyde Park Boulevard, where worshipers on this Sunday morning are praising Jesus Christ. Pastor Kelvin Easter leads his flock in prayer set against the uplifting strains of the eight-person choir singing reggae and Afro-pop-infused gospel music in the synagogue’s social hall. The willingness of the Rodfei Zedek administration and board to provide its public space in support of an emerging Christian congregation—the Destined to Win Christian Center—was quite significant. “They opened their heart to us and welcomed us with open arms,” says Easter, who wants to find a permanent home for his church in Hyde Park because of the community’s “multiethnic diversity.”
That embrace of diversity has been evident in churches and synagogues across Hyde Park–Kenwood for decades. In April 1956, at the height of the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the U. of C.’s Rockefeller Chapel. He had been invited there by members of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, just a block away on Woodlawn Avenue, where today banners celebrate Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The church invited Dr. King back in 1966, to meet with gang leaders, and its children’s choir helped harmonize disparate voices. “I think it sort of embodied the Hyde Park ideals,” recalls Audrey Petty, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was a member of the choir in the 1970s. “That was more important to me and more central to my life than school ever was.” That ability of the spiritual community to form interracial bonds would help transform Hyde Park–Kenwood in ways that would affect the entire neighborhood.
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Jose More
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.
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.”
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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.
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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.”
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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