The Electric Commentary

Monday, June 13, 2005

Goodbye Hyde Park

Hyde Park is nestled into a lakeside corner on Chicago's south side. Actually, "nestled" probably isn't the right word. Those Texans were not exactly "nestled" into the Alamo. Hyde Park is stuck there, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces.

It is truly unfortunate that the University of Chicago happens to be located in Hyde Park, although the presence of the university does at least keep the area tolerable. Without the University it would likely degenerate into yet another crime ridden ghetto. Fortunately for me this is now someone else's problem. My wife and I are settling in to our new Wrigleyville apartment, and simply being able to walk to a grocery store at night (and actually buy fresh produce and Diet Coke, which can not be consistently accomplished at the single Hyde Park grocery store) without fear of being shot is quite liberating.

That said, Hyde Park was not all bad.

Campus is beautiful, and it has a ton of bookstores. Hyde Park: Where you can get anything you want, as long as its a book.

However, it lacked bars (It had five, none of which were terribly impressive), a movie theater (except the University's DOC films), good public transportation, and an adequate grocery store. Hyde Park: Where fun comes to die.

Crime is rampant, but alternatively, parking is ample. While I was packing boxes on Saturday I saw two youths get arrested on the street below. I'm not sure what they were arrested for, but it looked serious. Three patrol cars stormed onto the scene simultaneously to make the arrest. Recently two people were shot within 100 yards of our old apartment. At least one victim was killed after being shot in broad daylight.

My old neighborhood has been in steady decline for the two years that I lived there. Crime has increased noticeably. My apartment complex, which was 6/7 full, is now mostly vacant. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 high school students were recently arrested for beating up white males unfortunate enough to be walking alone. This was at least partially racially motivated. A new CVS drug store opened up and within a day someone was shot and killed directly outside.

What is truly sad is that most of Hyde Park's problems are self inflicted. Zoning is just terrible. There is some ordinance (maybe city wide, I don't know) that forbids the operation of a tavern within 100 yards of a church. One of the few decent bars, Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, was forced to shut down for an extended period and fight for a variance when Jimmy died due to the presence of a church across the street. Even the ministers were in favor of letting Jimmy's continue to operate, as the ministers were Jimmy's regulars. A while back U of C professor Jacob Levy wrote the following (and you should really just click over and read the whole thing, which is terribly interesting):

Chicago is, generally, zoned so as to make commercial development extremely difficult-- and institutionally arranged so that an individual Alderman (one's local city councillor) exercises tremendous discretionary power over zoning waivers. Vulgar public choice theory is overrated by many libertarians; but the rent-seeking dynamic doesn't get much more vulgar than the Chicago zoning code. The system is not designed to allow commercial (or residential) supply to spring up to meet demand. It's designed to allow elected and unelected officials to control their neighborhoods, for political or economic gain. There's clearly market demand for more commerce in Hyde Park-- and for commerce closer to campus than 53rd Street or Lake Park Avenue. But commerce can't get in the door. The landmark off-campus bar, Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, was closed for a year and a half when Jimmy died and left the place to his bartender, because it was now under new ownership and had to re-apply for lots of licenses to continue doing what it had always done in exactly the same space. Bar Louie was delayed for who knows how long. Borders had to struggle for a good long while to get permission to open.

As I understand things, the rest of the story has to do with the way the U of C is laid out, with the university's history of entanglement with Daley-Sr.-era urban renewal and urban planning, and with contemporary neighborhood politics. The layout is a real but minor problem. For as small a student body as we have, the dorms are spread all over the place, some farther away than one wants to walk at night or in the winter. That diffuses the student demand that ordinarily gets concentrated in a few blocks surrounding campus. We also have a very small undergraduate population for a research university, especially an urban research university. (Columbia's is huge by comparison, and of course NYU's is huge by any measure.) And undergraduates tend to have access to more discretionary income than do the doctoral students who make up such a large share of Chicago's student body. So demand is weakened that much further.

Much, much more important is the University/city alliance on urban planning some decades ago-- an alliance that, like everything else to do with Daley-era zoning and urban planning, was about race. Hyde Park was once one of the nation's great centers of jazz and blues. But that was a long, long time ago. The University and the city shut the clubs down; they attracted the wrong element into the neighborhood, donchaknow. Not coincidentally, the clubs were on 55th Street. Jane Jacobs could have predicted the result all too easily. The neighborhood's economic ecology has never really recovered from the decision to shut 55th Street down as a commercial district; and, as big stretches of the neighborhood became unpopulated at night, safety declined, further frightening away other businesses.

Megan McArdle has more, here.

It is a strange place where the rich and the brilliant walk next to (or cross the street to get away from) scary guys with shopping carts (by the way, after those kids were arrested outside my apartment on Saturday my wife and a friend heard a bum outside rooting through the dumpsters in the alley while talking on his cell phone. He said the following:

Yeah, I found some wire racks and a stroller. Not bad. Last year when the kids moved out I found a lap top! I also dug up an enema. No wait, that's not the right word...

What I want to know is who he was talking to. Is there a network of bums operating?).

On any given day I'll pass by Louis Farrakhan's house (which is always diligently guarded by the NOI security detail) and Operation Push national headquarters. I'll see Richard Posner or Steve Levitt, or Dan Drezner walking around. I've seen Barrack Obama at the grocery store. But for every Nobel Prize winner there is some thug walking around keying cars, breaking windows, and participating in drive-by shootings.

And in the grand scheme of things it's just not worth it.

So good riddance Hyde Park. I hope that some day they fix you up because that University is a beautiful place, and it deserves better.

I think that I'll walk to one of the many grocery stores in my new neighborhood tonight, just because I can. And it makes me happy.


  • I gave a talk at U of C a few months back. I recall that the organizers kept telling me to take a cab from Union Station, and I said, no, no, I know the El, I'll just take it to the end of the Green Line, walk from the station, and save y'all the price of the cab fare.

    I'm kind of glad that I did, though that's not the that way I went back to Union Station that night.

    Have fun in Wrigleyville; I love the neighborhood.

    By Blogger PRB, at 1:13 PM  

  • Hyde Park: Fun's not the only thing that dies around here!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:38 PM  

  • I'm an undergrad at U of C, and you just said a lot of what I've been saying since I moved to this place. The University is great, but Hyde Park is pretty awful. Surprisingly enough, whenever an undergrad says something negative about HP, there's a whole lot of backlash about how the University is elitist and takes over the community, and HP has a lot of value and it's a great place. The people who say this are obviously just telling themselves lies so that they can convince themselves they like Hyde Park until they graduate and get the hell out. Whatever works for them, I guess.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:46 PM  

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