The Neighborhood: How do we imagine our relationship to the Community?

It’s always unfortunate when neighbors can’t get along.

“Why is the North Side so awesome while Hyde Park sucks so much?” Alec Brandon queries in the April 17 issue of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago. “Well, the obvious difference between the two is their commercial offerings. The North Side has some and Hyde Park doesn’t … But the people of Hyde Park seem completely oblivious, focusing their attention and outrage on utterly irrelevant (and counterproductive) issues.” Brandon’s seething philippic typifies a new trend among opinion pieces in the Chicago Maroon, which has lately taken to evaluating the South Side’s social ills with affected distance and unfounded pretensions. In another April issue, the editors of the Maroon extol the value of a Chicago Olympics: “In addition [to a proposed stadium in Washington Park and new ‘mixed income’ housing resulting from the Athletes’ Village], the large-scale construction projects and influx of an estimated six million tourists would galvanize slumbering sectors of the South Side economy, creating new businesses and hundreds of jobs.” The editorial is titled, somewhat disparagingly, “Olympics or not, don’t give up on Hyde Park.”

Reading the opinions expressed in the Maroon, you wonder if Hyde Park is a problem child among Chicago neighborhoods, a prodigal youth yet to understand the damage it’s done to itself–a lost cause. While the opinion section of the Maroon is by no means a comprehensive representation of student opinion at the University of Chicago, it is arguably the most prominent on campus. Never mind that most of the claims forwarded in these articles are baseless: while these select pieces bespeak the self-indulgence of writers so aloof as to be pernicious, they also offer accessible–and alarming–examples of students’ opinions toward their surrounding community. The neighborhood comes across as physically close but spiritually distant, backward and in desperate need of economic counsel, best understood as a needy victim of history and circumstance. It’s an image that calls into question the way students envision their neighbors.

In most opinion pieces dealing with the neighborhood, that relationship is framed in economic terms. The place for the University of Chicago and its students, as uncomfortable denizens of the South Side, is at the furthest distance possible from the neighborhoods surrounding them. When offering an opinion on the U-Pass, a form of CTA fare which offers University students unlimited access to public transit for an average once-yearly payment of $200 paid by all students, a Maroon editorial opposed the move for the card’s adoption. “The idea of connecting the UofC campus with the rest of the city is praiseworthy, and the Maroon certainly encourages students to escape the Hyde Park bubble,” the editors write. “But the burden of subsidizing [certain students’] CTA ride should not fall on the shoulders of those who don’t frequently travel off-campus.” Apparently the Maroon likes to admire “getting out” in principle, while withholding the catalyst that would make students actually do it.

Other opinions would seem to suggest that the best course of action for the University of Chicago and its students is to treat their neighbors like bastard stepchildren, raising them with a mix of indifference and occasional benevolence. Brandon writes, referring to the University of Chicago’s role in Hyde Park, “I mean, the University is essentially a Daddy Warbucks that has shown it is willing to lose money in order to improve the offerings of Hyde Park. How can that be a bad thing?”

To answer the question, a short history lesson would demonstrate that the University’s current costs in community development are a small penance to pay for its past trespasses, and that there is reason to be cautious whenever the University interfaces with the neighborhood it calls home. Most of the money Brandon finds wasted is spent undoing the damage the University of Chicago wrought on Hyde Park in the 1950s and ‘60s, when it closed multiple commercial outlets and nightclubs, the absence of which Brandon laments.

Not that the area is as devastated as we might be led to believe. According to Chicago Magazine’s numbers from 2006, the median household income in Hyde Park–$35,991–very nearly matches that for the entire city: $38,625. (This is especially significant considering the fact that many of the neighborhood’s neighborhood residents are dependent students.) Average property value for a house in the neighborhood ranks fifth in the city behind that of Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Streeterville/Gold Coast, and the Near South Side. Other neighborhoods on the South Side are slowly catching up: Bridgeport is building lofts out of old factory buildings, the old Stateway Homes near the Illinois Institute of Technology are being cleared to make way for brand new apartments, and the Ida B. Wells Homes, long a Bronzeville eyesore, are being converted into condominiums where the money being paid to live in them is higher than the asking price.

It cannot be ignored that the South Side is also home to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But it would be foolish and short-sighted to believe, like the Maroon does, that the Olympics will do anything to help those neighborhoods. Aside from a few infrastructural improvements and short-term employment, the Olympics have historically failed to provide any kind of sustainable economic growth in any city, let alone turn a profit. The Los Angeles games in 1984 were the first Olympics ever to make money, as Atlanta and Sydney have in recent years, but there is no definitive data that the “Olympic economy” lasted longer than the few years building up to and hosting the games. As Robert Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College, told Crain’s Chicago Business, “While we see a spike in economic activity at the time the event is held … things return pretty much to normal once the circus leaves town.”

All of this is to show that the relationship between the University of Chicago and the teeming community where it resides cannot be articulated in economic terms. Whenever it is, the University risks developing, like contributors to the Maroon do, a high-handed attitude girded with a smugness that often accompanies the halfhearted charity of noblesse oblige. Rather, the democratic community that the University needs to develop and maintain with the South Side is best mediated by a cultural form more flexible than statistics, that allows for communication and understanding first, and social action second: the arts Patric McCoy, art collector and UofC alumnus, is fond of saying, “In a room with art, people might not be talking about the art, but it creates an environment for conversation, because conversation is taking place on the wall.” The relationship between the University of Chicago and the South Side take form in the arts.

“In a successful democracy, social diversity translates into an expanded knowledge base compiled from the banks of the entire citizenry,” the UofC Dean of the Humanities Division Danielle Allen wrote upon the inauguration of the Civic Knowledge Project, a new initiative based in the Humanities Division to improve University-neighborhood relations. “A central goal of the Civic Knowledge Project is to lead the University in generating modes … of cultural circulation and mutual influence that [are] crucial to … successful democratic practice.” The Civic Knowledge Project’s most visible network, the South Side Arts and Humanities Network, has already started tapping those repositories. The SSAHN provides resources–networking opportunities, professional workshops, and other help–to arts non-profits on this side of town. In turn, the University of Chicago benefits from the cultural knowledge each organization provides. The arts are the most fluid of those modes of knowledge; they become the foundation of democratic practice.

The community-building possibilities of the arts are in evidence elsewhere. The Southside Solidarity Network’s Art in Action event, slated for May 26 this year, best exemplifies how the arts can translate into social action. The SSN normally organizes against the University’s encroachment into the Woodlawn neighborhood, where interference has priced several residents out of their homes. Instead of combating the problem solely in terms of economics, Art in Action represents a protest in the form of spontaneous celebration and community solidarity of a real kind.

Civic intercourse cannot be adjudicated in terms of dollars and decimals. Rather, it should be conducted on the “lower levels” of Ralph Ellison–the social wavelengths which carry minor scales as well as vibrant color–where the potential for understanding is greatest.

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