The Two Hyde Parks: The battle for the neighborhood’s soul

One of the most conservative neighborhoods in Chicago is in the midst of an insurgency. Hyde Park, traditionally the province of the University of Chicago, bookstores, and a surprisingly long-sustained DIY culture, has recently heard an ever-louder contingent calling for “commercial development” of the storied South Side corridor. The different parties interest the observer not so much because of their disparate stories (and they are surprisingly polarized), but for the ferocious articulation of their views. The recent storm of controversy surrounding the closing of the Co-op Market and, to a lesser extent, the fate of the old Doctors Hospital, has served as the most prominent expression of a heretofore latent tension between a younger generation of UofC affiliates and established residents. The traditionalists, represented by organizations such as the Hyde Park Historical Society and the Hyde Park Herald, are painted as isolationist and unimaginative by their opponents in advocating a particular kind of Hyde Park development that calls for intense community soul-searching. Meanwhile, younger, impatiently forward-looking voices exemplified by Chicago Maroon columnist Alec Brandon and the witty, acid-tongued blog Hyde Park Progress call for swift reform and commercial development, all the while being derided by established residents for being too young, and therefore too fleetingly engaged, to be trusted. All the while, the elephant in the neighborhood, the University of Chicago, casts its shadow over these camps–the two Hyde Parks.

Though the volatile critical mélange in Hyde Park is the raison d’être for this essay, it is not my intention to parse the various strings of thought that attend each side. After all, both the establishment and the insurgents hold the integrity of Hyde Park in high esteem, and both wish to make the neighborhood an even better place to live. They differ on how to accomplish the latter goal. What gets lost in discussion, however, is the thoughtful consideration of what Hyde Park already has.

The Cultural Amenities Project (CAP) at the University of Chicago has recently engaged in controversial research that seeks to document “scenes,” or constellations of related cultural and consumer amenities in urban spaces. The study is not least controversial because of its methods, which attempt to document qualitative characteristics of urban amenities in quantitative terms. Regardless, the forthcoming work provides an exceptional tool for analyzing modern urban experience by recognizing that in post-industrial cities, residents’ experiences are not organized simply by shared relations to the means of production, per Marxist doctrine, but by shared forms of consumption. Put simply, a “scene” is a space “within which different kinds and aspects of consumption are given symbolic meaning.” Whereas a neighborhood traditionally structures urban experience as a space of residence, with meaning generated by neighborly or kinship ties, and a manufacturing or corporate districts structure experience as a space of production, with meaning generated by workplace relations and forms of production, a scene structures urban experience as a space of consumption, where meaning is generated by forms of consumption held in common. Different forms of consumption structure individual and group experiences of urban space. For example, the idea of an “Asian restaurant scene” recognizes the determinations made by an exotic locale offering foreign cuisine on experiencing city or local life, rather than by families, neighborhoods, or workplaces. Scene theory’s most practical application lies in its ability to analyze the role of culture in urban development by understanding the values of a community through what it consumes. Such implications come with the groundbreaking insight that traditional social markers like class, race, and gender are no longer the prime determinants of cultural alignment.

Results from this research can turn heads. The CAP’s reach is national. Compiling statistics on the available commercial amenities from 40,000 ZIP codes and then assigning varying qualitative scores to each amenity, the researchers have been able to document, however crudely, the traits that make a “scene” locally and culturally specific, based on categories and subcategories that account for the kind of authority, legitimacy, and self-presentation different amenities provide.

At the theoretical level, “scenes theory” offers an insight that both sides in the Hyde Park development debate can benefit from, namely that commercial amenities do not arise like dei ex machina but in relation to a community’s shared interests and values. In other words, Hyde Park supports amenities that have a Hyde Park character. On a practical level, the CAP’s documentation of neighborhood amenities confirms what we already suspect about Hyde Park’s values–its neighborly, utilitarian, egalitarian mien–and indicates the institutions the neighborhood is willing to support. It’s difficult to imagine something transgressive and expressive, like a punk rock café, making it in Hyde Park.

For the forward-looking camp that would like to see Hyde Park become a hip ‘hood à la Wicker Park, the new research shows that such a transformation is likely impossible; as University of Chicago Professor Larry Rothfield told Newcity, “For Hyde Park to look like Wicker Park it’d have to turn itself inside out.” Most importantly, scenes theory demonstrates, perhaps to the chagrin of everybody and not just the vocal young crowd, that if Hyde Park is boring it’s because, well, the people here are boring–residents and students alike. For the University of Chicago, an establishment burdened with the impossible onus of balancing neighborhood and institutional interests, scene­ theory means that the school can’t outrun its own shadow. The conservatism evinced by the University’s leading intellectual lights and manifested in those classy Gothic quads is infectious, and it can’t be conveniently shed in the University’s attempts to make Hyde Park a cool place to live.

Finally, Hyde Park’s scene might best be understood as the hybridized confluence of competing interests, not unlike the best average outcome that benefits all participants in a free market scenario. Commercial amenities in Hyde Park may not capture the ideal for either the establishment or the young, progressive crowd, but they appeal enough to both camps to make those amenities viable. Hence we have the Checkerboard Lounge, which doubles as a music club and a traditional landmark, though not playing the most cutting edge music for the undergraduate hipsters and not completely recreating the authentic urban grit of the original Bronzeville haunt.

The twin pulls of wanting to be hip and wanting to remain “Hyde Park” might best be exemplified in Jerry Kleiner’s restaurant dilemma, not the Co-op controversy or the debate about the Doctors Hospital. Kleiner, considered a miracle-working restaurateur, was set to open his newest restaurant in Harper Court over a year ago, but the opening has been delayed because–of all reasons–Kleiner can’t find a name for the place that the entire community will like. As he told Chicago magazine: “If all goes well, it’ll open the first week in March. But we still don’t have a name. I’m getting the community involved, and everybody’s got names. I’ve heard thousands. They are so all over the place. One guy says Black Cat; another guy says you can’t do black. Other suggestions are too white-sounding. What’s wrong with the name Hyde Park Grill? It’s in London; it’s in New York. It’s not hip enough for them. If someone comes up with an incredible name–something that feeds the needs of a diverse community–I’ll buy them an incredible meal with champagne at Room 21.” Even labels for commercial amenities are sticking points for Hyde Parkers, demonstrating the extent to which different people think the neighborhood and its institutions should represent different things. Then there are those who, like me, just want the damn place to open. Fine dining never hurt anyone.

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