The End of the Pepperland: A storied apartment complex comes to an end

Take a good, hard look. This summer will be your last chance to see the Pepperland before its doors close for renovation, marking, as one resident put it, “the end of an era.” The legendary twelve-unit apartment building faces an interior courtyard on all four sides, home to forty-some University of Chicago students, mostly undergraduates, now including many members of the UofC’s Frisbee team. Over the years it’s been home to myriad groups, and served as a hangout for many in the Hyde Park community. But it doesn’t take much to notice the dilapidated mess in the Pepperland. Between ancient electrical systems and “Coonjo” (the family of raccoons intermittently inhabiting the space between walls), it was time to renovate. In true Pepperland form, word about the fate of the apartment spread via neighbors meandering in and out of the maze of units and passing the sad news. What started as a rumor can be traced back to an informal mention by a maintenance worker, which was confirmed by a MAC Property Management agent in early April. Resident Cassie Betts relayed the frustrating story of how MAC technically still has yet to inform them they’ll be kicked out this fall, with one exception: a wilted notice (“FYI: Pepperland is Closing on Sept. 30 for Remodeling”) posted on the north side of the building in garish silver Magic Marker. Residents generally harbor contempt towards MAC at having not been told “straight up” about the Pepperland’s fate, not at the fact that it is closing (widely viewed as a necessary measure). But onwards and upwards: north, to be exact, to 55th and Cornell.

After having been uprooted, many of the complex’s residents have finally chosen a new home, with the help of Betts, who took charge to find a new building with a considerable number of available apartments. Between twenty and fifty current Pepperland residents will migrate to the same few buildings around 55th Street and Cornell Avenue, already occupied by a fair number of UofC students. A total of eight apartments will be used as 3-bedroom apartments, “converting the living rooms into bedrooms and sacrificing the communal space which is something that we’ve all been more than spoiled with at the Pepperland.”

But the new place won’t be the same, mostly due to the fact that it is not one unified, interconnected building that makes the Pepperland so unique. At their new place, Pepperlanders lamented about the need “to go outside” to enter neighbors’ apartments, alarm systems, and the unthinkable: “You have to buzz in a lot!” Nonetheless, Betts said that people signed the new leases before they had “even seen the apartments…the impetus of maintaining our community in some form was enough.” As for the “end” of the Pepperland, it is bound to be semi-permanent. But what will become of the building when it reopens? For one, it’s bound to be swankier and pricier, says Betts. Some think MAC will turn it into condos, but others remain doubtful, confident that the communal tradition imposed by the building’s very architecture is likely to live on.

There are some architectural quirks that can’t be replicated. The Pepperland basement is often compared to a pirate ship, with “treasures” residents have stored over the years (such as a hand-made disassembled hot tub). In it, their “bounty of catacombs,” as Swann called it, may be removed, but perhaps only to make room for a new one to emerge along with a new generation of patrons who enjoy the amicable hangout spot. And feelings about the new place, despite apprehensions, are hopeful. Swann assured me that a new name was plausible but yet undecided and under “heated debate.” So welcome a new pirate ship (possibly called “Old Deuce”) sailing in this fall. Ahoy.