The More Things Change…For better or worse, Harper Court redevelopment hearkens back to urban renewal-era Hyde Park

Harper Court sign, photo by Emma Ellis
Seven months after the University of Chicago purchased Harper Court, the fates of several tenants at the 52nd and Harper complex remain undecided. When the University purchased the property last May for $6.5 million to redevelop it as a higher density mixed-use space, tenants were notified that they would have until the end of 2008 to move out. When they complained, leases were extended to the end of January 2009, and at a January 12 meeting the deadline was moved again to June 2009. Some businesses have relocated within the neighborhood; the Mexican restaurant Maravillas has already put up “coming soon” signs at a second location at 55th and Lake Park. Others, such as sister restaurants Dixie Kitchen and Calypso Café, are considering leaving Hyde Park because of a dearth of appropriately-sized retail spaces and parking in the neighborhood. And small shops like the Artisans 21 cooperative gallery, which lead a precarious existence in the best of times thanks to their need for a specific clientele, may have nowhere to go at all. It’s ironic that this displacement and destruction of local art initiatives is exactly what Harper Court was built to prevent in the first place.

Harper Court is a product of 1960s urban renewal and its backlash, an architectural legacy that’s visible in its boxy split-level façade and isolation from the street. In the 1950s and ‘60s, scores of businesses were cleared from Hyde Park as part of the city-wide renewal project, which sought to remove “blight” by replacing blocks of working-class commercial interests with residential zones and planned developments. Before clearance, the stretch of 55th Street between Ellis and Kenwood Avenue used to resemble present-day 53rd Street, with a mix of businesses including a roof repair workshop, a printer, and a cobbler; today the only retail there is in one building on 55th and Woodlawn, with the rest filled in by houses and the McCormick Theological Seminary. In a Chicago Maroon article from October 15, 1963, business owners voiced concerns that would sound familiar to current Harper Court tenants: the city and University were forcing them out of their current locations, but rents were too high and spaces were too small elsewhere in Hyde Park.

In addition to the dry cleaners and window shade sellers, small craftsmen and artists were caught up in the sweep of urban renewal. Hyde Park’s art colony, housed in nineteenth-century buildings on 57th Street, was condemned as a firetrap and seven artists were displaced. Their eviction notices were served the same week as a proposal was submitted to the city for the development of a commercial complex that would preserve Hyde Park and Kenwood’s local artisans by offering new retail spaces at below-market rent. Muriel Beadle, the wife of the University of Chicago’s then-president, George Beadle, spearheaded the Harper Court project; keeping with her close association with the University, she appears to have envisioned Harper Court primarily for the use of the University community. Hyde Park was “the type of community that needs picture framers and has stringed instruments to be repaired,” she said in a July 23, 1965 Maroon article. Other acceptable businesses proposed for the space, listed in a poll for the public and reported in the Nov. 8, 1963 Maroon, included antiques restorers, four categories of bookstores, a flower-arranging school, and a “Chinese teahouse.”

The grand opening of Harper Court was accompanied by a balloon release, fireworks, and a marching band. But like most urban renewal products, initial investment in the space soon stagnated. Dreams of pottery shops and knitting collectives could not survive the ‘70s, and the type of planning exemplified by Harper Court ignored the community’s real commercial needs.

A November 18 press release from the University on Harper Court’s redevelopment sounds much like the 1963 discussion–Muriel Beadle would approve especially of “a destination that communicates the distinctive qualities of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.” Recent upscale openings like the Zaleski and Horvath MarketCafe on 47th Street seem like a good fit for the original Harper Court. But to some, the University’s clearing of tenants may cast it instead as the big bad landlord of urban renewal, updated with new principles of city planning and design.

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