Southern Lights

Mehves Konuk

On a poster mailed to incoming University of Chicago students, the campus is portrayed looking north. The gothic architecture lining the Midway Plaisance is in the foreground, while the remaining portion of campus holds the middle of the frame. In the back, the canopy of Hyde Park gives way to a blurring of the urban landscape until the Loop rises triumphantly into view. This may be how the university wants its incoming students to think of Chicago–Hyde Park, then a place to ride through, then the Loop and beyond. More telling of the university’s stance, however, is what is left out of this image, namely the Midway and the southern half of campus beneath it.

In recent weeks, the Midway and the grounds immediately to the south of it have weighed heavily on University minds. In these spaces the University is expanding–an 811-resident dormitory was completed last year while ground has been broken on a new art center. And it was on this southern part of campus where in 2007 a graduate student was fatally shot, and where two months ago a student was punched in the face and robbed. On that same night, and only a few minutes after, a student was knocked unconscious beneath a statue of Linné as he crossed the Midway. The University responded by hiring a private company to escort students crossing the park. For some, the sloping edges of the park no longer looked like Chicago’s excuse for sledding hills–they looked like trenches. This winter, however, the University completed a transformation of the face of the park, attempting to once again turn the Midway into innocuous scenery. Now, the security is built-in.

The Midway Crossings Project, a $6 million University investment, has not really enhanced the park so much as enhanced one’s passage through it. Sidewalks were added and the trees and cement planters were installed. In line with a wider effort to increase security, additional emergency lights have been installed. The most dramatic change, however, occupies in total less than 20 square feet. Spread along Woodlawn and Ellis Avenues, 40-foot tall LED spires tower over the sidewalk, illuminating the Midway’s two main thoroughfares. These structures take their name from their collective effect–light bridges.

Mehves Konuk

Strictly from an urban design standpoint, the light bridges are low on material and high on impact. During the day, the metallic masts create an architectural theme that unifies the north and south halves of campus. To ease fears of nighttime crimes, the light bridges create more of a light tunnel, visually linking the two halves of campus and simultaneously increasing visibility and thus safety. An aerial view of the scene must surely be dramatic.

The image of a light tunnel is appropriate in understanding the University’s intent–the provision of a secure passageway through a space of increased anxiety. But as a result of this intent, the project has created an improved path, not an improved park. The northern and southern sides of campus are now more integrated, but the Midway remains an expanse to be traversed rather than enjoyed.

If security were the real issue at hand, then designing a more attractive, multi-use park would have enhanced security while benefiting the community at large as well. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs pointed out in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” what makes any public space safe is the presence of people. Streets, parks, buses and the like are made secure by the collective eye of our anonymous neighbors. If the University had invested $6 million in the improvement of the park as a center of community life and play, perhaps then its thoroughfares would not need light to prevent crime but to illuminate soccer games and nature walks.

Jacob’s observations were not limited to safety, but dealt also with one’s “right to the city.” Such a right, she believed, should be universal. In her work, she recounts how the UofC did not always prescribe to such a philosophy. In the 1940s, the University would let security dogs run around the campus at night to keep people from the surrounding neighborhoods out. Today, the University faces similar, albeit more subtle, questions concerning one’s “right to the city.” People may not be chased out, but the light bridges ensure that their presence will be known.

Despite the University’s overwhelming influence over the Midway, it still belongs to the city in practice. Though the recent reconfiguration of the park may make crossing safer for all–the cement planters will protect a pedestrian from a straying car regardless of whether or not they are registered students–it is undertaken from the perspective of the University alone. The school, in their construction of the light bridges, appears to be suffering from tunnel vision. Here a problem plaguing all urban universities becomes apparent–how to balance its commitment to the safety of its students while maintaining a space to which everyone has a right. With the construction of the light bridges, has the school enhanced the student experience when it could have enhanced everyone’s? Converting the value attached to one person’s well-being versus another’s makes for tricky calculus in discerning the net effect of the University on the people living beside it.

Is the university’s role, as a private institution, to pursue what it sees as its own best interests? In a way, yes. If the university does not maintain its image as a safe and enriching place of learning, then it will lose its authority–and accordingly the power and resources–allow it to make a positive impact on its community.

Mehves Konuk

Standing on Ellis Avenue at midnight, I turned and looked at the light bridge surrounding me. The luminescence made the surrounding park appear blurred. In a way, the whole project has blurred the reality of the city for students. Now that the light bridge exists, one may pass north and south without worry. Maybe this is a bad thing. In plenty of places on the South Side, the worry is still real. This city is still dangerous. The light bridges in Hyde Park will not so much change the city as make it easier to ignore. Unfortunately, it seems the university may be using light to blind its own students.

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