Tapping the Neighborhood

A Barcade in Brooklyn. Photo by chadmagiera/flickr

A few weekends ago, I sat in a certain Hyde Park bar a half-hour before closing, as bleary-eyed bartenders rather vociferously ushered lingering patrons out into the 15-degree winter night. Having just bought a round, my group lingered longer than the rest of the crowd, sure we would be out by 2am. We were soon met with more assertive tactics to get us out the door. After asking for a few minutes to drain our glasses, and promising to leave before business hours were up, a girl in our group was informed, “you’re not special,” and we were notified that we had to go. How was it, we wondered, that this bar in a college neighborhood (which shall remain nameless but is not The Cove) could treat its patrons so rudely? That same week, on January 21, the Chicago Maroon reported a failed attempt to open up an arcade-themed space in Hyde Park that would have served as a café by day and a bar by night. The “barcade” idea–“a cross between nerd and awesome,” according to Laura Green, the aspiring proprietor–flopped due to zoning red tape and a lack of community support. Valois manager John Lathouris justified this lack, saying simply, “People don’t drink here.” Greg Estrada, owner of Futons-n-More, was quoted as saying. “People don’t really like the idea of a bar in a college neighborhood like this.”

A Barcade in Brooklyn. Photo by Rob Boudon/flickr

As I spoke to friends about what had happened that night at the bar, they usually suggested the problem must be linked to the driving force of economics–competition. There isn’t much of it on 55th Street, so places can be curt with their clients without fear of losing business. To be fair, this was the first time I’d ever experienced such poor service at any Hyde Park business, and we all have our bad days. But the concern here is not poor service or the degree to which any individual business respects its patrons. Rather, it is about a neighborhood with a mindset that willingly eschews a promise of greater urban vibrancy and attraction of capital. On the Chicagoist blog, a post about the failed barcade idea calls Hyde Park, “a quiet, vibrant melting pot and perhaps the most boring campus community around.” This community with so many assets–population density; diversity of color, age, and class; short, walkable blocks; neighborhood institutions, from the Seminary Co-op to Promontory Point–is for the most part dead after 10pm.

Instead of reiterating the problem, though, I want to ask a question. Any young resident of Hyde Park will understand what a dearth of social spaces means for everyday life. How often do we wish longingly for an all-night diner, or one more bar option, or for interesting shops in which to stop and browse? How often have we wished for a CTA “L” line to make trips outside the neighborhood even more expedient? I once heard an esteemed member of the University bureaucracy deadpan that he moved to Hyde Park and realized it was a great place to raise kids because there was nothing for them to do except to go to school, come back home, and study. The same rule applies to those of us in college and beyond. We are confronted with a truth that any young person living in Hyde Park, University-affiliated or otherwise, has taken as self-evident: in terms of urban vibrancy, in terms of the degree to which our neighborhood captures our interest, Hyde Park leaves a lot to be desired.

The problem of creating vibrant urban spaces is one that constituted the work of the civic-minded activist and urbanist, Jane Jacobs. In her seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she devotes a chapter to what she calls “mixed primary uses”–put simply, “The district…must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.” It is a conceit as remarkable for its social acuity as for its economic pragmatism. For Jacobs, a lively city street is one that attracts a range of users for any given social resource–parks, the street itself, businesses, etc. Jacobs’s ideal vision for city life can be conceptualized as a sort of urban symbiosis. Numerous attractions would “expose our commerce to a still larger and more diverse population,” as residents, as well those who come to the neighborhood to work or shop, to frequent coffee shops, newsstands, and–yes–even bars. For Jacobs, the compassionate urbanist, a vibrant neighborhood is more than the sum of its parts, as consumers and workers interact with local residents to develop city streets teeming with life. And yet, though Jacobs idealizes these symbiotic patterns of socialization, she never loses sight of the fact that a lively neighborhood is one where people will spend not only their time, but their money too. Businesses, after all, have to run on something other than goodwill.

So, what a business owner has to say about a business proposal’s viability is a paper tiger compared to the steps taken to prevent businesses from setting up in the first place. The right precedents have not been set. In November 2008, as Hyde Parkers helped vote one of their own into the Oval Office, so too did they vote to prohibit alcohol sales in the 39th precinct of the 5th ward, the proposed site of a redevelopment of the Doctors’ Hospital into a hotel. Disputes between the University, residents, and business owners were settled de facto with a ballot measure, as no developer would build a hotel on a dry site. The Doctors’ Hospital still stands empty.

Then and now, the issue was not alcohol. Instead, the disagreement was about what direction Hyde Park should take in pursuing its redevelopment. Opposition to the Doctors’ Hospital redevelopment process centered more on the University’s plans to hire non-unionized workers and dissatisfaction with the degree of community input sought out by the site’s developers rather than a desire to teetotal. Consider: Hans Morsbach, the owner of Medici on 57th, played a key role in organizing the vote on the ballot measure to ban alcohol sales at the Doctors’ Hospital site. Yet in an October 2007 interview in the Chicago Maroon, he is quoted as touting the Medici’s outpost in Normal, IL as “my dream place.” “We can have liquor,” he said, “and it is in a good location close to Illinois State University, and we have good management and I am looking forward to that.” Giving a few undergrads the opportunity to cop a beer or two does not seem to be the problem. (Another factor: Morsbach’s Medici operates The Pub in the UofC’s Ida Noyes Hall–the establishment has something of a monopoly to guard.)

Is the issue, then, that Hyde Park has become complacent in pursuing its redevelopment? Always present around this question are two institutions, the first of which is the University, which according to the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce attracts 17,000 employees to the neighborhood, in addition to the 15,000 students enrolled in its academic programs. The second is Hyde Park residents themselves, who may have different ideas about how their neighborhood should grow and change. For some, their vision of a revitalized Hyde Park is embodied in a community garden; to other, perhaps younger residents, it might be embodied in a barcade that melds “nerd and awesome” to suit a nerdy and awesome student body. These two players in Hyde Park’s future are failing to work together to produce something greater than the sum of their parts.

We should not ignore recent events in redevelopment. The redevelopment of Harper Court, controlled by the University and aimed at showcasing “all that Hyde Park is,” promises to change the feel of 53rd Street for years to come. And yet, when Green, a young entrepreneur with ties to the neighborhood, suggests an enterprise that would increase community’s commercial diversity, the response is overwhelmingly negative. The barcade might have provided another meeting place in a neighborhood with a paucity of options, or it might have lent a touch of individuality to Hyde Park’s sorely lacking bar and café scene. Above all, it might have been cool. But instead of embracing a proposal for something new and different, Hyde Park waves it off with a flick of the wrist. Don’t you know people don’t drink here?

Here Jacobs is prescient. In her chapter on mixed primary uses, she writes about disjointed downtowns, districts where business and pleasure are segregated, resulting in empty, boring neighborhoods after the workday is done. “Among downtown planners and businessmen’s groups who work with them, there is a myth (or alibi) that Americans all stay home at night watching TV… ‘People don’t go out,’ is one of the alibis also used in Pittsburgh to explain its dead downtown.’” Sound familiar?

The truth is that people do go out, that they do drink–especially in Hyde Park–and that the neighborhood would do well not only to acknowledge, but to support good ideas when they come around. We already know the alternative: a nightlife dominated by long swaths of a barren 55th Street, and a steady departure of young people towards those parts of Chicago that would be glad to accept their goodwill and hard-earned money in exchange for a drink and some good times.

2 comments for “Tapping the Neighborhood

Comments are closed.