The streets of Hyde Park are saturated with lush trees forming gentle archways over the pedestrians below. Walking the streets of Woodlawn, the lack of trees is immediate. The few growths along sidewalks are mostly skinny and small, recent transplants years away from providing shade to the pavement below.
But the streets are not any younger than those in Hyde Park–many years back, Woodlawn was a neighborhood full of professors and faculty. Yet despite its past, the collegiate aura of Woodlawn evaporated long ago. No packs of students roam the streets, no apartments display UofC paraphernalia in the windows. No shops advertise for student customers, no bikes are tethered to street signs.
In the recent collective memory of the UofC, Woodlawn has been conjured in a dark light. The murder of a grad student in 2007, recurring safety alerts, and images of trash-filled streets lined with empty lots and broken windows have informed an exaggerated view of the neighborhood amongst many students. The University’s presence along 60th Street is long-established with the UofC press and a host of grad schools, but development further south of the midway has been staunchly halted for decades.
That is until recently. Within the past three years, the UofC Police headquarters, the South Campus Residence Hall, and the Logan Center for the Arts have all arrived between 60th and 61st. Blue light emergency phones have popped up further south, and the UofC transportation and police provide coverage to 64th Street. Nonetheless, the University has vowed to uphold its promise to the Woodlawn community not to build south of 61st St. But north of that cross-street, the University has moved in for good. With the expansion, the long-inscribed image of the neighborhood is beginning to change, along with its actual character.
Cheap rent has drawn an increasing number of students and faculty south of the Midway. I am one. From my front gate, the walk is no more than ten minutes to anywhere on the quads. Off my back porch, elementary school children play every day out on the blacktop, in the shadow of the Logan Center’s eleven-story tower. Walking the streets on a Sunday morning, every block seems to ring with bells and hymns. The 63rd and Cottage Grove Green Line stop, avoided by many students, supports a thicket of shops and restaurants.
Which brings us to food–a different matter altogether. Treasure Island and Hyde Park Produce are both 20 minutes by foot or 15 minutes by public transit, but regular produce can be found at Farmer’s Food Basket and Family Dollar. Daley’s and Robust Coffee Lounge on 63rd serve hearty meals, but for better or worse they are far away from the student haunts of 53rd, 55th, and 57th. South Campus now has a subway and mini-mart for a quick snack. From mid-May through mid-December, the Experimental Station at 61st and Blackstone runs an outdoors farmers’ market.
The social distance is far from Hyde Park, for which I’ve been appreciative. The lifestyle of the academe can blind its students to different visions of life. It’s easy to loose sight of a greater Chicago, and the city manifest in Woodlawn is decidedly different than the city nestled in Hyde Park.
Years from now, the young trees of Woodlawn will have grown a bit taller, a bit farther out. I am a student, and as such my residency in Woodlawn is fated to end after a few more academic quarters. I probably won’t see those trees.