Saturday, September 19, I invited J. over for an end-of-summer dip in the pool. It’s been a cool, cloudy September, and with the neighborhood urchins back in school only a few hardy residents have been coming out to do a few laps. The sun, sinking toward the south, now hides behind the building most of the day, so there’s nothing for sunbathers to bask in. The pool, once crowded and noisy, is empty and quiet now.
The pool’s water is warm, but the breeze can be nippy on wet skin. J. finds it hard to get into the water, so he lowers himself slowly, while I start to shiver and my teeth to chatter when I get out and the air hits me. I noticed that a young woman who jumped in for a few laps scurried inside after a brief rub with a towel. There’s no drying off naturally at sunset when the 65-degree Fahrenheit air is blowing.
Dried off and warmed up, we decided to eat before J. continued on to work. He mentioned Western Avenue, which seemed too far to me under what felt like time and energy constraints. We settled on Calypso Café — not his idea of new and adventurous, but at least we hadn’t been there in a while, and the menu is pretty varied.
This trip also gave me a chance to see what was left of Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop — which is nothing, just a very clean excavation, with no sign of construction that I could tell. Ostensibly, a clean site presents a better picture to potential investors than a doomed building, although I wonder who’s buying or lending right now. As I told J., it looks to me like the University of Chicago wanted to flex its muscle and show the neighborhood it means business.
To me, this raises the question of what business the university is in, exactly. Given the number of times they contact me by phone, e-mail, and mail to plead for funding, I would think they’re focusing on their core mission, which I think would be education, research, and medicine. On the side, however, they can’t seem to resist the real estate business — owning and managing the local shopping center, buying property and providing vague explanations, and now buying and redeveloping the old Harper Court.
J. asked me if other big universities carry so much weight in their neighborhoods. To his surprise, I laughed. The University of Chicago is a flea compared to, say, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
I like Ann Arbor. From the bed and breakfast where I stay, I can walk to countless local boutiques and shops, like Peaceable Kingdom and the People’s Food Co-op and Café Verde. For those students who require their suburban comforts, Borders and Starbucks are right off the main campus. But my favorite, even now that many of the brick streets have been paved over, is Kerrytown, a quaint and quirky shopping center where you can find so much variety at the shops or the frequent farmers’ market. At Kerrytown, I feel like I’m in a small village artisans’ market — something that the “college town” of Hyde Park sorely lacks. So much here is spread out and is purely utilitarian; many of the limited storefronts are dedicated to salons, dry cleaners, locksmiths, optometrists, dentists, and the like. A great boutique like Parker’s Pets (akin to Kerrytown’s Dogma and Catmantoo) is isolated on a boulevard, away from other shops in an area that has little to draw pedestrians. Open Produce and The Fair Trader are also wonderful additions to the area, but they’re far from the heart of the university, and students and staff would have to go out of the way to shop there — with little else nearby to browse except a dollar store.
Now imagine Parker’s Pets, Freehling Pot and Pan Company, Bonjour Bakery and Café, Toys Etcetera, The Fair Trader, Istria Café, and Open Produce all on one or two blocks. Throw in a movie theater and even a small venue for folk and world music nearby, and you’ve pictured downtown Ann Arbor. If the university is going to micromanage Hyde Park, can’t they come up with a master strategy and vision that’s as conducive to community and participation as Ann Arbor? Even the 55th Street side of the Hyde Park Shopping Center, with its landscaped courtyard and arts, garden, and book fairs, is a step in the right direction.
My understanding is that a mixed-use high-rise is planned to dominate Harper Court. Perhaps density is ecologically “green” and the best use of urban space. I’ve noticed, though, that high-rises don’t foster community in the way that clustered storefronts and courtyards do. Imposing and bulky, often with little open space, high-rises seem distanced from their surroundings. They don’t entice the neighborhood to gather. Much of urban social life happens at street level, spilling out from restaurants, pubs, taverns, cafés, shops, and three flats, not from high-rise hulks.
Nowhere in Chicago is this more evident than in Lincoln Park, where the main streets like Lincoln and Clark, Armitage and Diversey, are filled with people shopping, eating, drinking, and hanging out in front of the most popular places.
By contrast, the primary commercial street near the University of Chicago is 53rd Street, where many of the most interesting shops (including those that were once in Harper Court) have disappeared, including, for example, the Chalet (replaced by a chain) and the import store (owner retired and moved). Because of the proximity of Kenwood Academy and for other reasons, the police discourage loitering, so what makes Lincoln Park sociable, popular, and successful is considered a threat in Hyde Park. Even men playing chess are dangerous, at least according to those who had the chess tables at Harper Court removed years ago, driving the rowdy players over to Borders and Harold Washington Park, where they continue to disturb the peace with their intent stares at chess pieces.
I’d be happy to be wrong, but unless the street level of a high-rise complex is engaging in design and offers something for many, the university’s plans don’t seem to add all that much to the development of community except a modern face. Unless there’s something really compelling at that level, I suspect most of us will still be at the park watching the chess players, at Promontory Point soaking up rays, or indulging in a croissant at Bonjour, and still wishing there were some place to go and some place to hang out in Hyde Park.