By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
The Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference (HP-K CC) is seeking to bring together neighbors using a community organizing instrument with a rich history in the neighborhood.
The group will be hosting a workshop on block clubs Saturday, June 22, from 10 a.m. to noon at Nichols Park’s field house, 1355 E. 53rd St.
Block clubs comprise neighbors that meet regularly to share concerns about quality of life and crime in their area. They can include the residents of a building, block or larger area as well as a walking or gardening club, according to 2nd District Police CAPS community organizer Faleesa Square, who will give a presentation at Saturday’s event.
Event organizer Tomika Hoffman-Zoller says she approached fellow HP-K CC board members about hosting a workshop on block clubs after seeing Square distribute literature on them at the 2013 Woodlawn Community Summit.
“People come together and work on issues that affect Hyde Park and Kenwood and even the surrounding areas, and it helps people stay informed about community happenings,” Hoffman-Zoller said, adding that block clubs foster a closer relationship between police and residents.
Hoffman-Zoller says she hopes for the creation of “as many block clubs” as possible in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area.
“Just taking that collective action and sharing information and raising awareness among the neighbors will help improve the safety in our community overall,” Hoffman-Zoller said.
Block Clubs and Urban Renewal
Block clubs have played a central role in the history of Hyde Park. The earliest Herald reference to such a group can be found in the paper’s Sept. 1, 1954 issue, which mentions cooperation between a local recreation committee and the 47th Street Drexel-Ingleside Block Club.
According to the HP-K CC’s official history posted on its website, the group, founded in 1949, created 20 block clubs the next year. With the help of the late University of Chicago education professor Herbert Thelen, more than 60 such groups were affiliated with the HP-K CC in 1956.
The growth in neighborhood block clubs was concurrent with the neighborhood’s “Urban Renewal” initiative, a response by the University of Chicago and other community institutions to changing racial demographics and the perceived deterioration of the area.
Hyde Park Herald publisher Bruce Sagan wrote in a 2004 retrospective on Urban Renewal, or “Hyde Park Renewal,” as he called it, that the term “covers all of the efforts of Hyde Parkers to remake their community,” including “social action efforts like block clubs.”
The emphasis on block clubs in Hyde Park was in part due to rumors regarding an influx of Black residents in areas of the neighborhood, according to HP-K CC’s former president and current webmaster Gary Ossewaarde: “People were panicking and they were putting their houses up for sale.”
According to Ossewaarde, while block clubs were likely formed both with and without racist intentions, some of them sought to create an “integrated community of high standards” — a phrase that has been used in varying forms to describe the HP-K CC’s aim.
Block Clubs and Crime
No source interviewed for this story said how many block clubs were currently operating in the neighborhood, but Square says she has been working with Hyde Park block clubs for years. According to her, such groups tend to deter criminal activity.
If residents are not “organized, [criminals] know you’re not organized. If you’re not communicating with your neighbors, or you don’t know your neighbors, they know that too,” she said.
According to the University of Chicago’s director of community partnerships, Rudy Nimocks, block clubs are particularly effective in combatting burglaries and robberies as such crimes tend to be confined to specific areas.
“It makes a much stronger collaborative if you have block clubs hand in hand with the police,” said Nimocks, who also served for decades as the University of Chicago Police Department’s chief and the deputy superintendent for the Chicago Police Department.
When citizens come together to address their needs they have a “much more persuasive voice,” according to Nimocks, and the best way to form a block club is through face-to-face communication.
“The grassroots approach is the best approach,” Nimocks said, adding that his mother established a block club on the 6100 block of Greenwood Avenue in the early 1950s by knocking on doors.