After land clearance in the 1950s, and during the huge urban renewal project that followed, the character of the Hyde Park-Kenwood community was greatly changed. Wide expanses of open land were created by the demolition of crowded, decaying buildings on Lake Park Avenue and in the business districts along 47th, 51st, 53rd, 55th, and 57th Streets. Firetraps, slum buildings, and bars were gone; however, the heart of the neighborhood was completely altered as blocks of historic buildings were lost. Small, vacant stores, “ones with dirty windows and rotting floors; and taverns, from whose murky interiors drunks stumbled onto the streets in early morning hours,” had vanished, Julia Abrahamson wrote in her book “A Neighborhood Finds Itself.” “But gone too were the familiar places run by pleasant people who had served Hyde Park well. The corner drug store, the hardware and cleaning establishments, the repair shop and the 55th Street Post Office had all disappeared.”
The impact of that planning process lasted for years, and continues to influence decisions on land usage, density, and building design. This year-long series of articles is intended to refresh our collective memory of how this community came to appear as it does today. Centered on a series of maps produced by the Sanborn Company in 1925, and enhanced by archival and current images, we will examine how the past has influenced the present and how that legacy can shape future decision-making processes.
In 1925 the greatest challenges for the neighborhood were just beginning. Urban decay set in after a depression and two world wars, compounded with a broad shift in demographics that occurred as a result of the great migration from the Deep South to the industrialized North. In the face of a dramatic shift, Hyde Park and Kenwood developed a plan that achieved racial integration at a time when such a community was unheard of. It is a remarkable neighborhood, one that endured as a result of negotiation and compromise, as it came to grips with some of the city’s and the nation’s most difficult problems.
However the environment we experience today was not simply the result of urban renewal, or University of Chicago policies, or city government, although all of those clearly affected the community. Rather, the urban landscape here developed as the result of a long series of decisions by individual landowners asserting their place within a larger social framework. Those who chose to reside, work and build in the community created and nurtured, from its outset, what is today one of the best places in America to view the rich complexity of urban architecture, where history reflects the spirit of ever-changing eras.
Beginning with a look at 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue, this series will then examine the evolution of each of the major intersections along one of Chicago’s oldest thoroughfares, and before delving into the residential areas of our community.