By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
From a 21st century vantage point, it seems the standard that urban renewal planners relied on for the clearance area near Lake Avenue and 55th Street was not urban, but based on the midcentury suburbs that drew city dwellers away from communities like Hyde Park. During the urban renewal period, planners viewed the community’s main assets as the major institutions, with a lesser regard for the general vitality of urban life. There were critics of the urban renewal process who suggested that the fortress-like mentality of the planners made for the removal of establishments that attracted outsiders. As a result, not much commerce can be found today along 55th Street — most is located in the Hyde Park Shopping Center, a strip mall fronted by a large parking lot. Retail and entertainment establishments, which at one time were plentiful, are lacking now in number — although the Woodlawn Tap (or Jimmy’s as it is known locally after its longtime operator Jimmy Wilson) managed to endure and thrive as the local bar.
There was a time when Jimmy’s would have been just one among many such establishments along 55th Street, and the intersection at Lake Park in particular had long been associated with liquor. During the mid-1880s, the trustees of the village limited the sale of alcohol within the community, yet taverns could be found along the commercial strip in the center of Hyde Park. Back then Lake Street came under jurisdiction of the railroad, and saloons were permitted within a certain radius of the Illinois Central tracks. When Hyde Park was annexed to the larger city in 1889, this particular rule remained on the books.
Liquor establishments proliferated; between 1877 and 1878 49 saloon licenses were issued in the village, while just one was refused. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 added to the popularity and success of these ventures, and not even the formation of the Hyde Park Mutual Protective Association could oust these establishments. Their arguments — the sanctity of the family, the selling liquor to minors, the perceived threat to land values and suspicions of gambling and prostitution — were used to garner community support for closing of the taverns. The association was most successful in limiting the taverns to two “local option” areas, one near Washington Park, and the other here at 55th Street and Lake Avenue. The association had their work cut out for them, for according to a 1980 paper by Damon Darling, between 1895 and 1920 an abundance of taverns were to be found clustered near this intersection. Within a densely packed strip between 54th and 56th streets, there were 15 to 20 licensed bars per block. Added to that were the “blind pigs” that operated out of drug or grocery stores and sold alcohol without a license, as well the more upscale drinks offered at hotels and clubs.
The trend continued until pleasure and consumption were dealt a setback on Jan. 17, 1920, when America went “dry.” Before prohibition it was said that Adolph’s was a rendezvous place for many important locals — women’s organizations would gather there for parties, and families would arrive by carriage to listen to musicians and sip mint juleps or a cold fine beer. Trees shaded the beer garden during the day and brilliantly colored lanterns twinkled till the last of the patrons departed.
After Prohibition took effect alcohol became more popular than ever and speakeasies developed thriving, yet illicit businesses. Drug stores, tailor shops and soft drink establishments all sold liquor—until 1929, when some became overly conspicuous and were padlocked. The July 19, 1929 Hyde Park Herald noted the closing of “the last and most renowned” of Lake Street’s then 17 saloons (supposedly operating without liquor). When Adolph’s Place at 5492 Lake Street finally closed its doors that summer, its demolition marked the end of an era.
Fourteen years after the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, it became the only constitutional amendment to ever be repealed. In the demise of Prohibition the location of liquor serving establishments began to spread dramatically from the earlier hub at Lake Avenue and 55th Street to locations along 47th, 51st, and 53rd streets, filling the empty and often worn commercial space. When Louis Kroman designed the Chevrolet Building on the southwest corner of the intersection, the Herald wrote that it marked the evolution of the street from a liquor and entertainment area to one of various business establishments. That did not end up to be quite the case. In the ‘30s, The Wharf offered finest quality wines, steaks and cold Budweiser. The Blue Heaven Lounge promoted air conditioning and continuous entertainment until 4 a.m., with 5 a.m. hours on Saturday.
Hyde Park’s fight against the expansion of the taverns was tempered by a January 1934 law, under which a precinct could only be declared dry by popular vote. The Herald published a survey on March 23 of that year; they found that after three months of debate on the subject, the majority of residents favored the sale of liquor on “that famous old Lake Park Avenue.” From that point on the number of taverns increased steadily, from 25 listed in the 1935 telephone directory to 39 in the 1945 directory. Gambling was concentrated in the bars along Lake Park and at newsstands along 55th Street, an affordable area for lower-income whites who settled there after moving to the city to find jobs during the war.
In the years before land clearance, the Bee Hive at 55th Street and Harper Avenue advertised its a long, tall and refreshing hi-ball with the sounds of Miff-Mole’s red hot Dixie-land. The Hi Hat Cocktail Lounge at 1150 East 55th Street featured Eddie Stark and his accordion. And for those who preferred the comforts of home, the Old Bear Liquor Store at 5473 Lake Park Avenue offered free delivery for orders large or small.
But by the late ‘40s, these taverns with late night hours were well established on the street level of buildings that clearly showed the signs of age and deterioration. It would take another decade, and the clearance of all of the structures in the area, to change the soul of the intersection. By then the huge racial shift of the city’s South Side was adding to the strain on the neighborhood’s increasingly tenuous housing stock, as African-Americans continually searched for better housing. Lower wage earners took the place of the middle class, moving into subdivided and declining structures as they escaped the expanding ghetto.
Property owners cut apartment buildings into numerous small units without the addition of new plumbing or electricity. The kitchenette, formerly a staple form of housing in nearby communities, now infiltrated the neighborhood. Single room occupancy units were often rented out by the week with shared facilities, leading to a serious deterioration of the sanitary conditions within buildings, and fears of drifters and prostitutes.
Crime was prevalent in the area; disorderly conduct, fighting in the street, assault, robbery, drunks lying in hotel lobbies and window breaking were all cited as common problems. Additionally a 1952 study found that many buildings were badly deteriorated and portions of the area were threatened by “creeping blight.” When the police closed down three taverns on 55th Street for failure to renew their liquor licenses in the summer of 1954, Alderman Robert E. Merriam commented that the street had taken on “the appearance of a skid row.”
Although the plan commonly known as Urban Renewal was not formally approved by the City Council until Nov. 7, 1958, work began in May 1955 with the removal of structures that had deteriorated beyond repair. This, the first of four separate renewal initiatives, was referred to as “Hyde Park A and B” and was completed under the city agency called the Land Clearance Commission. Buildings that stretched along the Illinois Central tracks from 54th to 57th streets, east on 55th Street from Lake Park to Kimbark avenues and a small section on 54th Street at Dorchester Avenue were all demolished.
After land clearance, the community’s character was greatly changed. Wide expanses of open land were created by the demolition of crowded, decaying buildings on Lake Park Avenue and along 55th Street in the business district. 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, wrote Julia Abrahamson, the first director of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference and author of “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 establishment, the repair shop and the 55th Street Post Office had all disappeared.” The Hyde Park Mutual Protective Association would have been pleased — 46 taverns were gone.