By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
As we head to vote on Nov. 8, the importance of and ability to cast one’s vote has been an important theme of this election. 127 years ago those who chose not to vote were a critical factor directly affecting the future of the village of Hyde Park.
In 1872 the state legislature granted Hyde Park Township a village form of government. While the term “village” may imply a cozy settlement, the borders extended from 39th Street on the north to 138th Street on the south. This form of government combined the leadership of part-time elected officials (six trustees) with the expertise of a manager (the village president). Together they were responsible for setting village policy, determining the annual budget and taxes, and outlining special assessments in order to make much needed improvements.
During this period, the residential enclaves of Hyde Park and Kenwood at the northern end of the village developed an identity separate from the greater village of Hyde Park. Demographically, the residents there were on the wealthier end of the spectrum. For example, an average house cost $7,000 in contrast to the southern section where one cost $2,000. Geographically, the enclaves of Hyde Park and Kenwood were separated by the South Park system, which provided natural boundaries on both the southern and western borders. Washington Park and the adjacent community served as the boundary between the Union Stockyards further west. Although not yet planted, Jackson Park was to anchor the lakefront, while the Midway provided a narrow boundary line on the south.
Although the economic range of Hyde Park and Kenwood’s citizens within the township was expanding in the 1800s, the majority was of the business and professional class. They had greater resources to support their community as opposed the geographically separate and predominantly working-class population of the village’s southern industrial areas.
The idea of annexation of the village of Hyde Park began to make its way into the local paper in February 1885. The Hyde Park Herald came out strongly against any such proposition: “We do not at the present writing know who is behind the movement nor in what interest it is being pushed, but can say that we are first, last and all the time opposed to any such scheme.” They continued that it would be wise for the community to “hold her large and ambitious neighbor as far away from her as possible.”
However dissatisfaction with the village form of government increased year by year due to the growing disparity between northern and southern village residents. Added to that was the sheer impossibility that six part-time trustees could administer the needs of a village that had grown to a population of 60,000 by 1887. Various propositions were put forth to deal with a form of leadership that was clearly outdated. Ideas ranged from the division of the village into three separate villages where interests would be more fairly addressed, to annexation by the City of Chicago.
A meeting was held in the town hall in January of 1887 where residents of Kenwood, Oakland, Hyde Park, South Park and Woodlawn gathered to discuss the idea of annexation. Paul Cornell spoke on the topic and his resolution was carried by a wide margin. Of the many reasons against, the hot button appeared to be the issue of alcohol. It was feared with annexation the prohibition districts that were in place in these communities would be abolished, and saloons would rise near each of the train depot locations. As a result, by December of 1888 the city legislature was considering passing a law in which residents in any ward of the city could vote on continuing to license saloons and gin mills or not.
In addition to alcohol changing the atmosphere of the community, homeowners feared depreciation of their property values. The Herald questioned those supporting the measure, “Do they want to…discourage and retard immigration of the educated and refined families?”
Yet Hyde Park slowly drifted toward annexation, and the issue remained a particularly difficult one. Heavy pressure was applied by the city itself, as many dreamed of Chicago as the nation’s second-largest city by the time of the 1890 census. The newspapers, particularly the Chicago Tribune, took a strong stand for annexation. And the issue was clearly not immune to politics. The Herald recognized that Cook County was solidly Republican; however, the city was not so reliable, and often voted Democratic. To annex Hyde Park to Chicago “would make the latter a Republican city for all time to come.”
Voters supporting independence from the city, mainly from the northern portion of the village, organized late and lacked the ambition demonstrated by advocates of annexation. Alcohol aside, their low level of interest was most likely because the “silk-stocking” residents of Hyde Park, Kenwood, Oakland, and South Park enjoyed a number and quality of services not found in the rest of the village. Residents of the southern end of the village looked forward to the financial advantages of the city services rather than the demands for costly special assessments. According to the Herald these people were “uneasy and discontented, ready to catch at anything that may bring a change, and take the chance.”
There was an unexpectedly small turnout for the vote on Saturday June 29, 1889 with the citizens of the Hyde Park and Kenwood enclaves against the measure and the majority of the village favoring annexation. Hyde Park and Kenwood counted on getting half the citizenry to vote against the measure by ten that morning, but it became clear only a third would vote that hot summer day. The results were decisive: Kenwood voted to stay apart from the city, 237 to 146, Hyde Park center felt the same, 197 to 117. South Chicago was solid in a strong show of support for annexation – voting in favor of the measure of 1,292 to 140.
Kenwood resident Annie Hitchcock later spoke of “the disastrous day when Hyde Park Village voted itself part of Chicago, so selling its birthright.” Her opinion echoed many of those who resided in the northern section of the village. The vote to approve the annexation of Hyde Park and other suburbs made Chicago the second-largest city in the country, adding an area of 126 square miles.
Three short years later the Chicago Tribune wrote that by May of 1892, the village was no more. In the twenty-five short years since the founding of the village, the small prairie settlements had evolved and traces of the early days began to disappear. “Maybe lake water, and gas, and paved streets, and electric lights, and taxes had something to do with it. At any rate, the birds . . . and the rabbits and the flowers are all gone. And so is Hyde Park.”