By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
The basic characteristics of Lake Park Avenue change dramatically when one heads south of the 55th Street intersection and toward 57th Street. The roadway narrows and there is but one building that remains along the Illinois Central embankment on the east, an old cable car building that is now the headquarters of the Hyde Park Historical Society. The street now has a residential feel, although it is mostly garages that now face the avenue on its western flank. Only the “Pepperland” apartment building, on the south end of Lake Park Avenue as it makes it turn to the east and merges with Stony Island Avenue, remains to indicate the flavor of the street’s earliest days.
Before the World’s Fair of 1893, an awning-shaded ice cream emporium occupied the first floor of B.J. Parker’s building on the northwest corner of the 57th Street and Lake Street intersection. Then, a combination two-story frame business establishments and residences could be found on the west side of Lake Street stretching between 55th and 57th streets. These two blocks kept evolving as brick and concrete structures replaced most of the earlier frame ones by the time of the Sanborn map update in 1925. Then the large-scale garage was a common feature along the street —although the wagon and hay shed had not outlived its usefulness. Other commercial enterprises included an ice making facility, an auto paint shop, upholstery store and a lamp manufacturer, all found on either side of Cable Court, where the cable cars made their turn-around. On the second and third floors of many of these structures were walk-up apartments, with copper bays that allowed sunlight and ventilation to permeate the residences.
The community withstood a depression and witnessed two wars, and as the decades passed, this area became noted for its worn and problematic buildings. The sun-dappled awnings of the ice cream parlor no longer offered a respite from the summer’s heat, and by the early ’50s the once-suburban neighborhood entered a period marked by turbulence and change. Like many residential communities within large cities across the country, Hyde Park was in decline due to the influx of lower-income residents and the flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs. The university found itself surrounded by the inner city; the character of the neighborhood had shifted and once charming buildings now showed signs of age, neglect and misuse.
Hyde Park followed a trend that seemed inevitable: older neighborhoods grew more blighted, and were bulldozed as part of slum clearance programs. Sections of the neighborhood remained attractive; however, the housing shortage created during the war years meant hundreds of dwellings were cut up into kitchenettes. The failure to enforce building and zoning codes increased pressure on both the housing stock and community facilities.
The huge racial shift of the city’s south side strained the neighborhood’s increasingly tenuous infrastructure and housing stock; overcrowding steadily increased as residents moved further southward to find better housing. A 1952 study found that many buildings were badly deteriorated and portions of the area were threatened by “creeping blight.” Additionally, the police district of which the neighborhood was part had one of the highest crime rates in the city.
Confronted by crime and surrounded by poverty and decline, the University of Chicago faced a 60 percent drop in student applications and increasing difficulty in recruiting faculty. After years of substantial investment in the campus, a solution to the crisis of urban decay and sweeping racial change was a matter of urgency to the institution. President Lawrence A. Kimpton and the board of trustees gave serious thought to relocating, but decided to remain for as one faculty member noted, there was not much of a market for a gothic university.
For the university this decision represented the culmination of decades of a guarded approach to involvement with the surrounding community. The turning point followed a sensational event — the home invasion, robbery and kidnapping of a faculty member’s wife. When the community erupted in anger and fear, a mass meeting was held in May 1952, attended by more than 1,000 residents who demanded the university address the growing problems. Now recognizing that conservative ambition would not solve the difficulties, the university decided to act and made a commitment to the stabilization of the neighborhood with the foundation of the South East Chicago Commission (SECC).
The SECC left no doubt as to the university’s position. Financed by the institution, the commission took the initiative “in order to combat the forces of uncertainty and deterioration at work in the neighborhood.” The initial goal of the SECC was to increase police protection, enforce building codes and promote residential stability. But the most far-reaching project was a plan for developing the area’s most seriously deteriorated areas while fighting to create a controlled, integrated environment.
The university and the SECC sought to direct the city’s policy away from the destruction of slums and toward the preservation of sound but threatened neighborhoods through a targeted renewal program. At this time land clearance was the primary mechanism available to the city to deal with the problems; a program where specific demolition could save a larger community was a new idea. However, in response to concerns of the neighborhood a large swath of land in the center of the community was cleared of structures deemed beyond repair. The targeted approach would come later.
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. Residents were anxious about the community’s problems, and the university pushed hard to ensure that this portion happened quickly. The plan for this area 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 Street to Kimbark Avenue, and a small section on 54th Street at Dorchester Avenue were demolished. The cleared acreage represented 6.5 percent of the total area of Hyde Park and contained 9 percent of the community’s dwelling units. However, this area contained 41 percent of the total substandard housing units within the entire Hyde Park community.
Land clearance, and the subsequent urban renewal program, became one of the most far-reaching events in the history of Hyde Park — just as the founding of the university and the Columbian Exposition had transformed the area over a half-century earlier. Although it was carried out with a high degree of local participation, that is not to suggest that the process was free of controversy, for it was a titanic struggle to define what 900 acres of the city would become.
Many compromises were made during urban renewal; some were unpopular and had lasting effects. Many people believed the university played too strong a role, and others found bias and error. But in the end the greatest compromise was to accept that renewal would not be a success unless the community rejected segregation and used social class to produce an integrated community. Despite all of the democratic participation, investment of capital, volume of building, removal of blighted structures and acceptance of integration, many of those who had the means deserted Hyde Park. Between 1960 and 1970, the community lost nearly 28 percent of its population. Although they left for varying reasons, overall nearly 30,000 people moved from the community, lowering Hyde Park–Kenwood’s population to 46,035 in 1970 from 71,689 pre-renewal.
Despite the controversy, demolition and displacement, the Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood after urban renewal was a far cry from the New York Times declaration of the area at the height of process as resembling “German cities just after World War II.” Although the neighborhood had to destroy parts of itself for the whole to survive, the plan achieved the university’s goal of creating a stable community.
In the end, the Hyde Park–Kenwood urban renewal project become one of the largest ever undertaken in the United States. The neighborhood held up in the face of an enormous challenge and survived as a middle-class, racially integrated and architecturally significant community.