All history begins in the local

Neal Harris making his remarks after receiving the Paul Cornell Award from the Hyde Park Historical Society last Saturday at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 E. 57th St. Marc Monaghan
Neal Harris making his remarks after receiving the Paul Cornell Award from the Hyde Park Historical Society last Saturday at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 E. 57th St.

-Marc Monaghan

Editor’s note: University of Chicago historian Neil Harris, who has for many years made local history a special part of his work, was acknowledged last Saturday by the Hyde Park Historical Society for his dedication to Hyde Park and its past. These are a slightly edited version of his remarks.


It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight, and accept the Paul Cornell Award. I thank the directors and all those responsible for the decision. I am especially happy to have had this long connection with the Hyde Park Historical Society, whose work in documenting, preserving, popularizing, and dramatizing the special significance of our community across time, has been so successful. In the spirit of the evening, let me say a few words.

As a practicing historian I have always been impressed by the immense scope of time and space that makes subjects for research and writing so available. Thousands of years, and the immensity of the globe to choose from among in deciding what to work on. It is a huge feast, filled with the exotic and the arcane. But as an individual I am reminded of how much can be packed into the experience of a single life time of seven or eight decades, and into the immediate physical space any of us happens to fill.

I came to Hyde Park in 1969, 46 years ago. In theory my memory should be able to cover the events taking place during that time. Len Despres was alderman, Richard J. Daley was mayor, Ab Mikva was our congressman, and Edward Levi was president of the University of Chicago. Urban renewal had just about finished its course here, with dozens of new townhouses scattered about. Kenwood High School, now Kenwood Academy, opened its doors on Lake Park Avenue the year I arrived. The 1968 Democratic Convention, with all the trauma attached to it, had occurred just months earlier, and when I sent back my acceptance letter to a job offer from the University of Chicago, they couldn’t answer it right away because the Administration Building was occupied by students. Two big high rises, 1700 E. 56th Street and Cornell Village were just opening. Regents Park would come just a couple of years later, in stages. Regenstein Library was completed in 1970. Striking events, and many others can be added.

But I realize, with some shock, that if I had met someone in 1969, the year of my arrival, who had spent the same number of 46 years here in Hyde Park that I have, he or she would have brought me in touch, with recollections going all the way to 1923. My living historical source, my counterpart, in 1923, two lifetimes ago, would soon be experiencing events like the Loeb and Leopold trials, the death of John Dillinger, or the arrival of Robert Hutchins as president of the University of Chicago. These were all to take place years in the future, but he or she might have just witnessed the dedication of Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time or the opening of Rockefeller Chapel. Just three years earlier, in 1920, Chicago voters approved a bond issue to create what is now Soldier Field and Promontory Point. In 1923 neither the Shoreland nor the Windermere East had yet been built, nor Jackson Towers or The Cloisters or Vista Homes or a dozen other local apartment high rises. The Great Migration, the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, urban renewal, demolition, deconstruction, reconstruction, these also were ahead. Had I found the right person, had I been motivated enough, it is astonishing what I could have discovered in conversation about the epochal changes–political, demographic, social, physical–that had transformed our city and our neighborhood. I confess that if I were interviewed by someone today, I don’t think my memories from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, would be anywhere as monumental as my counterpart’s. But perhaps, 46 years from now, in 2061, that view would change.

The larger point of all this is that history, aside from great events and personages and wars and dynasties, is what happens to each of us, where we live and work. It is built out of the intensely personal encounters, memories, and impressions that form our daily life. The immediate, the local, the area in which we live deserve our attention. Their study will immeasurably reward our consciousness, even though historians are tempted to move far beyond these limits in time and space, searching for something beyond what we could have experienced. You, and all those attached to the Hyde Park Historical Society, recognize the importance of protecting local memory as a means of knowing who we are and have been. And there is lots more to learn. Thanks to digitization and the web we now have census reports available dating back to 1940, that can be used to support ongoing investigation into who lived here, and when. The art and collecting history of our neighborhood , as I discovered when I was preparing a lecture last fall at the Hyde Park Historical Society, is barely scratched. Wonders are yet ahead of us.

Local history remains the building block for all of global history, the place in which we can see the impact of great social, technological, and artistic changes, but where we can test hypotheses and modify easy generalizations about the world at large. My own historical trajectory has moved back and forth between the local and the international, between examinations of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago publishing and journalism, Chicago architecture and local politics, and events in New York, Washington, London, Paris, and the great world beyond. This is one of the things that makes Hyde Park so special, a neighborhood whose history – in politics, the arts, sports, scholarship, literature, urban planning, architecture–mirrors and shapes so much of the whole thrust of the last 100 years or so. The names of those who lived or worked here – Frank Lloyd Wright, Saul Bellow, Laura and Enrico Fermi, Milton Friedman, Mies van der Rohe, Frederick Law Olmsted, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Julius Rosenwald, Thorstein Veblen, Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Clarence Darrow, Harold Washington, Sherwood Anderson, Barack Obama – summon up, collectively, the whole history, not simply of this area but of our world and of our era. So, accepting the award, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of so many of you here, and to express, once more, my appreciation.