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Chicago/Hyde Park

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Dec 16, 2021
article - Chicago/Hyde Park

Hyde Park is one of Chicago‘s most famous neighborhoods, most certainly so on the South Side, located along the south lakefront. Having played host to the White City, the University of Chicago, President Obama, the setting for Richard Wright’s Native Son, and a host of eccentric residents from Saul Bellow to Clarence Darrow to Muhammad Ali, this part of town has more than its fair share of Chicago history.

The Statue of the Republic in Jackson Park

There is more than enough for a visitor to see here, and devoting a full day to exploring Hyde Park can make for a fine itinerary. Architecture buffs will have their hands occupied by the many Victorian mansions and Prairie School houses; anyone with an intellectual bent should be delighted by Hyde Park’s independent bookstores, overawed by the University of Chicago’s terrifying intensity, and intrigued by the Oriental Institute; and just about everyone will enjoy a trip to the stimulating Museum of Science and Industry or taking a stroll and a swim along the Point and the beach.

. . . Chicago/Hyde Park . . .

The White City

Aside from Rockefeller’s decision to locate the university here, the neighborhood’s biggest event was without a doubt The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, celebrating the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ first arrival in the New World. The event was designed largely by Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham, and brought visitors (and exhibitions) from all over the world. The magnificently landscaped parks were all Olmstead’s creation, which sparked a wave of “municipal beautification,” to which Chicago owes the creation of many of its fantastic parks. Olmstead initially planned to dredge a canal along the Midway, topped by arched bridges, but costs and technical difficulties scrapped the plan (the plan was tried again in the 1920s, but was again canceled after the 1929 stock market crash).

Exhibitions were displayed in Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance. Attractions ranged from the world’s first Ferris Wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the “Street in Cairo,” performances by Scott Joplin, Balinese gamelan, and the first East-West international gathering of religious leaders. But the crowning glory was the White City, a collection of gleaming white neoclassical buildings in Jackson Park, watched over by the enormous golden Statue of the Republic.

The Columbian Exposition raised Chicago’s international profile in spectacular fashion, and left it with some very well sculptured buildings and parks. Unfortunately, tragedy waited around the corner for the area. The fair provided the setting for one of the country’s first serial killers, who lured victims to his “World Fair Hotel,” where they met with grisly murders (Devil in the White City makes for a good read on a visit here). The fair also brought to Chicago a smallpox epidemic, and the city mayor was assassinated two days before the closing ceremony. Perhaps most cruelly, the White City burned down shortly after the fair ended, leaving only two landmarks — the still magnificent Museum of Science and Industry and the golden Statue of the Republic.

Kenwood developed into one of Chicago’s most upscale suburbs after the Civil War, and its Kenwood Historic District between Cottage Grove & Blackstone and 47th & 51st is a treasure trove of mansions representing virtually all the fashionable architectural styles of the late 19th century (including an excellent collection of early houses by Frank Lloyd Wright). The mansion owners are of interest too — their ranks include Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Obama family, and the city’s oldest Jewish community. Former residents range from the infamous Leopold and Loeb, Muhammad Ali, the fictional Dalton family from Native Son, and the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad.

The central Hyde Park neighborhood is the biggest draw, dominated by the rather awesome presence of the University of Chicago. During the 1950s, desegregation fueled extensive “white flight” from this area, transforming the racial make up of nearly the entire South Side from all white to all black. Here, however, the University of Chicago leveraged its financial power, political clout, and social engineering brainpower to muscle through the city’s first “urban renewal” project. This project, unflatteringly referred to by many neighborhood residents as “urban removal,” used eminent domain powers to demolish urban housing developments, to remove nightclubs and bars, and to make the neighborhood more suburban in character (and to decimate the commercial strip on 55th St west of the railroad).

The project was paternalist, classist, and evicted many if not the majority of the neighborhood’s low-income residents, but the end result of the University-driven “renewal” project is that Hyde Park is to this day one of the nation’s most durable mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, and is home to one of the only significant white communities for miles on the South Side. Hyde Park maintains its unique characteristics in its unique isolation from the rest of the city: no convenient L service, giant Washington Park to the west, frigid-in-the-winter Midway Plaisance to the south, and persistent redevelopment projects pushing to the north through Kenwood and to the south through Woodlawn.

Today, Hyde Park is full of amazing bookstores, leafy streets, the siren song of cheap greasy food, great museums, and more Nobel Prizes per square kilometer than any other neighborhood on Earth.

Woodlawn, to the south of the Midway, south of the University, is characterized by urban blight. With high levels of violent crime (especially by the 63rd St Green Line stops), blocks worth of vacant lots, and lacking in commercial activity, Woodlawn is well off the beaten tourist path. But Jackson Park (as well as the areas of Woodlawn close to the park) is perfectly safe, and a beautiful place for a walk. 63rd St still has a few remaining businesses from its salad days, but is not a great place to hang out after dark.

. . . Chicago/Hyde Park . . .

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