Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Harper Court Was, and Is, A Bad Idea

Harper Court is a failure. By the measures of its own founding mission to "further trade and economic development of the Hyde Park-Kenwood area," or to assist with the "continuation in the community of artisans, craftsmen ... of special cultural or community significance" it has failed from the very beginning. The artists and craftsmen it was intended for didn't move in. It is as much a product --in the very design and layout of the buildings -- of a 60s worldview as the Urban Renewal programs against which is was a response. Those who are attached to Harper Court are in love with its mission, and blind to the empirical fact that the site and the institution have not met their own goals nor met the pressing and changing needs of the community.

Harper Court has failed in its mission to "further trade and economic development." There are now more low-rent, vacant storefronts in Hyde Park than can be filled with tenants, while Hyde Parkers are still unable to shop for essentials in their own neighborhood. In light of the large sums of consumer dollars that are spent outside of the neighborhood, it is clear that Harper Court has not alleviated the drought of retail amenities that afflicts the neighborhood. Subsidizing small business does not economically benefit those who are burdened with frequent and costly voyages outside the neighborhood to procure quality food and clothing. In fact, it ignores this very real problem in the pursuit of an ideological chimera, and aggravates strucutral disadvantages that disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. The object of any redevelopment project or corporation should be to help draw money to our neighborhood, and above all to keep neighborhood money in the neighborhood. That is the best way to preserve the distinctiveness of Hyde Park and pursue social justice.

Harper Court was also intended as a refuge for artisans displaced from land clearance programs under Urban Renewal. Here its failure is even more apparent. Hyde Park currently has a thriving artistic culture, and it has nothing to do with Harper Court. Two self-governing artistic institutions have made Hyde Park their home, the Hyde Park Art Center and the Experimental Station. Evidently, for neither organization was the physical layout, location, or mission of Harper Court attractive. The failure of Harper Court in this respect is a symptom of its top-down, utopian-style approach to community planning. A philanthropist and some well-meaning activists thought they knew what artists and artisans wanted. They were wrong.

Beyond the empirical failures, the approach of Harper Court to commercial revitalization is backwards. Focusing on and subsidizing local businesses in fact guarantees that we have no businesses. The fixation on getting "local" businesses and keeping out "chains" is an aesthetic and ideologically-driven one that is uninformed as to the nature of entrepreneurialism and small-business dynamics. To get "local" businesses, you first of all need local entrepreneurs, and to judge by the number of empty storefronts, Hyde Parkers aren't jumping at the opportunity. Even if such entrepreneurs could be found, allowing their operations to be subsidized would not guarantee that the real -- as opposed to imaginary community in Hyde Park -- gets what it needs.

The preference for "local" businesses typically stands in opposition to a distaste for "chains." This stance quickly becomes problematic. The natural tendency of a good business is to grow. As soon as you have more than one branch, you are technically a chain. Several of Hyde Park's most well-known "local" businesses are now chains: the Medici, Toys Etc., the Seminary Co-Op, Powell's Books. Istria, if it ever manages to open its Cornell Avenue location, will then be a chain, and may expand into the rest of Chicago. Intelligentsia, the much-loved, Chicago-based purveyors of fine coffees, now has branches in the Loop and is opening in Los Angeles.

The fixation on subsidizing "local" business assumes that the best of everything can be found in one very small neighborhood, and that it is therefore justifiable to keep non-local things out. This gets the cause-and-effect of vibrant neighborhoods backwards. Local neighborhoods, the kinds that people love to live in and that others come to visit, don't emerge out of purely local conditions. They have strong economies that draw in outsiders, both to open businesses and to patronize them.

The most distinctive neighborhood shopping districts in Chicago have very few chains: Damen in Bucktown between North and Armitage; Armitage and Halsted in south Lincoln Park; and Central Street in Evanston. All of these shopping districts are full of local businesses. Hyde Park should be trying to replicate these areas, not tinkering with a flawed and obsolete redevelopment concept.

But Harper Court isn't only flawed in terms of its redevelopment track record. It is flawed in the very nature of its layout and buildings. Harper Court looks like a ski lodge in Aspen, not like a part of Hyde Park. More generally, Harper Court embodies the 60s era of urban design, when the whole trend of things was to close oneself off, to look within, to establish buffers between a given site and the "outside." This was the spirit that animated the design of Urban Renewal itself, a spirit that was shared by the design of Harper Court.

Harper Avenue was cut off, making the complex difficult to access, find, or even see. The very idea of a "court" was foreign to Chicago, based as it is on a grid of walkable pedestrian thoroughfares with storefronts coming to and meeting the lot lines. Everything about Harper Court is intended to isolate it -- never a good idea for business. It is of the same vintage as the State Street pedestrian mall, and about as effective. City leaders had the good sense to reopen State Street, and it has flourished. The whole trend of modern urban design is to connect places, not to cut them off.

Harper Avenue should be reopened. The buildings of Harper Court, which should have outraged preservationists when they were first built, did not and still don't fit with the period architecture that surrounds them. They should be torn down and replaced. This site is too small to house the large number of tenants for which it was intended. Modern retail demands larger spaces for fewer tenants. Whatever assets belong to the Foundation should be liquidated and transferred to a Hyde Park Trust for the Arts. These monies could then be used to fund juried, competitive, competitions in the arts, which would sponsor projects in the neighborhood and throughout the City. By being juried and competitive, but based in Hyde Park, it would bring the best of the City and the nation here, instead of making public art the object of public committees devoted to local clients.

We don't need more top-down economic and cultural central-planning posing as community control. Merchants and shoppers are part of the community too, and right now they are not sufficiently represented.


Elizabeth Fama said...

Nice photo. It's an interesting, separate issue, to me that many businesses in Hyde Park (the ones that are succeeding) don't aspire to have more "curb appeal." But perhaps that reflects the fact that people from out of the neighborhood don't shop here, so there's no need to attract them visually.

chicago pop said...

Glad you like the photo. I stole it from some shopping website. Should get up there and take my own, but this will do for now!

As far as curb-appeal, Istria has set a new bar; Indian Village will jump on the hipness scale if/when they open up in the HPAC.

curtsy said...

Yes, it is hard to believe (even inconceivable) that there is really anyone who still clings fondly to the dump that is Harper Court. Of course there was time when it was a veritable "Garden of Eden", when a vibrant community, based on mutual respect and a keen sense of game strategy, gathered to kibitz around an "integrated grid." Now, those were truly enlightened times. Alas, they tore down "paradise" and put up a subsidized Checkerboard...

However, I'm confused by your shot of West Cortland as an example of the sort of retail district Harper Court(land) should look like. Cortland between the Kennedy and Damen is primarily residential, no? And how could Harper Court be replaced with a early 20th Century streetscape? Harper Court - nothing that a can or two of gasoline couldn't fix.

chicago pop said...

"And how could Harper Court be replaced with a early 20th Century streetscape?"

The simple answer is: build it to look like one. Open Harper up again, remove the "pavillion" architecture, and reconstitute the block betwee 53rd and 52nd with context-appropriate construction.

A lot of the better redevelopment throughout Chicago takes its cue from what got built between 1880 and 1929: mixed-use, street-fronting, pedestrian-friendly low-rise architecture. It's no trick to build this way, and in fact people like it. Much of Halsted near UIC has been done this way, for example.

chicago pop said...

"I'm confused by your shot of West Cortland as an example of the sort of retail district Harper Court(land) should look like. Cortland between the Kennedy and Damen is primarily residential, no?"

I removed this photo because it's not helpful and possibly confusing, as this comment points out.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Even if that (removed) photo didn't represent what Harper Court should look like, it can still be compared to other areas of Hyde Park in a different discussion, since our other retail sites (53rd, 55th, 57th) are also residential. Most shops along those corridors are in the storefront of apartment buildings, as in that photo.

chicago pop said...

"Even if that (removed) photo didn't represent what Harper Court should look like, it can still be compared to other areas of Hyde Park in a different discussion."

This is true. In fact, a good example of what could happen in that space will be right next door, at the Harper Theater complex soon to be redeveloped by the University. It's going to make HC look even more shabby.

curtsy said...

And I truly love the look of that era's streetscape (1880-1929.) However, your proposal smacks of some Disney-esque "Main Street, U.S.A." approach to recreating a "golden age." The strip-mining and redevelopment of the former Maxwell Street corridor is a "wonderful" example of an "urban" theme park.

Although I suspect this is not your intent, "context-appropriate construction" is reminscent of the sort of argument presented by those who would have all of campus one Neo-Gothic theme park.

What was lost forever was the one-time vital vintage Chicago streetscape that was 55th Street. With 20/20 hindsight, we can see that it was a mistake with long-term consequences. However, I recently had to hold back from laughing out loud when a chatty elderly resident on the 5700 block of Harper, upon learning that I resided on Monoxide Island, responded, "Worst mistake THEY ever made!" Classic "Old" Hyde Park -- still railing against events from almost 50 years ago. I might have gently countered, "I thought the restrictive convenants were probably a bigger mistake."

chicago pop said...

To our friend in Monoxide Island: the suspicion that recreating a "Disney-esque "Main Street, U.S.A" is not our intent is correct, though it's true that this reaction is one of the common critiques of the New Urbanism and its call for "context-appropriate" architecture.

SR said...

“Of course there was time when it was a veritable "Garden of Eden", when a vibrant community, based on mutual respect and a keen sense of game strategy, gathered to kibitz around an "integrated grid."”

Ah, the chess players. A friend of mine was putting together a freelance article about their expulsion and interviewed the owner of the Cafe Coffee, one of the Harper Court business owners who insisted that the chess players were putting her out of business by scaring people away from her storefront (oh they were a terrifying bunch alright, you could tell they’d just as soon kill you as attack your queen).

Somehow the new Starbucks half a block away (and on the busy street corner instead of tucked away in Harper Court) never came up in her description of her business woes. (My friend had happened not to notice the Starbucks there before his interview with her; maybe it’s ubiquitous enough to be invisible or something). Cafe Coffee of course went out of business anyway shortly after the removal of the chess benches.

Too bad; I actually got the first decent cup of joe of my life at that place.