Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Harper Court Torpedo Factory!

posted by chicago pop

Proposed Harper Court Torpedo Factory

[T]he converted torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va. ... [has] demonstrated the success of art colonies on a national basis. -- Charlotte Des Jardins

Every now and then, you hear something about a ham radio operator who picks up the transmission of a radio show or television episode from 1955 -- an Eisenhower speech, or an episode of The Twilight Zone -- that had been bouncing around the stratosphere for half a century before it crackled to life in some hobbyist's basement.

That's kind of what it felt like to read the letter from Charlotte Des Jardins in The Hyde Park Herald (October 10, 2007). Though we usually get plenty of signals from Planet NIMBY, this one had to be coming from an object far, far beyond the NIMBY belt -- a transmission lost in space, a time capsule of sorts, a relic from another age, from the dark moon Urban Renewal.

How else to explain the insistence in this letter that times hadn't changed, that there was still some kind of mission for Harper Court to fill, and it was pretty much the same idealistic and impractical vision that inaugurated the institution's construction in 1965? Advocates of Harper Court usually state their case by reciting the origins of the project as a community effort to house artisans and small businesses displaced by urban clearance, though it failed to accomplish this initially, and has had only patchy success ever since, as we argued in a previous post.

While the advocates of Harper Court see Jacobean tragedy -- with betrayals, double-crossing acronyms, and sordid revelations, -- in the decision to try to sell the property two years ago, the rest of us wonder why we don't just get on with it.

How long would you wait, after all, to fix something if it isn't working? A few days? A week or two? Maybe six months? In the case of Harper Court, it's taken decades for the accumulated failure of the institution to become manifest.

Perhaps a review of some of the things that haven't worked out in the meantime would help give us some perspective. Does anyone want any of these back?

The Vietnam War (1959-1975)
The Robert Taylor Homes (1962-1987)
The Soviet Union (1917-1991)

Unlike these great and failed episodes of human history, Harper Court is still with us. When something isn't working, like a war, or a housing project, or a communist country, you stand a really good chance of doing better if you just wipe the whole slate clean and start with something new. That's what should be done here.

But let's look at the letter's argument itself. The opening paragraph reveals a paradoxical complacency -- nothing gets built here, and why would we want it to? -- with the state of affairs in the neighborhood, a curious fatalism, not only about the ability of Hyde Park to attract development, but even about its desirability. Is this a future-oriented vision?

Do we really need another high rise in Hyde Park? Is there really a rush of developers to build a high rise at 53rd Street/Cornell Avenue [currently being demolished to make way for a developer to build a high rise! -- ed.] and 53rd Street/Kenwood Avenue -- two sites that have been empty for years? So, why are plans to build a high-rise in Harper Court proceeding, when there are other neighborhood properties that have been vacant for years?

The first sentence would imply that we have a glut of high-rises in the neighborhood, which is difficult to demonstrate. The presence of vacant lots or empty buildings -- one of which is currently being cleared for development -- is put forward as a sort of fatalist argument for letting thing be -- because nothing has changed in the past.

But then when things do change, that's an even better argument for leaving Harper Court alone.

The demolition of Harper Court does not make sense, especially at this time when major portions of 53rd Street are being improved by maintaining their original character [which differs radically from that of Harper Court -- ed.]

So because nothing is changing (i.e., vacant lots) we shouldn't redevelop Harper Court, and because things are changing (i.e., 53rd Street/Harper building) we shouldn't redevelop Harper Court.

The weakest argument of the letter is the suggestion that a renewed Harper Court could somehow accomplish what it has failed to do since the beginning: become the home to a community of artists and artisans. Hyde Park is already home to two flourishing artistic communities, and neither of them have anything to do with Harper Court: the Hyde Park Art Center, and the Experimental Station at Blackstone and 61st Street. If the artists who come to Hyde Park are setting up shop elsewhere, what does that tell you?

Harper Court Torpedo Factory Signage

Obviously, that you need a torpedo factory. Like the one in Alexandria, Virginia, with its 72,000 square feet of space, overlooking the Potomac River, with plentiful natural light, and constructed with slightly more durability than a Brady Bunch-era rec room.

Harper Court can be an ongoing conduit for the marketing of art in its multiple forms. Several models in other parts of the country -- notably the converted torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va. -- have demonstrated the success of art colonies on a national basis.

The analogies with Harper Court are overwhelming. All it takes is a major municipal grant to tear down Harper Court, built an old torpedo factory, and then convert it to gallery space for the artists who come to the 57th Street Art Fair.

One thing is for sure about Hyde Parkers: they took Daniel Burnham seriously when he advised "make no little plans."


Peter Rossi said...

what Ms. Des Jardins does not remember (yes, I was there too) is that Harper Court never lived up to the vision as a place of artists and other bohemians displayed by urban renewal. From the very beginning, it was a collection of merchants of all sorts. The "anchor" tenants in 1966 where the "Chances R" Saloon (burgers and beer) and SCAN (cheap furniture). These had nothing to do with art of any kind. They did not require a subsidy or low rents to encourage. They reflected the fact that people in hyde park would buy burgers and inexpensive but semi-stylist furniture.

The problem here is that density is so low in Hyde Park that we can't support this sort of reasonable retail.

Where are the artists that a reborn Harper Court would hope to attract come from? Why would they want to locate in a our community? Won't they want to be in River North or Wicker Park where there are throngs of people interested in their wares? Hyde Park doesn't have the population anymore to support Art galleries or potters.

Famac said...

Taking Peter's history lesson a little further - where any artists actually displaced by the building of Minoxide Manor and all of the C, D, E & F townboxes?

Reading up on it a while back, I seem to recall these areas were the home of some pretty rough bars (with hookers, etc) that the University wanted eliminated.

But I too found myself stunned by that letter in the Herald. It was very Dali-like actually.

chicago pop said...

Dali-like, as in Salvador Dali, as in surreal? If so, then that about hits the nail on the head!

chicago pop said...

RE displaced artists and small businesspersons, there was a small colony of craftsmen on 57th near Stony Island -- very cool when you see pictures of it -- and this was one of the first victims of clearance. Then, on 55th, virtually everything from Harper/Blackstone to Cottage Grove was leveled; formerly, it had looked like 55th east of the Metra tracks, and 53rd around Harper.

So there was indeed a lot of displacement. What happened, however, was that very few of the individuals for whom the spaces at Harper Court were intended stuck around and actually located there.

Thereafter, the design of the building - with small and poorly ventilated spaces, its location away from foot traffic, and various structural problems (wiring, shoddy windows, doors, etc.) kept the site from being attractive either to dynamic small business or to real craftsmen.

LPB said...

Based on the limited knowledge I have about Old Town Alexandria, where the Torpedo Factor is located, it seems that there is a larger tourist and development dynamic in the area surrounding the Torpedo Factory that has contributed to the latter's success. The TF is located in an area that also has a marina, shops, parks, museums, restaurants and residences. Plus, it has the draw of enough historic sites that there are actually organized walking tours for the tourist crowd. I'm less confident that the Torpedo Factory could have succeeded as a stand-alone entity if it had not been "planted" in its current environment. What if the TF had been located in a place with no vibrant tourist economy, no historic sites, stores that sell vitamins and cell phones, a laundromat, and restaurants like Mellow Yellow? In other words, what if it had been located on a stretch by 53rd street in Hyde Park?

I'm not suggesting that it's impossible for Hyde Park to replicate the success of the TF, just that in order to do so, the community and neighborhood would have to seriously reconstruct itself into something that is very different from what it is today. Further, considering the pervasive existing NIMBYism that permeates many corners of the community, I would put the probability of ever transforming Hyde Park into anything closely resembling Old Town Alexandria at less than 0.01%.

Finally, Ms. Des Jardins' letter to the Herald with her suggestion that the TF in Alexandria is a good model for Harper Court did not include her analysis (if any) of what key factors made the TF work out so well, and to what degree Hyde Park also offers those those conditions. I'm very curious to hear her analysis. If she is reading this blog, or if any of her friends/neighbors/acquaintances are doing so, I'd strongly encourage her to post her analysis here, where folks aren't constrained by space limits at the Herald.

Also, if anyone has personally visited or spent time in Old Town Alexandria, I'd love to hear your impressions of what the area is like and how it's different from Hyde Park.

Elizabeth Fama said...

LPB said many of the things that I found when I looked up the Torpedo Factory online after Ms. Des Jardins mentioned it in her letter. I'd take it one step further and say that the financial origin of the TF is unlikely to be replicated at Harper Court, too.

The city of Alexandria bought the TF from the federal government in 1969. A city post was created especially for a woman named Marian Van Landingham, called "Director of the Art Center" after she proposed turning it into an artist colony.

In 1974 city workers and the artists themselves cleaned up the interior of the building and created rudimentary studio spaces. The artists stuck it out like that for years, enduring winters with almost no heat, for example.

In 1982, the entire structure was rehabbed as part of the city's waterfront development plan, with 84 studios for 160 artists -- tailoring the studios to the artists' specialties, and creating gallery spaces. From the description online, the artists allow visitors to watch them work, and visitors can browse the galleries. And as LPB mentioned, there are restaurants and parks nearby.

Thus, this 72,000 square-foot building had already proven its attractiveness to artists and to tourists, even before it got beefed up with city dollars. This just doesn't seem analogous to the Harper Court situation.

I suppose Ms. Des Jardins can dream. But I don't see the city of Chicago stepping in like this.

Peter Rossi said...

thanks to beth for her wonderful research on the TF.

It is irresponsible to suggest options that clearly are not feasible here.

curtsy said...

Irresponsible? Or just impractical, not applicable, and not well-researched?

chicago pop said...

curtsy left this comment earlier and it got lost:
Well, hello Dali, here, I thought famac was referencing the Dali Lama!

If you will, another report from Miss Emily Litella ...

Emily Litella: Hi! Hi, I'm -- I'm Emily Litella, and I'm SO excited! It's my first time at Mardi Gras, [ a riverboat horn blares ] Ooh! Do you hear that?! Well, that's the liverboat, coming down the Mississippi with LOADS of liver! And I'm standing here with Captain Devero Boyee, who is a captain of a BIG liverboat! Just like the one you just heard! Tell me, Captain - just how did the tradition of the liverboat start? Now, I know liver is rich in iron and vitamins, but so is PORK! Now, why aren't there PORK boats?!

Captain Devero Boyee: Well --

Emily Litella: I mean -- I mean, if you're gonna have liverboats, you should also have some bacon, and some onions -- I can't believe it! What is -- what is --?

Captain Devero Boyee: Miss Litella!

Emily Litella: What?!

Captain Devero Boyee: I'm the captain of a riverboat! A riverboat! Not a liverboat, a riverboat! We take leisurely cruises up and down the Mississippi.

Emily Litella: Ohhhhhh! Oh, well, that's very different!

Captain Devero Boyee: Yes.

Emily Litella: Never mind!