[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?
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."