Friday, February 15, 2008

How Not to Market Hyde Park

posted by chicago pop

A little while ago, I was part of a focus group sponsored by the University of Chicago. I was curious just how this was going to work. I've been in focus groups where I was asked to imagine myself as a certain brand of nasal spray and then describe the car I'd drive, or asked, "If you were a disposable baby wipe, which L stop would you get off at?"

In this case, we were spared the application of method acting to consumer products. It was just nice (free!) dinner conversation among strangers. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to help put together a little brochure promoting Hyde Park living to prospective faculty and staff. We were asked what we liked about the neighborhood, and I agreed with most of it.

The University claims that "more than 60%" of faculty currently live in the neighborhood, which is apparently a lot compared to peer institutions, so I'm not quite sure what the problem is. But if the University even feels the need to do more to attract professors, that's telling you something right there.

Going into this, I knew that if you actually get out and talk to professors across the disciplines, it's clear that a lot of them would be living on the North Side if it weren't for the very powerful attraction of living close to work. Or getting their kids more conveniently to and from the Lab School. A lot of grad students take their stipends and scoot over to Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, or Logan Square.

That, in fact, is the essence of an observation reported in the opening salvo of this blog, Why Hyde Park Progress? "It's great for kids, but is basically boring."

Although the company was pleasant, the way the focus group itself shaped up, I must say, did not give me confidence in the prowess of the University to sell Hyde Park to potential hires. In fact, the little meeting managed to elicit a lot of the attitudes that make other Chicagoans want to throw rotten organic tomatoes at them. So I can only wonder how effective any promotional material will be that parrots the opinions of people already living here who just luuuuuuuuuv the place for their special quirky reasons.

They're already here, after all. The point is to woo the ones who aren't. Not to scare them off, which I'm afraid is what may happen.

It seems that the shrewdest thing to do would be to go find those people who could have lived here but don't, and ask them why they decided not to. Then you could really isolate and tackle your PR problem.

Enough generalities. I'll share with you the following (paraphrased) comments elicited in our conversation, statements that seem guaranteed to spook all sorts of potential recruits. I can't wait to see how the University uses these nuggets of stodginess:

"I like Hyde Park because it's not commercialized. I don't want a Home Depot on my block. I don't want a GAP. There are lots of little shoe repair places that have been here forever."

"I like Hyde Park because other people don't come here. I don't want to share my neighborhood with everybody else."

"I don't need much night life, because I'd rather stay in, or have dinner with friends."

"The Point controversy showed how the community is involved and really comes together about what it cares about."

So, if I were in the marketing laboratory and had these focus group transcripts dropped in my lap, what kind of advertising magic would I cook up for my client? Well, going strictly on this input, I'd have to tell my boss that if we want to sell Hyde Park based on the things people like about it, we need to hit these points: Hyde Park is reclusive bordering on anti-social, thread-bare bordering on tightwad, boring at night, and stubbornly resistant to change even when it's needed.

There's your promotional brochure right there. Can't wait to see it!

PS: I have to confess, as I did at dinner that night, that I do want a GAP. A big one, with cashiers in their headsets dancing to canned music, right over in the old Harper Theater building. I'll be waiting in line outside the day they open.


LPB said...

As a marketing professional, I'd have suggested that the organizers recruit a bunch of faculty/staff members who *used* to live in Hyde Park, but currently choose not to. It would be very interesting to hear their perspective on what they miss about Hyde Park, as well as what they feel they've gained by moving to a new neighborhood. Importantly, it would be valuable to understand what it would take (or what conditions would need to change) for them to MOVE BACK to Hyde Park. What obstacles keep them from relocating in Hyde Park?

I'm struck by some of the comments you've related from the discussion -- it seems like some participants just don't want to welcome any new people to Hyde Park. Perhaps this message has already been received by those who choose to live elsewhere. Maybe that's part of the problem.

Jason Finkes said...

Wow...just wow. I don't even know what to say about how worthless that meeting sounds on so many different levels. It sounds like it was poorly imagined, poorly created, poorly focused, and worst of all? seems focused more on marketing what IS here rather than figuring out what SHOULD be here.

Famac said...

The University must define the "Hyde Park area" with a 45 mile band around it. There's no way 60% of the faculty live here - there simply isn't that much housing - and there is NO evidence of this anywhere on the street during the summer.

There are a few pockets of housing in Hyde Park that would appeal to couples and familes. But does anyone reading this blog define suitable housing in Hyde Park as as "hunting for a parking spot and dragging groceries up flights of stairs to a run down dive?" That's most of what's out there.

I'm convinced the University is a conflicted organization regarding Hyde Park. On the one hand they are expanding and consuming Hyde Park very quickly, yet micro managing grocers in the neighborhood.

Richard Gill said...

lpb noted, " seems like some participants [in a Hyde Park discussion] just don't want to welcome any new people to Hyde Park."

You got it, lpb. I've lived in Hyde Park for 35 years, and the old guard Establishment regard the likes of me as upstarts and invaders. If you weren't born at Lying In before about 1950 AND if you haven't ALWAYS resided between 47th Street and the Midway, they think your Hyde Park bona fides don't count, so don't mess with the commune. (Maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.) The old Establishment types can yell "first dibs" all they want, but they're not getting away with it any longer.

chicago pop said...

Richard Gill, perhaps you are an invasive species, like Bromer Grass?

This stuff about tenure in the neighborhood is nonsense. I reject all of it entirely. Nobody owns this neighborhood or any other. It doesn't matter how long anyone has lived here; every neighborhood has turned over numerous times and will again. Democracy is not based on seniority.

IHeartLenoxLohr said...

Having conducted some focus groups locally, I find it challenging to draw non-NIMBY participants. I don't exactly know why the level-heads aren't more present but I would wager a few guesses.

First, our beloved xenophobes jump at every opportunity to broadcast their isolationist opinions just so no one forgets how they feel. Does this intimidate others who would otherwise speak as a dissenting minority? It has also been challenging to find people who aren't so rabidly tied to the "way things are" that they can offer helpful insight, stick to the questions at hand, and LISTEN to what they are being asked.

Non-NIMBY's have also declined participation because they are already overwhelmed by other neighborhood "fights" and they fear being dragged into bad politics (and it's JUST a focus goup!?!). But I'm not blaming them for not participating. Despite its general impotence, I wouldn't want my name dragged through the Herald's latest mis-leading article, either.

Famac said...

Perhaps they have lives.

Richard Gill said...

Chicago Pop -

Me, an invasive species? What's my scientific name, r.gilli ontheblogitus? What's a scientific name for the Establishment, or NIMBYs, like a paleontologist might give to a dinosaur species?

SR said...

Famac, they must be including Kenwood and Woodlawn at least; all of those townhouse developments around 47th and south of 60th were built by the University and offered to faculty and staff at relatively low prices and on special financing terms.

Also, the definition of "faculty" includes more lower-income folks now than it did 10 or 20 years ago. More and more teaching positions are limited-contract, non-tenure-track type deals, and tend to be filled with recent grads and even ABDs; the run-down walkup with no parking is indeed part of the general immiseration that goes along with being junior faculty these days. (This is a nationwide trend, btw, not just something the U of C is doing).

chicago pop said...

This is a nationwide trend, btw, not just something the U of C is doing

And it's a trend that's been going on for 30 years. I have a feeling most readers of this blog are familiar with it, if they haven't lived it themselves (as I have). Small private schools like U of C or Northwestern do it, but are far less egregious than the bigger state schools.

Shanty Minister said...

The unspoken reality is that a lot of non-whites associate all things on the "southside"--including Hyde Park-- with stereotypes (untruths) and negatives associated with the Black community (and the large African American population on the southside.)

The issue of "marketing" is [partially] an issue of race that northside dwelling Chicagoans are in denial about. A lot of non-native Southsiders are told by their non-Black friends that they "don't want to live on the southside" -- including Hyde Park. It's the same kind of coded language the Clintons use against Senator Obama during the South Carolina primary.

Until Lee Bey came along (some 8+ years ago?) as the Architecture critic at the SunTimes, issues surrounding planning, architecture and development south of 12th Street didn't even exist in the public conversation --let alone receive any analysis, commentary or attention from racist journalists at those other periodicals.

The University of Chicago, the Museums in the neighborhood, etc. are all fighting this uphill "marketing" battle. Now that the Northside is basically MAXED out in land usage, Pimp developers have no where to go but "south". Coupled with the interest generated by the 2016 Olympics being on the Southside, greedy-eyed developers are finally noticing that open lots exist on the southside.

Don't fool yourselves, but if there had been open land on the Northside, the Olympic Plans would have originated on that side of town-- not south.

And the reason some HP Chamber of Commerce types didn't want chain stores in Hyde Park is bc so many Mom & Pop stores would have been put out of biz by these big box corporations. And the small biz owners were right. Getting the right balance of the small business and the larger stable brands is difficult-- without the smaller guys being the ones ending up as collateral damage. (BTW, the exact same battle has been going on in New York's upper westside community for 20 years and all across the USA, as portrayed in that Tom Hanks movie "You've Got Mail." )

However, all of that is about to change, as the old HP Chamber of Commerce types move away or literally die.

Now watch all the carpet baggers come callin' in Hyde Park. With a GAP store in HP also comes more teenage shoppers (generally seen as a negative by HP oldtimers and NIMBYs.) Since we (in more recent years) have the convenience of using the internet to shop, getting that same GAP stuff is only 2 days away.

The internet can not, however, solve the problem of not having a good local grocery store [ i.e the demise of the HP Co-op], because some things just can't wait 2-3 days for delivery.

Add to that, the REAL possibility that Hyde Park will be changed for the next 75 years if Hyde Park resident Senator Obama is actually elected as US President. Think of what it will do for tourism to Hyde Park (on an international scale).

But change is coming to the Southside and Hyde Park just the same. It's just not motivated by righteous reasons. -

EdJ said...

I hope the university is marketing not just Hyde Park, but the amenities nearby. The discussion from Jason's undergrad posting was vey instructive of what's going on throughout the south side and not simply Hyde Park.

In the almost ten years of living in Hyde Park, I've seen the shopping on the greater south side increase just like it did on the north side in he 1990s when I lived on the other side of the Chicago equator. I never thought about doing all of my shopping in Lincoln Park, Uptown, North Center or all those other neighborhoods, but I'd go to the paces all over the north side. When we move here, I still had to travel to the north side. At least now I can go to Roosevelt Road for most of those items we need.

We won't have a Home Depot here, but there are several nearby. We need a Gap an a few more stores like it that can draw people them. We need more creative development strategies than what some of the longer-term residents have. I read a interview with an official (who I have a great deal of respect for), where this person said that Hyde Park needs more retail, like maybe a lamp store where you can buy a lamp or get one repaired. My first thought was "Lamp store? Who goes to a lamp store? That's what Target is for." There's a real "Gap" in expectations.

I live the city because I want to have a urban experience, not a small town experience. Besides, small towns are mostly going the way of all flesh.

Zig & Lou said...

Wow, "pimp developers" from the northside. Huh.

SR said...

Having conducted some focus groups locally, I find it challenging to draw non-NIMBY participants. I don't exactly know why the level-heads aren't more present but I would wager a few guesses.

Another possibility I've thought of after attending a few public meetings in the last couple of years, is that for some people, this kind of thing seems to have a social function. I always seem to be the first person out the door once the actual presentation part is over; everybody else seems to know each other, and the end of the meeting signals hang around and chat time for them. It's kind of a challenge to make it to the door through all the knots of people chit-chatting, I've found. (I had an awkward moment with Preckwinkle once, where she assumed--no doubt based on long experience--that I was going up to talk to her and so turned from the person she was talking to and faced me and me shook my hand and waited, whereas it was just that she was blocking the door and I had wanted to walk past her).

Except for one TIF meeting I attended out of general curiosity, I've had some specific reason for going to whatever it was, and once that had been addressed, I was ready to get out of there (though sometimes the meeting went on a lot longer after that, and oh the agony). The only one where most people were diving for the exits as soon as possible after the "business" part was when it was an informational thing about how to file to get your property tax assessment reduced, with the forms and help filling them out provided outside the meeting hall. (It was also the only one with more than 40 people at it, more like 300 if I had to guess).

So I guess I wonder if there isn't a certain strata of Hyde Parkers who view all of this community participation stuff as part of their social life, and actually see all of the meetings as a sort of moveable meet and greet. It might explain the narrow perspective, if it really is the same people all the time. (The old joke about "Reagan can't have won, I don't know a single person who voted for him" comes to mind.) My first questions if I were invited to a focus group thing would be, how long is it going to take, and can I leave if it goes overtime? But for people who just enjoy that kind of interaction anyway, apparently, maybe there is not the same fear of being "trapped" in some endless jaw session.

Famac said...

Shanty Minister

Given the context of your post, I'm getting a good chuckle out of your screen name.

SR said...

The issue of "marketing" is [partially] an issue of race that northside dwelling Chicagoans are in denial about.

So true but so rarely discussed. It’s something people will not come out and say, but there are certain subtle indications sometimes, like when somebody visiting you jokes about being surprised that their car is still there where they parked it on the street when it’s time to head home.

Coincidentally I came across this blog entry today that touches briefly on Northsider perceptions of the South Side.

Benoit said...

@lpb: I'm young faculty at TTI-C, which is in the Press building on campus. There are two reasons I (and the vast majority of the faculty at TTI-C) chose to leave Hyde Park for downtown: (1) Grocery stores, restaurants, and other entertainment. There are at least a half-dozen reasonable grocery stores in walking distance of my place. I can't count the number of good restaurants downtown, whereas HP is pretty sparse in that department. (2) Crime, or at least the perception thereof. When I moved to HP, everybody went out of their way to tell me stories of muggings and beatings; and they went on and on about safety.

More personally, (3) Illinois has no hiking, but Wisconsin is pretty decent, so being further north was a plus. I doubt this is a common concern.

pc said...

"Democracy is not based on seniority." That's perfect, but it's by no means limited to HP. Everywhere I've ever lived (but most stridently and thus most hilariously in the more transient places, notably the west coast), testimony at community meetings always begin with "I've lived here for __ years" -- ostensibly as a ploy to establish legitimacy. It's fundamentally anti-democratic, since we can't exactly choose where or when we're born any more than we can choose to whom we're born, but it happens nonetheless.

Shanty, no, 20+ years ago the same powers that be that today want the Olympics then wanted the 1992 World's Fair. They also wanted it on the near south side. Their perception has always been that downtown's north flank is well guarded, but its south flank needs bolstering. I'd date the sea change that happened a few years ago more to the real estate market resulting in more attention being paid to the city at large than to Lee Bey. After all, I'm sure that Hyde Park received a fair amount of media attention during the Washington administration, for obvious reasons.

Colleen Newquist said...

Hi there,

I'm the person who conducted the "focus group," which really wasn't a focus group at all, but one of two informal discussion groups with Hyde Park residents. The purpose of the discussion groups was to hear from residents why they choose to live in Hyde Park. Rather than sit in our university offices and write about why we THINK people live in Hyde Park, we thought it made much more sense to talk to residents themselves.

It would make sense to talk to people who didn’t move here (or who moved away) if we were on a mission to change Hyde Park, but that’s not our job with this brochure. Our job is to share why people DO want to live in Hyde Park. Not to gloss over the negatives, but to tell the story of the area--including surrounding communities--and why people live here. And yes, walking to work is certainly part of the appeal for some university people. But it’s not the only reason.

If any of you would like to share your stories about Hyde Park and why you live here, please feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear from you!

Colleen Newquist
Director of Publications & Creative Services, The University of Chicago