The Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, by the admission of several people intimately involved with the Club's day-to-day finances, is in desperate shape.
They're losing over $10K every month, and are facing stiff competition in just about every category of service they provide. They've been around longer than the Hyde Park Co-Op, and went into profound crisis at about the same time, but the whole affair has attracted far less attention.
In fact, most of us at HPP don't know anything about it. We still don't, and we're not the only ones.
Partly that's because the Club is less transparent than the Co-Op was. No one has been able to independently assess the management and financial health of the Club on the basis of open information.
More importantly, though, the Club has not managed to make itself relevant to the neighborhood constituencies who could do the most to support it -- Hyde Parkers who could afford to pay for services offered at the Club, or donate to support them. If these people aren't interested and involved in the Club, then it could be anywhere -- in Cleveland or Los Angeles -- and doing virtually the same thing.
How could all of this be? Let's look at the photo above. This newspaper photograph, taken for the Tribune in 1953, depicts one Mrs. Henderson Thompson, who modeled a luxurious fur shawl "in a recent benefit fashion show the University of Chicago Settlement League presented at the Shoreland Hotel."*
What the ladies of the Settlement League (now the University of Chicago Service League, and they're still ladies) were doing was selling fancy clothes to raise money for direct donations to affiliated charities like the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club.
Can you imagine a moneyed Hyde Park middle class buying luxury fashions in support of a local charitable organization, when local pundits tell us that Hyde Parkers aren't even interested in buying new clothing?
Part of the problem the Club faces is a moderately schizophrenic identity: is the Club a neighborhood recreational center, or a social service for the greater South Side?
This split identity is built into the Club's origins as a younger sister of the University of Chicago Settlement, established in 1894 in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The Settlement as a form of social work was an innovation of the Progressive movement of the 1890s and 1900s. It involved mostly white, middle class and Protestant women, many from rural backgrounds, going into the immigrant slums of industrial America in order to clean, feed, protect, and elevate a degraded working class.
That was not the Neighborhood Club's original intent, even though it is frequently said that the Club was "part of the Settlement movement." Hyde Park at the time of the Progressive movement was a very rich neighborhood, and its Club was founded to address a problem that has bedeviled the urban middle class for most of its existence: how to keep teenagers out of trouble by giving them things to do.
"Keeping kids off the streets was as necessary in 1909 as it is in 1960," reported the Tribune, adding that as of 1960 this was "still the Club's major objective."**
In the 50s, teenage boys were kept busy with an auto mechanics club named the "Autocrats"; the Tot Lot supported the child care needs of working moms; cooking, ballet, and crafts classes kept kids busy after school, and a "Friendly Club" eased the isolation of local seniors. It was only in the late 1960s that Club leadership began speaking of "new goals," and of "outreach...to the fringe areas of Hyde Park-Kenwood ... bringing more disadvantaged youths and families into the program."***
Today, the Club has a lot more competition: the Hyde Parker thinking about purchasing the fur shawl pictured above might be just as interested in donating to a foundation for the education of women in Afghanistan, the clearing of land-mines in Kosovo, or to an environmental group lobbying for reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases.
Our sense is that both the current and preceding Directors of the Club are aware of these pressures, and of the need for hard-nose fiscal management coupled with the pursuit of creative funding solutions.
Why, for example, couldn't the Neighborhood Club fix a revenue stream by leasing space to or directly operating a cafe -- as have the Hyde Park Art Center, the Experimental Station, and the Smart Museum?
Until the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club manages to connect with a new generation of Hyde Parkers who can pay to use it and donate to support it, it may as well have an office in Indiana or Wisconsin, where it could be doing exactly the same thing in either Gary or Racine.
For it to be a Hyde Park neighborhood club and win the support of Hyde Parkers, there's got to be a reason for me to care about this organization as opposed to all the many, many others with equally worthy causes.
*The photograph accompanies an article by Ruth MacKay, "Hail the Clubwoman! She Plays a Vital Role in Preserving America's Fine Heritage." Chicago Daily Tribune, G1, December 6, 1953.
**Jean Bond, "Times Change, but Kids Still Flock to Club," Chicago Daily Tribune, January 10, 1960.
***William Currie, "South Side Community Conflict -- Year in Review," Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1968; "Hyde Park Civic Club Serves Community," Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1968.