Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hyde Park Neighborhood Club needs to Focus on Hyde Park Needs

posted by chicago pop

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 " 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.


Zig and Lou said...

Just a note, the HPAC does not actually see any significant or meaningful direct revenue from the leased space of the associated cafe. It may in a few years, upon a second lease term, but not currently.

chicago pop said...

Z&L: Good to know. Wonder what the expectations are in terms of future revenue, if any, from the lease. If nothing else, there's a value to the foot traffic that Istria brings in; I have to think it's greater than HPAC would get without the cafe, and that helps raise the institution's profile. Something like that would certainly benefit the HP Neighborhood Club.

Peter Rossi said...

Chicago Pop makes some good points.

Love to hear from fans of the HPNC what they think.

For what it is worth, many years ago we took our kids to the play group for tots. Until one year, they wouldn't let my 6 year old daughter in to accompany by 2 year old son. They were very nasty about it. They still called us for money but never again!

there is one huge role that the HPNC serves: meeting place for the two Point Savers left, Co-Op
"board meetings," TIF meetings and other gatherings of NIMBYs. Other than this, the HPNC is harmless.

chicago pop said...

Unlike the Co-Op or Harper Court, the NC as Peter says is bascially harmless, in that it's not standing the way of improvement in the neighborhood. I think it could -- and has in a lot of ways -- keep contributing to that improvement and be a valuable resource, if properly adapted to changing times.

And they need a facilities upgrade.

But just looking at how the place has been run over the last few years, I wonder if it's afflicted with the same sort of problems that we saw in the Co-Op: trying to please too many interests.

The Board has 28 members.

How do you accomplish anything with 28 members sitting on the Board?

Inevitably, if someone comes on that wants to try something new or change things, there is going to be a faction of people that disagree or resist for ideological reasons or nostalgia for the past. I suspect that's what happened during the last crisis (resulting in the dismissal of the ED), and I bet similar tensions will arise under the current direction.

Community involvement in this case can mean too many cooks in the kitchen, and the hobbling of effective adaptation.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'd like to hear how folks use the HPNC. My kids went to Tot Lot for years, but it was grudging on my part (with similar feelings from all of the participating babysitters and mothers) because the toys, equipment, and floor were usually filthy. It was the only place to go in bad weather, but we counted the days until spring. I've also signed my son up for Hyde Park Kenwood baseball at the HPNC (although I don't know how the $100 was divided between the two organizations) and my friend takes her adult ballet classes there.

All in all, that's not much use on my part, for something that's occupying a tidy little morsel of Hyde Park real estate.

IHeartLenoxLohr said...

Chicago Pop: Your perceptive article on HPNC couldn't be more true in many areas. The Club is in dire financial straits, it hasn't been as quick to adapt to changing demographics as it should, and it certainly has an un-gracefully aging building. While it would be wonderful to think that a cafe would help balance the books, there are so many complex issues at play that one change isn't going to ensure its future.

You hit the nail on the head when you talked about a schizophrenic ID: rec center or social service center. Unlike "real" community centers, the Club doesn't benefit financially from a tax base to draw from. But a rec center that serves the middle-class doesn't exactly justify being a non-profit. What the Club has tried to do is balance the two through its senior and after school programs for teens and children. But when an organization is trying to serve the underserved, somewhere the income must be generated to cover the costs of those who cannot pay.

The fact is that the Club must be RELEVANT to its community. Everyday, I see how important and relevant it is to the seniors and kids who come through the doors. They all know this is a place where they find friends, safety, and people who care deeply about them. However, that is only a small segment of the neighborhoods' populations. What can the Club do to get other people through the doors? In order to survive, we MUST know that. And we're struggling (with no money and while addressing the crisis of keeping the doors open) to figure out what our community wants and needs. Any help people can help us figure that out is greatly appreciated!

The other key to the Club's survival is responsibility. I don't think there has been a concerted effort to "hide" information or financial records. And I truly do not think that the board is at all opposed to change. Up until recently, the Club had always welcomed community input, and the board had been fairly united. There were some tumultuous decisions made but I don't think there is anyone on the board who is not committed to seeing some major development of programs, direction, or even mission--as long as we are thoughtful and do it based on facts, not ivory tower perceptions or personal missions. As the interim ED, my goal is complete and utter transparency. I have nothing to lose by that, and I am open to all the critiques people throw my direction. If I am going to be an effective leader and help this Club turn around, I need to be neutral, listening and observing.

However, I will offer two defenses for the Club. First, the staff. This is a core group of dedicated, caring, invested individuals who want to serve the community and see the organization grow and succeed. They are open to input and always put their best foot forward. The changes that have happened here recently have not been easy for them but they have stuck it out.

Secondly, I have to give credit to the board. This is not an easy time to serve, and a core group of them have been neglecting their own full-time jobs to ensure the Club's survival. However, they are not blind to the fact that the Club cannot continue to barely "make it." They are just as earnest to find out whether the Club is needed, necessary, viable, and changeable. But one thing is for sure: we need more board members! We can have a 29 person board but we currently have only 19 board members. It's not the most attractive invitation to join the battle for an organization in "a bad way" but on the other hand, it is an exciting prospect to be involved in the possible evolution of an organization that can truly make a difference in our neighborhood. Anyone game?

IHeartLenoxLohr said...

I totally agree with Elizabeth's points. I wasn't involved in the Club when Tot Lot was running but I have see the deplorable condition of the "toys," and I would have felt the same. However, we have already received a sizable donation for new toys and are looking to raise another $2,000 to have a great program.

And cleanliness: don't even get me started. One of my big goals is to revamp all our "systems," including maintenance. If we don't respect our own facility, what good does it do us? Granted, a new maintenance schedule isn't romantic but having a clean building will at least tell our clients we respect ourselves and them!

It is confusing as to what classes generate money directly for HPNC. Elizabeth's three examples: Tot Lot is a HPNC-run program, baseball generates no money (that I am aware of) for HPNC, and depending on who taught the dance class, they were either HP School of Ballet or HPNC.

We are working right now on getting an entirely new schedule for fall classes. We need to know what types of classes people would like to see and when. After business hours? Early mornings? Yoga? Tap? Ballet? Finances? And we would love it if WE were hiring the teachers to teach them, as opposed to everything being contracted. Practically, it means more direct revenue for the Club. But it also means that we have greater control over quality and expansion.

HistPresD said...

As for TIF meetings at HPNC, they are moving to Kenwood.

LPB said...

I've been to the HPNC only a few times to support the pancake breakfasts. Though I know there are some classes offered at HPNC, the center doesn't stand for anything in my mind. It's a brand that has little meaning beyond run-down institutional-feeling facilities that remind me of depressing elementary schools with cinderblock walls from the 1960s. Sorry to be so harsh.

On the one hand, I know that there are classes offered at the HPNC, but whole slew of organizations rent space there. So, there is no comprehensive listing of activities at the Club. I have to go to individual sites like Canis Sapiens and the HP School of Dance to get their class schedules, even though some of them take place at the HPNC. Primarily for this reason, I think of the Club as a physical LOCATION where a grab-bag of activities happen.

If the HPNC tries to establish itself as something more than a location, then it runs up against a different challenge: convince me that you have expertise or offer something unique. As a matter of fact, I do go directly to the HP School of Dance site because I know their faculty are very good and they offer high-quality, "old-school" ballet classes. I also choose to attend Call of the Wild dog obedience school on the north side because I find the instruction is far superior to what Canis Sapiens offers. In either case, if the HPNC truly wants to offer dance, dog obedience, yoga, cooking classes, or whatever, it will have to compete with the other places where I could find folks to specialize in such offerings.

Lastly, I saw on the HPKCC website that the HPNC is available for birthday parties. I can't think of a more depressing place to have a kid's birthday party.

It's just not clear to me what the HPNC is trying to be: another Discovery Center/Learning Annex? A rental facility? Room 2 Play in the South Loop? The Latin School's now-defunct Live & Learn program? A non-denominational JCC? A building where kids and teens can hang out?

What is the vision for HPNC? What's the strategy for getting there? And who is your priority target audience?

From a marketing standpoint, maybe the organization needs to choose to serve one audience really well, rather than trying to be too many things to too many people.

chicago pop said...

What can the Club do to get other people through the doors? In order to survive, we MUST know that. And we're struggling ... to figure out what our community wants and needs. Any help people can help us figure that out is greatly appreciated!

I think that's a great question, and getting this input from the neighborhood is a good objective.
I know there are people from UIC and surrounding communities that come to Ida Noyes for dance lessons, NPNC could get a slice of that market; same with other health and exercise related classes, especially those held from 7PM on (that is, a time when people who work and commute outside the neighborhood can actually attend them!)

The rub seems to be finding out a way for the HPNC to be more than just a space that allows other non-profits or for-profits (is Canis Sapiens for profit? I don't know) to access their clients, without really getting anything out of it.

I'm not sure how to finagle that, unless as iheartlenoxlohr said, you hire your teachers directly, and/or you just figure out ancillary ways to earn money from the paying folks who come through for other purposes.

EdJ said...

The About Us section of the HPNC website says:

"The Hyde Park Neighborhood Club is a community center where hundreds of people come together from across the south side of Chicago. The Club is committed to being a community center where everyone can particpate without regard to pay. Please contact the Club if you would like to participate."

What the heck does that mean?

Looking at the programs on the website, I see no rhyme or reason. Saying you need more board members does't seem to be a winning argument. Unless new board members come with an open checkbook.

Having said that, I must commend the HPNC for having done the community a great service by organizing those senior bus trips to Whole Foods. I truly think that was a tipping point for the demise of the Co-op. That showed the Co-op was not only trying to be everything to everybody, but also that it wanted to prevent others from providing valuable services to the community that might conflict with the Co-op's attempted monopoly on the community.

The HPNC seems to be at a crossroads similar to the Co-op's. You can't be everthing to everybody because then you really end up doing nothing well. Find a core mission, figure out if it's for Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn or all of the south side and then act on the mission. Funding will likely become easier if the funders know what you do.

I guarantee that, while there may be some pain in cutting programs becasue it will annoy some of the "rooted" Hyde Parkers, more people won't notice because I don't think people really know or care what the HPNC does anyway.

HPNC needs to be bold or else it will just die like the Co-op. And while mourned by some in the short run, like the Co-op people will move on pretty quickly.

I'd bet the Park District might be interested in taking over the facility if HPNC folds.