Monday, April 27, 2009

The University's New Office of Civic Engagement

posted by chicago pop

Metra's Stairway to Hell at 59th Street
Symbol of Chicago's "Emerging Status as A Global City"

This past Friday, April 24, may be one of the very few times that I ever get valet service for my car in Hyde Park. In front of the School of Social Services Administration, no less. But this was no First Friday at the MCA, James Bond's Aston Martin twirling on a dais beside the jazz band, with goat cheese and salmon canap├ęs circulating through the crowd.

This was Vice President of the Office of Civic Engagement's Ann Marie Lipinski's coming out party, her debutante gala, at which the policy orientation of the University of Chicago in the post-Hank Webber period was rolled out a short three months after her arrival to the newly-created position in January, 2009. Co-blogger Elizabeth Fama and I were kindly invited to share in the ceremony (photographs of the event are hers).

A press release back in January summed up Ann Marie's new job this way:

In her new position, Lipinski will work to share the University's innovative models for civic engagement with peer institutions around the nation, and to learn from those universities' efforts. She also will develop the connection between the University's new international efforts and the city's emerging status as a global city.

I bring this up only to stress that my assessment going into the "Engaging our Communities" meeting last Friday was that there are a lot of little, simple things the University could do that would improve the appearance it gives to the world, from helping to fix the ratty and scary Metra Station at 59th Street, removing the "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" sign at the westbound lane of 57th and Stony Island, or taking simple steps to reassure residents in advance of major projects or changes that the sky won't be falling down.

In short, the biggest problem the University has, in my view, is a PR problem. Other problems are very real -- economic, social, financial -- but the biggest and potentially easiest to fix is the public relations angle. The University of Chicago, world class institution in a world class city, with a urine-soaked, dangerous, and ramshackle gateway at 59th Street?

The new Zimmer-Lipinski regime seems to be on to this, and we can only cross our fingers that they will leave the siege mentality of the post-war era behind, have confidence in the University's positive contribution to the neighborhood and South Side, know how to listen, and when to move forward in spite of controversy.

Ann Marie Lipinski
VP, Office of Civic Engagement

In her opening remarks, Lipinski spoke of the narratives that have been used to tell the story of Hyde Park and its Gothic Seigneur. One narrative was that of an institution "founded as an outward-looking" one. Another was a story of "retreat, a turning back on a changing world." What Lipinski was there to suggest was the possibility of a "third narrative."

Just what the content of this third narrative might be was indicated in the proceedings that followed, all of which emphasized varieties of "technology transfer" from advanced research across the University, to practical applications in policing, education, and public health.

The University, as the message is to be understood, is a resource for the local, area, and metropolitan community. Lipinski outlined programs developed to facilitate more effective workplace recruitment from the surrounding neighborhoods, a new "crime lab", and the major project pending at Harper Court. A range of speakers from the Medical Center, the University Charter School, and Kenwood Academy all reflected on the benefits of having access to academic knowledge with real-world implications.

At a rhetorical level, and as a branding strategy, this is a positive and savvy step: to "pivot", as one attendee put it, from a perception of Hyde Park as being in a "deficit situation," to the perception of a place that is greatly advantaged by its proximity to the University.

Whether the course of events during Lipinski's tenure lives up to this welcome change in perspective remains to be seen. I confess to a feeling of surreality as I listened to Stacy Lindau and Doriane Miller describe the organization and goals of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the Medical Center, with no reference made to the national media scandal of the Hospital's Emergency Room policy and the uproar within the medical profession.

After all, if anything is giving the University a black eye at a national level, this is it. But this live issue, with more real-world import than the still-in-development Center, was left untouched.

Instead, attendees were presented with the following incomprehensible chart:

Everyone I've ever talked to who has worked in Medical Center administration has told me that it's a monstrous bureaucracy comparable to the Pentagon; such charts do nothing to dispel that impression. The well-meaning talk of using data to improve local health care delivery, when there is a very real possibility that the Medical Center's ER policy is in violation of federal law, was jarring.

The audience, comprised mostly of representatives of local community organizations, and largely African-American, seemed receptive to the tone of the meeting, though some of the comments in the Q&A session point to the fine line that Lipinski's outreach has to walk between proffering the University as a resource, and offering it as the promise of a free lunch.

As one questioner put it, directing his comment to Lipinski, in tones reminiscent of many other Hyde Park community meetings:

Everyone I see working here and working at the University doesn't look like me. I'm not a minority, I represent black people who live on the south side. You don't really answer anyone's questions. You just talk around everything. You say you hired 130 people from around here, but I don't know anyone who got one of those jobs. You keep eschewing the point: how are black people going to access the University's resources, access its largess?

This person's remark -- an individual who happened to be working towards a degree at the SSA -- represents the far side of the fine line the University has to walk in relation to surrounding neighborhoods: positioning itself as a resource, but not a social service agency; and certainly not the apex of a patronage system obligated to support a clientele of dependents by showering it with goods and services. It can do its part to help fix area schools, but it can't fix all of them; it can hire some people, but not all of them.

Q&A at the "Engaging our Communities" Meeting

Part of the new orientation must be walking away from the guilt-driven policies of the past that enable this kind of debilitating discourse. Making Hyde Park prosperous, safe, and interesting is not done at the "expense" of other neighborhoods. It is a great opportunity for other neighborhoods to benefit from having a prosperous, safe, and interesting neighbor.

The University's challenge, moving forward, is not to shoot itself in the foot. It already shot off one foot with the $10 million Doctors Hospital fiasco. It is slowly sawing off the other foot with the Emergency Room scandal. Meanwhile, a host of other smaller actions, each of which could generate volumes of good-will going forward, linger unaddressed. As with the Pentagon, we hope the new Zimmer-Lipinski regime recognizes the importance of "soft power" and the importance of persuasion and a proactive approach in working for the greater good of the South Side.

The idea of technology transfer, of using research data to drive social reform in the immediate vicinity of the University, is a powerful one, and stands at the root of modern Progressivism and of the Chicago School of Sociology.

But for a vision worthy of the University as resident of an "emerging global city" imagined so compellingly by Daniel Burnham a century ago, we would suggest more than that: a set of guiding principles outlining the role the University intends to play in its engagement with the major issues that affect Hyde Park's livability. Where are we going to be in 5 years, 10 years, and how will we be working with the University to get there?

Such a set of principles would help the University shed any temptation to revert to a siege mentality, and automatically invite positive participation in a broader discussion in a way that only large-scale visions, like the Olympics, can do.


!&# said...

It's not accurate to describe the "fine line" of community relations as one where the University is positioning itself as a resource, but not a social service agency; and certainly not the apex of a patronage system obligated to support a clientele of dependents by showering it with goods and services.

This may be the range of self-images the University and its community, but they're all of an institution that gives, maintaining discipline only over the value of the gifts and assessing the worthiness of the recipients. This is rubbish.

The University needs to come down to earth a bit and appreciate the perceptions of others in the neighborhood and those surrounding.

The injustice of University-supported red-lining continues to accumulate interest on the debt it owes the communities here. It's not wiped away when the University transforms formerly dense neighborhoods into sparse meadows of idle, unimproved lots and town homes. It's merely a ratification of the outcome.

chicago pop said...

Can you explain what precisely you mean by "University-supported red-lining", and in what way this translates into "debt it owes the communities here"?

!&# said...

In the 1920s, the University actively organized residents who supported the restrictive covenant in the Washington Park Subdivision of Woodlawn. They backed racial fear-mongering about the effects African Americans would have on property values in the neighborhood. This injustice precedes disinvestment of the neighborhoods around here for the decades after white flight.

Today the University benefits from the disinvestment it helped create. It buys land in surrounding neighborhoods at a low price because there's been no demand for it. It backs low-cost and no-down-payment mortgages for University staff to live in these same neighborhoods.

So the powerful University can exclude African Americans from the neighborhood and -- decades later -- it can offer incentives to University employees to settle in that neighborhood and others nearby. Yet somehow it's not (technologically, morally) equipped to engineer a situation where African Americans are satisfied. Does the market magic only works with white people? I dunno.

!&# said...

PS: I want to own my mistake of confusing "redlining" with "restrictive covenants." The University is known to have backed the restrictive covenant.

Yael said...

Anyone know what percentage of University staff is white?

chicago pop said...


First of all, what !$#%@^ is talking about, which is well known, happened nearly 100 years ago, under completely different legal, political, social, and moral conditions. To argue that the moral stain of this episode in the 1920s is perpetuated by the University as an institution and its employees requires demonstration of an historical continuity of purpose and action across generations and institutional regimes that does not exist. This kind of positing of "original sin" perpetuates grudges on all sides, it doesn't solve problems.

What does solve problems are precisely the kind of economic and commercial developments that the University says it wants, and that this blog advocates. The fact that people from across the South Side come to Hyde Park for dining, shopping, and recreation, and that a significant black middle class resides in Hyde Park, indicate that this is already happening, not just for "white people". The University IS, in fact, "technologically and morally equipped" to contribute to this outcome; however, it is often stymied by local groups -- black and white -- (and stymied by its own heavy-handedness) who don't want to change the status quo because it would remove the basis for their grudges.

The capsule narrative offered by !$#%@^ would imply that the University executed a grand plan of ethnic cleansing beginning in the 20s that then left it, in true colonial fashion, to pluck the most desirable properties from the dispossessed natives and make a killing from their exploitation.

The only problem with this analogy is that it does not hold. This for precisely the reason that !$#%@^ states: there is no demand (or very little) for the land left vacant by the forces of urban disinvestment, which is presumably worth less in real dollars than it was when the process began (which phenomenon involved the convergence of forces far more numerous than the sole housing policy of the University of Chicago).

How is it a benefit to act such that the value of the land one owns declines? Who is rushing in to build at the high profile empty lots in the neighborhood, University-owned or otherwise?

Unless one is thinking in terms of centuries, which no one is, then any logical actor in this scenario would unload property before they hit the bottom and move the campus or their commercial investments to the suburbs, or to the North Side, which the University almost did.

The University has to spend vast sums of money on things it does not do well, like real estate development and urban planning, while other institutions in less challenging situations have the freedom to plow their money into faculty recruitment, student aid, and research facilities. This situation is thus a net drain on the University, not a benefit.

The true benefit, which can be documented by looking at the property values in Hyde Park, not in the vacant land around it, is that the University stayed here. Far fewer people would be living here if it hadn't, and then the property would be worth even less, for African Americans and for everyone else.

chicago pop said...

Not off the top of my head, but I do know that, taking into account the hospital, the University is the South Side's single largest employer, and the 23rd or 24th largest in Chicago (based on 2002 #'s)

chicago pop said...

PS: I want to own my mistake of confusing "redlining" with "restrictive covenants." The University is known to have backed the restrictive covenant.Fact check acknowledged and appreciated.

snowden440 said...

I do worry that Ms. Lipinski's emphasis on technology transfer may be a push to brand the University as an engine for economic growth. The downside to such a posture is that disciplines that nakedly earn, concern, and attract money attain pride of place, while the humanities languish along with the ethic of free inquiry.

In my estimation, the University's civic engagement fails most readily at the quotidian level. I'm more interested in whether, if Ms. Lipinski has children, where do they go to school and why? Is she a member of the neighborhood bookstore? Rather than whether Hyde Park can keep up with Silicon Valley or Pittsburgh with respect to turning Healthcare innovations into $$s.

chicago pop said...

snowden440: a small point of clarification -- I use the expression "technology transfer" as an analogy. What Lipinski presented were not revenue generating programs that brought tech to the market, but U.- sponsored research and data that can be practically applied in areas such as education. In this latter area, the results have already had an impact in certain CPS policies.

I do agree with you that the quotidian things are very important - like fixing the 59th St Metra station, making it easier for small businesses to put up a shingle, and all the things you mention.

Anonymous said...

This is just a guess, but I think it's a bit more complicated than the University just going in and redoing the 59th Street Metra station. Not that it doesn't need to be done (desperately), but knowing what I know about Chicago politics and bureaucracy, the RTA and Metra both would need to be involved directly and they may not want the U putting any of its own money into it for various political reasons. It's another one of those "projects" that takes 10 years to organize, after every Alderman and mobster has had their palm greased and after every bureaucrat and committee has had their mandatory allotment of meetings.

I'm also kinda skeptical if any work done to improve it would last very long. 55-57 was brand new just 5-6 years ago and the main lobby at 57 already looks trashed, multiple acts of vandalism have been repaired poorly and with the wrong materials, graffiti is left up, etc. It would probably be helpful if the U just funded a small crew to regularly paint and perform maintenance at 59th.

chicago pop said...

Greg: I suspect you're right about the hidden politics behind so simple a thing as fixing the 59th St. station. We'll have a piece exploring the details on that coming soon.

That last idea of yours does sound like a reasonable things to be doing in the meantime.

GF said...

I'm not an expert but I believe the bigger issue with the 59th Street station is that if any major renovation happens, it has to be brought up to ADA standards. This would mean two new elevators, etc, which would make it costlier and take longer to finish.

Here's the University's brochure on housing assistance in Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn.

Helpful for many people, I'm sure, but it was of no use to us when we were looking to buy as we were over the income threshold, even for Woodlawn. We took our money to the south suburbs. Of course, I'm cursed with getting off the train at 59th Street every morning....

Richard Gill said...

Folks, you can dig for conspiratorial politics regarding the 59th St. Metra station, but I'll be really surprised if you find any. Metra went through a rather lengthy public process with regard to rebuilding its stations in Hyde Park. Various possibilities were put forth. This was a number of years ago; I don't remember exactly when it was, but Barbara Holt was the 5th Ward alderman.

One possibility put forth was to combine the 59th and 55/56/57th St stations into a single station stretching between 59th and 57th Streets. It was discarded for a number of reasons, but the shrillest wailing and screaming came from homeowners on the east side of Harper, who feared commuters would stand on the platform and gaze into their bedrooms. They may have had a point.

The plan settled upon was to completely rebuild the 53rd St station and the 55/56/57 St. station, and to move the ticket agent, express stop, transfer point, and South Shore Line stop from 59th to 55/56/57th, which is more central to the neighborhood population than 59th. The U of C signed off on this. They said they thought it would benefit the neighborhood, the distance to most of campus was about the same, and they could reroute the shuttle buses to 57th St.

Metra said they only had money for two stations, so 59th would be maintained but not rebuilt. With things concentrated at 55/56/57th, Metra wasn't sure that 59th St. would continue to serve many riders, and there may have been some thought to replacing the 63rd St.station with a new platform between 63rd and 61st.

Some 59th St. riders were very displeased, while others were delighted to use 57th St. Some morning rush hour trains still stop at 59th St.

That's the short version of the history. I'll stop here without commenting on Metra's maintenance practices, or the station reconstruction process.

GF said...

Richard, most morning trains from the University Park line stop at 59th and not at 57th. The rumors I've heard are swirl around Lab students having shorter walks and Hospitals employees not wanting to have to walk to Stony to catch the 170 bus, where they might have to wait in the elements. At 59th, they can stand under the tracks (and block the doors as people try to exit the cramped station.)

Richard Gill said...

Correct, GF, more morning main line trains stop at 59th than at 57th. However, in the evening rush, all main line expresses that stop in Hyde Park do so at 57th. The reason for this difference is not really clear. Insofar as 59th making a better shuttle bus stop than 57th, that is true only because 57th St. is closed to westbound traffic at Stony Island. This prevents buses from getting under the railroad viaduct on the same side of 57th as the station.

Several months ago, CDOT presented a justified and solid proposal to open 57th St., but as usual in Hyde Park, a few loud mouthed bullies got away with shooting it down. I was at the meetings and saw it happen. The reason they got a way with it was that, at that time at least, neither Alderman Hairston nor the University were willing to see it through. The proposal needs to be brought up again. It is a low-cost, "shovel-ready" change that will clearly be of benefit to the neighborhood. This is an easy one for both the U and the alderman to show some leadership on. I suggest that the DO NOT ENTER sign at 57th & Stony be presented to an objector, to be planted in their front yard.

Returning to the primary subject of this post, I agree with C-Pop's observation that it is way after the time for some people to get past what transpired between the U and the neighborhood the larger part of a century ago. Not to do so is destructive. The Woodlawn Organization has put past differences aside and welcomed the U of C into Woodlawn. People who can't get past it at this late date have "issues." Those people aren't going to change, and they simply should be left out (or kept out) of the development process.

Beckett Sterner said...

Re: "We can only cross our fingers that they will leave the siege mentality of the post-war era behind, have confidence in the University's positive contribution to the neighborhood and South Side, know how to listen, and when to move forward in spite of controversy."

I agree, especially regarding your comments on the new ER policy that got put on hold. The university's PR error there was also a posture of defensiveness instead of positive engagement, almost as if they didn't believe their ideas couldn't carry the day in a discussion... Silence breeds distrust. I wrote about the emergency PR problem here .