Monday, May 25, 2009

Un-Fortressing Hyde Park

posted by Richard Gill

In March 2008, a public proposal was made, to open 57th Street to westbound traffic at Stony Island Avenue. The proposal went nowhere. For reasons that had nothing to do with the merits of the proposal, it didn’t get pushed. The time is past due to revive the proposal.

At Stony Island, the westbound side of 57th Street is blocked by a barrier that prevents cars from entering. (Photo above.) This has the effect of making 57th one-way eastbound between Lake Park and Stony Island. The barrier is decked out with signs displaying DO NOT ENTER, and directional signs to re-enforce that order.

Welcome to Hyde Park. You and your car may be permitted to come into our neighborhood, but only if you can negotiate our obstacle course.

The barrier has been there for so long, nobody (including CDOT traffic engineers) seems to know exactly when or why it was put there. Looking for clues, I found that it dates to the paranoid days of “the urban renewal,” nearly 50 years ago. According to the Hyde Park Herald edition of February 1, 1961, 57th Street was closed to westbound traffic at Stony Island in September 1960. The change at that time provoked the ire of many, such as residents at 58th & Dorchester who said the one-way designation required them to drive an extra four blocks, just to get home (It still does).

Since 56th Street is also one-way eastbound, this made it extremely difficult to get into Hyde Park, but really easy to get out. Mission accomplished: Build a moat, create an island, keep “outsiders” out. Even if there was any sound basis for insulating the neighborhood in 1960, there isn’t any now, and there hasn’t been for a long time.

Two public meetings were held (March 5 & 12, 2008), to discuss the proposed reopening of 57th Street. Those who objected to opening 57th Street hammered away with unsubstantiated predictions that the sky would fall. They said 57th Street would be choked with traffic, making life intolerable for both motorists and pedestrians. They offered no basis for that prediction, and professional city traffic engineers who had done an analysis debunked it.

It became clear that the objectors are residents along or near 57th Street who now have a semi-private street and want to keep it that way. Since that was their real position, and it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, they resorted to the tactic of bullying and disruption (remember the Point meetings). One of them pushed to the front and seized the floor. That was a sign that they really had nothing to back up their position. This antic wasn’t close to the level of disruption at the Point meetings, but the intent was the same.

So, there we had a handful of people who acted like living along the street meant they owned the street. Does this remind anyone of a recent hotel proposal whose defeat was engineered by a relative handful of people who, when the smoke cleared, simply wished to maintain their position of privilege and to hell with everybody else?

It is time to re-start the street-opening proposal.

Some of the benefits are: more exposure for local businesses; enhanced overall neighborhood traffic flow; easier access to Hyde Park; less circuitousness (with the potential for cleaner air); enhanced safety in front of Bret Harte elementary school with some traffic diverted away from 56th Street: and opportunity for weather-protected direct access for campus buses at the 57th Street Metra station.

Looking east on 57th St. at Lake Park. Signs direct eastbound traffic under the Metra viaduct. The westbound side of 57th is unused and wasted.

The city traffic engineers at the March 2008 meetings said that the proposal is feasible, would result in traffic compatible with residential/commercial streets like 57th, would not compromise traffic safety, and could be implemented with relatively minor and inexpensive signing, marking and channelization. They suggested the change could even be made on a trial basis.

This proposal, which has had local residents’ and merchants’ support (with those exceptions noted above), will also require support by the University of Chicago and Alderman Hairston.

Let’s at least try this idea. Yes, there would be some more people around --visiting, shopping, dining, sightseeing -- but that’s the idea. Hyde Park has begun to emerge from its past as a dull, unwelcoming, and lifeless urban island. Removing the barrier at 57th Street will help that process along, and will make life easier. It isn’t 1960 anymore.

It is time to stop small groups of people from preventing positive and beneficial changes. That would be real Hyde Park Progress.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

Elizabeth Fama said...

Thanks for bringing this up again, Richard.

Matt said...

Thank you so much for bringing this up again! It totally needs to get changed back to how it originally was (pre-1960). It is long over due. This change would reintroduce a logical, welcoming, and common sense based traffic flow into our neighborhood. I just called Alderman Hairston to express my support for returning the street to how it was intended. I encourage everyone who shares this opinion to do the same and to attend any future hearings that there may be on the subject.

zgwarnki said...

Alderman Leslie A. Hairston
Office: 2325 E. 71st Street
Chicago, IL 60649
Phone: 773-324-5555
Fax: 773-324-1585
City Hall Office: 121 N. LaSalle Street
Room 300
Chicago, IL 60602
City Hall Phone: 312-744-6832

Zig and Lou said...

Note the peninsula of newer concrete that serves to reduce the north-side lanes under the bridge to one lane.

Urban Domestic Goddess said...

Heh--back when I still had a car, I used to drive around that barrier all the time and never got caught. It's just a stupid nuisance, like a lot of things in the People's Republic of HP.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the logic in this barricade and can't imagine what people were thinking when it went up. All you have to do is take 56th (past the busy elementary school full of kids, many of whom walk to school) to the South end of Lake Park, make a left and you're back to 57th where you wanted to be in the first place. I do this all the time. It's annoying, knowing that I could save 20 seconds if I could just turn onto 57th from Stony Island, but it doesn't stop me from taking 57th all the way way to Cottage Grove several times a week. Horrors! Won't someone please think of the children?

Basically, the big stupid "DO NOT ENTER" doesn't even accomplish what it's intended to accomplish. All it does is needlessly divert traffic past a busy elementary school and playground.


notLikeYou said...

I like the idea of making it more difficult to enter hyde park. Gangbangers, cruisers, north siders.....

Sorry. If I wanted hip and trendy, I would not be here.

Anonymous said...

notLike You,

Isolationism has never helped anyone. At best, you end up an obsolete backwater, at worst the elements that isolationists want to keep out end up as the majority, when everyone else moves to other neighborhoods that have better retail and services.

Making Hyde Park into a ghost town or gated community isn't any kind of solution to social problems (which we have regardless of barriers on 57th).

george said...

Howdy. I know this isn't the place to issue an invitation, but I can't find an email to Richard (maybe someone can forward this to him). I'd love to invite him (or his rep) to any upcoming HPKCC board meeting (next one is next Thursday, 6/4) to talk about this proposal. I know he'd get some support (from me, for example), though I can't speak for the board. But it's an act that I think is well worth considering, and would like to have it fully explained to some interested people. I also say thanks for bring this up. I don't like barriers, and think HP needs to do a better job of reaching its neighbors. george (hpkcc)

Lilithcat said...


You don't need a barricade to keep out northsiders. I belong to a few city-wide groups that change meeting places and those northsiders won't come to the southside if their lives depended on it. It's as though they think the world ends at Roosevelt Road, and they'll fall off it.

chicago pop said...

The sad thing about the gated-community isolationism defended by notlikeyou is that it perpetuates and supports all the inequalities and conditions that make Chicago's Southside an extremely difficult environment in which to live for so many people.

But beyond the conditions of life in some of the poor neighborhoods around HP, people from elsewhere won't want to come to Hyde Park if they feel that it and surrounding areas are dangerous or unlivable.

As lilithcat points out, you don't need a sign to keep out northsiders. Or "cruisers". In what fantasy world will teenagers and gangbangers want to come to 57th Street to see and be seen in their souped-up, low-riding cars? This is pure paranoia.

But relishing the effect that the "Do Not Enter" sign represents is itself a sign of tremendous, and unacknowledged privilege.

If every neighborhood gated its entries and checked visitors at that gate, we wouldn't have a city left.

edj said...

Thank you to George for wanting to bring more light to this through the HPKCC. Its an important issue. I think that its important to open up Hyde Park more, but I think that it is imperative to decrease the safety risks at Bret Harte. I am absolutely appalled that the demands of a very few seem to trump children's safety.

notlikeyou - I moved here from the north side, but I didn't move here to get away from society.

notLikeYou said...

I am softening.... This may actually be a good thing to do.

Please stop presenting other sides. My life is easier if I don't have to strain the brain.

Next up, make Kenwood a through street to 57th.

Stephen said...

One more reason to remove the barricade - it is in many cases dangerous.

The other day I was riding my bike the correct way approaching the viaduct. Usually I use the left lane going east so as not to slow up traffic. As I was preparing to enter I noticed a car begin traveling west past the Do Not Enter sign. The woman looked bewildered when she exited the viaduct and nearly hit a car turning from Lake Park onto 57th and not yielding right of way (after all, there is no STOP sign for her vehicle as it traveled WEST on 57th under the viaduct).

It isn't the first time I've ridden through the viaduct to meet a car coming the wrong way and giving me the business for going the wrong way. What is particularly perplexing, if they are going to make it one way permanently, why the impermanent sign that isn't effective to let people know you can't go West?

edj said...

Great question from NotLikeYou about Kenwood. There are a lot of roads that dead end and it would be interesting to hear the historic reasons. Did Kenwood ever go all the way through to 57th? Clearly, there is the school and the park there that might argue against opening it, but we have a lot of parks and schools that have streets around them right now. Why not open up traffic. We have too many dead end streets that make it harder to navigate the neighborhood.

Elizabeth Fama said...

The Kenwood cul-de-sac was created during the same wave of Urban Renewal that created the do-not-enter sign on 57th Street at Stony. In that case, perfectly nice houses and apartments on the west side of Kenwood were also taken through eminent domain, to allow for future expansion of Ray School, which never happened. (And you've all heard me grumble about how Ray doesn't shovel the snow on their part of Kenwood and 56th. So much for it being their property.)

If you look around, all the roundabouts and dead-ends -- everything that takes away the logical grid system of our streets -- were created during Urban Renewal. We also lost a few jazz and blues clubs on 55th Street, and the grocery store competitor to the Co-Op (an A&P).

Elizabeth Fama said...

(P.S. Ray School did expand after that, but they built an addition on the north side of their old building.)

GF said...

but a nice piece in the Maroon on St. Stephen'sThey call Peter Rossi a former writer for this blog. Did he give up or just take a break?

Famac said...

I challenge anyone to stand at 57th and Lake Park and tell me anything positive could come of opening that intersection.

That area will become a huge congestion zone for cummuters, and kill zone for pedestrians, much like 56th & Lake Park.

It was a design fault to splinter off a major artery at 56th and Stoney/Lake Park. And we only have a partial solution.

Richard Gill said...

Famac -

I will go with the CDOT traffic engineers who were not in agreement with your "huge congestion/kill zone" prediction . As for 56th & Stony, the change at 57th should reduce traffic hazards there by diverting some cars to 57th & Stony where there is a traffic signal. In any case, 56th & Stony/LakePark may benefit by the installation of traffic signals, and I believe that has been on a CDOT to-study list.

Andrew Cone said...

You are all going to hate me for this. I limply support the 57th street barricade, and I vehemently support the Kenwood cul-de-sal.

Even if Richard and CDOT are right that opening 57th street wouldn't cause massive congestion, it certainly would cause *some* congestion. 57th street often feels more congested to me than I'd like.

As far as the Kenwood cul-de-sac, I absolutely adore the rectangle bounded by {kimbark,56th,dorchester,58th}. To me, Bixler Park is 80% of its awesomeness. It is one of the few parks in HP that non-homeless people really use. Couples let their kids play on the structure, students lie on the grass, etc. Getting rid of the cul-de-sac would bisect Bixler, and that would really suck.

I like 57th street from Istria to Woodlawn, but I stop liking it around Woodlawn. I find traffic on Woodlawn unpleasant, especially at rush hours. What I like about Hyde Park is little kids running around, people with dogs, and calm, tree lined streets that I don't have to check much before crossing. I want more of that, not less. I don't think that is romantic NIMBYism.

I love Hyde Park, but I do want it to be less car-oriented. Growing up in Zurich, Switzerland, I came to believe that the only robust way to make neighbourhoods genuinely pedestrian-friendly was to make them car-unfriendly. People didn't drive much in my neighbourhood in Zurich largely because driving though curvy 17th century one-way streets was a pain in the ass. Things were, by necessity, more amenable to pedestrians. Car-owners bitched, but few wanted to move to the more car-friendly, newer areas.


Chicago_mom said...

I know it's late to chime in on this post, but I had a thought the other day, as I found myself dearly wanting to drive west on 57th from Stony Island....maybe we could stage a Saturday afternoon of civil disobedience, in which 100 people in minivans drive slowly westbound on 57th Street, respecting all stop signs, etc., all the way to Woodlawn?

It is such a shame that this effort to open up 57th street has stalled.....

Richard Gill said...

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference put the 57th & Stony Island issue on its June 4 Board meeting agenda, and invited me to attend. Following the discussion, the Board voted to request both Alderman Hairston and the U of C to schedule public meetings on the subject of opening westbound 57th Street at Stony Island.

I am hopeful that this will help to keep the ball rolling.