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.
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.