Wednesday, August 5, 2009


posted by Elizabeth Fama

We have a problem in Hyde Park. Let's call it "un-researched activism (U.A.)." The most painful example is the Point debacle, where hundreds of otherwise level-headed Hyde Parkers earnestly signed their names away and gave money to a deceptive "Save the Point" campaign, without even seeing the Compromise Plan that the City and Park District had offered us.

A small instance of U.A. occurred this week, but it may have slipped under your radar if you're not a University of Chicago Laboratory Schools student, alum, or parent. It's a valuable case study, and unlike the Point debacle, it has a happy ending.

The Lab Schools have three beloved Public Safety Coordinators (security guards). All three go beyond the call of duty, and are indispensable parts of the school community. The U of C Police, in an effort to reduce costs (ordered by President Zimmer across all departments) decided to outsource their security guard duties to a company called Allied Barton, which pays minimum wage. The three guards were offered employment with Allied Barton, but the pay cut was too severe, so they declined.

Begin the rioting: a well-meaning High School student (a sweet kid and family friend, I should add) started a facebook group to support the guards, saying that the U of C had unceremoniously terminated the guards, and that their last day was on August 15th. She implied that the University had deliberately done it over the summer, so that students and parents couldn't protest or say goodbye. When I joined the group (Wed. 7/29), roughly 350 people were already members (today there are 545) and there were many outraged comments. Parents had also started e-mailing each other, promoting the notion that this was a secretive act on the part of the University, and designed to side-step parental involvement.

That same day I e-mailed the principal of the High School, who sent me on to G. Christopher Jones (Director of Business Affairs) and he was happy -- I'd even say grateful -- to discuss the issue. None of the other facebook members (or, I presume from his tone, parents) had contacted him. Mr. Jones wrote that the Lab Schools administration had gone to bat for the guards, and had asked the University to make a special exception; their arguments were that the Lab Schools is a tiny slice of the security pie (for comparison, the Booth School has 20 guards), and that the personal investment and continuity of these guards are important because children are involved. He said the Lab Schools were participating in ongoing negotiations with Allied Barton and the University. He still seemed to have hope. For one thing, the University's new Associate VP of Safety and Security was sympathetic to the cause, in part because he's a Lab Schools parent himself.

The conclusion of these talks -- reached within the span of a week -- is that the guards will remain as U of C Police employees, and nothing about their status will change.

Now, it would have been fine with me if the facebook group and the flurry of e-mails were simply encouraging people to tell the University that they wanted to keep these guards, and at their current salaries. That kind of message is helpful. What disturbs me is that no one apparently called to check facts before going "viral," and that the story degenerated so quickly into the old "Evil Empire" conspiracy model.

I have a theory about why Hyde Parkers are like this. They're intellectual, and they want to be good, concerned citizens. They think activism is the way to do that. But they're busy -- oh, so busy. So they delegate their research to representatives -- that is, to local community activists, or in this case a high schooler -- or they buy into a sound bite.

Why they leap so quickly to the Evil Empire Model (E.E.M.) is beyond me, though. That's another feature of Hyde Park activism that deserves its own post someday.


Jessi said...

Oh my god, thank you, yes. I just started working for a small part of the Urban Health Initiative and I am more than a little worried about some of my fellow anti-Hospitals "activist" students witch-hunting me when they find out.
...And then there was that whole Darfur thing. And "Keep Coke Off/On Campus". No, I will not join your facebook group or sign your petition. Go 'way.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there will be a riot when Western Springs Bank finally tears down the crumbling St. Stephens deathtrap.

Maybe the residents who kept Gus Antoniou's various redevelopment plans locked up for 10 years should research the term NIMBY and wonder if maybe they could have saved the structure if they hadn't kept trying to "save" it.

chicago pop said...

Just an aside, but what is that really a picture of?

Anonymous said...

They need some torches and pitchforks. It's not a riot without torches and pitchforks!

David Farley said...

It's not like our fair University hasn't tried that very thing you speak of in the past. Meaning, springing some distasteful announcement during a quiet time when hopefully nobody would be around to notice and put up a fuss. Exhibit A would be the IHouse debacle several years ago, where the press release that it was shutting down went out shortly after Fall Quarter ended. But all that was in the olden days, and would never happen now.

David Farley said...

Oh, I want to take a guess at that picture, too. Five Points, NYC?

David Farley said...

Belay that last remark - I googled the text in the image name.

rdb said...

It's an extremist paranoia, driven by a deep mistrust of powerful institutions, and intensified by the utopian desire to perfect existence using University resources unconstrained by scarcity. The behavior of faculty is completely analogous to the uninformed seniors rioting at congressional town hall meetings convinced that health care reform will lead to euthanasia of the elderly. What both groups fail to understand is that, while these powerful institutions COULD theoretically behave in repressive, authoritatian ways, they almost never do. In fact, universities seem much more permissive than regular organizations. Behavior by faculty that would be a firing offense at most employers (like making incendiary false claims to politically motivated reporters at the Wall Street Journal) doesn't seem to produce one jot of consequences.

This is not to say that this university, like all organizations larger than 1 person, doesn't make boneheaded decisions. The distinction is that the boneheadedness is almost always explained by...boneheadedness and not conspiracy. We have a maxim in my office that we call Koetting's Razor -- if your two choices for explaining a baffling organizational decision are incompetence and malevolent conspiracy, go with incompetence.

chicago pop said...

I may have to put rdb's quote in the HPP banner:

It's an extremist paranoia, driven by a deep mistrust of powerful institutions, and intensified by the utopian desire to perfect existence using University resources unconstrained by scarcity.

Stephen said...

Off topic (although you could tie it in if you read it from a "the University does positive things too perspective"), but did anyone attend the meeting regarding the Midway yesterday evening? I think the Midway improvements are an example of positive, community benefits associated with having the University in the neighborhood. No one seems to talk much about that.

That being said, it's never going to be a perfect relationship - but, what relationship is?

David Farley said...

I've noted before that we can have a neighborhood dotted with abandoned buildings with none of the usual ill effects, mostly because we're provided with our own private police force, courtesy of the University.

chicago pop said...

The Midway improvements are fantastic. I live on the opposite end of Hyde Park but really appreciate what's being done down there.

Elizabeth Fama said...

C-Pop: The image is the Baltimore Riot of 1861 (the Pratt Street Riot); the first bloodshed of the civil war.

rdb said...

CPop, I'm honored.

Lightningrodd said...

This is one of the things that annoys me most about hyde park. People feel that it is there god given right to protest everything they don't agree with, even when there is little they can do or it doesn't even concern them. An example of this is the petitions i saw posted around hyde park to stop the "evil" university from closing Dixie kitchen. It was a pure business decision that the university, as the property owner, had a right to make. I have no idea what they really hoped the outcome would be. The funny thing is that Dixie Kitchen solved the the problem on their own with no outside interference by consolidating it with Calypso. People in hyde park need to learn to choose their battles.

edj said...

I was amused by Jack Spicer, et al's letter to the editor this week about the community garden. I love his definition of compromise - the university standing on the deck of the Battleship Missouri signing an instrument of surrender after which he dons a ratty second Lieutenant's hat and corn cob pipe and becomes supreme commander of Hyde Park and the university. After which all opposition is prohibited.

Anonymous said...

The Dixie Kitchen thing was so lame and silly. The university has been willing to help the business owners relocate in Hyde Park, which they did with Dr. Wake. Are we really supposed to believe that there is NOWHERE in Hyde Park or Kenwood that could have held Dixie Kitchen? How about the empty space on 55th where Mac's offices were until a few months ago? It was just gut rehabbed, even.

Any successful business that has to relocate can make it work if they're not totally inflexible or determined to cut off their own nose.

My question now is, what's gonna happen when it's time for Calypso to move? Will we have to revisit the same tired, boring nonsense that the "University is making us close"?

chicago pop said...

edj, I'm going to have to re-post my piece on the 61st Street garden from last April.

This hue and cry is ridiculous. The University of Chicago is saving the CTS. If it hadn't, a lot of the same letter-writers would be screaming down their neck about that instead. But nobody cares about that significant act of historic preservation and magnanimity.

But it just so happens that in order to do this the University wants to call in their chips and use their land. The impact that this will have on the garden site is beside the point, as the University has made it clear since 2004 that the property is included within the boundaries of their South Campus redevelopment plan, and could be used for development at any time. The clock is ticking on that plot, and at the end of the day any argument to the contrary is pleading for squatters' rights.

This is the worst kind of Hyde Park hypocrisy. You get a freebie from the University, then act like they owe it to you, and then when the freebie-spigot is turned off, you cook up all sorts of metaphysical balderdash about intangibles and get indignant about your threatened entitlement.

The best part of the Kalven-Spicer mini-Teabagger Manifesto is this line:

And, of course, it is not to be presumed that another part of the Woodlawn neighborhood would gladly accept the university's discarded garden.

Whaaha?? Damned if you do, damned if you don't!

Wait, I thought everyone on the South Side wanted to get into this garden? But here we read that maybe it can't go anywhere else because maybe other folks don't care as much, in which case, maybe it's not as big a deal as Spicer-Kalven-et al claim. Great argument!

OK, so forget that hair-splitting, just give the garden to us for free because, hey, we've had it for free for 10 years. And the topsoil has suddenly become very difficult to relocate.

This is the epitome of activist-dependency-whining. Sure it's nice, and people are used to it, but if I left a free $100 bill on your window sill every week, you'd get used to that too and be bummed when I changed my mind. Spicer et al have managed to get outside money to do studies of the Point, Doctors Hospital, etc. Time to do the same in this instance, raise some money, and go buy yourself some land for a community garden elsewhere and forever rid yourself of the University whose handouts will never be enough to meet your needs.

chicago pop said...

Greg is right that the uproar about Dixie Kitchen was a joke as well. Since this blog has started Hyde Park has had a net gain of new restaurants, all reviewed here, and all welcome additions. We happen to know that there are more changes on the horizon that may rock some people's worlds. And MAC has several locations primed for a variety of bistros in the Del Prado, the Shoreland, and maybe elsewhere.

But to stick to the point, (Park 52 + Chant + Z&H) - (Dixie Kitchen) = net of 2 new restaurant/eateries over where we stood in 2006. Or, if you don't include Z&H, then we're only ahead by 1.

But could be worse, and it's what needs to happen to make the Harper Court plot a realistic prospect for developers. Would you date a person who insisted on seeing their ex every Friday night? Hell no! But that is what the University would, in effect, be doing if it started shopping Harper Court around with a few tenants still attached.

I liked Dixie Kitchen as much as the next guy, knew people who worked there. But it was in a half empty and low-performing property that was not a net advantage to Hyde Park. Change is hard.

Anonymous said...

The half-empty and obsolete properties are a huge drag on Hyde Park. I get so tired of the rehashed ad nauseum history lessons from Maryal Dale and others about how "Harper Court was built for artisans displaced because of urban renewal," as if this is enough reason to keep a dilapidated, outdated mall.

The reason the Herald keeps printing these letters is because Harper Court was the culmination of Bruce Sagan's contribution to urban renewal. The Herald's archives describe Sagan giving lectures during the publicity phase of UR in which he discusses the need for a place to take in the displaced artisans. This was all 50 years ago! Harper Court as a mall and business center completely SUCKS. The offices have flooding issues, the density is not adequate, the layout is terrible... it's a rundown dump almost as bad as Village Center.

Many of the folks who are desperately clinging to crumbling edifices are the same people who were all too happy to say goodbye to the fleabag flophouses, dives and crumbling dumps 50 years ago. Towers of dust held up by 100 years worth of paint.

It's time to bring Hyde Park into the 21st century, kicking and screaming if necessary. Our business district is already hurt by the fact that we don't have an L line direct to the center of HP. Are we supposed to believe that we can lure quality retailers, shoppers and commercial enterprises with obsolete, crumbling, substandard buildings? I can't wait until they clear Harper Court, that hideous Hollywood Video building, and the parking lot, make old Lake Park into a proper street again and give us a decent shopping district!

erith1 said...

I couldn't disagree with you guys more about the garden letter in the Herald.

Granted, I'm biased because I have a plot in the garden, but it seems to me that you guys are even more biased in the other direction. That is, because of Jack Spicer's involvement in the garden, your hatred of him is projecting on to this issue.

I find the letter to be in (nearly) perfect harmony with my own opinions on the matter. In summary, I understand it's the University's property to do whatever they wish and if that's what they want to do, I have no problem with that. However, I think it is worth raising the point that there is great value in the garden, value that someone who does not use the garden might not see.

If you could take off the Jack Spicer hate glasses for a second, I think you would agree that this letter is the correct way to approach things. There are no demands or threats. There is no shouting down people at community meetings. There are no accusations or conspiracy theories. Instead, there is a calm, rational letter stating the case for the garden on why it is worth saving. If that's not the right approach, I don't know what is. If anything, this blog should be applauding the fact that a reasonable approach is finally being taken, as opposed to the usual Hyde Park "scare tactics".

I do agree that the line about woodlawn not wanting the garden made me wince a little. But quibbling with one line of a letter is a far cry from laughing the whole letter off as ridiculous (which is what I usually do with the Herald editorials).

In summary, I heartily object to c-pop's vision of the gardeners as a bunch of whining babies waiting for our hand outs from the university and then crying when we don't get them. Instead, I present my vision, as a gardener and as a witness to my fellow gardeners, of a group of calm, rational group of adults who are making their pleas in the proper manner and will be content whatever the outcome. I thought I had disabused c-pop of his crying babies notion on his original post, but I guess not. :)

chicago pop said...

Erith1- I like your comment a lot more than the group letter in this week's Herald, and am glad you shared it. You should write one to the Herald and send it in -- and I'll make a point to note how reasonable it
is. In any case, as last time, there is no collective blame of everyone who gardens there, but there is a
critique of the claims made
to influence University behavior on their behalf. I think I was pretty clear last time that the arguments made were Kalven's; they probably are again this time.

You are right that the save-the-garden discourse, what I've seen of it, is calm and rational. It's also quite reasonable to say that you will accept whatever outcome, though the letter writers
don't say this. Just as reasonable for someone to point out that the land involved has been borrowed as a gift for some time, belongs to someone else, and has been slated for some
kind of use for at least 5 years, allowing plenty of time for provision to be made for an alternative.

kbsb said...

The University has offered to relocate the garden, including the topsoil. As of right now, the Alderman has indicated willingness to find an alternate location, and the University has also offered its assistance. Right now, as far as I'm aware, no one has engaged either on actually moving. The University has set a deadline of when everything must be out.

My question, is this going to continue to be civil? Or is the next step court intervention?

What I don't understand, why is it such a terrible thing to have the garden someplace else? I understand the Experimental Station is nice to have close by, but perhaps an alternative site would also be close. Why not see what the options are before it is too late to get assistance?

Also, has anyone offered to rent the space? Or buy it? Or is the position the University should simply let the gardeners have it?

I love the garden, and wish it could stay. But, I'm more interested in seeing if there is an alternative that is just as good. Why not take both approaches simultaneously? My fear is this is gearing up for another fight like Doctor's Hospital (which probably did not make the University all that willing to listen to Jack Spicer in any event, sadly).

Anonymous said...

My own personal agenda is one that embraces the notion of urban gardening. I think we need a lot more of them and we do have a number of vacant lots that could work.

But I think a lot more would get done if the gardeners (Spicer and Kalven included, who we know are pretty energetic guys) put their efforts behind working with the University to find a new location, take the University up on their offer to move the topsoil, and try to make the very best of a moot point.

Writing letters to the editor is certainly everyone's right, but seems disingenuous to me. The university has already made the decision to use this land for staging. Everyone knows that no amount of letter writing or meetings will change this. So, to me at least, the letter to the editor, though it is even in tone, strikes me more as grandstanding or a "parting shot" then a genuine attempt to keep the garden in its current location.

Again, I love the garden personally and will be really sad if it vanishes instead of moving to a new location. If I had the free time and money I'd probably be planting there with you.

David Farley said...

Why does the University need to "save" the Theological Seminary anyway? The world needs more community gardens and fewer theological seminaries.

But I digress. I heard this morning that MAC has purchased Doctor's Hospital. Is this old news already?

LPB said...

I'd feel much more sympathetic to the vocal contingent of the community gardeners if:

1.) they'd actually expressed appreciation to the University for the privilege of using that current location (free of charge) for so many years already. Instead, the letter to the editor only specifies some appreciation for the University's offer to help relocate the garden, and for the University's need for a safe and economical construction site for the CTS.

It seems like none of their parents ever taught them to say "thank you" when they received a favor.

2.) Or if there was some indication that the gardeners had constructively investigated and followed through on alternative arrangements for the garden, including doing due diligence on other locations. This may have been done, but nothing in the letter details which sites they've looked at and why they wouldn't be suitable.

Rather, this vocal contingent (which I do not assume represents all the community gardeners) *does* come across as a whiney bunch who only want to stay where they are, and are faulting the University for not discussing that possibility.

If the University has already taken the status quo off the table (as it is its legal right to do), and it has offered assistance in relocating, then it seems to me that the ball is in the gardeners' court. If they choose not to take up the University's offer, then they shouldn't be whining in the Herald at this late date.

chicago pop said...

@ the Esteemed David Farley-
According to my sources, MAC has nothing to do with Drs Hospital. This is, appropriately enough given the topic of this post, pure rumor.

MAC has, however, taken possession of the Shoreland. Someone may have confused the two.

chicago pop said...

I have to say, given the facts highlighted in previous
comments, that the letter in question, while appearing to be reasonable rhetorically, actually is not, and this because it seems to advance an all-or-nothing scenario, i.e., either we stay where we are or we lose any offers of assistance that have been made, and with them the possibility of continued community gardening in Woodlawn.

Scorched earth tactics, yet again. Is
this the kind of leadership the gardening
community deserves?

From a bargaining point of view, this resembles
the kind of obstructionism we're used to. If the continuation of community gardening were really a priority on the part of those who most vocal about it, we would hear of work and
efforts to take the Univ. and Alderman up on their offers.

Instead, the recent letter is not that different in substance from the Kalven piece originally posted on Huffpo last spring. To read either version, you wouldn't know that there were reasonable alternatives on the table.

David Farley said...

How about this? Give Robie House back to CTS. They can tear it down like they wanted to do in 1957, before NIMBY preservationists stopped them, and build their new seminary there. The garden can stay where it is. Everybody's happy.

edj said...

I seem to recall hearing that the Robie neighbors opposed the construction of that monstrosity built by that interloping Oak Parker Frank Lloyd Wright because it didn't fit in with the character of the other houses on the street. Clearly, their vision of Hyde Park was superior and Mr. Robie should just do what he was told.

I also liked Erith1's comment. It was unlike the letters in the Herald in that it was based in reality. However, I think the university has already looked at the value of the garden to the community. They recognize its importance and want to help find a new location. I'm sure people will find the new location to be just fine in time, especially if the people are like Erith1. It's not the location that matters, it's the people who are there.

My problem with the Spicer, et al letter is that they never have anything new to say. They know what they want and they want to compromise by having other people give in to them. The attitude is that they know better and we should all just defer to their superior judgment. It's as if they are constantly saying, "If you didn't understand what I said, I will repeat it, only this time more slowly because you obviously did not get it the first through fifth times we said it."

David Farley said...

I believe Robie House was either the first or very early construction in that corner of HP. I recall the last time I took a tour, the guide asked people to picture it sitting by itself in the countryside to get an idea of what Wright originally had in mind.

If this sounds unusual, the Wright House and Studio in Oak Park was across the street from farmland when it was built.

Can Jack Spicer do something about all the gnats on the lakefront path?

Nord said...

The attitude is that they know better and we should all just defer to their superior judgment. It's as if they are constantly saying, "If you didn't understand what I said, I will repeat it, only this time more slowly because you obviously did not get it the first through fifth times we said it."
Are you talking about the Herald letter, or this blog? I'm inclined to think the latter...

edj said...

Nord -

Let me say that again, only this time more slowly...

Lightningrodd said...

The University only has itself to blame for all the harassment it gets from neighborhood activist. Despite being a private entity, the university feels the need to get public input on all its activities. Me and my girlfriend own a condo, and one of the benefits of a condo is, unlike an apartment, you can make decorative decisions(color, appliances, bath/kitchen finishes, etc). We don't have to get permission from the other unit owners, as courtesy if a lot of noise will be made we could give them a heads up. However the university feels compelled to get input on all its decisions. This is what basically killed the doctors hospital project and also what is holding up progress on harper court. As a private owner the university should of quickly and quietly sold the hospital to the hotel development group. But by announcing its intentions and allowing public input, all the university did was throw a wrench into its plans. The university needs to learn the when you invite public debate you get opinions you don't want and then you also get people who'll do everything possible to stop you.

edj said...

I've been thinking about Nord's comment about this blog being about knowing better than everyone else. I don't think that's true. I'll admit I'm pretty boneheaded, but I think that a majority of the community would like to see more development, and that people who comment on here are trying to get their voices heard. I think that there is a small number in the people in the neighborhood who want to obstruct anything new unless it is their idea. The nice thing about the people and organizations trying to bring new development to the neighborhood are trying to build a dynamic community, not try to protect whatever was in place 10, 15, 20, or 30, or 50 years ago. And, even better, protect it with someone else's money and property in the name of the "people", which in actuality is just cover for someone else's interest or power base.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. If it's not my idea, I don't care. As long as it addresses what we need today.

chicago pop said...

edj -
Of course it's not true. You don't have to agree with everything on this blog, but that's not the point. The point is that there is now a place where a certain tendency of thought is represented that wasn't here two years ago. La vie Hyde Parquoise is no longer a one-way monologue from The Herald to The Masses. There's a greater diversity of discourse on Hyde Park-related topics.

It's simple, but it's progress, whether viewed du nord ou du sud.

Michael said...

The one problem with the term "unresearched activism" in this case is assuming that a Facebook group is activism. The only activist in this case was you, for picking up the phone. If not activist, than at least you were an active citizen, otherwise known as someone willing to do more than breathe or engage in therapeutic but meaningless activity.

A. said...

Allied Barton has a long, and notorious, reputation for paying their guards very little and treating them very poorly. I cringe at the thought of having my company guarded by this firm.

Richard Gill said...

Here's what's gonna happen: The real estate market is going to regain momentum, property will turn over, and "new" people will enter the neighborhood in increasing numbers. These "new" people, who have seen the world outside the moat, will add to those of us ("new" and "old") who can't stand the Hyde Park B.S. Eventually, "We" will overwhelm "Them" by pure numbers.

This process is actually under way, and it will gain speed. Meanwhile,"We" will be subjected to the "extremist paranoia" of "Them" that was so aptly identified by rdb. As for me, I think that much of the shouting has naught to do with paranoia or mistrust or much of anything, other than that uncontrolled yelling en masse can feel oh so good.