Monday, July 30, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Burnham

One of the reasons cited by the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society for preserving the unremarkable Doctor's Hospital is that it "addresses Jackson Park in exactly the way Daniel Burnham envisioned in his Plan of 1909." Now, Daniel Burnham was an important architect, but it's far from clear that he was a good city planner, and it's on the basis of the latter creds that we're being asked to value this building. The fabled and grandiose 1909 plan is breathtaking but utterly unrealistic, outdoing in its vision what the French Baron von Haussmann actually accomplished in the wake of his massive tear-down projects in the Paris of the 1860s, and rivaling some of the more outlandish schemes of later German modernists.

Which is all to say that, if you take one good look at the above illustration, you'll see that Burnham was crazy. His vision of Chicago
as a beaux-arts European capital (Paris), as Northwestern University's urban historian Janet Abu-Lughod argues, was completely at odds with the attempts of Chicago's architectural luminaries, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, to find an architecture that was native to the American experience. The 1909 plans reflect the megalomania of one man, backed by the newfound riches of Chicago's industrial and commercial elite enamored with the cultural conventions of Old Europe.

It was also completely at odds with the economic reality of Chicago as one of the nation's top 3 industrial cities with an enormous and frequently striking proletariat, none of which figures in the pleasing aquatints of the 1909 Plan. Chances are that Louis Sullivan would not have thought much of the Euro-philic Georgian revival style of the Doctor's Hospital, to say nothing of the 1909 Plan, modeled as it was on the Neo-Classical, wedding-cake monstrosities of the 1893 World's Fair, which Sullivan is on record as loathing.

So when we are asked to appreciate the value of the Doctor's Hospital because it "addresses Jackson Park in exactly the way Daniel Burnham envisioned in his Plan of 1909", l
et's remember that this wouldn't have carried much weight with Louis Sullivan, and that there are good reasons why precious little of that Plan ever materialized -- because it had very little to do with the social or economic reality of Chicago as a meatpacking, steel-forging, Haymarket Rioting town resembling Paris only in the minds of a small elite.

Ask Jane Jacobs

Introducing yet another feature on Hyde Park Progress, to appear from time to time, dealing specifically with issues of urban planning and design: Ask Jane Jacobs.

Hyde Parkers seem to know a lot about Daniel Burnham and his 1909 plan for the city, and folks like Jens Jensen and Frederick Law Olmsted. But, given the general antiquarian outlook of The Establishment, this backward looking orientation has not kept up with the most progressive thinking about how cities operate.

Which is why we think the discussion on change in Hyde Park-Kenwood and the South Side needs a firmer theoretical basis. The basic impulse driving Establishment obstructionism is NIMBYism, akin to that found in suburbs (and I repeatedly make this point, the subtext being that Hyde Park is NOT a suburb -- at least it hasn't been one since it was annexed by the City over 100 years ago...). Beyond that, Establishment thinking tends to cling to a line of thought going back through urban critics Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard which tends to be more interested in gardens than in cities.

Jane Jacobs rejected core principles of this tradition. She did so while also providing one of the earliest and most cutting critiques of Urban Renewal. Her credentials as an urban liberal are therefore impeccable. Taking as her model Greenwich Village in New York City, she produced a set of analytic concepts for understanding what a city is that undergird much of the New Urbanism. She understood cities first and foremost as economies that operate on a local scale. This fundamental perception is one that is sorely lacking in current Establishment discourse.

Like Hyde Parkers, she wanted to 'save' her neighborhood, and she did. But she approached the problem empirically, rather than seeking to impose utopian ideals on a messy reality. We need more of Ms. Jacob's sensible and urbane sensibility.

That's why she is our Hero, and we will be asking her spirit for guidance as local issues arise in the neighborhood.

Stiffs in the Grass: Algonquin Apartments Homicide (Again)

This morning at about 7AM my wife walked to work past the scene of a homicide that had occurred about an hour before in front of the Algonquin Apartments on E. Hyde Park Boulevard. It's a good thing we weren't out strolling with the baby. The story is getting a lot of attention in The Chicago Tribune, probably because the victim appears to have been pushed out a tenth-story window after having been beaten.

This is the second homicide in the Algonquin Apartments in 9 months. Back in October, a woman was found strangled in her bathtub two blocks from my front door.

My wife is freaked out, understandably. This is crazy. The October 2006 homicide was the sort of thing destined to become an urban legend: a psycho cable guy, one of any number of utility service folks that we all depend on, got inside a woman's house and murdered her. Now a man is thrown out a window.

Generally when I read the crime reports, I look to see if the incident happened inside a residence. If so, I generally breath easier. People who beat/assault/murder other people inside a domicile tend to know or be related to their victims. Street violence is a different matter. But although this happened inside a domicile, it's still scary.

We'll have more to say about street crime in Hyde Park-Kenwood in future posts. For now, we're just absorbing the shock of a gruesome demise.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harper Court: Commercial Death Trap

What would you say if someone told you that their business had experienced a 60% jump in profitability after changing locations? Probably: "Ah, you finally moved out of Harper Court!"

That's exactly what happened to Toys Et Cetera since moving in February 2007. Not only has the move increased revenues for the toy store, it has generated a spill-over effect for neighboring merchants at its new location on 55th St. To quote The Herald ("New tenants in shopping center spark sales", July 25, 2007):

Antwan Chandler, manager for Wesley's Shoe Corral, 1506 E. 55th St., said since Toys Et Cetera moved in there has been a dramatic improvement in business.

So here we have a small business that obviously has solid fundamentals, solid enough to give a boost to its neighbors. What can we learn from this?

Harper Court is the Bermuda Triangle for small businesses. What tenant is going to look at the Toys Et Cetera example and want to locate there? Harper Court currently has all the features needed to scare away shoppers: it is run-down, its tenants have very little relation to each other (someone visiting to buy a burrito might not necessarily want to rent a bike or arrange for a catered event), and its design is outdated and unappealing. Frankly, it's always a little scary to walk around the weird "sunken courtyard," one of those bizzare public space concepts from the 60s that should never have happened.

There is a future for Harper Court, but in its present incarnation it is a commercial death trap.

Friday, July 27, 2007

This Week's Guest in NIMBY's Corner

Sometimes things just fall in your lap, like this classic specimen of NIMBY logic from a Herald letter writer (Diane Durante, July 25, 2007). I'm pinning this one up on my wall like a butterfly in a collection. Let's review a key selection closely:

Today I ran an errand on the North Side between 1pm and 2pm and it was ugly: except for five minutes picking up an item, I spent the entire time negotiating heavy traffic.

Editorial Comment: Perhaps if that store had been located in or near Hyde Park, you wouldn't have had to spend all that time in traffic. But wait ... it turns out the writer LIKES it this way!

I returned to Hyde Park as I always do -- happy and relieved to be in a more sane environment.

Editorial Comment: Let's think about this. All the shopping is in one place. All the people live in another. They all have to drive 20 miles to buy stuff. So it's congested in one place, and quiet in another. Does that sound like a "sane" arrangement to you? The subtext is that the writer thinks we shouldn't be able to shop in our own neighborhood!

Well, it certainly isn't sane in terms of providing people with the opportunity to WALK to their shops, reducing CO2 emissions, national dependence on foreign oil, and other nice Liberal causes that Hyde Parkers are supposed to support. And it means that it's really tough for folks who don't have a car, or can't afford to burn gas like paper in order to do the weekly expedition to the North Side.

This is, as advertised, classic NIMBY logic. The writer is taking her own personal pleasure as the Greater Good, when the "peace and quiet" she refers to is actually part of a larger problem.

Let us not take for granted the relative peace of our community. We must represent our interests to developers and their associates who want to exploit us for profit.

Conclusion: The writer of this letter could use the addresses of a few monasteries where she might find people who are willing to debate whether commerce and usury are sins against God's laws of nature. Meanwhile, I'd like some exploitation for profit, especially the kind that involves good groceries and a movie theater. All those who want to grow their own food, raise goats in their yard, and make their clothes from hemp are free to do so.

The folks who want to keep developers and improved retail out forget that they are following in the footsteps of the folks who booted the retail out in the first place, and with it the Poor Black Folk that used to live here. It's sure been a lot quieter since, hasn't it?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

NIMBY's Corner

Our newest feature here at the 3-day old Hyde Park Progress Blog (HPPB) is "NIMBY's Corner." No, NIMBY is not the latest Saturday morning cross of a Jim Henson Muppet knock-off and an uber-cute Japanese animation character. NIMBY is an acronym that stands for "Not In My Backyard." NIMBYs generally espouse NIMBY-ism. In Hyde Park, NIMBYs are perhaps the broadest demographic group, transcending racial, class, religious, and occupational lines.

Each week, we will highlight a classic NIMBY issue, and examine how NIMBYs advance their own self-interest as higher principles, and personal conveniences as the Greater Good. As a population, this group is highly susceptible to DMMCS, a common suburban homeowner pathology known as Don't Move My Cheese Syndrome.

Common signs of NIMBY DMMCS are breaking into hives on hearing the word "density", erotic hallucinations at mention of the word "parking", and allergic reaction to public transportation and the possibility that people from OUTSIDE the neighborhood might want to come INSIDE the neighborhood. The most common sign, however, is the use of ad hoc and contradictory arguments against proposed high-rise or commercial development in the neighborhood.

The Onion or The Herald?

Pardon the profanity, but this farce hits a little too close to home.

Shitty Neighborhood Rallies Against Asshole Developer

The Onion

Shitty Neighborhood Rallies Against Asshole Developer

CHICAGO, IL—Many of those who live in the hopeless pit of a neighborhood say they are hesitant to allow the prick developer to dump a concrete-and-glass yuppie turd on it.

Hyde Park Heroes: Edward Perovic

Every once in a while, a reasonable person writes a letter to the Herald. We think this is noteworthy. The most recent such epistle bemoans the chronic siege mentality and fear of change within the neighborhood.

Choice excerpts are presented below:

The front page of the Hyde Park Herald on July 18, would be comical if it didn't reflect a sad truth about our community..."Community input" in Hyde Park is becoming "Community roadblock." Every time a developer or the university proposes a new project, there is immediate outcry. For decades, all these outcries have produced is more vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. Meanwhile, we Hyde Parkers continue to do our shopping, eating and movie-going outside of the neighborhood.

Hyde Park's reputation has become one of anti-development and anti-retail...You can create all the TIFs in the world but if retailers are chased away by "community input," the TIFs become useless.

Finally, someone speaks the truth. Mr. Perovic is this week's Hyde Park Hero.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Doctor's Hospital Update

The Hyde Park Herald (Wed. July 25, 2007), the Establishment's leading organ of the press, led off this weeks edition with the headline "Residents reject Drs. Hospital Swap", meaning that there was a consensus against the U of C's plans to tear down the 1914 structure and replace it with a mid-market Marriott hotel. Now, headlines are a matter of journalistic art, and no one is holding the Herald up to, say Washington Post standards, but this is not quite accurate.

The Herald claims there were 250 people in attendance. The population of Hyde Park is, according to the South East Chicago Commission, 44,700 people. That means a minute fraction of the neighborhood's population (0.006%) bothered to show up. Although I got the gut sense a majority of people in the room didn't like the University's plan, I have no way of telling if all of them were opposed to it. Nothing in the Herald's article provides any sort of objective basis for determining if the project is popular or not in the neighborhood at large.

So, with just a back-of-the-envelope calculation, we can see how The Establishment is taking the voice of a small group of people and projecting it as the General Will. This happens with nearly every case of proposed development.


This is not to say that attendees failed to raise legitimate issues. Of all the complaints I heard, two were reasonable. The first was the fear of parking congestion, which is a fear among single-family homeowners throughout the universe. A truly righteous response to this complaint, as an urban-planner friend of mine put it, would be to tell people that they shouldn't be driving cars in a city anyway. Hans Morsbach laments the prospect of not being able to park his car "in front of his house," as if he didn't live in one of the densest cities in the United States, in which millions of people use mass transit every day, and more transit infrastructure is desperately needed. This problem should be shut down with proper design of a parking structure.

Aesthetics are a more substantial concern. Although the Herald did not mention this in its "Rejection" story, a number of the most compelling comments made acknowledged that sometimes you have to tear down an old building; but if and when you do, why not put up something even better? Even some preservationists at the meeting were willing to trade, if the new building were a contribution to architectural excellence. The Inland Steel building was cited as one example of a case in which no one regrets the loss of the building that was there before.

Truth be told, the Doctors' Hospital is nothing to look at. It is significant in an academic way, which is enough for the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society to insist that it remain unaltered, meaning vacant and deteriorating like a dozen other Hyde Park properties. Tear it down and build something better. We could use the restaurants, the cafes, and the foot traffic into the neighborhood.

Why Hyde Park Progress?

Why Hyde Park Progress?

Simple. Two comments recently overheard in local cafes sum it all up. From a visiting Bay Area academic: "This isn't much of a neighborhood." From a young faculty member of the Social Sciences Division of the University: "It's great for kids, but is basically boring."

I have a home here, am raising a kid here, and went to school here. I occasionally teach for the University. And I think the neighborhood needs to change. I know there are plenty of people who agree. But these are feelings and sentiments that aren't represented by the "establishment voice" of Hyde Park, which is comprised of the Hyde Park Herald, the Hyde Park Historical Society, and various other caretaker community groups. These groups have a demonstrated record of preserving the status quo. They have a poor record of improving on it.

The residents of this neighborhood who feel these institutions do not represent their voice share a few things in common. Above all, they feel that Hyde Park and its surrounding communities need more retail and commercial amenities. This means an openness to change of several sorts: increased street life, which leads to greater neighborhood safety; greater mixture of land uses, together with increased residential densities in newer developments. Many residents agree that the Establishment paranoia regarding change, outsiders, traffic, and congestion are overblown and can be properly managed.

The current Hyde Park Establishment, which sees itself as steward of the neighborhood's essence, is in fact quite removed from it. Hyde Park was not conceived and built as an autarkic community on the model of Chavez's Venezuela or Castro's Cuba. It has been a part of the City and its economy since the development boom of the late 19th century, and was together with the South Side the home to most of the City's wealth and influence. All of this changed after World War II. Racial and social changes, together with Urban Renewal, cut the neighborhood off from its surroundings in an effort to protect it from decline.

This is the status quo that the current Establishment seeks to protect. It was Urban Renewal that drove out the businesses, dead-ended the thoroughfares, and drained the night-life and urbanity from the neighborhood. This is the heritage of which the Establishment is now the steward, and to which they offer no alternatives. The Establishment derides Urban Renewal; but they are the unwitting stewards of its bucolic legacy. Chicago is nowhere near as densely populated as it used to be. Many of its now deserted South Side thoroughfares were bustling with commerce and public transportation as recently as the early 1960s, as much of the North Side is now. The current condition of Hyde Park is a historical aberration by any measure.

Hyde Park Progress thinks there is space for a voice other than that of obstructionism sounded by "community" activism. Hyde Park Progress is a pro-development voice from within the neighborhood which argues that our quality of life is just as dependent on convenient shopping, 24-hour street safety, and urban vitality, as it is upon plentiful parkland and historical architecture, and wants to make the blending of these a priority, not a distant dream.