Friday, September 28, 2007

How to Chase Small Businesses from Hyde Park in 14 Points

posted by chicago pop

Mystique Boutique's New Location, 1503 S. Michigan

Let's just start with a few facts, gleaned from the most unlikely of places: the "Shopping" feature of the Chicago Tribune's "At Play" section (Thursday, September 27, 2007). It turns out that shopping advisor Ellen Warren, curious to know if the boutique scene in South Loop had yet to blossom, found that it had. And guess what? Several of the distinctive new South Loop boutiques are businesses relocated from Hyde Park.

What does this tell us about small business? 1) Businesses go where the shoppers are. 2) There aren't enough shoppers in Hyde Park. What does this tell us about Hyde Park politics? 1) Chains are not driving the mom and pops out. 2) The mom and pops are leaving the neighborhood because there aren't enough customers.

Why aren't there enough customers? Because Hyde Park NIMBYs don't want to let more people (i.e., shoppers) into the neighborhood -- just ask Jack and Jill. What may have been a tolerable business environment for a Hyde Park businessperson 10 or 15 years ago is now an insane opportunity cost, given the explosion of new households just a few miles to the north. Despite the many and obvious attractions of the Harper Court business dynamo, they are evidently not enough to distract local entrepreneurs interested in turning a profit.

Mystique Boutique, a Hyde Park mainstay for 22 years, moved to 1503 S. Wabash a few years ago, leaving us, as a reminder, the wonderfully prominent vacant storefront at 53rd and Hyde Park Boulevard. Downtown Pets, at 1619 S. Michigan Avenue, is another small business refugee from Hyde Park. The neighborhood obviously generates business talent; but it's talented enough to know not to stick around.

Why is this so? Two letters to this week's Herald (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) allow us to perform a sort of thought experiment, artificially creating the business psycho - ology of the neighborhood, allowing us to see what might discourage small local businesses from putting up a shingle here.

Mr. Gregory S. has a project to preserve and restore the historic Rosenwald Apartments on 47th Street. The problem is, he doesn't know how to pay for it. Solution? Find someone with lots of money to invest in the area. "Allowing it to crumble and decay is absurd and a real waste of what should be a great investment opportunity for someone with capital."

I agree completely. The only problem is, with the exception of Mr. S., not everyone in Hyde Park is equally enthusiastic about promoting "investment opportunities for someone with capital."

Take, for instance, a quite detailed letter from one Mr. William A. Knack, who feels that, "If Harper Court is to be redeveloped, let's do it right." Thereupon follows a 14 point list of stipulations as to just what a Harper Court redevelopment proposal should include, with tips on everything from including senior housing at the site, getting a movie theater back into the old Hyde Park theater, and telling McDonald's to get lost.

Now let's imagine Mr. Knack's 14 points getting written into the Request for Proposals that will be used to solicit Mr. S.'s "someone with capital." Ready, set, go.

I don't hear anything happening ... do you?

Exactly. Who would be crazy enough to take on the redesign of an entire neighborhood for the sake of getting their hands on some iffy real estate in Hyde Park, when the neighborhood can't even retain its home-grown entrepreneurs?

The solution is ultimately very simple. More people need to live in and around Hyde Park. There just aren't enough people here to support local merchants, and the ones who live here now are small spenders, spending below the national average in just about every category (see Lifestyle chart of spending habits by area code).

There are two ways to change this. Either 1) bring in lots more households that earn below or equal to the neighborhood's average per capita income range of approximately $35-40,000 (as of 2000 Census), or 2) bring in fewer people who earn above the neighborhood's $35-40,000 average per capita income. Either way, there need to be more people with pocketbooks. Bringing them in will only add to the diversity that the neighborhood supposedly cherishes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Task Force to Save the "Co-op"

The Herald has learned that a community-based Task Force has been formed to preserve the Hyde Park Cooperative Society store at 55th and Lake Park Avenue. Task force co-chair Jack B. Nimby explained "The Co-op represents a unique shopping experience -- spoiled food and surly service -- which is fast disappearing from the American retail landscape. We want to preserve this for future generations."

The task force is in the "organizing stages" according to Mr. Nimby. Secret meetings are planned every Wednesday night at Cosimo's restaurant. The task force will hold a public meeting on the Winter Solstice at 2:15 pm at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club.

The task force plans to cement community support for their drive to save the Co-op by circulating a petition. Ian A. M. White, Task Force co-chair in charge of propaganda, plans to ask community residents if they agree that "we don't want to lose our neighborhood grocery store." They plan on presenting their petition at the annual Trustee meeting of the University of Chicago and ask the University to establish an endowment to subsidize the operation of the Co-op. Endowment payout would be pegged to the current losses of some $840,000 per year.

"The University can afford to build expensive hotels and swanky housing for their students and visitors. Why can't they throw a little cash our way?" wonders Mr. Nimby.

Mr. White has also worked out a complete schedule of coverage for publication in the Herald. "We are putting the finishing touches on some really strong editorials that we are ghost writing for the Herald Editor."

The task force also plans to consolidate the Co-op's near monopoly position. "We realize that as long as even weak competitive forces are at play, the Co-op cannot decline to complete mediocrity," detailed Mr. Nimby. The task force plans on working with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr to obtain exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act for the Co-op. According to Task Force plans, University Police will search cars entering Hyde Park for Whole Foods, Dominick's and Trader Joes bags. "We want to eliminate the meddling of outsiders," said Mr. Nimby.

The Task Force is particularly disturbed by the Peapod Conspiracy Company's inroads. "This is unfair competition. With a few clicks, Hyde Parkers can order high quality groceries at lower prices than the Co-op. We want to level the playing field, " said Task Force spokesman Greg Trotsky. "The maddening thing is there is no legal recourse to exclude them from our turf." The Herald has learned that an affiliated organization is considering placing potatoes and bananas in the exhaust pipes of Peapod trucks but this rumor cannot be confirmed at press time.

Mirroring the "Save the Point" bumper sticker campaign, the Task Force plans to blanket Hyde Park with "Spoiled Rotten by the Co-op" bumper stickers. An earlier proposal of "I Shop the Co-op" was rejected as requiring too much commitment of supporters.

The Task Force has already attracted international attention to the Co-op. The Museum of the Burma Road has been searching for years for samples of fly-blown meat for their exhibit on the horrendous conditions endured by British and Australian POWs. "We have, at last, found a source for this important exhibit," the museum director was heard to say.

Mr Nimby is expecting great things to come. "We are just picking up steam and coming into full stride. We are looking forward to holding our first meeting sometime this fall. Aldermen Leslie Hairston and Toni Preckwinkle will be invited to grovel before the assembled task force."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article bears as much resemblance to the truth as many Herald stories.

On the Pavement: September Light

posted by chicago pop

It's been a restful week, thanks mostly to the Herald's recent shift from propaganda to quasi-journalism over the last week or so. Since it probably won't last long, we're taking advantage of the respite. The downside for readers, however, is a week or two without such regular features as NIMBY's Corner. Yes, it's hard. Which isn't to say there wasn't a little something crazy about the op-ed letters this time around. It's just that there was nothing particularly NIMBY-ish about them, and we therefore decided to leave them alone.

So I thought I would take the opportunity to offer up some visual meditations of late September sunlight in my neck of the woods. Sights and shadows and contrasts that have stopped me in my tracks on afternoon dogwalks, and challenged me to capture them as best I could.

With all due respect to the spirit of Daniel Burnham, Paris is the last thing I think of when I see these things, by day or by night. It's Berlin about 1925 that comes to mind, as captured in the woodcuts of Franz Masereel's Die Stadt. It was the Germans, after all, who just about this time were coming up with the blueprints for the buildings that would eventually be built in Chicago, and define modern architecture.

Of course the Germans had mixed feelings about Metropolis, and so do we. But on a clear autumn night, as these man-made cliffs light up from the inside like so many magic lanterns stacked one on top of the other, it's hard not to be impressed that anyone ever thought to build a building that high.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hyde Park Treasures

An Occasional Photo Series No Particular Order

#2. Skating on the Midway

(you may have to click "play" twice)

Open Letter to HPP

posted by chicago pop

A reader identified as "Tupper" left us this note in a comment box, and we thought it deserved the full light of day:

I have been following this blog, and in fact I have been following development in many Chicago neighborhoods for years. This disease of NIMBYism is spreading like a weed throughout Chicago. There is a general lack of education and understanding among these groups that simply aren't able to see past the windshield of their car and recognize that they too will ultimately benefit from more density--more stores, better city services, safer streets, etc etc.

It's obvious that this is plain old ignorance, and most people are ignorant about most things most of the time, which frustrates the hell out of the minority of us who actually see things as they really are.

All that aside, Hyde Park is not really in a position to be anti-development like Bucktown or Wicker Park are. Sure it has a Metra stop, but it has a lot of things going against it. It's on (gasp!) the SOUTH SIDE of Chicago, it doesn't have an L stop, it doesn't have much of a nightlife, and it's full of old people. Really not much of a draw.

Old people aren't interested in changing that, apparently. So do we just wait them out (if you know what I mean)?

NO! Hyde Park is missing out on perhaps the greatest urban rebirth in Chicago's recent history. I applaud those of you for starting this blog, but I implore you to take action for the simple fact that you'll never get over your frustration if you don't.

Lets face it--this blog is a nice project, but don't you wish you didn't HAVE to have this blog to begin with?

There is a small group of us who have formed an organization for this exact purpose. We need more numbers, we need more brains. We've already met with the newly minted Alderman Fioretti, but not much can be done if we don't expand and organize even further. I think there is a voice waiting to be heard among us, but too many people simply aren't aware of how large of an issue this really is.

I say we have 2 choices here: 1) Give organizing and educating more people about the benefits of density (and how they are being deprived of it) a chance, or 2) Keep getting frustrated. What's there to lose?

I'd really like to know who's interested, if anyone. And no, this isn't some cheesy gimmick. We are a real organization, but I'm not going to pretend that we're very big or influential (yet).

Monday, September 24, 2007

Politics in Hyde Park: Mobocracy? or, the Power of Good Ideas?

posted by chicago pop

This post is a platform for the continuation of a debate that was getting buried in the comment box of the most recent installment of NIMBY's Corner, in which one of our gentle readers challenged the blogo-spirits that animate HPP to come out of the Matrix and do some organizing. This is a topic that's been on the back burner for a while, but now deserves to be put up front and served up.

How do neighborhood politics work in Hyde Park? How should they work? How can they work? Is the common tactic of filling rooms with warm bodies at community meetings -- highlighted most recently in the controversy over the Children's Museum in Grant Park -- the way democracy works at the neighborhood level? Or is is a function of an absence of leadership on the part of the Alderman? Is there a reason that the folks with the bad ideas organize most effectively?

We think so: it's a rule of trade politics that those whose interests are most directly threatened, have the most interest in organizing for tariffs and trade protection. Even though this hurts an economy in general, the effects are diffused across a majority that has less direct incentive to organize. The result: the interests of the few become policy for the many.

Is something similar going on in Hyde Park? Are the organized "protectionist" lobbies raising the costs of living for the majority of unorganized consumers? If so, how to correct this, in light of the much more challenging task of organizing a diffuse interest group?

The floor is open for comments.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Beauty and the Beast: Part 2

posted by chicago pop

Old timers may remember one of the first views of Hyde Park as you came round the bend at 51st Street southbound on Lake Shore Drive used to be a rather twee little pipe that sputtered water like the arteries of a severed limb into an algae-cloaked pond. Seemed, in its own way, to say a lot about the neighborhood.

Alas, 'tis no more, and for this we give thanks.

A few weeks ago our little boat pond, long languishing in a northeastern corner of Harold Washington Park, welcomed this curious, though not unattractive, gold-plated weather vane with what looks to be a rooster solidly perched on top. Aesthetes among us may recognize the handiwork of internationally renowned artist Virginio Ferrari, who has left his sculptural deposits in front of Pick Hall, as well as the Lab School, and Wylers Children's Hospital.

Transported from its former location at Ravinia, this obelisque-esque needle is a gift of Regent's Park owner Bruce Clinton to the neighborhood. Together with the refurbishing of the boat pond, and the new landscaping immediately surrounding it, this is a great improvement of a highly visible neighborhood asset.

Now, if only we could see it! After some reconnaissance, it seems that the sculpture is, somewhat contrary to our principles here at HPP, auto-oriented, in that its best views are to be had from the Drive, and then at either dawn or dusk, when the sculpture's golden skein begins to glow. A jog down the path near 51st Street offers those on foot the best views. From most other perspectives, it is rather overwhelmed by the expanse of the pond. Squinting our eyes on a balmy late summer afternoon, however, it was possible to think we were in the Luxembourg Gardens, where there really are little Parisian boys who really do have toy boats, and are able to float them without climbing over a fence. Daniel Burnham would be in ecstasy at the resemblance.

Medusa at Rest

But we'll take it! It is, after all, quantum leaps above this beast, the portrait of a welder's nightmare in tubing. Another of the insults to civic beauty lining 55th Street, this hangover from an orgy in the welding shop of disgruntled Streets and Sanitation workers sprouts like some wicked mushroom in a half-crescent, neglected pond in Nichols Park.

We don't know who made it, what it's called, or how much was wasted to commission and install it. It stands as a monument to the axiom that, if enough people dig into their pockets and chip in, every neighborhood can adorn itself with really bad art. This corner is windswept and vacant, like other portions of this badly laid out though valuable park, about which more to be said later.

Nichols Park, and Hyde Park, deserve better than this.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hyde Park Treasures

An Occasional Photo Series No Particular Order

#1. The skyline from 51st Street.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

NIMBY's Corner #6: Jack & Jill Sign a Crazy Petition

NIMBY-ism, let us recall, is defined by individuals taking the arbitrary measure of their immediate surroundings as the norm and rule for the rest of us. They usually then sign a petition about it.

What makes NIMBY-watching interesting, aside from it's year-round nature, are the ways in which its advocates present their arguments as common-sensical, when they are usually without much empirical justification.

A case in point is the petition printed in this week's Herald (September 19, 2007), truly a classic of its genre, and intending to convince Alderman Toni Preckwinkle that four strictures should be obeyed in the development of the McMobil site on 53rd Street. The petition is brought to us by a returning guest, Ms. Jill White, who formerly appeared in "Keeping Vacant Lots Vacant," and is now backed up by roaming NIMBY-at-large, Jack Spicer.

In this case, the petitioners are intent to 1) increase congestion by allowing more cars on the block rather than fewer; 2) make the development of new housing less affordable; and 3) bring in fewer new homeowners to pay property taxes to support local schools and shop at local businesses.

Two of the suggested strictures, surprisingly, are reasonable. The remaining two, unfortunately, are ridiculous. Let's take a look at them.

Stricture #1:
The 50 foot maximum height allowance under current law will prevent the excessive blocking of sunlight from nearby homes, keep the increase in population density to a manageable level, and will allow the project to blend well with the existing buildings on either side of the lot. It will also help to keep traffic light, particularly at the risky crosswalk at Kenwood Avenue, and in the alley that connects Kenwood and Kimbark (already frequently blocked by delivery vehicles).
Editorial Comment: All of the stated reasons why the proposed building should be kept to 4 stories/50 feet are arbitrary. The "manageable level" of population density referred to is not specified. Presumably it means not so many as to bug the neighbors who live there now. We've laid out a lot of reasons on this blog why Hyde Park can and should support more household density. This petition makes no reasoned case to the contrary and should not be taken seriously unless it does.

As for the idea of "blending well with the...buildings on either side of the lot," this is laudable in general, but is here being advocated in a partisan sense. Hyde Park is full of 8, 10, 12 story buildings beside 4 stories buildings. Something similar at this site would therefore be quite in keeping with architectural precedents in the neighborhood. Here's a home-made map of where these taller buildings are located in relation to the McMobil site:

Location of Buildings 5 Stories or Higher
in Relation to McMobil Site ("X")

Unless one does some arbitrary height-based jerrymandering, any definition of the "character of the neighborhood" based on a 50 ft. height limit does not unambiguously apply to the McMobil site. It is not justified by the current pattern of land-use in the area.

Stricture #2:

Insisting on at least 1.5 parking spots per residential unit. This will ensure that available street parking -- already strained to the maximum -- will not be further taxed, and that automobile traffic will not increase to a point that it puts the safety of school children crossing the street into Nichols Park at risk.

Editorial Comment: It's rather curious the way school children always pop up in these petitions, threatened by lack of sunlight, cruel and oppressive walls, racing cars, or any number of other NIMBY demons. We would point out, purely as an aside, that congestion tends to slow things down, most likely making it safer for children, and that cars drive faster in lower density areas. But that is beside the point. The insanity here is the idea that parking ratios should be increased to 1.5 spots per unit from the current requirement of 1:1.

In the Code rewrite of 2004, every progressive urban planning organization in the Chicago region pressed very hard to keep this ratio at a maximum of 1 to 1, based on extensive research showing that lower ratios reduce congestion and discourage auto use. Lots of progressive urban planners would have liked to have seen an even lower ratio than that. In fact, the City average is already less than 1:1, as we pointed out in a previous post. So what makes the petitioners think it should be different here, in a dense urban neighborhood served by transit where lots of folks don't even own cars? What NIMBYs don't realize is that these higher ratios guarantee more cars, not less.

The crowning irony of these strictures is that they are very likely to discourage anything from getting built at this site. This shouldn't be surprising, as obstructionism by now is a time-honored local specialty of Hyde Park NIMBYs.

By upping the parking, and downscaling the building, the petitioners have simultaneously increased the developer's costs, and lowered the developer's revenues. Not only this, these strictures discourage what little prospect there already is for moderately affordable new housing, because whatever gets built will be more expensive than it would were the building taller. The developer thus has every reason to build on as much of the lot as is allowed, leaving less room for a back-yard and green space.

So there you have it. As stated above, our petitioners ask us to demand a development that would 1) increase congestion by allowing more cars on the block; 2) drive up the unit selling prices; and 3) bring fewer new shoppers into our neighborhood to support local business and fewer homeowners to pay property taxes to support local schools.

Way to go, Jack and Jill.

NIMBY Nightmare at the 53rd and Kenwood Crossing

Thank was just a dream.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Preservationists Decry Loss of Historic Tree

Hyde Park preservationists are quickly galvanizing to demand re-installation of a historic tree removed by the Park District on Monday from the south side of Promontory Point.



"I wouldn't have known about this, because I never spend any time at the Point," one of their members said, "but my friend saw the chipper truck from her apartment in the Promontory building and alerted me that something was afoot."

By the time he had biked there, the wanton destruction was already done.

"It's a terrible loss. The Park District should have consulted with the community before removing it. Restoration is always preferred to removal in cases like this. They even cut down the young trees that were growing between the limestone blocks. These details form the character of the Point, and should be preserved."

The group plans to camp out to protect the remaining weeds, even if they must stay through the first frost.

"We won't give up."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Parking, New Housing, and a few NIMBY Myths

Show me a new residential development in Hyde Park, and I'll show you a clutch of NIMBYs with a petition against it.

What are the usual NIMBY objections? Well, once you get beyond the rhetorically powerful but empirically dubious claim that new development poses a "danger to our children," somehow putting new housing on the same threat level as Osama Bin Laden, NIMBY opposition to new development typically boils down to the matter-of-fact issues of parking and density.

A mid-rise or high-rise tower, the NIMBY argument goes, will put more cars on the street, adding to the congestion that already exists. Too many people, plus too many cars, means a deterioration in the quality of life that now exists at an ideal point of equilibrium. From this perspective cities, and places within them like Hyde Park, shouldn't have too many people.

Unfortunately for the NIMBY argument, empirical data on household auto ownership show that NIMBYs often get things backwards. Which is why we need to keep a few simple facts in mind when considering NIMBY objections to new development: 1) that greater density of housing leads to less use of automobiles, not more; and 2) that greater density of housing leads to a correspondingly smaller demand for parking.

Here's how we support these assertions. (All figures below are taken from the 2000 US Census.)

In the City of Chicago, according to the 2000 census, 31% of people got to work without a car. They walked, they biked, they they took the train, bus, or shuttle; or they worked from home. This is something that is not possible in most suburban environments, and directly correlates to higher residential densities, because people's homes and jobs tend to be further apart in suburbs.

In the City of Chicago, the average rate of household auto ownership is 0.9. That is slightly less than 1 car per household. This number means that there are a substantial number of Chicago households that do not own a car. In many Chicago neighborhoods, the number of households that do not own a car is between 30 and 40%. In Hyde Park, it is 48%.

In fact, the greater the residential density, the lower the rate of household auto ownership. This is why high-rise housing needs less than 1:1 parking per unit. This is true not only of Chicago, but has been empirically demonstrated in Los Angeles, San Francisco, places like Metro DC and Arlington County, and, of course, New York City. Similar trends are detectable in the urban cores of most older US cities. The research suggests that it is probably a very general rule of urban life. This becomes clear if we look at comparable rates in nearby suburbs.

In a suburban community like Downers Grove, for example, the number of households without a car is only 9%. In Elmhurst, 6%. In Highland Park, 4%. In Wilmette, 2%. Returning to Hyde Park, the number jumps to 48%.

What You Get with Suburbia

Clearly, we don't need the same ratios of parking per household as are found in the suburbs. And if we build for those ratios, we would guarantee that more cars would be on the street. As far as congestion goes, adding parking is like adding a lane to the expressway: upping supply only ups demand.

The upshot of all this is that, in an urban environment with sufficient non-auto modes of transportation like Chicago -- safe and accessible pedestrian ways, bike lanes, public transportation, cabs, paratransit -- it is possible to build in such a way as to reduce the need to drive, thereby reducing auto congestion. Where people have alternatives -- in dense urban environments -- they drive less. Beyond a certain point, not owning a car actually becomes a feasible option for many city households. I know people who don't own cars. I even know some who don't even drive. You may, too.

What's more, all of these numbers used to be much higher before the onset of suburbanization. The critics of density within city limits have a poor appreciation for local history. Chicago's population has steadily dropped until quite recently, when it began to stabilize due to immigration. Looking at just Hyde Park, we see a drop in population of 34% between 1960 and 2000, or a decline of about 22,000 people.

There are 22,000 fewer people in Hyde Park than there were just 40 some years ago! That is the size of a small town, and similar trends are to be identified across the City and region. Neither Hyde Park nor the City are likely to ever reach these levels again, but this was the population level when Hyde Park was the prosperous, well-served neighborhood that old timers (really old timers) remember. Given this demographic history, the argument that Hyde Park can't support more density simply falls apart.

Hyde Park, like most of Chicago, was built to house far, far more people than it does today. In fact, as an economic and cultural system, Chicago is much more efficient where it has managed to preserve levels of density closer to those of the pre-suburbanization period. More households mean more property taxes, which means a higher tax base, which means better schools and services; it means more transit riders, which means more operating revenue for the CTA, and fewer budget crises; it means more people on the street, which means greater safety; and it means larger markets, which means more and better shopping close by.

Does this add up to a threat to our children? Hardly. Does it add up to more congestion? No. The NIMBY argument is a knee-jerk reaction to change with no basis in fact. The push by neighborhood groups for lower density and more parking means that NIMBYs are pushing suburban conditions in an urban environment, resulting in the worst of both worlds.

What NIMBYs don't point out in their petitions is that the suburban conditions that they long for come with a host of their own problems: greater auto usage, even worse congestion, worsened air quality, higher rates of household spending on transportation, and higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Does this sound like an acceptable vision of the common good?

Secret Identities

HYDE PARK PROGRESS is the mastermind of a guy named "Chicago Pop." But clearly that's just his alter ego. I've had a lot of queries about who this Chicago Pop is. Could he be Gene Fama, people have guessed? After all, Professor Fama is one of the fathers of Chicago-style economics, as well as the father of four Famas -- some of whom do seem to comment fairly often on this blog. Could Chicago Pop be John Cochrane? John and Peter Rossi (another HPP contributor) have been seen together, grousing and pounding their fists on the table in hundreds of faculty meetings. Cochrane is definitely libertarian enough to be Chicago Pop.

Neither of those is right. This Chicago Pop guy is elusive.

To soothe the masses, I offer this hint. You know Peter Rossi and me (Elizabeth); you'd recognize us on the street. So here's a photo of Chicago Pop with his two HPP contributors. The member of the trio you don't recognize? -- well, that's Chicago Pop.

Hyde Park Progress
Groovy. Anti-Establishment.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hyde Park Anti-Progress: Part II

Take a Deep Breath. It's Time for a Discussion About Murals.

When we talked about this gem, I pointed out a dilemma with public art: who decides when it has served its useful life?

At the risk of being publicly excoriated, I'm going to talk about murals. Murals that some of you may love.

But before we start I want to make sure you understand: I'm not a white wall fanatic. I'm not a gated-community board-member type who likes to tell people what color to paint the trim on their houses.

I LIKE art.

Some of my best friends are artists.

And yet...

I think this puppy should go to mural heaven:

The Chicago Public Art group recommends restoration of Under City Stone, although there is currently no funding for it. (The University of Chicago and the Southeast Chicago Commission have arranged funding to refurbish the murals under the 56th Street viaduct [Childhood is Without Prejudice, and Where We Come From...Where We are Going].) But even if there were thousands of dollars available I just can't see how restoration would work on this one, and whether we should spend money that way. After all, the above section is one of the only ones you can still see.

Most of it looks like this:

And this:

I suppose that professional restorers have found Rembrandts under paintings of dogs playing poker and have successfully, painstakingly brought the masterpiece to life.

But will you flay me for saying this isn't a Rembrandt? I mean, look at that guy's head in the middle of the segment below -- the guy who's tilting his face up, with the underbite (you may click the photo to enlarge). He looks like a cartoon next to everyone else. What's with THAT?

There are entire sections that are blocked out, to cover up tagging, so someone will have to find archived photos to try to reproduce what was there...

On the east end, the metra tracks leak onto the wall, so that the image AND whatever tagging was there are completely obliterated:

Here's what I think, taking as given that there are either public funds or private donations aplenty for public art (which there aren't):

1) We should consider outdoor murals to be temporary in nature. They're not inside the Sistine Chapel, after all -- they're exposed to the elements, to the railway drippings from above, and to taggers who ought to be ashamed.

2) We should periodically paint the slate clean and give another artist a shot at temporary fame.

3) We should subject potential artists to a competition in order to choose folks with genuine talent. If I'm on the panel, I'll vote for representational artists. But I'd better not be on the panel, because it should be professional artists -- not a neighborhood committee -- who do the picking.

4) We should make it clear to the artist that his work is temporary, so that he won't get all huffy when it's time for it to go.

5) We can document the different murals over time through extensive photos. Perhaps the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society would take on this job.

A Little Bit about the Mural:

In all the years Under City Stone has been up I've never read the poem above those poor downtrodden, mostly pregnant folks. To tell you the truth, as a kid I avoided looking at the mural at all, because it seemed to want desperately to disturb me, and I refused to comply. Besides, I always seem to be walking in the wrong direction or on the wrong side to actually read it, or I was in a car going west under the viaduct.

The artist is Caryl Yasko, who (through the ever trusty Google search) seems to be alive and well in Wisconsin.

The text is a poem by James Agee (1909 - 1955), with a fairly grim message about the alienation of commuting by subway -- a message I don't much agree with, after driving around L.A. in my car for a year (that's alienation).

Rapid Transit
(c. 1937)

Squealing under city stone
The millions on the millions run,
Every one a life alone,
Every one a soul undone:

There all the poisons of the heart
Branch and abound like whirling brooks
And there through every useless art
Like spoiled meats on a butcher's hooks

Pour forth upon their frightful kind
The faces of each ruined child:
The wrecked demeanors of the mind
That now is tamed, and once was wild.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Monster Rally To Save Doctors Hospital

Enormous Crowds Throng to the Defense of Historic Hospital

Chicago Police and Park District Security were overwhelmed by a recent rally in defense of the threatened Doctoral Hospital on Stony Island Avenue. Mounted police, half a dozen Segway Units, and aerial surveillance helicopters were all dispatched to maintain order as the crowds, which police estimated to peak at around 10 to 15,000 people, virtually shut down 57th Street and Stony Island.

Preservationists from around the nation continued to arrive by the busload throughout the morning, at one point roaring so loudly that the speakers -- all 23 Board members of the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society -- could not be heard above the tumult. As the crowd spilled over into nearby Jackson Park and the sun began to set, many protesters could be heard asking locals, "Does anyone know where we can find a good hotel?"

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hyde Park Heroes: Joseph Kelly, Kevin McVey, Carole E. Cooper

Spirit of Hyde Park Progress Slays Establishment Monster
in Tripped Out Landscape

We thought the image above was appropriate in the context of this week's reassuring batch of op-ed letters that not only express impatience with the Co-op, but are just generally tripped-out.

Joseph Kelly, for example, takes movement politics to a new level: on September 9, we are told, he joined together in a protest "to restore the former Marshall Field's store." That had to be a sight to see, and we're sorry the Herald didn't have a photographer there on the spot. Such a photo essay would easily have trumped the Herald's front-page headline, "Flies close Caffe Florian." We're thinking of recruiting Mr. Kelly, as he is apparently on a one-man campaign to "get retail stores from outside Hyde Park [are there any others?] to provide services to residents."

Viva la revolucion!

But at least the guy has some vision, which is more than can be said for the apparatchiks at the Hyde Park Department of Alternative Plans, who seem strangely devoid of ideas of their own. Why not take the former Goldblatt's on 47th and Ashland, slap the "Marshall Field's" name brand on the marquee, and turn it into Harper Court West? This guy is someone to watch.

Kevin McVey brings things back down to earth by questioning the University's willingness to be the lender of last resort to purveyors of "smelly meat and fish," and notes the number of neighbors spotted on frequent smuggling runs across the frontier to the contraband entrepots found in the Outside Northern World.

Carole E. Cooper, however, gets this week's Hyde Park Hero prize for her spirited rallying cry to finally slay the Great White Elephant that languishes at 55th and Lake Park. "The neighborhood is waiting with baited breath for Hyde Park produce to move into the old Mr. G's location, but that seems to be stuck on stupid [sic]...what is the problem?"

We can think of no better way to end this edition of Hyde Park Heroes than in the stirring words of Ms. Cooper herself: "Stop scapegoating, admit defeat, surrender, raise the white flag, give up and move out of the way for a market that can give you real progress, clearly this dog can't hunt!" Let's find one who can -- like Saint George -- help slay the dragon.

On the Pavement: Istria on Cornell

Served up the other afternoon with my Yergacheffe, this little amuse-bouche: Istria's long-awaited North Cornell location inside the Hyde Park Art Center may be ready to go by mid-December 2007, making it without question Hyde Park's hippest cafe.

We've heard a lot of target-dates prior to this, but this time, we're assured, everything is lined up to go, starting this weekend when, as the saying goes, the "paper goes up" and the crew gets in and starts banging around.

Delays stretching for more than a year stemmed from problems with the plumbing and wiring in the space Istria took over from HPAC after the latter's renovation, the lack of available crews through the jumping 2007 construction season, and the ever-glacial City permitting process.

With immediate proximity to artistic hipness, a much larger space, an enormous commuter crowd, and catering opportunities at HPAC, this may be one of the best small business moves we've seen in the neighborhood.

Most importantly, it means I can grab some java in my pajamas. Now that's Hyde Park Progress! Not sure if that will ever happen, but the new cafe could become this blog's new Ground Zero.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Transit Crisis and Hyde Park

Damen Blue Line platform*

Next Sunday Chicago residents will experience a significant curtailment of one of the City's most fundamental services: transit. Six hundred CTA employees will be let go, 39 bus routes will be eliminated, with a loss of an anticipated 100,000 riders daily. Fares will increase from $0.50 to $1.00 depending on the service.

Hyde Park, for the most part, will be spared the direct impact of cuts in bus service routes. In contrast, several adjacent north-south express lines that had experienced very impressive growth between 2006 and 2007 will be cut:

X3 King Drive Express (growth of 1303.7% from 2006-2007)
X4 Cottage Grove Express (627.7%)
X55 Garfield Express (141.2%)
X28 Stony Island Express (104.3%)

Hyde Park's major bus connector to the Loop, the North Side, and Chicago in general, the X6 Jackson Park Express, will remain. Its ridership increased 7.2% between 06 and 07, the lowest increase of the lot. The key difference, and probably what saved it, is the fact that it has higher annual ridership than any of the others.

What's the upshot of all this for neighborhood politics?

The upshot is that it's all about transit, not parking. If Hyde PARKERS lose what transit service they have, they'll rue the day they worried about insufficient street parking. Congestion and tight parking are classic NIMBY issues because they focus on individual inconveniences, while sidestepping the broader social problem.

Parking is not the primary congestion issue in dense urban environments. Public transportation is the primary congestion issue in dense urban environments. If public transportation is removed from a major city, congestion will become infinitely worse. If public transportation is improved, congestion will be mitigated.

The reason Hyde Park will retain the X6 Jackson Park line probably has to do with its stable ridership, which in turn is guaranteed by the corridor of density along Hyde Park Boulevard between Lake Park and Lake Shore Drive. According to the classic study of ridership and density (Pushkarev and Zupan 1977 -- see Table 1), express bus routes typically require 15 households per acre.

Example of Transit Supportive Density

Think about how to fit at least that many households on one acre and you have an idea of the minimum build-out that Hyde Park and neighboring communities will require to keep this kind of bus service in an age of funding cutbacks. Some corridors -- like Hyde Park Boulevard and stretches of Lake Park -- already have this. But there's no way around this fact: if we want public transportation we have to accept high urban densities. The alternative to this publicly shared good is privately experienced inconvenience.

NIMBYs who block higher density developments -- well represented in Hyde Park by the Council of Neighborhood Pomposities familiar to readers of this blog -- are therefore directly undermining one of Chicago's greatest public assets, its public transportation system. Acting on the basis of claimed entitlements to private space and free parking, NIMBY obstruction makes it more expensive, more time consuming, and just more difficult for everyone else to get around the City of Chicago.

Be sure to think about that this winter when you're waiting -- and still waiting -- for the next bus.

*Photo from the amazing pool at CTA Tattler

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Headlines as Wish-Fulfillment

What is propaganda? Long answer: wish-fulfillment posing as a news story. Short answer: an average front-page Herald headline.

Take the modest front page piece (September 5, 2007) this week: "Doctors Hospital Plans Redrawn." One could be forgiven for reading this and thinking that the University -- the only party whose plans mean anything, and the only party able to translate any plans into steel, glass and concrete -- had changed its mind, and decided to use the mediocre institutional relic as the basis for a full-service modern hotel.

Wrong! The University hasn't even returned the Herald's phone call for the story. Someone else, it turns out, has redrawn the plans. Who? Local Dudes. Plus a few outside consultants. There are probably even a few folks who have redrawn the plans while sitting in the grass across the street. Does any of this amount to a preservationist victory? Not by a long shot, although the headline seems to suggest otherwise.

As post-facto copy editors who admire the journalistic integrity of The Onion, we suggest the following, more accurate version: "Local Dudes Draw Alternative Hotel Plan." This at least fills in the "who" of the standard 5-W's of journalism (who, what, when, where, why) and gets at the rather important qualifying adjective, "alternative," neither of which made it into the original headline.

The alternative plan business must be buzzing. It's clear that even if not much preservation actually goes on in Hyde Park -- at the Point or anywhere else -- the alternative planners are probably doing well. It wouldn't be surprising if more effort and funds go into the drafting of alternative plans than into actual fund-raising to repair or replace much more distinctive landmarks than Doctors Hospital, like deteriorated church steeples, or mysteriously "disappeared" bank building clocks.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Ghost of Leonid Brezhnev Seen Shopping at Co-op

Several shoppers and Co-op stock-persons reported seeing the ghost of this man lingering in the produce section of the Hyde Park Co-op earlier this week.

While witnesses did not initially suspect that they were dealing with a poltergeist, a Lab School history teacher (who asked to remain anonymous) insisted that the individual in question must indeed be a ghost.

The specter, who appeared to be enjoying himself, was identified as former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Illyich Brezhnev (1906-1982). He was seen carefully examining the beets and looking warily at the kiwis.

When approached by a Herald reporter, Brezhnev's ghost was open and chatty. "I feel at home here," Mr. Brezhnev stated. "The produce is dubious, the lines are long, and the whole outfit is heavily indebted to outside capitalists. It all just takes me back."

Mr. Brezhnev's ghost declared that he had noted the recent Herald article blaming $840,000 in Co-op arrears on departed General Manager Carl Waggoner.

"It's always important to blame the previous regime," Mr. Brezhnev insisted.

Mr. Brezhnev confessed to haunting the Co-op for several decades since his demise in 1982.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Doctor's Hospital and Urban Claustrophobia

It's been a while since we've read anything from Notable Local Guy, J-Spice, who has no official Cabinet position in the Establishment junta, but acts in a variety of capacities -- including, in this instance, adviser to the venerable Hyde Park Antiquarian Society.

At issue in the most recent letter from J-Spice to the Herald (September 7, 2007) is the burning question of how to respond to the University's plan to demolish the Doctor's Hospital and replace it with a high-rise Marriott hotel.

In the great tradition of Hyde Park activism -- or, considering the disintegrating revetments at the Point, perhaps the not-so-great tradition -- alternative plans for the Hospital site have been drawn up that purport both to accommodate the University's plans, and to re-use up to 80% of the original structure. This new-found spirit of compromise is certainly better than the pure obstructionism that has left the Point slowly washing into Lake Michigan, and so we say let's have a look.

We hope that the alternative plan, in addition to preserving the facade and layout, preserves the spirit of the place as well. Its unique ambiance should be adapted to the building's new functions as a hotel, perhaps anchored by an Amputation Lounge for the white tablecloth crowd; a Pathology Bistro for more of a quick fix; and, for Starwood Preferred guests, room selection from among the Polio, Smallpox, or Consumption Suites, with possible upgrades to penthouse lake views from the Blunt Head Trauma Deck.

Turning now to our leading theme, the classic Hyde Park phobia to which J-Spice gives such eloquent expression in this week's letter: "urban claustrophobia."

Establishment Individual Experiences
Urban Claustrophobia

What is urban claustrophobia? That penned-in feeling people get when they try to pretend that they are living in a bucolic, suburban parkland, when actually living near the heart of a metropolis of 8 million people. It's something the Marriott would cause, but the Doctor's Hospital doesn't.

In simple terms, it is a distaste for too many buildings, too many people, and too much congestion. Indeed, too much of anything. This urbano-phobic condition should not be surprising in a letter contributed on behalf of the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society which, being antiquarian, necessarily celebrates the semi-suburban heritage of Hyde Park.

The problem that can arise, however, is that celebrating the semi-suburban heritage of Hyde Park can lead one to try to preserve Hyde Park as a real suburb. As we have pointed out before, Hyde Park is not, and has not been a suburb for over a century. Preserving intrinsically suburban aspects of our neighborhood may actually do a disservice to the community, leading to pernicious effects when pursued in an area that has become fully integrated into a vast metropolitan region.

For J-Spice, the advantage of the existing Hospital building over its proposed replacement derives from the fact that its "set-back softens its impact on the street and ensures that any new, larger building added to the site would be even further west and away from the street, causing less urban claustrophobia and blocking fewer views."

*(The views in question are presumably those from the Vista Homes. We would prefer it if there was something blocking views of Vista Homes.)

The first question we would put to anyone suffering from "urban claustrophobia" is, quite simply, Why do you live in a city?

But more fundamentally, the preservationist drive in this case is tied to anachronistic design principles. Is there a need to "soften [the Marriott's] impact on the street"? Why? What does this mean concretely? How is this "impact" a problem, and according to whom? If a building built to the sidewalk generates claustrophobia in J-Spice or anyone else, that's rather unfortunate. But this particular hang-up requires therapy, or perhaps a stint in some sprawling suburb. It shouldn't determine how we site city buildings.

On the contrary, a building that comes directly to the public space of the sidewalk, and thereby encourages pedestrians to inhabit the space rather than merely travel through it or use it as a buffer, has multiple benefits to the sidewalk culture that is the most basic strand in the social fabric of cities. The most popular neighborhoods in Chicago have this quality, and newer projects are reverting to it. For Jane Jacobs, the sidewalk was the atomic unit of urban planning.

The stretch of Stony Island in question is barren and uninviting. There is very little pedestrian traffic. You want to get in a car and leave. The call for major buildings to be kept off or pushed away from the street is classic Urban Renewal, and like it demonstrates how this preservation effort is driven by fundamentally anti-urban sensibilities. It seeks to insulate, push back, cut off, turn in. Ultimately, this attitude represents a profound distrust of one's neighbors.

It may be possible to preserve and adapt an old building that only antiquarians could love. But let's not import bad suburban ideas into the city at the same time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

We Could Have Had This by Now

As promised, I have some images of the genuinely attractive, eminently acceptable, 20-plus-million dollar Compromise Plan that the SAVE THE POINT group scuttled on behalf of all Hyde Parkers.

The Master Plan (aerial view) appears above. If you want to see details, you can click on it to open it in a bigger window.

Some of the compromises to look for in the plan:

1) It reuses all of the existing limestone, with the two top steps of the revetment made of limestone blocks

2) It restores the Caldwell landscaping

3) It provides sanctioned water access (which also means it will be staffed with lifeguards)

4) It reduces or removes the objectionable features of the new revetment between 51st and 54th:

(a) The scale of the revement is smaller
(b) The steps down to the promenade are shallower
(c) The promenade is narrower (not a "landing strip")
(d) The berm of earth (flood control) in the lawn behind the revetment is gone
(e) Tumbled fragments of limestone blocks cover the steel supports from view

5) There are two 300-foot swimming sites, one on the north and one on the south

6) The step stones into the water are limestone blocks, mimicking the happy accident of nature that allowed swimming at the Point in the first place

The drawing below shows the north side swimming access site. Note that the structural core of the revetment (including the bottom two steps) is concrete and steel, and the top two steps are limestone blocks. The two concrete steps have textured vertical faces. The promenade is concrete with textured concrete near the water's edge:

Except at swimming access sites (where there are limestone blocks), large limestone fragments would shield the steel in the water from view:

This is what the textured concrete looks like:

This is what the tumbled limestone fragments look like:

This is an illustration of the south side. Note the City bothered to show a lifeguard; a sign of goodwill, methinks.

And here's the drawing of the south side, in a non-swimming section:

The transition to the 57th Street beach shows ways that the contractors have used limestone decoratively, as a way to integrate the two materials in preparation for Point repair:

And overall, the workmanship is pretty good:

But presuming the City will still provide us with the above plan -- even if we suddenly experience a moment of mass sanity -- may be just wishful thinking. For one thing, I've heard a Park District official back away from the scale of the swimming sites, saying that they may have to be 150 feet each, not 300.

I'm also not sure what's happening with the funding. I know that the federal funds designated for the Point in 2004 were diverted to other areas. Meanwhile everyone waits for Barack Obama to convene a not-yet-existent committee using non-existent funds to "study" a project that has been studied to its demise.

Barack, you're a good person and a beloved neighbor, but it's time to call someone and say you're too busy to follow through with this. You've got a lot on your plate. We understand.

The Department of the Environment Shoreline Protection Project site has this short statement regarding the Point:

"Due to unresolved issues relating to the proposed construction materials, the 54th to 56th Street segment project is currently on hold. The 56th to 57th Street revetment was completed in July 2005."

53rd St. TIF Meeting

A friend of HPP has asked me to post an announcement for the upcoming 53rd St. TIF meeting. A lot of interesting stuff is being done with TIF funds on 53rd, including funding for the Clean Slate program and a proposed, and innovative, traffic enhancement district to better manage parking inventory near 53rd and Lake Park. Also of note are the TIF's involvement in the continuing redevelopment of the Cottage Grove corridor.

Time, date, and agenda items below:

Monday, September 10, 2007
Hyde Park Neighborhood Club
5480 S. Kenwood

1. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle with a Harper Court update
2. Proposed Arts and Recreation Center at 37th and Cottage Grove -- Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, Executive Director, QCDC
3. Update on the Arts Panels and Murals for the 53rd and 55th St. Viaducts -- Jon Pounds, Exec. Director, Chicago Public Art Project
4. Small Business Improvement Fund Update -- Derek Walvoord, SomerCor

Monday, September 3, 2007

Let's Rebuild the Point: A Plea in Photos

This particular jumble of rocks (below) was a stop-gap repair of the revetment north of 55th Street (but south of the new revetment between 51st and 54th). It may have temporarily stopped the encroachment of the lake, but it's unusable for humans.

At the tip of the Point, the 1960s-era repair was essentially a giant concrete block formed on top of crushed limestone. The concrete has held up for forty-four years, but the wave action under the concrete has eroded away the sand under and behind the steps of the revetment, causing the limestone blocks to sink "back first" into the lake...

...and creating dangerous caverns --

The bottom has fallen out in this spot:

Swimming access at the Point was not part of the original Burnham plan. Erosion and shifting limestone blocks have created "step stones" that we clamber over to get into the lake. We love swimming there, but it's a flawed system, at best:

( The south side swimming access [pictured in the post You Call This Water Access?] is made up of two pipe ladders hooked on to the steel girders. I have always thought that the late Tom Knight -- who was a founding member of the Task Force for Promontory Point, an avid swimmer, an all around swell person, and a supporter of the Compromise Plan -- built and installed those ladders. If someone knows a different history, please let me know.)

But I digress.

Here you can see the skeleton of the steel girders and wood pilings that used to hold the limestone blocks in place:

The wood pilings were large logs when they were installed, and are mere snaggle-toothed remains now. You can see these rotted pilings in every section of revetment, even in places where limestone blocks seem to buffer the wave action:

Lake levels are at a historic low, but if you visit the spot below and walk on the dry rubble along the water's edge you'll see that even on this southern, "protected" side, the girders and pilings are gone, and there's a gap forming under the limestone promenade:

The next post will show the Compromise Plan offered by the City, Park District, and Army Corps of Engineers -- which many Hyde Parkers never even saw, thanks to the "success" of the SAVE THE POINT campaign.