Monday, April 27, 2009

The University's New Office of Civic Engagement

posted by chicago pop

Metra's Stairway to Hell at 59th Street
Symbol of Chicago's "Emerging Status as A Global City"

This past Friday, April 24, may be one of the very few times that I ever get valet service for my car in Hyde Park. In front of the School of Social Services Administration, no less. But this was no First Friday at the MCA, James Bond's Aston Martin twirling on a dais beside the jazz band, with goat cheese and salmon canap├ęs circulating through the crowd.

This was Vice President of the Office of Civic Engagement's Ann Marie Lipinski's coming out party, her debutante gala, at which the policy orientation of the University of Chicago in the post-Hank Webber period was rolled out a short three months after her arrival to the newly-created position in January, 2009. Co-blogger Elizabeth Fama and I were kindly invited to share in the ceremony (photographs of the event are hers).

A press release back in January summed up Ann Marie's new job this way:

In her new position, Lipinski will work to share the University's innovative models for civic engagement with peer institutions around the nation, and to learn from those universities' efforts. She also will develop the connection between the University's new international efforts and the city's emerging status as a global city.

I bring this up only to stress that my assessment going into the "Engaging our Communities" meeting last Friday was that there are a lot of little, simple things the University could do that would improve the appearance it gives to the world, from helping to fix the ratty and scary Metra Station at 59th Street, removing the "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" sign at the westbound lane of 57th and Stony Island, or taking simple steps to reassure residents in advance of major projects or changes that the sky won't be falling down.

In short, the biggest problem the University has, in my view, is a PR problem. Other problems are very real -- economic, social, financial -- but the biggest and potentially easiest to fix is the public relations angle. The University of Chicago, world class institution in a world class city, with a urine-soaked, dangerous, and ramshackle gateway at 59th Street?

The new Zimmer-Lipinski regime seems to be on to this, and we can only cross our fingers that they will leave the siege mentality of the post-war era behind, have confidence in the University's positive contribution to the neighborhood and South Side, know how to listen, and when to move forward in spite of controversy.

Ann Marie Lipinski
VP, Office of Civic Engagement

In her opening remarks, Lipinski spoke of the narratives that have been used to tell the story of Hyde Park and its Gothic Seigneur. One narrative was that of an institution "founded as an outward-looking" one. Another was a story of "retreat, a turning back on a changing world." What Lipinski was there to suggest was the possibility of a "third narrative."

Just what the content of this third narrative might be was indicated in the proceedings that followed, all of which emphasized varieties of "technology transfer" from advanced research across the University, to practical applications in policing, education, and public health.

The University, as the message is to be understood, is a resource for the local, area, and metropolitan community. Lipinski outlined programs developed to facilitate more effective workplace recruitment from the surrounding neighborhoods, a new "crime lab", and the major project pending at Harper Court. A range of speakers from the Medical Center, the University Charter School, and Kenwood Academy all reflected on the benefits of having access to academic knowledge with real-world implications.

At a rhetorical level, and as a branding strategy, this is a positive and savvy step: to "pivot", as one attendee put it, from a perception of Hyde Park as being in a "deficit situation," to the perception of a place that is greatly advantaged by its proximity to the University.

Whether the course of events during Lipinski's tenure lives up to this welcome change in perspective remains to be seen. I confess to a feeling of surreality as I listened to Stacy Lindau and Doriane Miller describe the organization and goals of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the Medical Center, with no reference made to the national media scandal of the Hospital's Emergency Room policy and the uproar within the medical profession.

After all, if anything is giving the University a black eye at a national level, this is it. But this live issue, with more real-world import than the still-in-development Center, was left untouched.

Instead, attendees were presented with the following incomprehensible chart:

Everyone I've ever talked to who has worked in Medical Center administration has told me that it's a monstrous bureaucracy comparable to the Pentagon; such charts do nothing to dispel that impression. The well-meaning talk of using data to improve local health care delivery, when there is a very real possibility that the Medical Center's ER policy is in violation of federal law, was jarring.

The audience, comprised mostly of representatives of local community organizations, and largely African-American, seemed receptive to the tone of the meeting, though some of the comments in the Q&A session point to the fine line that Lipinski's outreach has to walk between proffering the University as a resource, and offering it as the promise of a free lunch.

As one questioner put it, directing his comment to Lipinski, in tones reminiscent of many other Hyde Park community meetings:

Everyone I see working here and working at the University doesn't look like me. I'm not a minority, I represent black people who live on the south side. You don't really answer anyone's questions. You just talk around everything. You say you hired 130 people from around here, but I don't know anyone who got one of those jobs. You keep eschewing the point: how are black people going to access the University's resources, access its largess?

This person's remark -- an individual who happened to be working towards a degree at the SSA -- represents the far side of the fine line the University has to walk in relation to surrounding neighborhoods: positioning itself as a resource, but not a social service agency; and certainly not the apex of a patronage system obligated to support a clientele of dependents by showering it with goods and services. It can do its part to help fix area schools, but it can't fix all of them; it can hire some people, but not all of them.

Q&A at the "Engaging our Communities" Meeting

Part of the new orientation must be walking away from the guilt-driven policies of the past that enable this kind of debilitating discourse. Making Hyde Park prosperous, safe, and interesting is not done at the "expense" of other neighborhoods. It is a great opportunity for other neighborhoods to benefit from having a prosperous, safe, and interesting neighbor.

The University's challenge, moving forward, is not to shoot itself in the foot. It already shot off one foot with the $10 million Doctors Hospital fiasco. It is slowly sawing off the other foot with the Emergency Room scandal. Meanwhile, a host of other smaller actions, each of which could generate volumes of good-will going forward, linger unaddressed. As with the Pentagon, we hope the new Zimmer-Lipinski regime recognizes the importance of "soft power" and the importance of persuasion and a proactive approach in working for the greater good of the South Side.

The idea of technology transfer, of using research data to drive social reform in the immediate vicinity of the University, is a powerful one, and stands at the root of modern Progressivism and of the Chicago School of Sociology.

But for a vision worthy of the University as resident of an "emerging global city" imagined so compellingly by Daniel Burnham a century ago, we would suggest more than that: a set of guiding principles outlining the role the University intends to play in its engagement with the major issues that affect Hyde Park's livability. Where are we going to be in 5 years, 10 years, and how will we be working with the University to get there?

Such a set of principles would help the University shed any temptation to revert to a siege mentality, and automatically invite positive participation in a broader discussion in a way that only large-scale visions, like the Olympics, can do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I'll Trade You 1 Gropius Campus for 2 Mediocre Pre-War Hospital Buildings

posted by chicago pop

You win some, you lose some. In Hyde Park, we won this:

At the site of Michael Reese Hospital at the northern edge of Bronzeville, we're going to lose this:

(Source for beautiful pic: the blog Time Tells

And this:

(Source: David Schalliol, The Chicago Reader

And even the power plant, which is an homage to a similar one by Mies van der Rohe at the IIT campus, and manages to give a remarkable aesthetic interpretation to an utterly functional structure:

(Source: Gropius in Chicago Coalition

All of which are far, far cooler (and, yes, more historically and architecturally significant...) than what we started with, and spent so much time arguing about last fall, which was this:

So there you have, in pictures, the irony of preservation in Chicago. We save nondescript and inexplicably "significant" hospital structures by the firm of Schmidt, Garden & Martin, such as the one above and a similar structure at the site of the now defunct Michael Reese Hospital. And we destroy the unquestionably accomplished designs and internationally significant structures of Walter Gropius at the same location.

For the bare bones of the story, go to the Gropius in Chicago website, which inventories the structures and the plans for a massive residential housing complex planned for the area as part of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics.

The ironies in this story are many. With regards to the tale of two hospitals that have engaged the energies of Hyde Park's favorite band of preservationists, the case for the significance -- in any sense -- of the Doctors Hospital on Stony Island was never compelling, whereas the case for the significance of the Gropius structures is undeniable, and has only gotten stronger in light of recent research.

With regards to the economic benefits of demolition, Hyde Park's Doctors Hospital was a sure thing, in terms of a deal with a solvent private company, in terms of the jobs it would have provided to an impoverished part of the city at the onset of a major recession, and the benefits its activity would have generated for safety, liveliness, and neighborhood commerce.

Demolition of the Gropius Campus, on the other hand -- together with almost all the rest of Michael Reese Hospital -- will be paid for by the City of Chicago, to the tune of $85 million, in addition to the $500 million already pledged by the City (with a current budget shortfall of $469 million), and $250 million by the State of Illinois (with a current budget shortfall of $11.5 billion) to back Chicago's Olympic bid.

The ironies extend further out: the design of the Olympic Village has been overseen by Chicago's grande dame of architecture firms, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, which will go down in history as the firm which did the most to make the visionary sketches and plans of the interwar Bauhaus movement, founded by Walter Gropius, a physical reality in the United States of America.

How ironic that SOM's Olympic Village would be built on the ruins of a hospital campus designed by the firm's architectural progenitor.

Such irreverance, of course, is precisely the sin for which much of the modernist planning of the post-war period is today condemned. Thinking along these lines, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin asks in an editorial if we have forgotten, in the case of Reese Hospital, the lessons of urban renewal, and its "erase and replace" approach to urban planning.

The funny thing is, preserving the Gropius campus would be preserving a clutch of notable modernist buildings by an internationally significant architect, but it would also be preserving the relics of one of the most massive post-war episodes of urban land clearance in Chicago, of exactly the sort that Kamin objects to.

While there was, until recently, a plaque to Gropius at Reese, to my knowledge there is no plaque to the land clearance that facilitated the erection of his buildings.

By saving the Gropius campus, we'd be saving something that destroyed something else, in the name of ideals of urban planning that are now almost universally discredited. We like the buildings now, but not the conceptual boxes they came in.

That doesn't mean the Gropius Reese Hospital buildings shouldn't be saved; it just underlines the very wooly nature of preservationism as an intellectual project.

As for the irony of its outcomes -- preserved Doctors Hospital, demolished Gropius campus -- the pictures above say it all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sack the Bags

posted by Richard Gill

It's time to end the epidemic of plastic bags that are caught in trees, bushes, fences, you name it. Anything that stands vertically and is permeable to the wind will readily snag a bag and hold onto it just about forever. Every time I pick a plastic bag off the ground, I figure I kept it out of a tree. Any pool of water, or pond will hold plastic bags like glue.

It's awful to look at, is dangerous to animals, signifies waste, and uses petroleum. Take a ride downtown on Metra Electric and see the astounding display of plastic bags all over the margins of the right-of-way, especially the forested east side. It will get worse during the summer, when people take a flimsy single-use bag for, say, a bottle of soda and then discard it as soon as they're out the door.

Some cities in the U.S., notably San Francisco, have enacted various levels of restrictions or outright bans on plastic bags at retail stores. A growing number of countries in Europe, Africa and Asia are addressing the problem. Despite fear-mongering by merchants, the laws have not put their businesses in the toilet, nor have they somehow been detrimental to their customers.

I learned a lot at the site:

There are viable substitute materials with much longer useful lives, even compostable plastic bags. Programs to distribute and encourage the use of canvas and cloth bags have been successful.

Plastic bag recycling efforts seem to be woefully inadequate, and anti-littering laws don't cut it.

I wrote to Alderman Hairston about this problem. The mayor, for all his caring about urban beautification, has said little or nothing about the plastic bag invasion. The Chicago City Council should act on this matter before the entire city turns into an orgy of flying, fluttering, flapping, flimsy, filthy plastic.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Blue Gargoyle Closes Its Doors

posted by Elizabeth Fama

On Wednesday evening (4/8/09) last week, the Blue Gargoyle (5638 S. Woodlawn Ave.) closed its doors. It had been struggling for the past several months with financial problems. In their last days there, staff members and tutors worked to place their students in alternative programs around the city.

Literacy on the South Side

While there are no specific data about literacy rates in Chicago, the 2000 census and 2005 census estimate do report education attainment levels (unfortunately, a high school diploma is not a guarantee of literacy). In two neighborhoods adjacent to Hyde Park (Woodlawn and Bronzeville), about 1 in 10 adults over age twenty-five never made it to 9th grade, and about a third never graduated from high school. The WBEZ series 50-50: The Odds of Graduating reports that barely 1/3 of current students at Robeson High School are on track to graduate.

Why the Blue Gargoyle was Unique

Blue Gargoyle offered day and evening classes in literacy and GED, one-on-one tutoring in a welcoming environment, and counseling services for individuals and families, all under one roof. There was a family literacy program, where parents pursued their GED classes and tutoring, while their infants, toddlers, and young children participated in early childhood education. Parents learned not only how to read to kids, but why it was important.

A young mother reads to her daughter at the Blue Gargoyle

A Bridge Between Communities

The Blue Gargoyle had a clearly defined mission -- one that I think is important for a neighborhood that blends a wealthier, intellectual community with a poorer community that is struggling with inadequate public schools. That's a loss for Hyde Park, and also for the University. Many of the volunteers were local professionals "giving back," and college and graduate students who got teaching and professional experience (along with a warm rapport with their students) by working there. Many of the counselors were Social Service Administration (SSA) students on internship.

Award Winning

The Illinois Secretary of State (who is also the State Librarian) gives out ten Spotlight Awards for outstanding literacy students and tutors. Blue Gargoyle students and tutors received between one and three of these nearly every year.

2008 Spotlight winners Mike Dellar (left) and Paul Strauss.

(Thanks to Betsy Rubin for chatting about the Blue Gargoyle and adult literacy with me. Betsy is the Adult and Family Literacy Specialist at Literacy Works Chicago.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vacation Notice

HPP is going to spend a little time with family. See you in a week or so.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tempest in a Compost Pile: The Garden at 61st Street

posted by chicago pop

Short Version of Post

For those of you pressed for time, the short version of this post, dealing with the diplomatic kerfuffle over the destiny of the community garden at the northeast corner of 61st and Dorchester, can be reduced to the following three statements:

  1. The University of Chicago owns the land.
  2. The people currently using the land as a garden do not own it.
  3. Anyone other than the University making use of the land in question is a squatter, tolerated by the good graces of the true owner, and unless they have had the foresight to prepare for the day when the true owner would assert rights over the land (by either bidding to buy the land themselves, or seeking to buy property elsewhere), these folks are SOL, no matter how well-intentioned they are, nor how much you or I might like the vegetables they produce and the ideas behind what they're doing.

Long Version of Post

To reprise the story in its bare essentials: for about 10 years, people have grown accustomed to gardening on a plot of land, owned by the University of Chicago, directly to the north of the local institution known as the Experimental Station.

The Experimental Station, it will be noted, owns its land, a parcel on the southeast corner of Dorchester and 61st Street.

About the same time (1999), the University began the planning for what would emerge between 2002-2005 as its ambitious South Campus Plan, intended to satisfy the need for facilities expansion, but also to create a more welcoming and porous border between the University and the Woodlawn neighborhood south of the Midway.

In materials presented at community meetings in 2004, the land currently used as the community garden was clearly identified to be University property, and included within the boundaries of the South Campus project.

These are the kinds of signs in the wind that suggest what is likely to happen in the near future. There should have been no surprise, then, when in the spring of 2008, the University informed 61st Street gardeners that the University's consent to allow gardening was temporary; nor should there have been further surprise when, a year later, the University announced that the 2009 growing season would be the last one for gardening on the property.

What makes this story more interesting is the fact that it has not, and does not fit easily into the archetypal narrative of town-gown, little people-Big Institution conflict that grew up in the 1960s and has flourished ever since, liberally watered by the editorials of the Hyde Park Herald and richly cultivated by outspoken neighborhood activists.

The University's decision to reclaim the garden is driven by its plans to relocate the Chicago Theological Seminary from its historic location at 58th and University to land adjacent to the garden. According to a statement on the CTS's website, the University is performing a massive act of philanthropy by not only preserving and refurbishing the old and much-loved CTS building, but by erecting a new home for the seminary -- furniture included -- for free.

The new facility was made possible through a multifaceted agreement with the University of Chicago. Under the agreement, the university will purchase the existing CTS buildings and construct and furnish new facilities to the seminary's specifications. The total cost of the purchase and construction, including contingencies, moving costs, furniture and incidentals will be as much as $44 million. CTS will hold a 100-year lease on the new building at a rental rate of $1 annually.
If the University had not "saved" the Chicago Theological Seminary, the 61st Street garden might not need to be shut down. It would be nice if this were not the case, but even among the most worthwhile elements of the most progressive agenda, there are occasionally trade-offs, and this appears to be one of them.

Yet this outcome is rather curious, in light of certain garden advocates' self-understanding of just what it is they're up to. In a recent post on Huffington Post Chicago, Jamie Kalven makes a 2,000 word case for why the planning for relocating CTS to South Campus should accommodate the garden. There he argues that:

the constellation of community garden, farmers' market, wood-fired bread oven, and cafe has established the conditions for an active inquiry into the practical requirements of sustainable local food systems. [italics added]

And further:

In this time of economic distress and uncertainty, of massive dislocations and strenuous adaptations, this ongoing investigation will yield knowledge with direct implications for public policy. [italics added]

One wonders if one of the basic requirements of sustainable local food systems is not having the experiment aborted as soon as the landlord kicks you off. That's not very practical, it's certainly not sustainable, nor does it appear to recommend itself as a good policy precedent.

A lot of us like to garden, and buy organics and locally produced food. A lot of us are already convinced that industrialized agriculture in the United States is a deeply flawed and unsustainable system. It is petroleum, water, and chemical-input intensive and has a high carbon footprint; it is genetically disadvantageous for the local ecosystems in which monocultures are cultivated, the nutritional content of the food supply, and ever more scarce supplies of fresh water; and it is part of a system of food manufacture and distribution that is partially responsible for exploding health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

A lot of people already recognize these problems, and have some sense of what partial solutions might be. Local food production is one of them. And as with a lot of alternatives, whether they be technologies like battery or fuel cell powered automobiles, organic farming, or solar power, the trick is to get replicability and scalability -- that is to say, to make the trick you pull off on a plot of land in Hyde Park something that can be done in neighborhoods across the country to potentially feed millions of people, thereby scaling it up to the point where it will have real-world impact.

It would seem a major piece of this effort, if it is to have real-world implications at all, is taking seriously the idea that the first thing you need to do is to buy the land you cultivate. Then no one can boot you off, you don't have to persuade landowners with essays on spiritualistic metaphysics or attempt to guilt-trip the University. Then you can get on with the practical business of replicating and scaling up your "investigations."

That kind of experiment, it seems to me, would be truly putting your money where your mouth is.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Grooming for the IOC at MSI

posted by richard gill

Mysterious Mega-Tent on Lawn of the Museum of Science and Industry

Isn't it nice, how there are city crews scurrying all over the park around the Museum of Science and Industry this morning (April 2), trimming trees, sweeping up litter, raking the grass around the curb lines, and even manicuring the beach? And I notice that the plastic bags have miraculously disappeared from the trees. And that huge fancy event tent that's been a-building for nearly a whole month has supply and catering trucks all around it. Normally, those big party tents are set up and taken down within a week; this one must be VERY special.

Maybe the International Olympics Committee is coming around. Y'think? Nah, it's just a coincidence of timing, especially that the beaches are getting smoothed almost three months before they officially open.

Smoothing the Sand at 57th Street Beach

I wonder how much this is costing us. If the Olympics come to Chicago, cronyism and corruption will pole-vault to new heights. We will all pay for it. Any other city that wants the Olympics can have it, in my opinion. Maybe Rio can deal with it.