Sunday, May 31, 2009

Demolition Man: How Hans Morsbach Razed the Hyde Park YMCA

posted by chicago pop

"A vacant lot is not a pleasant site, but at this juncture, it is better than a decaying, dangerous building."*

-Hyde Park Herald editorial, on demolition of the 1907 Hyde Park YMCA in 1983

In light of recent events surrounding Doctor's Hospital, it is interesting to look back to the treatment of another historic building of the same vintage, the Hyde Park Division of the Chicago YMCA, at what is now the Dorchester Commons mini-mall.

Based on the Doctors Hospital episode, you may think you already know what happens when you have a historic, pre-World War I building, a neighborhood landmark that for several generations provided service to the community, that is suddenly shuttered and stands empty for several years.

The neighborhood rallies to save it, the effort is spearheaded by pillars of the community, including restaurant owner and concessionnaire Hans Morsbach, who use an obscure law to outwit a large and bumbling institution, thus preserving the historical integrity of the neighborhood, and keeping out unwanted commerce.


You don't do any of that. Instead, you tear down the blighted building within two years (Doctors Hospital has been vacant for nine). Instead of a labor union, you get the University to pick up your legal costs. And if any so-called "preservationists" make a ruckus and start floating conspiracy theories involving backroom maneuvers by the University, you call in the local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, to give you unconditional support and tell them what the neighborhood really wants: Tear down that old eyesore because it's within 1,200 feet of my property!

And you pave the way for its replacement, not by a top-notch building by a famous German or Italian architect worthy of Harper Avenue, but by ... a suburban-style minimall.

Here's what the Herald, that unwavering champion of unwavering community values, had to say about the sad fate of the old YMCA building.

The long-awaited demolition of the Hyde Park YMCA building has finally begun...

It was clear ... to the community at large that the outmoded building could not be salvaged at a reasonable cost. We are pleased that the developer ... has recognized that the community wanted that building removed before any serious incident occurred in this massive property which was becoming a haven for derelicts, thieves, and mischief-makers.

Here is the best part:

We do not give credence to the notion being bruited about the community that tearing down the building was a "conspiracy." If one wants to define a conspiracy in this case as a concerted effort by many people and institutions to keep Hyde Park-Kenwood from becoming a slum, so be it. It is always sad when a neighborhood landmark is torn down. In this case, it is doubly sad because this proud building rapidly deteriorated before our eyes.

Hyde Park YMCA, Front Door
[Source, Hyde Park Herald, June 17, 1959]

The essential details of the story are this: for financial reasons, the YMCA decided to close its Hyde Park facility in August of 1980. By the end of September, the 74 year old building was vacant. By the spring of 1981, a small group of neighbors, among them Hans Morsbach, and represented by the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), filed suit against the YMCA claiming that "the boarded-up property is a threat to their property because of its deteriorated condition," and that it was "an imminent threat to the health and safety of plantiffs, the plaintiff's neighbors, and the surrounding area."

The plaintiffs in the case invoked an obscure municipal ordinance according to which neighbors who lived or owned property within a certain distance -- 1,200 feet -- of an abandoned or dilapidated building could sue the owner to allow for demolition by the City. In 1981, the YMCA came close to finding a buyer, a developer who expressed an interest in gutting the structure and converting it to rental apartments which would include, it was stressed at the time, no Section 8 units.

The deal fell through, the lawsuit was successful, and Morsbach's group had the old building demolished.

Perhaps Morsbach's effort to keep the 1916 Doctors Hospital building vacant for nine years running somehow makes cosmic amends for helping to demolish a 1907 building that was vacant for only 2.

*[Source: ]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Un-Fortressing Hyde Park

posted by Richard Gill

In March 2008, a public proposal was made, to open 57th Street to westbound traffic at Stony Island Avenue. The proposal went nowhere. For reasons that had nothing to do with the merits of the proposal, it didn’t get pushed. The time is past due to revive the proposal.

At Stony Island, the westbound side of 57th Street is blocked by a barrier that prevents cars from entering. (Photo above.) This has the effect of making 57th one-way eastbound between Lake Park and Stony Island. The barrier is decked out with signs displaying DO NOT ENTER, and directional signs to re-enforce that order.

Welcome to Hyde Park. You and your car may be permitted to come into our neighborhood, but only if you can negotiate our obstacle course.

The barrier has been there for so long, nobody (including CDOT traffic engineers) seems to know exactly when or why it was put there. Looking for clues, I found that it dates to the paranoid days of “the urban renewal,” nearly 50 years ago. According to the Hyde Park Herald edition of February 1, 1961, 57th Street was closed to westbound traffic at Stony Island in September 1960. The change at that time provoked the ire of many, such as residents at 58th & Dorchester who said the one-way designation required them to drive an extra four blocks, just to get home (It still does).

Since 56th Street is also one-way eastbound, this made it extremely difficult to get into Hyde Park, but really easy to get out. Mission accomplished: Build a moat, create an island, keep “outsiders” out. Even if there was any sound basis for insulating the neighborhood in 1960, there isn’t any now, and there hasn’t been for a long time.

Two public meetings were held (March 5 & 12, 2008), to discuss the proposed reopening of 57th Street. Those who objected to opening 57th Street hammered away with unsubstantiated predictions that the sky would fall. They said 57th Street would be choked with traffic, making life intolerable for both motorists and pedestrians. They offered no basis for that prediction, and professional city traffic engineers who had done an analysis debunked it.

It became clear that the objectors are residents along or near 57th Street who now have a semi-private street and want to keep it that way. Since that was their real position, and it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, they resorted to the tactic of bullying and disruption (remember the Point meetings). One of them pushed to the front and seized the floor. That was a sign that they really had nothing to back up their position. This antic wasn’t close to the level of disruption at the Point meetings, but the intent was the same.

So, there we had a handful of people who acted like living along the street meant they owned the street. Does this remind anyone of a recent hotel proposal whose defeat was engineered by a relative handful of people who, when the smoke cleared, simply wished to maintain their position of privilege and to hell with everybody else?

It is time to re-start the street-opening proposal.

Some of the benefits are: more exposure for local businesses; enhanced overall neighborhood traffic flow; easier access to Hyde Park; less circuitousness (with the potential for cleaner air); enhanced safety in front of Bret Harte elementary school with some traffic diverted away from 56th Street: and opportunity for weather-protected direct access for campus buses at the 57th Street Metra station.

Looking east on 57th St. at Lake Park. Signs direct eastbound traffic under the Metra viaduct. The westbound side of 57th is unused and wasted.

The city traffic engineers at the March 2008 meetings said that the proposal is feasible, would result in traffic compatible with residential/commercial streets like 57th, would not compromise traffic safety, and could be implemented with relatively minor and inexpensive signing, marking and channelization. They suggested the change could even be made on a trial basis.

This proposal, which has had local residents’ and merchants’ support (with those exceptions noted above), will also require support by the University of Chicago and Alderman Hairston.

Let’s at least try this idea. Yes, there would be some more people around --visiting, shopping, dining, sightseeing -- but that’s the idea. Hyde Park has begun to emerge from its past as a dull, unwelcoming, and lifeless urban island. Removing the barrier at 57th Street will help that process along, and will make life easier. It isn’t 1960 anymore.

It is time to stop small groups of people from preventing positive and beneficial changes. That would be real Hyde Park Progress.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Missing the Towers

posted by Richard Gill

Lever bank of 67th Street Metra Control Tower
[Photo by Mark Llanuza]

On May 18, Metra Electric shut down the 67th Street control tower and transferred its function to the Central Control Facility downtown. The 67th Street tower, technically known as an interlocking, was the last of its breed on Metra Electric, and probably the last on all lines of the former Illinois Central Railroad. The electro-mechanical operation embodied in the 83 year old tower has been long surpassed by generations of electronics and communications technology.

I suppose this was an insignificant event, as events go. However, because this last remaining old workhorse happened to be in our neighborhood, its passing may carry with it a bit of a local historical edge. Ok, I worked there in the 1960s, so its passing also carries a bit of a personal edge.

Facilities like the 67th Street interlocking were responsible for controlling and routing train traffic through railroad crossings and junctions like the track complex at 67th Street. Through a tangle of manual levers, steel blocks, rods, mechanical relays, and small electric motors, operators would move switch points and set signals to keep the railroad fluid. The “interlocking” feature prevented the operator from clearing conflicting train movements and from moving switch points under a train.

51st Street Metra Control Tower
[Photo by Mark Llanuza]

The 67th Street tower is a nondescript two-story brick building on the west edge of the right-of-way near 67th Street. Its companion building, closed 46 years ago, sits on the west side of the tracks at 51st Street. The 51st Street building now serves as a store room, and 67th is expected to do the same. You’ve probably seen and barely noticed one or both of these structures. Unremarkable though they may appear, they have been immensely important to the mobility of people and goods through the years.

Towers, I miss ye.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Piano Lesson @ Court Theater

posted by chicago pop

A.C. Smith portrays Doaker in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson
at Court Theater*

At the center of a room in Pittsburgh stands an ancient, upright piano, its legs and body decorated with distinctive carvings. In the house that holds the piano lives a widow with her young daughter, and her widowed uncle. Into their home enter two men from Mississippi -- family -- the widow's brother, whose father was killed a quarter century before, and a young man hoping to flee the injustice and hard rural labor of the South.

All this family can claim as its patrimony, a family strained by the dispersal of the Great Migration, and ruptured by the violent destruction of its men, is the 137 year-old piano.

The fate of this object is the subject of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1987 play, the fourth in his epic "Century Cycle" of dramas exploring the experience of African-Americans across each decade of the twentieth century.

With a story of two siblings drawing the remnants of their kin into their dispute, Wilson presents a classic tale of sibling rivalry and, in the conflict over how to divide the family's inheritance, a struggle to achieve reconciliation with the past.

For this family, that past is dominated by slavery. The piano formerly belonged to the owner of the family's ancestors, and was bought by the slave owner in exchange for the grandmother and father of Doaker (above), whose likenesses were then carved onto the piano's body.

The piano is thus an ambivalent object, one with a sentimental link to a horrible past, and a money value that recalls the commodification of the slaves it was once bartered against.

Berniece (Tyla Abercumbie) and Boy Willie (Ronald L. Conner)
Argue Over the Family Piano*

What should be done with this object? Boy Willie , up from Mississippi, wants to sell it and use the money, fulfilling the long deferred promise of Emancipation by buying land and gaining independence as a free, yeoman farmer.

Berniece, Boy Willie's sister, resists her brother's entrepreneurial plans, and wants to keep the piano as a link to her dead mother in the past, as well as with her living daughter in the present, who is receiving formal piano lessons but knows nothing of its story.

The piano is the capital accumulation of one family, but is understood as a different type of capital by Boy Willie and Berniece, in a way that reflects the distinct gender roles of 1930's America: for Boy Willie the piano is economic capital, a commodity to be converted to cash for the purposes of investment and economic self-improvement, a prospect which is not equally available to Berniece, for whom the symbolic capital of the object, a sort of shrine to a tattered family heritage, far outweighs its selling price.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Wilson's play is its reliance on a literal haunting of the piano by a deceased white landowner to move the plot to resolution. But it works, whether taken literally or figuratively as the haunting of 1930's American with Jim Crow and the unfulfilled promises of the post-Reconstruction era.

In other ways, Wilson's play draws upon many genres and conventions, from slapstick to musical: the most moving sequence is arguably the field worker's song joined in by the men as they remember days in the South. The production suffered from only a few flaws, such as unintentional bumping of furniture, or a noticeable pause in Smith's recitation at one point.

My fellow theater-goer that evening, originally from the East Coast, remarked that anywhere else, he would expect a theater of Court's quality to be in the liveliest, most vibrant entertainment district of a large city, steps away from the after-theater bars, bistros and restaurants.

At one time, 55th Street might have filled that role, and the washed up piano man Wining Boy in Wilson's play, when he exited the stage, might have felt comfortable crossing the street and pounding the ivories till the early morning.

Though those days are gone, the attraction of the Court's productions is consistently high enough to accomplish what we spend so much time encouraging on this blog: draw people to the neighborhood from the rest of the city. On the night we were there, people were being turned away from the box office. That's the kind of problem we could use more of in Hyde Park.

*Image source:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Landlords of Hyde Park: How to Go Ghetto at 55th and HP Boulevard

posted by chicago pop

I'm very fond of the intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard and 55th Street. It's got good bones. Take away the bus stops and contemporary signage, and a location scout might be able to convince a Hollywood producer that the panorama was vintage Chicago, ca. 1925. Looking down HPB to the south, the lawn and majestic facade of the Museum of Science and Industry; to the east, Promontory Point; to the north, the wide, tree-shaded boulevard.

It's too bad, then, that the landlord of one prominent building at this intersection has decided to go ghetto with their property, and grace it with this classy little establishment:

Extra Cheeseball Points for Big Vinyl Banner at
You Roll-em Smoke Shop
(they sell phone cards, too)

You may know the building I'm talking about. It's the handsome structure on the SE corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and 55th that has been a dynamic incubator of Hyde Park small retail, or at least an incubator of awesome cosmetology signage:

Lotsa Plastic Earns Respectable Cheeseball Points

Ooops! Mr. & Mrs. Hair Weave Don't Live Here Anymore...
All Cheesball Points Forfeited

The latest addition, the smoke shop at 5503 1/2 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, is not to be outdone in in the aesthetics of cheesy signage, which happens to spill over into public space:

Urban Loveliness of "Tobacco for Less" at the 5500 building of S. Hyde Park Boulevard

This is simply an atrocity.

Especially when you know something about the backstory of the little walk-down space at 5503 1/2: the ceiling collapsed on the former tenant, a high-end bike shop, raining mold and asbestos throughout the space. The tenant relocated elsewhere in Hyde Park, and 5503 1/2 sat empty for over a year. It's not clear what repairs were made and whether the environmental hazard was addressed. What is clear is that the former tenant, Tati Bike Shop, was the kind of unique, boutique retail operation that everyone in Hyde Park says they want.

What replaced it is not.

We happen to know that the owner of this building is also the proud landlord of a similarly maintained property at the SW corner of 53rd and Harper Avenue (west of Pizza Capri, and directly south of the old Herald Building), where you can also get bongs, smokes, phone cards, maybe a few extra cardboard cut-out Wild Turkey signs, and knock-off perfume laced with pheremones that will "drive him wild."

So we've decided to give this landlord our quarterly HPP's Favorite Landlord Award. Contestant must score high points in each of the following categories:

1) Plentiful, Cheesy Retail Signage
2) Overall Ghetto Flavor and Wide Selection of Cheeseball Products
3) Locating as Many Hair and Nail Salons on One Strip as Possible
4) Giving a Lease to the Guys who Run That Other Bongs-Smokes-and-Pheremones Place on 53rd St.

This quarter, the award goes to the landlord of 5500 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, hands down. Congratulations! Hyde Park welcomes you!

Friday, May 8, 2009

TIF Meeting Monday May 11, 2009

"Yes, love, it's another TIF meeting. Must you go?"

There will be a meeting of the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council this coming Monday, May 11, 2009, at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone, at 7PM.

The agenda will include the following:
  1. Harper Court Arts Council update -- Mary Anton, Harper Court Arts Council
  2. Cleanslate 2009 budget revision -- decrease from $157,000 to $150,000
  3. Zoning change request for 1350 E. 53rd St. by the Silliman Group, LLC, agent for the building owner, Kenwood Court, LLC.

The proposed zoning change is from B1-2 (Neighborhood Shopping District) to B3-2 (Community Shopping District). The application is being made, in part, so that future commercial tenants at the Subject Property" would be able to apply for City licenses that would, if approved, permit them to function as "General Restaurants" and defines a General Restaurant as "a restaurant in which alcoholic liquor may be served in conjunction with the primary activity (prepared food service) and in which live entertainment and dancing are permitted in completely enclosed areas. This is not possible under the current zoning.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Caryl Yasko's Labor of Love

posted by Elizabeth Fama

If you passed by the 55th Street mural, Under City Stone (c. 1972), last summer, you might have seen the artist, Caryl Yasko working to restore it. She spent several weeks there, if I'm not mistaken. All I know is that in less time, my daughter painted a mural of a pod of hippos and an entire African landscape on all four of her bathroom walls. I'm not sure who is funding the restoration, but as of March, 2008, the Chicago Public Art Group was still trying to find a donor for its repair. Perhaps Ms. Yasko was donating her time.

You can see from the water on the ground that this mural gets a fair amount of weathering. The new steel frame "bent" system that supports the viaduct does not prevent seepage. In the middle of winter, there was a gigantic icicle spitefully crawling down the middle of the restored section of the mural.

In short: this particular wall is not suited for lasting mural art. Either that, or someone needs to maintain it almost annually. But how about this instead: maybe the mural artists should rotate, and we should accept that it's an impermanent art form? Or, if it's cheaper, maybe we can put up panel art, as is slated for the 53rd Street viaduct, and we can actually rotate the pieces periodically, rather than be tied to the art trends of the past?

Personally, I'm in the mood for hippos.