Posted by: clholoman | September 9, 2011

Mr. Rockefeller’s neighborhood

[Okay, this is what I’ve been working on off and on for the week. I think I had more in mind, but I’ve gotten tired of fighting with the formatting.]


This might seem overly self-referential (duh, it’s a blog), but this post is a tribute to one of the most important places in my life, the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Although more recently famous as the home of Barack Obama, pre-White House, its more enduring claim to fame is as the home of my graduate alma mater, the University of Chicago. This post is sparked by the announcement last week of an agreement between the city of Chicago and the University to cooperate on development for the Southside of Chicago (the baddest part of town, as Jim Croce sang.) This is big, potentially. To see why, let’s look at the neighborhood:

The neighborhood is very tightly demarcated by Washington Park and Lake Michigan on the west and east, and somewhat less tightly by 47th St. (or 51st, depending on who you are talking to)  and the Midway Plaisance (more below) on the north and south. Now look at this map=>

See that rectangle of white in a sea of blue on the South Side? That’s Hyde Park.  It is, in the jargon, an enclave neighborhood. (Urban sociology, by the way, began at the U of C, probably not coincidentally.) And for a long time, and probably for a long time to come, the neighborhood has tried to shield itself, to a greater or lesser extent, from its surroundings. I don’t know if it’s still true, but for many years, the U of C campus safety force was the second largest police force in Illinois, only behind the City of Chicago.

And take a closer look at the map on the left (I think if you click on it, it will expand.) In Hyde Park, Chicago’s justly-famous street grid system breaks down. As a product of various “urban renewal” projects, there is only one street that runs north and south unencumbered through the neighborhood from the “others” outside (and even that one, Woodlawn, isn’t as seamless at it looks on the map.) And it’s not as if the surrounding neighborhoods are war zones. To the south is a little rough, but the neighborhood to the north, Kenwood, was the first place the wealthy of Chicago, like the Marshall Fields, the Sears, etc.,  moved out to from the city. Those mansions still exist although many have been divided up, others are more recently inhabited by the likes of Muhammed Ali and Jesse Jackson, and now, the Obamas.

So I applaud any effort to increase Hyde Park’s association with surrounding neighborhoods. It should be good for both.

And the neighborhood is really special. A few fun facts to know and tell:

  • The Midway Plaisance, referenced above, is where we get the term “midway” in the carnival sense of the word. It was a central feature of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which really signalled Chicago’s emergence as a world-class city.
  • That Expo also feature the world’s first Ferris wheel, which was huge. In fact, if it was still standing, it would, today, be the tallest ferris wheel in the U.S.
  • The first sustained nuclear chain reaction took place in squash court under the stands of the football stadium. There’s a nice Henry Moore statue there now. And note the cool new library reading room next to it. That’s the top of a fully automated retrival system. They’re using it mostly for low-demand documents, like Ph.D. dissertations. I now know for sure where to go to find mine.
  • Both my daughters were born in Hyde Park at the quaintly named Chicago Lying In Hospital.

[Post title refers to John D. Rockefeller’s funding of the founding of the U of C.]


  • The Joe and Rika Mansueto Librarydomelg

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