Neighborhood Redevelopment: The University of Chicago’s Role on the South Side

 /  June 7, 2016, 8:24 p.m.


The University of Chicago has long influenced the neighborhoods surrounding its Hyde Park campus. The university’s founding in the 1890s transformed Hyde Park into an enclave for white, liberal-minded people within a majority African American South Side. When the boundaries of Chicago’s overcrowded Black Belt bulged outward toward Hyde Park in the 1950s and 1960s, the university, which had long been a substantial property owner in the area, began to take a more active role in the region’s urban planning. In juxtaposition to the intense poverty, shabby housing, unemployment and disarray that characterizes the ghettos of the Black Belt, the university sought to create a “compatible environment” for its operations. Spokesmen often utilized the word “revitalize” to describe this endeavor. The word “revitalize” is quite vague and does not adequately describe the University’s goals in pursuing expensive development projects that expand into surrounding South Side neighborhoods.

Sixty years after these efforts began, the university is more prestigious than ever. The South Side, meanwhile, still struggles with violence and poverty. The university’s role as a powerful landowner and economic base on the South Side could benefit the surrounding neighborhoods if it distributed its resources in a way that meets community needs and doesn’t just cater to college recruiting efforts.

The university has a long history of real estate spending and investing on behalf of “community interests, beginning in the 1930s, during the initial Great Migration of African American migrants from the south.”

Chicago historian Arnold Hirsh traced the origins of the University’s involvement on the South Side, starting in the 1950s in his essay “A neighborhood on a hill: Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.” As racial tensions threatened the white, liberal enclave of Hyde Park, the University of Chicago worried that it would lose students and faculty if their institution were perceived to be in the ghetto. Two Hyde Park residents’ groups, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC) and the University-affiliated South East Chicago Commission (SECC) dealt with the prospect of African American influx with a new vision— an “interracial community with high standards,”—that would eliminate the perceived threat of poor African Americans that characterized the Black Belt.

These standards coincided with the university’s goal to “restructure and control” the neighborhood. The university, already a significant property owner, continued to buy up land in the area and was encouraged by the HPKCC to take a more active role in community planning and urban renewal. While the university’s vision for Hyde Park remained realistic —accepting that some African American movement would be necessary—the university sought to “eliminate undesirables.” Undesirables were predictably the poor residents of the Black Belt. By removing “undesirables,” the university hoped to provide an “economic upgrade” that would require some racial, but also socioeconomic, homogeneity.

This history of the University of Chicago’s neighborhood involvement has shaped its current role as a major property owner and employment center in Hyde Park. In the past decade, two important potential opportunities have piqued the university’s interest in investment: the 2016 Chicago Olympic Bid and the Obama Presidential Library. While only one of those projects won approval, both prompted the university to acquire substantially more real estate and, consequently, further impose their vision for development on the South Side.

Chicago was not awarded the 2016 Olympics, but preparations for that event inspired plans to redevelop the South Side—proposed location for the Olympic Village. Washington Park, which sits on the University’s western boundary, was one such location, and remains a likely location for President Obama’s library. The Olympics garner international attention, something the university sought to capitalize on in 2008 when it bought twenty-six properties on several contiguous square blocks along Washington Park, Garfield Drive and MLK Drive. Their acquisitions totaled more than ten acres.

While some of these new properties were purchased during Olympic speculation, others were bought with the library in mind, long before Chicago actually was awarded the location site. In the span of a few years, it bought and promptly closed two shopping locations, the Washington Park Shopping Center and Jardan Food and Liquor, a local grocery and convenience store that had operated for more than thirty years. A university spokeswoman promised that the purchases would deliver “economic development and to bring new vibrancy” to the neighborhood. However, the university’s purchase called attention to its desire to have the library in the vicinity of campus, regardless of the costs to residents. One neighborhood resident was quoted asking, “What does the Obama Library have to do with us?”

The university’s hypocritical stance on urban development does not stop at the Obama Library. Jim Hennessy, the director of real estate investment for the university, believes that his actions are “helping revitalize this neighborhood” and that they are making it “what [he] thought it could be.” Therein lies the problem: the university is creating the neighborhood it thinks should be there to attract internationally acclaimed faculty and top students, while disregarding the needs of the surrounding community that has existed for decades. Hennessy was further quoted saying that “Garfield Boulevard is our front door,” implying that the university has some inherent domain over this land and it is justifiable to develop the area so that it makes the university look better. Similarly, the university’s website has included a description of four major goals, one of which is “a commitment to enrich society.” The university elaborates on this plan, stating,“We partner with our South Side neighbors on innovative initiatives with local benefits and replicable outcomes.” Hennessy’s emphasis on “replicable outcomes” suggests the university views the South Side as an urban laboratory, rather than as a community that treats its neighbors with respect and deference to their needs. Massive new construction ventures might help the University of Chicago’s recruiting, but they do not help the surrounding neighborhoods that have struggled with population declines (Woodlawn being the most dramatic example) and that have been hit particularly hard by the real estate collapse of 2007.

Neighborhood planning and gentrification often come at the expense of the current residents. To combat this trend, The New Communities Program, an arm of the Urban Life Institute, emphasizes community-generated, quality-of-life planning for a comprehensive development that addresses multiple aspects of community life. This type of community engagement is clearly lacking in the university’s current land acquisition and development plans. In the current climate, the university exploits its status as an “economic anchor” and largest employer on the South Side at the expense of community members. The university imposes arbitrary notions of what might “revitalize” the community and disregards community-wide needs.

This all leads to the question: what is the University of Chicago’s role on the South Side? Some university administrators believe that “creating a vibrant and stable community helps people at all levels.” However, if the university continues to ignore the basic needs of these community members, it will only pursue this goal in words only. The university’s urban development plan is not centered on what people in the neighborhood really need, and that is its fundamental flaw. The impact that the University of Chicago has on the surrounding community will only continue to rise in importance. Indeed, the city of Chicago continues partnering with the University through “memorandums of understanding,” which stipulate that the university will invest $750 million in Hyde Park and the surrounding neighborhoods over the next three years, with no further details or plans made available to the public.

When we consider that the University of Chicago is a private institution with its own development goals that seek to put it on the international stage of prestigious universities, it is understandable that their intentions might not coincide with the relative minutiae of neighborhood involvement. However, the university’s grand design for Hyde Park and the surrounding neighborhoods doesn’t just disregard community needs, it also uses its engagement as a way to build prestige at the expense of community members. By engaging with South Side communities, the university can build an environment in which these groups can work in concert for community improvement that benefits all parties. The university has taken steps to make substantive changes through its Charter Schools that provide quality education in an area where CPS schools struggle with test scores and performance. However, further engagement with the community on issues other than education could be expanded. Rather than a community forum on the new Arts Incubator, the university could facilitate forums that make financial literacy and homeownership resources available to residents, given how devastating the recent housing crisis was for the South Side population. Efforts to engage with the community must be seen as genuine, given the university’s past neglect for neighborhood needs, in order for these initiatives to be successful and beneficial for all.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Haley Schwab


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