Monday, September 28, 2009

Life at street level

Saturday, September 19, I invited J. over for an end-of-summer dip in the pool. It’s been a cool, cloudy September, and with the neighborhood urchins back in school only a few hardy residents have been coming out to do a few laps. The sun, sinking toward the south, now hides behind the building most of the day, so there’s nothing for sunbathers to bask in. The pool, once crowded and noisy, is empty and quiet now.

The pool’s water is warm, but the breeze can be nippy on wet skin. J. finds it hard to get into the water, so he lowers himself slowly, while I start to shiver and my teeth to chatter when I get out and the air hits me. I noticed that a young woman who jumped in for a few laps scurried inside after a brief rub with a towel. There’s no drying off naturally at sunset when the 65-degree Fahrenheit air is blowing.

Dried off and warmed up, we decided to eat before J. continued on to work. He mentioned Western Avenue, which seemed too far to me under what felt like time and energy constraints. We settled on Calypso Café—not his idea of new and adventurous, but at least we hadn’t been there in a while, and the menu is pretty varied.

This trip also gave me a chance to see what was left of Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop—which is nothing, just a very clean excavation, with no sign of construction that I could tell. Ostensibly, a clean site presents a better picture to potential investors than a doomed building, although I wonder who’s buying or lending right now. As I told J., it looks to me like the University of Chicago wanted to flex its muscle and show the neighborhood it means business.

To me, this raises the question of what business the university is in, exactly. Given the number of times they contact me by phone, e-mail, and mail to plead for funding, I would think they’re focusing on their core mission, which I think would be education, research, and medicine. On the side, however, they can’t seem to resist the real estate business—owning and managing the local shopping center, buying property and providing vague explanations, and now buying and redeveloping the old Harper Court.

J. asked me if other big universities carry so much weight in their neighborhoods. To his surprise, I laughed. The University of Chicago is a flea compared to, say, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

I like Ann Arbor. From the bed and breakfast where I stay, I can walk to countless local boutiques and shops, like Peaceable Kingdom and the People’s Food Co-op and Café Verde. For those students who require their suburban comforts, Borders and Starbucks are right off the main campus. But my favorite, even now that many of the brick streets have been paved over, is Kerrytown, a quaint and quirky shopping center where you can find so much variety at the shops or the frequent farmers’ market. At Kerrytown, I feel like I’m in a small village artisans’ market—something that the “college town” of Hyde Park sorely lacks. So much here is spread out and is purely utilitarian; many of the limited storefronts are dedicated to salons, dry cleaners, locksmiths, optometrists, dentists, and the like. A great boutique like Parker’s Pets (akin to Kerrytown’s Dogma and Catmantoo) is isolated on a boulevard, away from other shops in an area that has little to draw pedestrians. Open Produce and The Fair Trader are also wonderful additions to the area, but they’re far from the heart of the university, and students and staff would have to go out of the way to shop there—with little else nearby to browse except a dollar store.

Now imagine Parker’s Pets, Freehling Pot and Pan Company, Bonjour Bakery and Café, Toys Etcetera, The Fair Trader, Istria Café, and Open Produce all on one or two blocks. Throw in a movie theater and even a small venue for folk and world music nearby, and you’ve pictured downtown Ann Arbor. If the university is going to micromanage Hyde Park, can’t they come up with a master strategy and vision that’s as conducive to community and participation as Ann Arbor? Even the 55th Street side of the Hyde Park Shopping Center, with its landscaped courtyard and arts, garden, and book fairs, is a step in the right direction.

My understanding is that a mixed-use high-rise is planned to dominate Harper Court. Perhaps density is ecologically “green” and the best use of urban space. I’ve noticed, though, that high-rises don’t foster community in the way that clustered storefronts and courtyards do. Imposing and bulky, often with little open space, high-rises seem distanced from their surroundings. They don’t entice the neighborhood to gather. Much of urban social life happens at street level, spilling out from restaurants, pubs, taverns, cafés, shops, and three flats, not from high-rise hulks.

Nowhere in Chicago is this more evident than in Lincoln Park, where the main streets like Lincoln and Clark, Armitage and Diversey, are filled with people shopping, eating, drinking, and hanging out in front of the most popular places.

By contrast, the primary commercial street near the University of Chicago is 53rd Street, where many of the most interesting shops (including those that were once in Harper Court) have disappeared, including, for example, the Chalet (replaced by a chain) and the import store (owner retired and moved). Because of the proximity of Kenwood Academy and for other reasons, the police discourage loitering, so what makes Lincoln Park sociable, popular, and successful is considered a threat in Hyde Park. Even men playing chess are dangerous, at least according to those who had the chess tables at Harper Court removed years ago, driving the rowdy players over to Borders and Harold Washington Park, where they continue to disturb the peace with their intent stares at chess pieces.

I’d be happy to be wrong, but unless the street level of a high-rise complex is engaging in design and offers something for many, the university’s plans don’t seem to add all that much to the development of community except a modern face. Unless there’s something really compelling at that level, I suspect most of us will still be at the park watching the chess players, at Promontory Point soaking up rays, or indulging in a croissant at Bonjour, and still wishing there were some place to go and some place to hang out in Hyde Park.


  1. Andrew from Open Produce here. I am a big fan of the University's plans for Harper Court.

    One thing you don't mention in you post is that the University wants to add an courtyard area to the highrise development that would open onto 52nd and Harper. This would provide a sitting area, as well as pedestrian-oriented access to some of the ground-level retail space.

    I think that bringing more people and commercial activity to 53rd street would actually create more of the community vibe you are talking about. While I agree that people tend not to congregate in the shadows of imposing highrises, they provide neighborhoods with the critical mass they need to support pedestrian-friendly community spaces.

    Without density, businesses must rely on cars to bring people in from afar. This creates massive parking lots, such as the one now at Harper Court and the one at Treasure Island, which are more destructive to the community spirit than any highrise I can think of.

  2. Hi, Andrew,
    I did mention that I didn't know the specific plans, so I didn't know about the courtyard. That is good. Harper Court had a courtyard, and you'll notice it's been dead for several years. Why? The owners and police drove everyone away. When I first moved here, it was someplace to go. Now, not so much.

    There have always beens tons of people with lots of activity on 53rd Street. What you may not know is how much the police, and the previous owners of Harper Court, did to discourage such activity. 53rd Street has a reputation as a scary place. I read so much negative about it that even I, who have been here 30 years (too long), wondered if it had become that unsafe. Thanks to all that fear mongering, activity died off considerably.

    I almost mentioned the two halves of the shopping center as examples of the good (courtyard) and bad (parking lot). But the interesting thing is many of those cars in the lot ARE local—numerous people drive a few blocks to Treasure Island. I've told people I walk four blocks to do my grocery shopping, and they can't conceive it. So there will always be parking lots at shopping centers. Even city dwellers live in a culture of car worship. And I still see people trying to get a close spot in that tiny parking lot, like walking a half block will kill them.

    High-rises are dead zones. I went to a multi-story mall on the north side once for an appointment, and it was the deadest place I've ever seen. Unless you really wanted to go to one of their stores (and knew about it), you had no reason to go there or to go in. But go to Lincoln Park on any evening, and aside from open-windowed bars and restaurants, and outside seating, even the three-flats have people hanging out. It feels like a community in a way that Hyde Park never has.

    East Hyde Park has high-rises, and tons of density. What we don't have are pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of shops, like Ann Arbor does. We have what I mentioned, which doesn't make me walk around, and I am a walker. I love going to Ann Arbor. Never enough time there.

    I'd like to see more affordable housing. By "affordable," I mean not for the married affluent. There is way too much new "luxury" housing. How about a high-rise that average people can afford? Not in my lifetime.

    By the way, your site was down last night . . . haven't tried it today.

  3. I should also add high-rises downtown with courtyards/plazas attract lunchtime diners during warm weather, especially if they offer music. So the courtyard sounds good, only it would be better closer to 53rd, if I'm picturing this correctly.