Parker

An image looking west on 57th Street, across the Illinois Central tracks toward Lake Street, taken before the railroad embankment was raised for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Pepperland Apartments are barely visible on the left, across from B.J. Parker’s building with its first floor ice cream emporium. Byron J. Parker was also in the real estate business and lived quite nearby — he purchased a house in Rosalie Villas, now 5822 S. Harper Ave.. Parker’s three-story turreted building at 5656 Lake Street stood until land clearance in the 1950s. 

This is the last of the Lost Hyde Park segments tracing the development of Lake Park Avenue, from Kenwood south to South Park. A version of this article was first published in the Herald on March 19, 2014.

The basic character of one of Hyde Park’s main thoroughfares changes dramatically between 55th and 57th streets, lending Lake Park Avenue less of a commercial feel than the blocks to the north. The roadway narrows and there is but one building remaining along the raised Illinois Central embankment on the east — an old cable car building that is now the headquarters of the Hyde Park Historical Society. On the west are the backyards and garages of spartan mid-century houses. Only the Pepperland apartment building, at the terminus of Lake Park at 57th Street, remains to indicate the flavor of the street’s earlier residential days.

Before the grand World’s Fair of 1893, an awning-shadedice cream emporium occupied the first floor of B.J. Parker’s buildingon the northwest corner of the 57th and Lake Street intersection. Scott & Parker grocers occupied this site as early as 1877. Back then, a combination two-story frame business establishments and residences could be found on the west side of Lake facing the grade level IC railroad tracks in the South Park neighborhood. 

Trainor

A view looking across Lake and west on 56th Street just before the Illinois Central raised the grade level of the tracks. Saloons on Lake Street stretched south to 56th Street where John W. Trainor’s establishment remained at the northwest corner for many years. To the west and south of this intersection were a mix of houses and small commercial enterprises, making the South Park streetscape hum.

A block north of Parker’s was a turreted two-story frame structure owned by John W. Trainor, an importer of wine and liquor with offices at 354 State, near Madison Street. His local enterprise, at the northwest corner of 56th and Lake, served cold pilsner on draft. Single-family houses stretched to the west on 56th, but the house to the north had become the establishment of yet another tavern; H. Barkow [sic] was the proprietor.

After the railroad embankment was raised in 1893, these two blocks kept evolving as brick and concrete structures replaced most of the earlier frame ones. Sensing economic opportunity, Mr. Trainor closed his saloon that had stood on the corner for decades. In 1909, he leased the lots to the west on 56th to Jefferson (Harper) for a span of fifty years and had plans drawn for a “business block” according to The Economist.

 That slender structure appears on the Sanborn map update of 1925. By then, the large scale garage was a common feature along the street, although the wagon and hay shed had not yet outlived its usefulness. Indicative of the vitality of the area, other commercial enterprises included an ice-making facility, an auto paint shop, upholstery store and a lamp manufacturer, all found on either side of Cable Court where the cable cars made their turn-around. On the second and third floors of many of these structures were walk-up apartments, with copper bays that allowed sunlight and ventilation to permeate the residences.

Sanborn map

The Sanborn map, corrected to 1925, shows the evolution of the two-block stretch of Lake Park between 55th and 57th streets to include several large garages as well as an ice-making facility, theater, print shop, upholstery store and a lamp manufacturer. With the exception of the Hyde Park Chevrolet building at 55th Street (not constructed at the date of this map), this entire swath of Hyde Park was cleared in the first phase of urban renewal in the 1950s.

These structures stood by as the community withstood a depression and witnessed two wars. As the decades passed, this area became noted for worn and problematic buildings. The sun-dappled awnings of the ice cream parlor no longer offered a respite from the summer’s heat, and by the early fifties the neighborhood entered a period marked by turbulence and change. 

Like many residential communities within large cities across the country, Hyde Park was in decline due to the influx of lower-income residents andthe flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs. The university found itself surrounded by the inner city; the character of the neighborhood had shifted and once-charming buildings now showed signs of age, neglect and misuse. 

Hyde Park followed a trend that seemed inevitable: older neighborhoods grew more blighted and were bulldozed as part of slum clearance programs. Sections of the neighborhood remained attractive; however the housing shortage created during the war years meant hundreds of dwellings were cut up into kitchenettes. The failure to enforce building and zoning codes increased pressure on both the housing stock and community facilities. 

The huge demographic shift on the city’s South Side strained the neighborhood’s increasingly tenuous infrastructure and housing stock; overcrowding steadily increased as residents moved to Hyde Park to find better housing than on other parts of the South Side. A 1952 study found that many buildings were badly deteriorated and portions of the area were threatened by “creeping blight.” Additionally, the police district of which the neighborhood was part had one of the highest crime rates in the city. 

Confronted by crime and surrounded by poverty and decline, the University of Chicago faced a sixty-percent drop in student applications and increasing difficulty in recruiting faculty. After years of substantial investment in the campus, a solution to the crisis of urban decay was a matter of urgency to the institution. President Lawrence A. Kimpton and the board of trustees gave serious thought to relocating but decided to remain,for as one faculty member noted, there was not much of a market for a Gothic university.

Land clearance

A view south on Lake Park Avenue taken from the Illinois Central tracks at 55th Street. All of the buildings on the right in the image were demolished during the first phase of urban renewal, known as Land Clearance. Only the Pepperland Apartments, on 57th Street and seen in the distance on the left, remain.

For the university this decision represented the culmination of decades of a guarded approach to involvement with the surrounding community. The turning point followed a sensational event — the home invasion, robbery, and kidnapping of a faculty member’s wife. When the community erupted in anger and fear, a mass meeting was held in May 1952, attended by over a thousand residents who demanded the university address the growing problems. Now recognizing that conservative ambition would not solve the difficulties, the university decided to act and made a commitment to the stabilization of the neighborhood with the foundation of the South East Chicago Commission (SECC).

The SECC left no doubt as to the university’s position. Financed by the institution, the commission took the initiative “in order to combat the forces of uncertainty and deterioration at work in the neighborhood.” The initial goal of the SECC was to increase police protection, enforce building codes and promote residential stability. But the most far-reaching project was a plan for developing the area’s most seriously deteriorated areas while fighting to create a controlled, integrated environment.

 The university and the SECC sought to direct the city’s policy away from the destruction of slums and toward the preservation of sound but threatened neighborhoods through a targeted renewal program. At this time, land clearance was the primary mechanism available to the city to deal with the problems; a program where specific demolition could save a larger community was a new idea. However in response to concerns of the neighborhood, a large swath of land in the center of the community was cleared of structures deemed beyond repair. The targeted approach would come later.

Although the plan commonly known as “Urban Renewal” was not formally approved by the City Council until November 7, 1958, work began in May 1955 with the removal of structures that had deteriorated beyond repair. Residents were anxious about the community’s problems, and the university pushed hard to ensure that this portion happened quickly. The plan for this area was referred to as “Hyde Park A and B,” and was completed under the city agency called the Land Clearance Commission.

lake park and 57th

By November of 1959, demolition of worn buildings in the heart of the community was well underway. The New York Times described Hyde Park as resembling “German cities just after World War II.” This view is looking northwest from the corner of Lake Park and 57th Streets after land clearance, the very spot were B.J. Parker’s establishment once stood.

Buildings that stretched along the Illinois Central tracks from 54th to 57th Street, east on 55th from Lake Park to Kimbark, and a small section on 54th at Dorchester were demolished. The cleared acreage represented 6.5 percent of the total area of Hyde Park and contained 9 percent of the community’s dwelling units. However this area contained 41 percent of the total substandard housing units within the entire Hyde Park community.

Land clearance, and the subsequent urban renewal program, became one of the most far-reaching events in the history of Hyde Park, just as the founding of the university and the Columbian Exposition had transformed the area over a half-century earlier. Although it was carried out with a high degree of local participation that is not to suggest that the process was free of controversy, for it was a titanic struggle to define what 900 acres of the city would become.

Pei and Weese

South of 55th Street the vibrancy of land adjacent to Lake Park Avenue changed dramatically. On the cleared land, spartan structures designed by I.M. Pei, with Harry and Ben Weese, were erected.

Many compromises were made during urban renewal; some were unpopular and had lasting effects. Many people believed the university played too strong a role, and others found bias and error. Despite all of the democratic participation, investment of capital, removal of blighted structures and volume of building, many of those who had the means deserted Hyde Park. Between 1960 and 1970, the community lost nearly 28 percent of its population. Although they left for varying reasons, overall nearly 30,000 people moved from the community, lowering Hyde Park–Kenwood’s population to 46,035 in 1970 from 71,689 pre-renewal. 

Despite the controversy, demolition and displacement, the Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood after urban renewal was a far cry from the New York Times declaration of the area at the height of the process as resembling “German cities just after World War II.” The neighborhood had to destroy parts of itself for the whole to survive; gone were the familiar establishments that had served the community well. Scott & Parker grocers, with its drug store and ice cream sodas was just one of hundreds lost, and their vibrancy never replicated.

Yet, in the end the plan achieved the university’s goal of creating a stable community. The Hyde Park–Kenwood urban renewal project was one of the largest ever undertaken in the United States and the neighborhood held up in the face of an enormous challenge — surviving as a middle-class, racially integrated, and architecturally significant community.

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