History of Hyde Park
Hyde Park is an elegant upscale neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Its roots go back to the year 1853 when a young New York lawyer named Paul Cornell bought 300 acres of land between 51st and 55th in an effort to attract businessmen to the area. Paul Cornell, a true visionary for Chicago’s south side neighborhood, was from a distinguished New England family that came over to the “New World” in 1683. His cousin, Ezra Cornell, founded Cornell University. The land he bought had many benefits, one of which was its location, 7 miles south of downtown. The weather was better because of the lake and since it was not officially a part of the Chicago, it was a great place for affluent Chicagoans to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. As an added bonus to his newly purchased land, Cornell deeded 60 acres to the Illinois Central Railroad in return for a train station and daily trips into the busiest commercial part of the city. He named this place Hyde Park in honor of the area in London by the same name.
In 1861 Hyde Park was incorporated as an independent township with the following updated boundaries: 39th to the North, 138th to the South, State St to the west, and Michigan to the east – most of this area is what we now refer to as the entire south side of Chicago. Over the next 30 years the community prospered and residential construction expanded. Even with the new official borders, the Hyde Park we know of today maintained it’s independence culturally and was viewed as the center of all the activity within the township and grew into the go-to spot for political and social gatherings. Central Hyde Park saw an increase in residential development after the Chicago Fire in 1871. Affluent Chicagoans moved into the area and built large homes north of 51st street. From 1880-1889, the population grew from 15,000 to 85,000.
In 1889, Hyde park was annexed by Chicago by popular vote. Although residents of central Hyde Park were opposed to it, the majority of the township’s residents in the south voted for annexation with hopes of receiving political benefits of the city. One of the biggest issues the township hoped to resolve was a better water system and sanitation. When Hyde Park became a part of Chicago, many other benefits ensued.
The community was selected by the American Baptist Education Society as the site of the University of Chicago, which would later become one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Well known business tycoon John D. Rockefeller along with other local philanthropists donated to build the university. Shortly thereafter, Chicago won the right to host the world’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in what is now Jackson Park. These two events were pivotal to the neighborhood’s historical significance and led to a great building boom in the neighborhood. Hyde Park saw expansion in businesses, housing and parks and soon Hyde Park continued to grow more into the go to spot for residents in the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1920s more construction gave Hyde Park a diverse mix of different apartment complexes and commercial buildings, one of the many charming attributes to the neighborhood today.
One of the most endearing aspects of Hyde Park is its celebrity status given that fact that it was home to 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, but Hyde Park is no stranger to many well-known artist, politicians and businessmen who resided in the community at the beginning of the 20th century. Some names include writers Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Ben Hecht, and Chicago Symphony conductors Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock. In 1909-1910 prominent architect Frank Lloyd Wright built the historical Robbie House on 58th and Woodlawn, which is deeply imbedded in the neighborhood’s culture. Even today, citizens, politicians and philanthropist put great effort in maintaining this property because of it’s architecture; some argue that it is the greatest example of Prairie School Style architecture, the first architectural type that is considered to be uniquely American. It was finally named a historical landmark on November 27, 1963 after many years of debates and protest about the building’s demolition.
During this time Hyde Park started to become more ethnically diverse. Jewish people moved in to the neighborhood and built synagogues, a Jewish community center and hotels along the lakefront (many of which have since been converted into apartment complexes).
In the 1930s, quite possibly an effect of the Great Depression, brought about big shift in Hyde Park racially. Many of Chicago’s neighborhoods went from all white to all black within a few years. In 1952 the University of Chicago helped to establish the Southeast Chicago Commission and soon after a federally sponsored urban renewal plan began – a public and federally sponsored effort to revitalize decaying inner cities. This included demolition, slum clearance and rehab on a massive level. The Southeast Chicago Commission worked with this plan from the mid 1950s all the way into the early 1970s.
This renewal project turned out to be one of the most extensive and elaborate transformations the neighborhood has experienced to this day.
The central neighborhood was the biggest draw, dominated by the rather financially valuable presence of the University of Chicago. During the 1950s, desegregation fueled extensive “white flight” from this area, transforming the racial make up of nearly the entire South Side from all white to all black. In Hyde Park, however, the University of Chicago leveraged its financial power, political clout, and social engineering brainpower to muscle through the urban renewal. This project, unflatteringly referred to by many neighborhood residents as “urban removal,” used eminent domain powers to demolish urban housing developments, to remove nightclubs and bars, and to make the neighborhood more suburban in character. Some of the projects and decisions made were highly controversial, seen as a way to unjustifiably drive out the African American population that had recently arrived a few decades earlier.
Hyde Park is something of an anomaly on the otherwise unpolished South Side. The University of Chicago was built when the area was full of prestige and wealth and has made Hyde Park a bastion of culture in the middle of an environment known for crime, racial tension and impoverished families. Still surrounded by poorer areas, Hyde Park prides itself on being one of the few truly racially integrated neighborhoods in Chicago. Even though the areas around it have been improving, both the Chicago Police and the large University of Chicago Police Force patrol the neighborhood heavily. With that type of attention, it’s no wonder Hyde Park has such a low crime rate.
The urban renewal project eventually evicted many if not the majority of the neighborhood’s low-income residents, but the end result is that Hyde Park is to this day one of the nation’s most durable mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, and is home to one of the only significant white communities for miles on the South Side. Hyde Park maintains its unique characteristics in its unique isolation from the rest of the city: no convenient L service, giant Washington Park to the west, frigid-in-the-winter, Midway Plaisance to the south, and persistent redevelopment projects pushing to the north through Kenwood and to the south through Woodlawn.
Grand old high-rise apartment buildings line the lakefront, and away from the lake the neighborhood is filled with low-rise buildings many of which have become condos. While single-family homes in Hyde Park are expensive, townhouses and condos are on par with new construction in other middle-class neighborhoods in the city. The University of Chicago continues to expand on the hospital, research, academics and athletics. As an added benefit, even surrounding neighborhoods are experiencing the trickling effects of Hyde Park’s growth: Woodlawn, North Kenwood, Oakland, Washington Park and Bronzeville.