Consider this a preliminary report–first impressions–and open to revision at any time,
but after a month I feel like I’ve got a (shaky) handle on Hyde Park.
I’m from the Midwest, I have lived in a dozen places in Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois. However, most of those places were towns under eight-thousand people. So, the move to the big city promised to be one of the challenging facets of life at U of C. Fortunately–or unfortunately–I had a few paradigms that I thought might help the transition. Through the lens of Oxford I imagined life as a multicultural mash-up of languages, tastes, and cultures where, in one store, one could hear five continents shop. Further, I envisioned Chicago through my father’s stories of life downtown in a highrise with no air conditioning, driving rental cars back from the Loop back to Midway airport for pocket-money, and watching the aftermath of the “race wars” and especially 1968’s West Side riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King play out below the safe, ivory towers of the academy.
I read all of U of C’s descriptions of Hyde Park carefully and tried to sell the idea to my wife–a confirmed small town girl–by noting that President Barack Obama lived in the neighborhood for years and now owns a home in neighboring Kenwood. Would the President keep his permanent home in the Chicago of imagination–the Chicago of “gangstas” and prostitutes? Why this would be just like when I lived just a few houses away from the home of former Prime Minster Tony Blair in Oxford. But that’s the rub, there is no monolithic “Chicago” anymore than there is a monolithic anyplace. Human beings prefer to think in abstract generals, but we always live, work, and love in particulars. (Come to think of it that questions the value of anything that I’m writing to anyone hoping to use this as a guide–of the joys of self subversion!).
In truth, Hyde Park is very near the reality of every small town in which I’ve ever lived–at least in all the important ways. It is incredibly friendly. Folks on the street walking stop to talk and let you pet their dogs. I’ve yet to run into a single shop worker who wasn’t bend-over-backwards helpful. I feel no fear whatsoever walking anywhere in the neighborhood into dusk. Little shops clutter the side streets–each promising to become my new favorite bookstore, record shop, or coffeehouse.
Yet, Hyde Park is the Chicago of imagination. Every major intersection and row of shops has at least one or two panhandlers that make me guilty when I pretend I don’t hear them. I have the sense walking into my new favorite record shop full of vinyl labeled “soul,” “gospel,” “acid,” and “bop” that my money is welcome–but I am a curiosity. E-mails from U of C’s secure e-mail server remind me that there have been several armed robberies between 55th and 57th between midnight and three AM–and it doesn’t seem there is extra safety in groups. The grocery store has three security guards in bulletproof vests–each twice my size–and everything is under the vigilant eye of CCTV.
During visit days one of the perennial complaints voiced by MAPH students is that Hyde Park is not the real Chicago. To experience all that the Windy City has to offer you have to leave our secluded little cul-de-sac and venture into the wider world of “crazies” muttering on the steps of Union Station and performance artists painted gold and juggling near Bug House Square. Perhaps they are right–or perhaps they are just finding the fragment of the “unified monolith” they most prefer. For my part–I’m happy here, where every shop has posters proclaiming that “Barack Eats Here!” and street corner fights are just as likely to be over economic theory as turf wars.