In a few days or so, the good citizens of Hyde Park–doctors, lawyers, architects, professors, more lawyers, and other educated, cultivated people–will gather together as they have before to discuss, calmly and rationally, the leading issue of the day. If this meeting follows the pattern voices will rise, followed, maybe, by emotional accusations. The whole mess may culminate in a walkout, or a threatened walkout, or some such form of protest.

Welcome to Hyde Park’s version of democracy in action. Going at it are two determined factions of middle-class residents, both used to winning. In this case, though, one is bound to lose.

“This is Hyde Park; everyone has a different point of view, and everyone has a big mouth–including me,” says Agnes Nerode, who at 80 has lived in the area for almost 40 years. “That’s why Mayor Daley never liked us; we’re not afraid to speak our minds.”

In this case, the attention of those minds is focused on a vacant lot–about two acres adjacent to the Phillip Murray Language Academy, a public elementary school on 53rd Street between Kimbark and Kenwood avenues.

One side of the dispute, represented by an ad hoc group called Friends of the Lot, would like the lot to be used as a park. The other side, led by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Development Corporation, would like to see it paved over for townhouses, shopping, or both. The matter will be decided by yet another group, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Conservation Community Council (CCC), who will officially settle the question of what the best use of the land will be. The issue might not inspire so much antagonism if it weren’t for the 30 years of history behind it.

“This goes way back to the redevelopment of Hyde Park in the 50s,” says John McDermott, president of the Development Corporation. “That’s when land here was being cleared.” In those days, the big issue in Hyde Park was economic disinvestment and decay. Poor people (many of them black) were moving into many of the apartments on the community’s western fringes. One major business artery, 55th Street, was a seedy strip, filled with bars and taverns and their unsavory patrons. As crime rose–or, perhaps more important, the fear of crime rose–word got out that the University of Chicago, the bedrock institution of the neighborhood, might leave. Without a major renovation, the community would be lost.

Thus was born the Hyde Park-Kenwood redevelopment plan. By an act of the state legislature, the entire community (roughly running from Cottage Grove on the west to the lake on the east, and north to south from 47th to 60th streets) was labeled an urban renewal zone. That meant the city, working with the approval of the CCC (whose 15 members are appointed by the mayor), could condemn, acquire, and destroy any or all of the property in the name of urban renewal. Eventually, dozens of buildings were torn down and hundreds of acres of land were cleared to make way for commercial strips, schools, and new housing. Alleys were blocked, cul de sacs were created, and two-way thoroughfares became one-way streets, so that now, for an outsider, a trip through Hyde Park is like a bewildering excursion in a maze.

From the outset, there was dissent.

“It wasn’t urban renewal so much as what they used to call Negro removal,” says Nerode, who bitterly fought the project. “My husband was Hindu, and I thought they would come after our house because they didn’t like people of color.”

City and community officials dismissed such allegations as baseless. And the urban renewal–championed by the Southeast Chicago Commission, an organization closely tied to the University of Chicago–prevailed.

Most of the passion over those battles has faded, and even critics of urban renewal must admit that redevelopment did indeed preserve the neighborhood’s middle-class tax base. The University of Chicago stayed, housing prices are rising, commercial development is strong, and Hyde Park can take pride in the fact that it remains one of the few integrated middle-class areas in the city. In fact, the lot on 53rd Street is the largest remaining parcel in the area left for development.

“It’s important to point out that this lot has not been sitting there vacant since the time of the Indians,” says McDermott. “It was purchased and cleared by the city to be used for a new Murray school. That was in the 60s, when school populations were booming.” But as the baby boomers matured, the demand for new schools decreased, and the board of education told the city it didn’t need the property for expansion after all. “We want to put this land to good use,” McDermott says.

From the Development Corporation’s point of view, the obvious use is retail and/or commercial. After all, residents have complained for years of the lack of stores in Hyde Park. Besides, the timing is perfect because developers, at long last, are becoming interested in Hyde Park. There is a new strip mall at 53rd and Dorchester (site of the old YMCA), and East Hyde Park Boulevard (51st Street) is bustling. Why not strike when the iron is hot?

“Hyde Park people have complained for years that they have to go out of the neighborhood–frequently to the Loop–for shopping,” says McDermott. “New residential or commercial [buildings] there would give new life to the street. We could use a full-service bakery. We only have one hardware store in Hyde Park. We’ve been trying to get a Crate & Barrel to come in. This site would be perfect.”

The neighbors in the immediate area, however, insist the lot already serves a good use. “It’s not just a vacant lot–it’s used,” says June McIntosh, one of the founders of Friends of the Lot. “We’ve created a vegetable garden there, which a lot of residents work on. We keep it clean. What kind of development are they talking about anyway? A Burger King? A Taco Bell? There’s a McDonald’s across the street. Do people really believe that we ought to replace green grass for that?”

Perhaps the lot’s most important function, McIntosh and her allies say, is to provide a path for joggers, strollers, and dog walkers from 53rd Street into Nichols Park, a city park whose official northern boundary is 54th Street. Most residents have come to think of the lot as an unofficial extension of Nichols Park.

“Nichols Park is one of the cleanest and most used in the city,” says Stephanie Franklin, another founder of the Friends of the Lot. “And part of the reason is the lot.” As Franklin explains it, the lot offers an open entrance for foot traffic from 53rd to Nichols Park. If you close that entrance, Nichols will be more isolated. Foot traffic would decline, and the community as a whole will suffer.

“Jane Jacobs says that if you cut off access to a park–if you surround it by development–people won’t use it, and it will be taken over by undesirables,” says Bob DeMar, a member of the lot group, referring to the New York urbanologist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “We did a study that shows that hundreds of people walk through the lot to reach Nichols Park. Our position is not that there should be no development anywhere. Our position is specific to development of this lot. Development would hurt Nichols Park and probably the Murray school.”

The two points of view collided last spring when a sorority came before the CCC to propose a multistoried building for the site. That proposal was not adopted, but it tipped off residents that the Development Corporation was serious about developing the land; in fact they had received funding from the city to determine how that lot might be developed.

“This was nothing underhanded or hidden,” says McDermott. “We commissioned a reputable group of consultants [Camiros Ltd.] to study it. They took more than a year. They looked at various proposals, held open meetings, solicited views, and came up with their recommendation that 53rd Street is the core of economic life in the community, and that it should be developed not with high rises, but with low-rise development.”

Although the corporation has no specific development plan in mind, McDermott says, it requested that the CCC change the lot’s use from educational to commercial. Such an act, the logic went, would rouse the interest of potential developers. It also roused the anger of many residents.

“Mrs. Nerode was the first to let us know about what was going on,” says McIntosh. “She distributed leaflets in the area to let us know what sort of proposals were being put forth. There was a lot of anger because one suggestion by Camiros was to tear down a 60-unit apartment building just west of the lot on 53rd Street. That didn’t sit well with people.

“The whole Camiros study was controversial because a lot of people felt it wasn’t very representative of the community. They got 64 responses from community leaders on what they thought should be done with the site. Of those 64, about two-thirds were members of the Development Corporation or the Southeast [Chicago] Commission. In other words, they were people who have a predisposition toward development.”

Within a matter of weeks after hearing of the Camiros study, McIntosh and her neighbors were going door-to-door, getting signatures to petitions, asking that the lot be preserved as a park. They won the backing of the priest from the board of Saint Thomas the Apostle elementary school and the principal of the Murray school, who wrote a letter to the Park District, complaining that her proposal to use the lot for a park was dismissed by Camiros as “cost ineffective.”

“We got a whole bunch of people to show up at the next meeting of the CCC,” says McIntosh. “And then the CCC said they wouldn’t discuss it. People stood up and yelled. One man refused to leave the meeting. We eventually reconvened in Nichols Park. Soon after we formed our group.”

Now the Development Corporation was on the defensive. Fair or not, they came across as a band of bullies, tearing up green space for the interest of a few.

“Some of them are emotional people, who think the Development Corporation is in it for the money,” says McDermott. “Well, our corporation is not Arthur Rubloff. We live in Hyde Park and we want to do what’s right for the community. We’re not interested in supporting development that is schlocky. We don’t want anything that’s second-rate.

“And now, they quote Jane Jacobs. Well, I can quote Jane Jacobs better than they do. I actually knew Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs says that what makes neighborhoods safe is eyes on the street. This development will put eyes on the street. It will make Nichols Park safer.”

But June McIntosh disagrees. “I think they’re getting a little defensive,” she says. “The fact is that Hyde Park is a small place, and the pool of people qualified to assume positions of leadership is small, so there’s always an appearance of conflict of interest. For instance, Fran Grossman, who is the head of the Development Corporation, is married to Robert Grossman, who sits on the CCC. Worse than that, Ed Rothschild, who is the chairman of the CCC, appointed Mr. Grossman to chair a CCC subcommittee that is supposed to examine changing the land use. When we told Rothschild that was a conflict of interest, he acted surprised.”

Rothschild was out of the country–and unavailable for comment–but McDermott dismisses the issue as “insulting nonsense. Fran doesn’t lead her husband around by the nose.”

Nonsense or not, the issue is to be decided sometime this spring by the CCC. McDermott hopes the lot group will be assuaged by a commitment to create a grassy walkway linking 53rd Street to Nichols Park. They intend, however, to hold out for the park.

“The Development Corporation shouldn’t think this issue is just going to go away,” says Franklin. “They should know better. This is Hyde Park.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.