Like it or not, you can’t think Hyde Park without also thinking University of Chicago. For as long as most of us can remember, this culture-rich south-side lakefront community—extending from 51st Street to Midway Plaisance and Cottage Grove Avenue to the lake—has been more like an elite college town dropped into a big and sometimes alien city than like, say, any of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. Both Hyde Park and its neighbor, Kenwood (especially south of 47th Street) have been dominated by the university and—for better or worse—would not be what they are today without it.

Hyde Park’s founder was a young lawyer named Paul Cornell. Back in 1853, acting on a tip from Senator Stephen Douglas, he bought 300 acres of swamp, named it after the Hyde Parks he knew in his native New York and in London, and began to develop it as an upscale residential suburb and vacation retreat.

Cornell is the visionary responsible for the great Jackson and Washington parks and the mile-long Midway Plaisance between 59th and 60th streets, which connects them: designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, they became Hyde Park’s spectacular east, west, and south borders. He also ensured that his nascent community would have railway service to the city by giving the Illinois Central land for a station. And, perhaps inspired by his brother-in-law John Evans, one of a group that had founded Northwestern University in 1851, he planned for it to have the prestige and stability that would emanate from a resident institution of higher learning. Cornell offered to donate a generous parcel of land if the Presbyterian Church would build its Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Hyde Park.

The Presbyterians refused, and the residential development proceeded without this crowning amenity. But nearly four decades later Cornell’s dream came true in a bigger way than even he could have imagined: the University of Chicago opened its doors on Midway Plaisance in 1892, and Hyde Park became the company town of one of the world’s truly distinguished universities.

While the University of Chicago is the 800-pound gargoyle, it’s not the only major force that shaped Hyde Park’s history. First was annexation to Chicago. When Cornell bought his property, Chicago ended at 39th Street. By 1861 his village was part of a township, also named Hyde Park, that extended all the way from the city’s southern border to 138th Street. In 1889 the township, which had grown rapidly but lacked adequate public services, voted to become part of Chicago, and the village of Hyde Park, whose residents were better served and mostly opposed annexation, was swept along.

Looking southwest from the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
Looking southwest from the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian ExpositionCredit: Chicago public library special collection division

Annexation was almost immediately followed by two incredible engines of development. First, Jackson Park was chosen as the site of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. Since the arrival in 1869 of a streetcar line that ran along Hyde Park’s western border and across 55th Street, the village had grown: smaller homes had sprung up on the west side and a commercial corridor had developed along 55th. But the exhibition was expected to draw an astounding 300,000 visitors daily. Along with those fabulous White City structures (including the Palace of Fine Arts, which survived the fair to become the Museum of Science and Industry), it would spawn a frenzy of hotel, apartment, and commercial building.

At the same time the American Baptist Education Society, which had seen an earlier University of Chicago succumb to financial failure, was starting over in Hyde Park. (The first U. of C., remembered today as Old University of Chicago, was opened by Baptists in 1860 at 34th and Cottage Grove and closed in 1886.) The Gothic towers of the new university—which was spearheaded by the man who would become its first president, William Rainey Harper, and bankrolled by fellow Baptist John D. Rockefeller, neither a part of the earlier school—rose on land donated by Marshall Field along the north side of the Midway. Faculty, staff, and students became resident Hyde Parkers, while Kenwood, a community of handsome mansions on spacious grounds known as the “Lake Forest of the south,” was home to business titans like mapmaker William Rand, meatpacker Gustavus Swift, and lumber magnate Martin Ryerson. Over the next five or six decades the university became a globally recognized hub of intellectual activity, incubating everything from President Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books curriculum to the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, pulled off in a bunker under Stagg Field.

But trouble was brewing. After World War II, a robust economy and an acute housing shortage brought greater density and less affluent, more transient residents to outlying neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the restrictive housing covenants that had mostly kept Chicago’s growing black population out of areas such as Kenwood and Hyde Park were challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional. As black families began to move beyond the segregated south- and west-side confines they’d been jammed into, whites fled and the physical and economic stability of the affected neighborhoods took a nosedive. Glen Holt and Dominic Pacyga (in 1979’s Chicago: A Historical Guide to the Neighborhoods) traced the shift in Kenwood, especially north of 47th Street, which they said residents called Kenwood’s “Mason-Dixon line.” In 1930 Kenwood’s black population was less than 1 percent; by 1950 it was 84.7 percent. As mansions and other single-family homes and apartments were divided into multi-family dwellings, the total population of Kenwood increased from less than 27,000 to nearly 36,000.

Driven by the University of Chicago, Hyde Park and Kenwood responded with urban renewal plans that stripped out older high-density and lower-cost housing and replaced it with modernist, low-density, middle-income row houses and apartments, creating the architectural hodgepodge that characterizes much of the area today. The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, with the stated goal of achieving a “stabilized integrated community of high standards,” joined forces with a more economically conservative organization, the university-backed South East Chicago Commission, in a program that took out huge chunks of housing between 57th and 47th streets, pushing out poor people of any color. In the initial phase, according to the university’s own account in One in Spirit (a history published by the school for its centennial in 1991), the program razed 47 acres between 52nd and 57th streets—including 22 taverns along 55th—displacing 150 businesses and 1,200 households. The second phase took out 20 percent of the remaining buildings in Hyde Park and south Kenwood and displaced another 4,528 families. One in Spirit quotes something movie director Mike Nichols, a U. of C. alumnus, supposedly said about this process—in Hyde Park “it was blacks and whites united to keep out the poor”—and notes that in terms of its own objectives, it succeeded. In a sea of deteriorating neighborhoods in crisis, Hyde Park became a sort of island: racially mixed, staunchly middle-class, and smarter than any other place on earth. South Kenwood shared the island, while Kenwood north of 47th Street fended for itself and deteriorated. North Kenwood would soon have less in common with south Kenwood, let alone Hyde Park, than with Oakland, the neighborhood just north across 43rd Street—a neighborhood that Pacyga, in his latest book, Chicago: A Biography, says was by 1990 the poorest in the city. Since then, north Kenwood and Oakland have shared in a gentrification movement that according to Pacyga has been largely driven by middle-class African-Americans.

Artists Nicholas Kashian and William Walker in front of Walker’s mural <i>Childhood Without Prejudice</i>, on the Illinois Central viaduct at 56th Street, which Kashian recently restored
Artists Nicholas Kashian and William Walker in front of Walker’s mural Childhood Without Prejudice, on the Illinois Central viaduct at 56th Street, which Kashian recently restoredCredit: Marc Monaghan

In Cornell’s time Chicagoans traveled to Hyde Park for bucolic summer vacations; now it’s a five-minute zip down Lake Shore Drive from the Loop to its astounding treasures, from the mammoth Museum of Science and Industry to the mix of Gothic and modern architecture that makes up the still expanding campus, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to the real home of the sitting American president. Today the university, which claims 85 Nobel laureates and 15 MacArthur “geniuses,” is Hyde Park’s largest landowner and business, with 15,000 students, about the same number of employees (including those at the medical center), and an annual budget of nearly $3 billion. The Court Theatre, Renaissance Society, Smart Museum, and Oriental Institute are all housed on the campus, and nonaffiliated institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Hyde Park Art Center, and the Little Black Pearl art workshop (on 47th Street) benefit from its proximity, as do the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival and the venerable 57th Street Art Fair. Hyde Parkers may pause on their way to a Doc Films screening or an Eighth Blackbird concert at Mandel Hall to chafe at the university’s immense power (currently on display in another “rehabilitation” project: the razing of the university-owned Harper Court shopping area), but they’re nearly all there because of it.