Our Opportunity

In spite of the poor global economic climate of the past several years, Hyde Park has managed to attract an unusual amount of interest from both developers and retailers. The Harper Court redevelopment project is well underway, and Village Center is looking to break ground later this year. A Marriott Hotel would have been constructed at the Doctor’s Hospital site on Stony Island but for a controversial referendum. Hyde Park residents are looking forward this year to the opening of a cinema and a flagship fashion boutique. Whole Foods looms not far on the horizon. With much of the country in dire financial straits, Hyde Park appears to be a rare source of opportunity.

This opportunity, however, will not last forever, so we need to do as much as we can to take advantage of it. The Harper Court and Village Center projects are a good start, but I would like to push into the public consciousness the idea that we could be doing more—much more—to build a lively, economical, people-oriented neighborhood that can serve as a model for the rest of the South Side and more generally for stagnating cities everywhere.

My proposal is to redevelop the Midway Plaisance into a dense small streets village. Currently, the Midway serves mainly as a conduit for traffic and as a barrier between Hyde Park and our neighbors in Woodlawn. It is an unnecessary “green space” for a neighborhood sandwiched between two of Chicago’s largest parks. And it lies right on a passenger railway. In short, the Midway is the perfect space to turn into the opposite of what it currently is, a place for people to live, work, study, shop, and interact.

Such places have existed for a long time: they are the traditional cities, built with streets barely wide enough for automobiles to pass through, streets meant for the activities of people rather than the moving and storage of vehicles. This idea seems very exotic to most Americans, even quaintly archaic. But traditional cities have many virtues. They are social, healthy, affordable, and environmentally friendly. They are pleasant to live in, and easy to enter and leave (if provided with a conveniently located train line or two). They provide a lifestyle that many people desire, but few have access to, because we as a society made a decision a long time ago to embrace heroic materialism for our cities and comfortable isolation for our suburbs. We built a civilization tailored to a race of automobiles, not human beings. But the global economic downturn has led many to rethink the foundations of our society. It is now time to rethink our cities.

In forthcoming posts, I will attempt to delve deeper into the virtues of small streets development and discuss some of the roadblocks that currently exist to making such places a reality. I will also discuss my own ideas for the development of a small streets village on the Midway. I am not terribly optimistic that my plan or anything like it will be put into place on the Midway, but I hope to generate public awareness and discussion of modern urban planning issues. And if enough of Hyde Park catches small streets fever as I have, who knows what can happen?

We have the opportunity to make the Midway bloom, not with flowers, but with people.


About Evan Jenkins

I am an algorithmic trader and occasional writer living in Hyde Park, Chicago. I recently received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
This entry was posted in Hyde Park, Midway Plaisance, Midway Village, Small Streets. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Our Opportunity

  1. Rachel says:

    I like the greater idea of creating a small street village, but I’m not convinced that the Midway is the best place for that. Surely a green space has its own intrinsic value? (And could possibly be better utilized by the surrounding community.)

    • Evan Jenkins says:

      Thanks for commenting, Rachel!

      I plan to discuss the green space issue much more in the future, but let me summarize my thoughts on green space in general, and the Midway specifically. Green space is good to the extent that it’s used by people: Central Park is a huge chunk of green plopped right into the middle of a busy city, but no one would argue that it’s not put to good use. But I do have a problem with green space that is underused or simply not used by people. Such spaces are ostensibly used for beautification, but in reality, their main effect is to increase distances between destinations, which leads to less people walking and more people driving (which in turn leads to more demand for roads and parking lots, and more concomitant green space buffers that make these miserable spaces slightly less miserable). A small streets village should need no beautification because it should itself be beautiful, and moreover, since the streets are in fact small, not much greenery is required in order to make a small streets village look green! See this nice blog post for some relevant pictures (as well as a discussion that probably includes all the points I’ve made here).

      Now, the Midway. It’s underused, and as I mention in my post, Hyde Park is already surrounded by two enormous parks, themselves underused. While the Midway may be a convenient place for IM football, its costs in terms of increasing distances between destinations (not to mention the opportunity cost of not having a small streets village!) outweigh its benefits, in my opinion. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that all of the green space on the Midway should be removed. A small streets village on the Midway could either leave out some of the grassy bits or enclose them as a sort of town square. But I think the common view that the Midway is a sacred open space in a sea of soulless buildings is not just overly sentimental, but mistaken: we have plenty of other green space around, and just because many people have vaguely fond memories of the Midway does not mean we shouldn’t consider if that space might be put to better use in other ways. Even if you think the Midway has value as is, I hope you can be open to the possibility that it would have much greater value if we built a small streets village there (which is what I’m going to try to convince you of in this blog!).

      • Rachel says:

        For sure! I mean, my first response was “What would Daniel Burnham do?”, but you’re right, that’s not really a necessary nor sufficient reason for the Midway to continue in its current state.

        There are three issues you have to convince me on, which you may do in later posts:

        1) The public good of small streets villages, economically, socially, and for the community. I’m imagining something like a street fair, but I’m not sure if that’s what you have in mind.

        2) Why the Midway itself? Is it that it’s the closest thing to empty space in Hyde Park, or because there is some specific virtue intrinsic to the space that is between 59th and 60th streets? Why not start around 54th Place or some other cul de sac?

        3) The Midway is not exactly vacant at the moment. Besides IM football, there are soccer games — community as well as U of C — there was the speech Obama gave in fall 2010 — there are also events held there, the Lab school uses it for gym class, there is public space for walking, running, biking, taking babies for strolls, resting, and all sorts of things. There are beautiful views — any type of building might break it up. How do you propose to minimize the disruption to the people who live there? Furthermore, the Midway isn’t great “land”, in a fertile sense: because so much of it is below sea-level, it frequently gets flooded and you can’t grow anything there, or else I would have suggested we move the community gardens (that got bulldozed to make room for the new Seminary building) there. Finally, I’m not sure if the city itself or if the U of C owns the space: no matter how ideal the village it, the practicality is difficult.

      • Evan Jenkins says:

        I certainly plan on addressing all of those things in future posts! But don’t get too fixated on the fact that I’m talking about the Midway. I do believe it has particularly good characteristics for housing a small streets village, but its true role in this blog (shhh!) is to lure people into a larger conversation about urban issues in Hyde Park. The Midway is a prominent local landmark, especially to students (who tend to be particularly apathetic about these issues), and the idea of developing on it is controversial and enticing enough for people to take note and listen, I hope.

      • Rachel says:

        Great! I look forward to hearing how you address the arguments, and I’m glad to hear that it’s not the Midway qua Midway, but rather a reinterpretation of how we look at city space.

  2. Janet Jenkins says:

    A wonderful start to an interesting vision, and beautifully expressed (no bias on my part). I agree entirely that the Midway has never fulfilled its historic purpose as a green space or urban respite (the canals that were originally envisioned for it never materialized, and the only time it was ever utilized widely was with the 1893 hoochie-coochie attractions at the Columbian Exposition). It’s too broad and lacking in landscape to provide anything more than a vast, empty strip dividing the campus and communities. It’s not even beautiful: Olmstead would never have left it a flat, barren causeway. That said, the challenge to reclaim it for your purposes will be a difficult one, especially if the Dept. of Housing and Development’s petition for the Chicago Park Boulevard System as a historic district is granted (though it could bring development funds.) (See http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/supp_info/chicago_park_boulevardssystemhistoricdistrict.html). I imagine that if any plans to improve it arise, they will be more on the order of landscape design, but I encourage you to explore what the city’s and university’s current plans are and be bold enough to offer input on alternative (or supplementary) views. It never hurts to play David to the reigning Goliaths. Even if nothing is accomplished, ideas are planted that may sprout elsewhere.

    I look forward to reading about small-streets villages in the urban environment. I really don’t have much of an idea of this really consists of yet, but I’m sure it will provide good fodder for Sunday dinner conversation.

  3. Pingback: Midway Village, Phase 1: Part I | Let the Midway Bloom

  4. Pingback: What Chicago Can Learn from Apple | Let the Midway Bloom

  5. Pingback: Midway Village, Phase 1: Part II | Let the Midway Bloom

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