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.