From walks in April & May 2012
On one of my occasional walks down 58th Street from University Avenue as I was passing between the celebrated Robie House and the sometimes maligned Charles M. Harper Center on Woodlawn Avenue, I saw a couple in their late 20s on parallel audio walking tours. They stood dumbly on some northern steps of the Harper Center, headphones over their ears, staring across the street at Frank Lloyd Wright’s best known Hyde Park building.
I am not sure what that tour would have told them about. The building’s architectural features? The architect? His philosophy of architecture? The Robie House is certainly worth seeing, but I wonder if their walking tours pointed out the three modernist pieces a block away, on 58th and Kimbark. The first blockish, purple one looks like it could be a garage or community gymnasium. It has an odd feature on the 58th Street face: a concrete and pipe mimicry of a Palladian double-ended stairway to a raised first level. This is striking, since modernist works usually eschew such skeuomorphism and loyalty to historic motifs.
The two other modern houses north on Kimbark don’t seem have such obvious or deliberate skeuomorphs. Their simultaneously angular and curved multilevel designs somehow manage to fit in next to the older, classic houses along this stretch of Kimbark. However, the distinction makes one aware of the location of each house in social space-time. Seeing them next to each other turns a house into a house probably built in the last half of the 20th century, probably built by someone aware of different historical and contemporary styles of architecture. But the cohesiveness of the block suggests that they were aware of the canvas they were adding their pieces to.
Except for the noted porch skeuomorph, they are ostentatious only in their plain geometrical appearance and lack of familiar decorations. They stand out and fit in at the same time. This is the true contrast between these modern houses and the more traditional buildings surrounding them: it’s not that the modern ones aren’t narcissistic, it’s that they are narcissistic without the aid of past architects and their useless patterns and skeuomorphs; they are contained within themselves, able to look about and learn without emulating. By the time you reach 57th, you’ve seen a smorgasbord of architectural tastes and styles—still only a fraction of Hyde Park’s offering, to say nothing of Chicago.
Across 57th and to the right, past the elementary school, you can get across to Kenwood Avenue. You may have to come painfully close to shrieking and screaming throngs of school children at play. An asphalt pathway, accessible from the basketball courts behind the school, curves along the inside of the playground.
If school is in session, I recommend, for the sake of your ears, taking the less direct, wider, concrete pathway that is actually in line and parallel with Kenwood. Kenwood is a starting and stopping street whose irregularities and abrupt disappearances make it low-traffic and distinctly residential. It’s a beautiful walk up to 55th Street any time of the year. Once you reach 55th, though, things are noticeably less pretty until you cross. 55th is one of those stretches of road that just can’t help being ugly. I always do my best to avoid walking along it, instead sticking to parallel side-streets and crossing once necessary.
This may not be the best policy at nighttime, when 55th is more likely than 56th or 54th to still have pedestrians, and it’s one of the most wide-open and well lit streets in the area. Despite these advantages on paper, I’ve never heard anybody say they feel particularly safe on 55th. For my part, the time and place I feel the least safe anywhere in Chicago is whenever I’m trying to cross 55th during the daytime. It’s remarkable how little fear we accord to cars, when they are nothing less than really really big projectiles. I don’t think it’s a sign of good mental health to be as ready as most jaywalkers to put yourself in their line of fire.
Nonetheless, if you cross 55th at Kenwood, you’ll pass by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, situated at the southeast corner of Nichols Park. Its bright, round acronym is the only piece of commercial imagery on 55th that is even remotely attractive. Yet the innocence of children playing and of familial bonding isn’t the kind of feeling evoked by Nichols Park, if you continue by on Kenwood. Nichols seem like more of a dog walker’s park and a lounging park than a picnic park.
At the corner of 54th and Kenwood, a wildflower garden lies to the northwest. The path that winds along it up to 53rd, lying westward across the grass from the wider concrete walkway, feels like it should be much longer. With only a few turns and a few hilly patches to the right and left, this could be a fraction of a beautiful walk through a wide expanse. Most urban parks aren’t so lucky. Some parks have enough space for long, meandering pathways, but this one only affords an attempt at meandering. It extends southward as well, through the rest of Nichols, but that stretch doesn’t have the same meandering feeling.
Northward, just past the garden, there is a somewhat secluded area which is perfect for relaxing with friends. Depending on the weather and time of day, you may see a few high school or middle school students doing the same. I once saw a couple, probably in their 50s, relaxing here. The man was wearing a NASCAR shirt and drinking from a paper bag, while the woman wore a denim jacket under a black vest reading, “I ain’t afraid of no po-po!” on the back. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but that night I saw them walking down 53rd and waving their arms and not-quite-yelling in frustration at each other before the man turned across the street and she continued on the sidewalk, shaking her head and shrugging.
Once you reach 53rd, emerging from the bushes that block the cars from sight when you’re in the park, jog westward to the corner. Be careful here; if you ever need proof that Chicagoans can’t drive, watch this (only three way!) intersection for a few minutes. The slow speeds make it less dangerous than almost any part of 55th, but the incompetence will soon be obvious.
Head across the street toward the big “Kimbark Plaza” sign, usually advertising the latest sales on drinks at Kimbark Liquor half a block to your left. (It’s an important part of the community, University and otherwise.) Behind it on your left is the green and white striped awning of Leona’s, but to your right is one of my favorite alleyways. Besides leading to CVS’s loading docks and a pedestrian gateway to a parking lot for a few of the nearby housing complexes, it has a wall of some interest. One of the most shifting sections of the Chicago canvas, this wall has layer upon layer of graffiti. I asked a friend, a Hyde Park native, about the graffiti here, and she said she knew some of the people responsible for some layers, who knows how deep, on this wall. One she mentioned was Chris Gary. Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, reporter for the Chicago Tribune, had this to say in August 2010:
When he helped start the Chicagowide graffiti crew IDC, Christopher Gary figured the letters could stand for just about anything.
“I Define Creative,” “I Decorate Chicago,” “I Destroy Chicago,” and depending on the mood, “I Do Care’’ or sometimes “I Don’t Care,’’ to name just a few, his friends said.
The 21-year-old kept perfecting the acronym just as he spent his short life perfecting two talents—painting and rap.
On Aug. 6, the South Shore native and loyal Hyde Parker died during a late-night boating accident off DuSable Harbor. Two of his friends survived. Another friend, James Shepherd, 21, an accomplished sailor whose grandfather owned the boat, also died. Mr. Gary’s body was pulled from the lake Tuesday.
I couldn’t tell you whether you’d be able to see any IDC work on this wall at the moment. One of the most extravagant pieces there now, catching my eye on a recent visit, is covering a portrait of a white haired martial artist whom may have been Mr. Miyagi, hand extended blade-like, fingers set for violence. His legacy remains only in vague memory and covered-up paint. Even if I’ve never seen one of Mr. Gary’s pieces, I think of his story every time I check in on this wall. (I doubt many people so impersonally called him “Mr. Gary’’ until Ahmed-Ullah’s report in the Tribune.) I think of unseen others too, nameless to me in contrast with Chris Gary’s status as a sort of Hyde Park legend, when I look at the base of the wall. Empty bottles of Gatorade and Smirnoff, empty cigarette packs, butts—all suggest the benign sort of urban delinquency.
When I talked with one Hyde Parker about the wall, he asked if I had ever joined the late-night hangouts occasional in the alleyway. I may have to drop by, since I’ve wondered about the attendees every time I’ve wondered about Chris Gary. I imagine some of them are graf artists too. We try not to make judgements, and peripheral behavior doesn’t necessarily imply anything about a person’s work, but this field of recreational debris presents an interesting distinction. I don’t think the architects or contractors working near 58th and Kimbark left remnants of their leisure-time consumption at the base of the houses they designed; nor, in my imagination, do the subsequent admirers and inhabitants of their work. I don’t think this is a difference in attitude toward life or leisure, only a different consciousness of artistic expression.
Graffiti can be more human than architecture by way of “I Don’t Care’’ or “I Do Care’’ about certain things and not others. Graffiti’s hiddenness, the obscurity of an alleyway, reflects the obscurity of Chicago’s painters; it wasn’t until I realized I didn’t know these graffiti artists that I realized I didn’t know the architects whose presence is even more obvious. But this graffiti wall suggests to me that the taggers know their canvas, their art, themselves, and their society better than the architects. The central etiquette of tagging—when it is and is not acceptable to “go over” another artist’s work—is so present and immediate in the act of tagging itself, that it must ensure a certain knowledge and awareness: of change, of genesis and genetics, of the social fixedness of the most ephemeral events.
Speaking grandly and abstractly, there is little difference between the work of a tagger and the work of an architect, except, I would argue, the consciousness of each type of artist. Buildings will rise and fall as easily as the graf “kings” whose pieces and tags dominate a particular area, but architects narcissistically pretend their works are permanent and unchanging. This is only true relatively: this wall may outlast many an urban Michelangelo, but chip marks and signs of deterioration are clear.
The alleyway ends at a block of Kenwood which bends to the northwest. One realizes that by deviating from the street grid, it makes way for the graffiti wall alleyway. If this stretch of Kenwood were bent back onto the grid, some of the wall would have to go, and its enclave-like seclusion with it. It’s an appropriate diversion from the norm, considering that the artists benefiting from it also have to travel outside of Chicago to purchase spray paint since its sale was banned in the mid-90s. Besides, this little curve in the road, its low traffic, happy looking residences, and prevalence of trees make this a very nice place to stroll as long as you’re heading north.
Instead, head back down to 53th for a left toward the lake. Hyde Park is predominantly residential, with few areas attracting crowds, so one of the best places to get an overview of its populace is between here and the Metra tracks to the east. This part of Hyde Park has been changing at a fair clip recently. Several restaurants opened along this stretch in the last few months, including a clean, modern, white and red Five Guys burger joint two doors down from a rather nice old stone church designed built in 1889 now housing the United Church of Hyde Park.
A more interesting recent addition to the Chicago canvas (underway, even) can be seen once you’ve almost reached Lake Park: the new Harper Court construction site. Just after Valois, which I’m told serves one of Barack Obama’s favorite breakfasts, there is currently a chickenwire barricade and temporary roofed pedway wrapping around the block. On the other side of the fence, you’ll see a forest of blue and silver beams surrounding bigger concrete, rebarred columns, all holding up a “SkyDeck’’ platform, a sort of temporary floor. Somehow this arrangement is able to support an excavator, a nice centerpiece in the varying levels of constructedness spread across the whole lot. My mom tells me my first word was “backhoe’’ and I guess I have a sort of fascination with construction sites.
This one offers an interesting peek at the inner workings of an urban building, since the foundations are largely still visible. The best viewing location is on 52nd and Harper. Follow the pedway to Lake Park, then up to 52nd. Continue down 52nd, past the McDonald’s, lounging teenagers, and Checkerboard Lounge, you’ll find a pleasant courtyard between the Frontline bookstore and Park 52 restaurant. This niche houses the main gate into the construction site, with the foreman’s trailer just inside. A board hangs on the fence displaying the several permits notarized by the proper Chicago authorities, proving that the operations contained within are in fact legal.
Back on 52nd you’ll find one of those neighborly stretches of Hyde Park where you may see people unloading their groceries from their cars, loading their kids up for sports games, or doing whatever people do. The monolithic Blackwood, looming on the corner of Blackstone Avenue, surprised me the first time I walked by. Perhaps it looks taller when you’re on the sidewalk, but if you can even see it from anywhere else in Hyde Park, it doesn’t seem to loom, or even tower. It’s owned by the infamous MAC Property Management. Some residents have complained of cockroaches, unscrupulous tenants who shouldn’t have been given a lease, unresponsive managers, and broken central air—all the marks of a neglected MAC property.
Currently, MAC owns a large number of Hyde Park’s apartment buildings. This sometime hotel from the 1920s, despite being one of their more storied holdings, looks the same to MAC as their others: not so much like a place where people live as a line item on a revenue sheet. This is why MAC isn’t and shouldn’t be in the development business. What kind of architect do you hire when the only image you have in your mind of the end result is a spreadsheet cell housing a dollar sign and some numbers? How much room would they leave for Frank Lloyd’s Wright philosophy of organic architecture?
Soaking in the all around pleasantness of 52nd will be interrupted as you reach Kimbark. This corner, heading toward one of the parking lots behind the graffiti wall alley, is a nice place to stop, stretch your legs, and look around in confusion. You may notice a fascinating building in the northeast quadrant of the circular corner. It looks like four buildings in one. It’s split down the middle, first of all, presumably with separate housing in each half. Then each half is split again, recalling the Middle Ages practice of half-timbered houses: stone at the bottom, timber up top. Here, the first floor is brick, and relatively modern wood siding covers the top floors, instead of the exposed timber with plaster infill that would have been a closer mimicry.
You may also notice a short passageway leading to Kimbark Avenue, privileging the pedestrian: we get to continue walking along 52nd while drivers must find another route. 52nd continues to be pleasant, but now with a heavier emphasis on mass housing. Apartment buildings prevail on both sides of the street, until you reach University Avenue. A Mormon temple sits at the corner, a reminder of Hyde Park’s strong spiritual tradition. I hypothesize that of all possible walks through Hyde Park, spanning approximately 12 blocks, a majority will pass by a church of one kind or another.
If you continue on to Greenwood and take a left, you’ll reach a very interesting architectural landmark. In fact, it’s designated as such with a “Chicago Landmark District” sign. The Greenwood Row Houses are a sight to be seen, even if they don’t rank up with any of the bigger landmarks. Each house has roughly the same layout, but their styles are all quite different. Some have yellow brick, some stone. They all more or less share the sort of funny mock-portico at the top of the short stairway, over their doorways. Decorative columns, many complete with base and capital, are on either side of the doors, and most have some sort of pediment (or homage to the pediment as a motif). Some are very ornate and very Greek, others very modern. At least one appropriates Art Deco motifs to reinvent the pediment. I notice some new feature of one of these houses every time I stroll by.
Don’t fixate too much though; the other side of Greenwood has some distinctive apartment buildings, and the next block has interesting houses on either side. In any case, you’ll probably run into at least one dog walker, probably on their way to or from Florence Stout Park near 55th. It seems like a nice enough park, but clearly the prevalence of dogs is its best feature.
As you reach 55th, your options open up. I usually have something to do by now, so I’ll either head south to the University campus, walk east back to my apartment, or take the 55 bus west to an El station. The University houses some great architecture, Washington park to the west ample walking space (complete with lake), and Hyde Park in every direction some new nook or cranny to explore, much of which won’t be here forever. It’s certainly an above average area to stroll through, and I hope people are taking advantage of that fact.