Just off Lake Michigan, Hyde Park is one of the Windy City’s most historic and hip neighborhoods. A successful model of both racial and economic integration, it’s full of diversity, heart and soul, and a communal spirit where everyone knows your name.But can it stay that way?
Spring break is in full bloom on the South Side of Chicago, and the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) resembles a Willy Wonka–technicolor fever dream. Flocks of children flutter and chatter like magpies, spinning neon whirligigs in their hands as they queue up to experience an inter?active Illinois coal mine, explore the German U-505 submarine and check in on the “Hidden Lives of Ants” exhibit. In the soaring rotunda, they press their noses against the glass separating them from the coolest model-train display ever: 1,400 feet of tracks and 30 trains carrying miniature commerce across the plains and over the Rockies from Chicago to Seattle.
I was once one of those eager schoolchildren, and the museum memories are ingrained forever in my DNA. My greatest fantasy as a boy was to be locked inside the museum after closing so I could have the run of the place — more than 400,000 square feet and nearly 11 acres of exhibits to myself.
I have returned to my native South Side Chicago neighborhood to see who has changed the most. I’ve always felt that my Hyde Park childhood shaped my future adult attitudes toward race, social justice and fairness. My boyhood was spent running in the alleys, playing hide and seek in Jackson Park and staring out of the large windows at Bret Harte Elementary School as I watched the Illinois Central trains rumble past. I explored the University of Chicago campus; snuck around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style masterpiece, the Robie House; and marveled at the mysterious mummies in the Oriental Institute. My family grew vegetables in the community gardens, brought our own bags to the Hyde Park Co-op, and cheered our activist alderman, Leon M. Despres, when he challenged Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine. Hyde Park was always Chicago’s irritating squeaky wheel.
More recently, the neighborhood produced a much more famous former resident, President Barack Obama, who maintains a six-bedroom home on a corner lot off Hyde Park Boulevard, a popular attraction for busloads of tourists. You can easily find it. Just look for the black SUVs and the Jersey barriers. Walking up to the front door is not an option.