Developed in 1853 as a resort community when lawyer Paul Cornell purchased 300 acres, Hyde Park is a tree-lined neighborhood of parks and century-old, three-story, six-flat brick apartment buildings bordering Lake Michigan eight miles south of Chicago’s fabled Loop. In 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln spent a summer at the Hyde Park Hotel in an unsuccessful attempt to recover from her husband’s assassination. On one of her rare good days, she wrote, “It almost appears to me that I am on the Sea Shore. Land cannot be discerned across the Lake, some seventy-five miles in breadth. My friends thought I would be more quiet here during the summer months than in the City.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, two significant events punctuated Hyde Park’s development: “The first was the creation of the University of Chicago and the second was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” the latter of which was recently made even more famous by the best-seller The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. The Museum of Science and Industry’s majestic structure is a remaining vestige of the White City.
At the museum’s Jazzman Café, over the clamor of the kids and the staccato steam buzz of dueling espresso machines, Mary Krinock, director of strategic initiatives for MSI, explains the museum’s special relationship with Hyde Park.
“We work with a lot of the community organizations, the chamber of commerce and a lot of other cultural institutions to promote Hyde Park. Many of our members are lifelong Hyde Parkers. They do think of this as their neighborhood museum. They have good memories of coming here every weekend, and now they bring their friends and their children here. So, although we are a world-class museum, we are definitely a neighborhood resource.”
I escape the noise and walk down bucolic Cornell Avenue to the Hyde Park Art Center. I want to get a sense of how it engages the community. The center — whose mission is “to stimulate and sustain the visual arts in Chicago” and which fulfilled that goal by engaging a diverse audience in participating in the visual-arts process and challenging artists to do the same — was established in 1939. Its home is a beautifully remodeled former Army PX and features Istria Café, which is not adverse to strong coffee.
Executive director Kate Lorenz meets me in the lobby. We weave through a labyrinth of exhibition spaces, artists’ studio areas and classrooms — a number of which are accessible through a secret passageway hidden behind a fake Coca-Cola machine. The center is a beehive of activity. Kenwood Academy high school students are assisting visiting artists, working on their own projects or simply doing what teenagers do — hanging out and texting.
I ask Lorenz about the spirit of Hyde Park. “It has that feeling of being a city within a city. People know each other. It’s the kind of neighborhood where people know all the characters and all the stories. It’s a very activist community. People care about things and activate in a way that’s unique.”