She then asks me about my childhood, and I tell her that Lake Michigan was a source of creativity and inspiration. Lorenz says that the lake’s influence is as strong as ever. “Artists who come here from all over the world are shocked and awed by the lake. As part of our residency program, we’ve had artists come from Mexico, New Zealand, France and China. It’s amazing how many of them focus on the lake as subject matter because it’s so unexpected. People don’t think about Chicago as being a coastal town, and the lake is so much a part of Hyde Park. In fact, we use the term ‘Chicago’s Culture Coast.’ ”
For the past 50 years, diversity has been a defining characteristic of Hyde Park. In a city made up of traditionally segregated ethnic and racial neighborhoods, one of Hyde Park’s points of pride is that it is one of the most racially balanced neighborhoods in the city.
The South East Chicago Commission (SECC) — which focuses on community and economic development in Woodlawn, Washington Park, Hyde Park, Kenwood and Oakland, the five communities that surround the University of Chicago — has said that Hyde Park is “a national model of racial diversity and urban stability.” I wanted to know more, so I hiked over to its headquarters on 53rd Street to speak with the executive director, Wendy Walker Williams.
The street is Hyde Park’s main business district, a bustling avenue of ethnic restaurants, beauty spas, the ubiquitous Starbucks and one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood, the 10-story Hyde Park National Bank, built in 1928. Many of the local businesses are just that — locally owned. I also spot something out of place: construction cranes and a flotilla of dump trucks and cement mixers. I ask Williams to describe a typical Hyde Parker.
“They are proud of integration. Proud of being independent. A very intelligent group of people. People who have the ability to think for themselves and are tolerant and kind. If you come to Chicago and you don’t come to Hyde Park, you will really miss the true essence of a Chicago neighborhood.”
But Hyde Park is at a crossroads, and some fear the neighborhood will lose its groove. All those construction cranes in the neighborhood are part of the Harper Court project, a 1.1-million-square-foot mixed-use development spearheaded by a partnership between the city and the University of Chicago. With the first phase to be completed by 2013, Harper Court will, among other things, feature 250,000 square feet of commercial space and 53,000 square feet of retail space, including a Hyatt hotel and residential space, plus dining and entertainment on the ground floor; it will be anchored by a 150,000-square-foot office tower for the university and other tenants.
New chain restaurants such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Clarke’s have already moved in; old favorites such as Calypso Cafe and Dixie Kitchen have been shuttered. The long-standing Hyde Park Co-op Market has been replaced by Treasure Island Foods. And down the street from the Harper Court development, in the building that once housed a Borders bookstore, the trendy Akira is set to open its flagship clothing store in the fall.