History, Home by Home: A new examination of Hyde Park and Kenwood paints a pleasantly thorough but incomplete picture

His time in Hyde Park, the poet Langston Hughes wrote in the pages of the Chicago Defender, helped him understand how the luxuries of a wealthy neighborhood “can make people who live clean, quiet, library lives scornful of those whose lives are shattered by the roar of the el trains.” But even before white flight and urban renewal turned the neighborhoods into a bubble of wealth on the south lakefront, Hyde Park and Kenwood stood apart from the rest of Chicago, defined by their progressive politics, their role in Chicago’s history, and the outsized influence of the University of Chicago.

John Mark Hansen, a professor of political science at the UofC and a longtime resident of Hyde Park, has taken on the ambitious task of writing The City in a Garden, a “chronicle” of Hyde Park and Kenwood published last December. He explains in the book’s introduction that the book is not a history, or at least that his purpose “is not the historian’s purpose.” Instead, he sets out to “fulfill a resident’s curiosity,” guiding readers through the experiences of residents in past iterations of the neighborhoods.

Accordingly, he’s prepared a book with an unusual structure. Seeking to “emphasize the ‘place-ness’ of our history,” the book moves through the stories of individuals and their homes, always identifying characters by the places they lived. The section on Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, for example, is titled “James Henry Breasted residence ⵙ 5615 S. University Ave.” 

Notably, this format mirrors Hansen’s popular historical bike tours. While he is a leading scholar of American politics, he is best-known on campus for the bike tours of the South Side he hosts in the spring and fall. The tours visit a selected set of historical sites, where the riders pause and Hansen explains the history of the building and the people who lived there. His book proceeds in the same way, as if he was giving a bike tour down every street in Hyde Park and Kenwood, stopping every few houses.

The book begins in 1834 with Nathan Watson, a farmer and tavern-owner who was likely the first Hyde Park resident of European heritage (his tavern was around East 53rd Street and South Hyde Park Boulevard). It then moves through the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad, the development of the South Park System, the annexation of Hyde Park Township by Chicago, and the Columbian Exposition.

During that time, Hansen begins to develop themes that resonate throughout the book and offer some insight into how the neighborhoods function today. The history of Hyde Park as a progressive outlier in a city dominated by machine politics, for instance, first pops up in the form of the temperance movement (a favored cause of progressives), and Hansen quotes an unidentified source describing former alderman William Kent, “an inveterate foe of the aldermanic plunderbund,” as having “opposed the gang … at times almost single handed.” The Independent Voters of Illinois, established by Hyde Parkers in 1944, and the predecessor organization of the Congress of Racial Equality, created by activists in Kenwood in 1942, were another pair of progressive organizing moments that set the stage for independent 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres and the election of Hyde Park’s own Harold Washington. That culture of activism is, incidentally, also why the Metra Electric exists: the Hyde Park-based Chicago Anti-Smoke League led a campaign to electrify the line in the early 1900s.

Echoes of the present pop up throughout the book, though Hansen doesn’t always make the connection explicit. Aaron Montgomery Ward (of catalog fame) led a legal campaign blocking the Field Museum’s construction on the lakefront at Congress Parkway in the early 1900s, with some obvious parallels to the fight over the Obama Presidential Center today. Ward, in fact, organized the lawsuit requiring that the city keep the lakefront “forever open, clear and free,” establishing a precedent that has shaped how we use lakefront space today.

I was initially skeptical that the book, published by the undergraduate college rather than the UofC Press and authored by a faculty member, would present a fair account of the university’s role in Hyde Park and Kenwood, but my skepticism proved unwarranted. Hansen is willing to dive into all aspects of the UofC’s role in Hyde Park, including those where the university comes across as a bad actor. The university’s major role in promoting racially restrictive covenants, for example, is a sordid and virtually unknown chapter of the UofC’s history that Hansen discusses in detail—attorney Earl B. Dickerson’s criticism of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president and then chancellor of the UofC from 1929 to 1951, for “placing dollars above human rights” echoes in current activist criticisms of the university. The role of the Klan in the neighborhoods, including a “klavern” reportedly based at the UofC in the 1920s, is another bit of history that the university may prefer not to discuss. The section on urban renewal gives fair weight to the displacement, and the racial disparities, created by the university-led program in the 1950s.

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Kenwood, especially the portion between 43rd and 47th, also does not seem like an afterthought, as it often does in Hyde Park-focused stories. Hansen notes in the book’s introduction that Kenwood, split at 47th by urban renewal, is often divided into (white, wealthy) “Hyde Park–Kenwood” and (Black, poor) “Kenwood–Oakland,” a division he seems to successfully navigate. Though most of the people and places in the book predate the racial transition of the 1960s, many are located in north Kenwood, and no neighborhood feels like it’s getting short shrift.

Hansen’s book is at its best as a repository of interesting trivia, often solutions to long-standing neighborhood mysteries. The large stone basin outside of 57th Street Books, for example, was originally a drinking basin for the neighborhood’s horses, while the numbers faintly carved above the doors of the Pepperland apartment building further down 57th are a relic from when buildings were numbered based on their distance from the lake. The fact that Martha, the last known living passenger pigeon, lived in the backyard of a UofC faculty member on 54th Street is another delightful bit of knowledge. Much of this history resonates through the present: to this day, the northeast corner of 55th & Cottage Grove doesn’t feature any large buildings, thanks to the foundations of a cable car powerhouse making development too costly. While this can occasionally become tiresome—I’m not sure what I gained from learning that a toboggan slide existed at 44th and Drexel in the 1890s—Hansen includes enough details to keep it entertaining. Fortunately, some mysteries, like the curve in Kenwood Avenue between 52nd and 53rd, remain unexplained.

Where the book falls short is, unfortunately, a consequence of the same format that makes it such an interesting read. It’s not a narrative history, which allows it to delve into some of the unique stories of neighborhood residents that would be difficult to shoehorn into a more traditional format. At the same time, this format can sometimes feel like a selection of Wikipedia articles, with only the faintest of chronological narratives offering any direction. The story of Jesse Jackson, for example, occurs first on page 322—for a section on his house—and again on page 344, when Hansen discusses the Rainbow PUSH coalition headquarters. The place-based method of historical storytelling also means that Hansen’s book contains little mention of the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe nations that inhabited the land before European settlement. While we know which tribes lived in the area, we can’t assign contemporary street addresses to any particular buildings, and so Hyde Park’s history is presented as starting in 1834, rather than including the stories of those earlier residents.

The book peters off toward the end: midcentury only happens on page 265, followed by the sixties on page 311. The late twentieth century gets seven pages at the end, and a final coda on Barack Obama is all Hansen ventures into the twenty-first. Integration and urban renewal play out relatively quickly, and more recent history hardly appears at all. Notably, the book does not include a bibliography, just a selection of other resources, so readers interested in learning more about those specific topics will have to do that digging on their own.

These flaws don’t necessarily undermine the book itself, which provides an extraordinarily detailed history of much of the history of Hyde Park and Kenwood. They do, however, raise some concerns about the use of the book, as Associate Dean of the College Daniel J. Koehler suggests in the book’s foreword, as a “companion piece” meant to “complement the depth of coursework, research, and creative activity taking place in Chicago” through the university’s Chicago Studies program, which offers a variety of opportunities for UofC students to engage with the city, from Chicago-focused courses and research projects to a structured certificate program. A student newly arrived in Chicago may glean some useful historical information from the book, but they will have an incomplete picture of more recent (and possibly more meaningful) events. It feels a little silly to suggest reading more area history after consuming 300-plus pages of it, but that may be what a full picture of the neighborhood would require.

Despite those concerns, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I feel contributed to what Koehler calls my “sense of local citizenship.” As a Hyde Park resident of four years now, I could visualize many of the addresses Hansen mentions, and learning the history of the houses I’ve passed every day feels like I’ve unlocked some valuable knowledge about the place I live. My current residence doesn’t appear in the book, but learning that the house across the street was once home to the scientist who discovered radiocarbon dating adds something to my experience of Hyde Park. While perhaps not offering a comprehensive look at the history of Hyde Park and Kenwood, Hansen’s book includes thousands of similar details that have made my walks through the neighborhood just a little more interesting.

John Mark Hansen, The City in a Garden. $34.98. Chicago Studies Publication Series. 359 pages

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Sam Joyce is the nature editor of the Weekly. He last wrote about three recent histories of race and labor relations in Chicago.

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