Chicago/Hyde Park

The Statue of the Republic in Jackson Park

Hyde Park is one of Chicago's most famous neighborhoods, most certainly so on the South Side, located along the south lakefront. Having played host to the White City, the University of Chicago, President Obama, the setting for Richard Wright's Native Son, and a host of eccentric residents from Saul Bellow to Clarence Darrow to Muhammad Ali, this part of town has more than its fair share of Chicago history.

There is more than enough for a visitor to see here, and devoting a full day to exploring Hyde Park can make for a fine itinerary. Architecture buffs will have their hands occupied by the many Victorian mansions and Prairie School houses; anyone with an intellectual bent should be delighted by Hyde Park's independent bookstores, overawed by the University of Chicago's terrifying intensity, and intrigued by the Oriental Institute; and just about everyone will enjoy a trip to the stimulating Museum of Science and Industry or taking a stroll and a swim along the Point and the beach.

Understand

The White City

Aside from Rockefeller's decision to locate the university here, the neighborhood's biggest event was without a doubt The Chicago World's Fair in 1893, celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Columbus' first arrival in the New World. The event was designed largely by Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham, and brought visitors (and exhibitions) from all over the world. The magnificently landscaped parks were all Olmstead's creation, which sparked a wave of "municipal beautification," to which Chicago owes the creation of many of its fantastic parks. Olmstead initially planned to dredge a canal along the Midway, topped by arched bridges, but costs and technical difficulties scrapped the plan (the plan was tried again in the 1920s, but was again canceled after the 1929 stock market crash).

Exhibitions were displayed in Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance. Attractions ranged from the world's first Ferris Wheel, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the "Street in Cairo," performances by Scott Joplin, Balinese gamelan, and the first East-West international gathering of religious leaders. But the crowning glory was the White City, a collection of gleaming white neoclassical buildings in Jackson Park, watched over by the enormous golden Statue of the Republic.

The Columbian Exposition raised Chicago's international profile in spectacular fashion, and left it with some very well sculptured buildings and parks. Unfortunately, tragedy waited around the corner for the area. The fair provided the setting for one of the country's first serial killers, who lured victims to his "World Fair Hotel," where they met with grisly murders (Devil in the White City makes for a good read on a visit here). The fair also brought to Chicago a smallpox epidemic, and the city mayor was assassinated two days before the closing ceremony. Perhaps most cruelly, the White City burned down shortly after the fair ended, leaving only two landmarks — the still magnificent Museum of Science and Industry and the golden Statue of the Republic.

Neighborhoods

Kenwood developed into one of Chicago's most upscale suburbs after the Civil War, and its Kenwood Historic District between Cottage Grove & Blackstone and 47th & 51st is a treasure trove of mansions representing virtually all the fashionable architectural styles of the late 19th century (including an excellent collection of early houses by Frank Lloyd Wright). The mansion owners are of interest too — their ranks currently include Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Obama family, and the city's oldest Jewish community. Former residents range from the infamous Leopold and Loeb, Muhammad Ali, the fictional Dalton family from Native Son, and the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad.

The central Hyde Park neighborhood is the biggest draw, dominated by the rather awesome presence of the University of Chicago. During the 1950s, desegregation fueled extensive "white flight" from this area, transforming the racial make up of nearly the entire South Side from all white to all black. Here, however, the University of Chicago leveraged its financial power, political clout, and social engineering brainpower to muscle through the city's first "urban renewal" project. This project, unflatteringly referred to by many neighborhood residents as "urban removal," used eminent domain powers to demolish urban housing developments, to remove nightclubs and bars, and to make the neighborhood more suburban in character (and to decimate the commercial strip on 55th St west of the railroad).

The project was paternalist, classist, and evicted many if not the majority of the neighborhood's low-income residents, but the end result of the University-driven "renewal" project is that Hyde Park is to this day one of the nation's most durable mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, and is home to one of the only significant white communities for miles on the South Side. Hyde Park maintains its unique characteristics in its unique isolation from the rest of the city: no convenient L service, giant Washington Park to the west, frigid-in-the-winter Midway Plaisance to the south, and persistent redevelopment projects pushing to the north through Kenwood and to the south through Woodlawn.

Today, Hyde Park is full of amazing bookstores, leafy streets, the siren song of cheap greasy food, great museums, and more Nobel Prizes per square kilometer than any other neighborhood on Earth.

Woodlawn, to the south of the Midway, south of the University, is characterized by urban blight. With high levels of violent crime (especially by the 63rd St Green Line stops), blocks worth of vacant lots, and lacking in commercial activity, Woodlawn is well off the beaten tourist path. But Jackson Park (as well as the areas of Woodlawn close to the park) is perfectly safe, and a beautiful place for a walk. 63rd St still has a few remaining businesses from its salad days, but is not a great place to hang out after dark.

Get in

By bus

You can get to Hyde Park by taking several CTA buses from downtown Chicago. Routes #6 (Hyde Park Express) and #4 (Cottage Grove) are common choices. The 55/Garfield bus is a very cheap and efficient way to travel between Midway Airport and Hyde Park. It passes by the University of Chicago and terminates at the Museum of Science and Industry. To get from place to place within the area, CTA offers several useful neighborhood routes between the University and other points in the district, the #171 between the University and the Museum of Science and Industry being the most useful.

By train

The Metra Main Electric Line is the most efficient public transport between the Loop and Hyde Park. It is a quick, comfortable 15-20 minute ride and costs $3 for a one way trip. Be sure to check the train schedules ahead of time, however, because it runs infrequently during off-peak times. Key stops are at Kenwood/47th St, Hyde Park 53rd St, 55th-56th-57th St, and Univ. of Chicago/59th St.

Alternatively, the CTA Red Line and Green Line link the Loop with Garfield Avenue in Washington Park. Although more convenient — they run more frequently, and operate 24 hours a day — the two stops are too far from Hyde Park to walk and located in rough neighborthoods. But the very frequent 55/Garfield bus will take you straight from either of them to anywhere along 55th St.

By car

Coming south on Lake Shore Drive, it is most convenient to take the southbound exit at 51st St/Hyde Park Blvd for a drive, or the 57th St exit for the Museum of Science and Industry and the University. Coming from the southeast on the Chicago Skyway, get off early at the Stony Island Ave exit and follow it north. From the Dan Ryan Expressway, you'll definitely want to take the 55th St/Garfield Blvd east exit, which will take you into the heart of Hyde Park through Washington Park.

A car is not a bad way to see the Hyde Park, especially if you plan to cover a lot of territory. Free on-street parking is generally easy to find. The most difficult area to park is without question the area around the University of Chicago, where the street parking during the day is limited and policed with an iron fist by the University Police. Even in this area, however, it is usually possible (if a bit frustrating) to find metered parking, or to just pay at one of the big university or hospital lots. Try looking on the Midway, or on a less safe street to the south of the university. It can also be difficult to find free parking right by the Museum of Science and Industry during tourist season, but there is always room in the museum's pay lots.

By bicycle

Hyde Park is a fairly easy 7-mile ride (11 km) from the Loop using the Chicago Lakefront Path. You may cross under Lake Shore Dr at either the 51st St pedestrian bridge or the 55th or 57th St underpasses. The 57th St underpass will take you to the Museum of Science and Industry, of which the main body of the University of Chicago campus is 3 blocks west.

Hyde Park is quite accommodating to cyclists; many students and faculty at the University ride around the neighborhood, making bikes fairly visible entity.

See

Kenwood Historic District

These impressive structures are all privately owned and unfortunately closed to the public. The only exception is the Nation of Islam mosque, but you should be sensitive to the fact it is a place of worship and is not accustomed to tourists.

University of Chicago's gothic campus seen from Midway Plaisance Park

University of Chicago

The Citadel of Science and Research

If practical, try to approach the University from the south or the Midway when visiting for the first time, so that you are confronted by the imposing stone walls of the main campus — it's an impressive sight.

Massive Regenstein Library

Other attractions

  • Osaka Garden (Japanese Garden) (On the NE side of Jackson Park's Wooded Island). Sunrise-sunset, daily. The Osaka Garden grew out of the Pavilion for the Japanese Government at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and was planned by Olmsted as well. During WWII, the gardens suffered from repeated anti-Japanese vandalism and arson, culminating in the site's abandonment to those unsavory types who inhabit abandoned urban parkland. Chicago's sister city, Osaka, donated the money in the 1980s to restore the gardens, prompting a name change from the Japanese Garden to the Osaka Garden. Today, the gardens are one of Chicago's finest secret places and a wonderful escape from harrowing tourist adventures. Free.

Do

Skyline view from Promontory Point

The University of Chicago hosts some truly world class performing arts. The U of C Presents' classical music performances are particularly excellent. If you are looking to relax, head to the huge area parks for 18 holes of golf, a sunset at Promontory Point, or ice skating on the Midway. Or if you are into film, the University's nightly Doc Films screenings and regular director visits are a treasure.

Buy

In the past, the University has had a big hand in zoning regulations designed to keep chain stores, and really any stores, out of the district. Until Akira opened up shop in the fall of 2012 in a university-owned building, Hyde Park actually lacked a single clothing store. Book lovers and collectors, on the other hand, will be thrilled with the multiple independent and used bookstores along 57th Street and the awe-inspiring Seminary Co-op. Aside from books, Hyde Park is now likely the world's number one destination for Barack Obama merchandise, who is becoming somewhat of a local hero figure. The convenience stores are full of dancing Obama dolls, t-shirts, etc., and other stores and restaurants are all touting "Obama eats here!" "Obama shops here!" Don't let the hype shape your choices though, it's a small neighborhood, and the Obamas have probably tried out all the restaurants by now.

Eat

The center of dining in the Hyde Park neighborhood is along 53rd St and Harper Ct, although there are also several popular restaurants along 57th St. There is a significant difference in atmosphere between the two dining centers, with the latter being more collegiate. Almost anyone would agree that you can have a fine meal in Hyde Park in any price category, but the neighborhood is infamous for not having any truly great, standout or "destination" restaurants, as it suffers from a captive audience — it is quite difficult to get to any other dining hot spots in the city without a car (the nearest being Chinatown or soul food and BBQ in Chatham). In recent years, though, the Hyde Park culinary scene is slowly transforming itself with the openings of a handful of trendy, upscale spots on 53rd and in Harper Court, of which Park 52 (now closed) and the Sitdown Cafe have arguably received the highest accolades from food critics.

Budget

The odd "Thai Row" on 55th St deserves a mention. These are definitely not the best Thai restaurants in Chicago, but they serve tasty, greasy food in large portions on the cheap. No one seems to know why these Thai restaurants congregated in this one spot.

  • #14, 1208 E 53rd St,  +1 773 725-9260. 10AM-11:30PM daily. The Hyde Park location is easy to visit, with a parking lot and rare dine-in seating, but the quality vacillates.
  • #2, 6419 S Cottage Grove Ave,  +1 773 363-9586, e-mail: . Su–W 11AM-midnight, Th 11AM–3AM, F Sa 11AM–4AM. Another hit-or-miss unreliable Harold's location, just under the Green Line stop, in a considerably less welcoming environment than the Hyde Park location!

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

One of the University's many powerful Hyde Park legacies is the general lack of nightclubs and bars, which once covered the now desolate stretch of 55th St west of the Metra tracks. Ask any student, Jimmy's (a.k.a. Woodlawn Tap) is really the place to go for a beer. Live music in the past was just about absent in the neighborhood, but there are a couple good options nowadays. The most obvious is the newly relocated, legendary blues club, the Checkerboard Lounge. But you can also catch some good smooth jazz F-Sa nights (usually) at CHANT or the restaurant Mellow Yellow, 1508 E 53rd St,  +1 773 667-2000. Or you could listen to some of the student jazz combos at Jimmy's, Su afternoon-evening.

Sleep

Considering the hordes of university-affiliated visitors Hyde Park is oddly devoid of hotels. Most visitors stay downtown; the Loop along Michigan Avenue is the best bet, since the southbound Metra stops are just outside the hotels. There are some nice quiet options, though, if you know where to look.

Connect

The following public libraries offer free public internet access:

Stay safe

Hyde Park and Kenwood are some of the safest neighborhoods in the mid-south side of Chicago, with relatively low violent crime rates. Nevertheless, the two neighborhoods are surrounded by tough neighborhoods with reputations for crime and poverty. Gang activity has decreased substantially in the early 2000s. Robberies and theft are more common. Criminals know that where there's a university, there's a student walking around with a fancy smartphone and an expensive laptop in their backpack. As of October 2013, the University of Chicago Police recommend that people in the area "avoid using cell phones or other electronics while on the street." The University of Chicago publishes violent crime statistics on its website.

The University has taken pains to protect the area in recent years by installing plenty of lights along the Midway and increasing its police presence. The University famously fields the second largest private police force in the world (the first being the Pope's), with full police powers. That means there are twice as many police in Hyde Park than any other neighborhood around.

Go next

Routes through Hyde Park

The Loop Bronzeville  N  S  END


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