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Story- Urban Renewal and the role of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference therein

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We present here a comprehensive, broad narrative of the history of Urban Renewal, largely from the viewpoint of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. We know there are many sides, interpretations, gaps and sidebars to the story, as there are to the story of Urban Renewal in which the Conference figured so strongly, but very far from exclusively. Why don't you send us your memory or story? Visit also the other Urban Renewal pages, a set of documents from early urban renewal, and the Story of the Conference (in construction).

We start with the contextual recollections of Oswalda (Ozzie) Badal, who has been involved since the beginning and served as HPKCC volunteer and staffer in the early days. These memoirs were shared with the Hyde Park Historical Society in 1995 and printed in its Newsletter for Summer/Fall 1995.

See also perspectives on our 60 years in 60th Anniverary 2009 Kickoff page.

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Story

The community of Hyde Park-(South) Kenwood was the first are in the nation designated as an "Urban Renewal Project". Its boundaries ran from 47th to 59th Streets, Cottage Grove to Lake Michigan. It is a colorful community with an interesting history.

Growth of the Community
The chronological development of Hyde Park-Kenwood started when the "town of Hyde Park" was incorporated in 1861, and Paul Cornell, known as the father of Hyde Park became its first elected supervisor. By the time the City of Chicago annexed the Town of Hyde Park in 1889, its boundaries encompassed far more area than the present day community. The following year (1890), the University of Chicago was founded by a gift from John D. Rockefeller. At that time the community was primarily composed of single family homes with the larger, more fashionable mansions built by wealthy families in Kenwood between 1885 and 1895. With the announcement and plans for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which located at the southeastern edge of the community, a tremendous real estate and building boom resulted in the addition of many spacious walk-up apartment buildings. In the1920s, small apartments and hotels were built to meet the needs of an increasing number of elderly people and single men and women. In the same period through the 1930s, stores, churches, banks and schools were built leaving little open space in the interior of the community.

During World War II, Hyde Park-Kenwood like the rest of the nation underwent the pressures of a severe housing shortage for people drawn to the city to work in the defense industry. Many of the large private homes and spacious apartments in the area were converted into smaller units--many of these conversions were illegally made and were accompanied by a noticeable decline in maintenance.

Up until World War II the residents of the community were mostly well-to-do families. In addition to faculty and staff of the University living in the area, there was also a unusually high percentage of professional and business people. The newcomers who entered the community during the war years and occupied the converted units were for the most part of lower income--people coming from rural areas and the South seeking jobs. The conversions of apartments and homes begun during the early 1940s continued after the war with no new building occurring.

The changes in housing stock resulted in an increase in the population of the area from about 65,30 in 1940 to 71,700 in 1950. By the end of the 1940s, the community was showing signs of deterioration because of conversions, decreased property maintenance, and increased population all of which were overtaxing the community's facilities and services (schools, parking, police and fire protection.)

In the 1940s, to the north and west of Hyde Park-Kenwood, the population was largely African-American and rapidly increasing in number by families migrating from the South. Chicago's overall African-American population increased by 42% between 1940 and 1950. Adding to space problems in those particular areas was massive displacement for the Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores developments so that by the time restrictive covenants were finally outlawed in 1948 (which opened up areas previously closed to African-Americn's), it was not surprising that in the late 1940s, that population began to grow in Hyde Park-Kenwood.

The Community Reacts
In 1949, a few people in the community felt action was necessary to stem the growing physical deterioration and to work at developing good race relations. Amongst these early leaders were Rev. Leslie Pennington of the First Unitarian Church, the 57th Street Meeting of Friends, Rabbi Louis Weinstein of KAM, academicians Harvey Perloff, St. Clair Drake, Herbert Thelen, financial and real estate leaders Earl B. Dickerson, Oscar Brown Sr., and Jerome Morgan.

"Panic peddling" was in full operation at that time and neighborhoods around the city turned from white to black rapidly. The early leaders determined that a new effort was needed to prevent this kind of change from happening to Hyde Park-Kenwood. Their belief was that blacks and whites are able to live together. Since there was no one organization already in existence able or willing to act directly on both the physical and racial problems, a new group--the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference--was founded. Its goal was "to build and maintain a stable interracial community of high standards"--a goal which was eventually adopted by the rest of the community.

With the advice and help of Tom Wright, executive director of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and Herbert A. Thelen of the Human Dynamics Laboratory of the University of Chicago, and under the guidance and leadership of its first executive director Julia Abrahamson, the Conference set out to encourage the formation of block organizations so that new and old neighbors could meet, know each other and find common grounds on which to work cooperatively.

An extensive survey, developed by a Conference committee headed by St. Clair Drake and Everet Hughes and utilizing people in the new block group organizations was carried out in the area in 1950. The results pinpointed the vast number of problems, and a program which defined general community objectives was developed. This survey served as an important factor in future planning activities for the area.

The program that evolved identified five specific aspects to the program: (1) the panic and fear of the white residents, and the block busting techniques of unscrupulous real estate brokers needed to be combated through a program of education and through presentation of facts; (2) a self-help program to arrest continued deterioration in the community through strict enforcement of zoning and building code laws needed to be developed; (3) additional space for overcrowded school facilities and for playground and recreational facilities needed to be found; (4) improvement of city services (such as street cleaning, garbage collection and street lighting) was needed; and (5) redevelopment of pockets of slums and a conservation program were needed.

In 1952, a a result of a public indignation about the rising crime rate, and sparked by the abduction and attempted rape of a University faculty wife, a "Committee of Five" headed by the now U.S. Judge Hubert Will formed another organization--the South East Chicago Commission which directed much of its efforts toward improving law enforcement. The Commission also devised more comprehensive and effective approaches to the problem of the more serious illegal conversions of buildings often using such power tactics [as] getting insurance and mortgage cancellations for slum buildings. In some instances, its executive director Julian Levi along with other attorneys from the community served as "special" Assistant Corporation counsel, without compensation, in trying cases involving violations of single family zoning. The Commission's most important program, though, was its role in urban renewal. The Commission's major support came from the University of Chicago and it attracted additional support of business, real estate and other institutional interests. It represented the communities conservative interests who looked with concern at the Conference's idealistic goals for a stable interracial community.

The role of the University administration was an asset and vital factor for the community. While community residents were moved to action by the deterioration and racial changes earlier, the University had remained aloof until the effects of increased blight and crime brought the community's problems onto its front door. Reduction in enrollment because of fear for the safety of students indicated to the University that it could no longer remain disinterested. It could not afford to move the University elsewhere so it decided something had to be done to improve the climate of the community.

Over the years, there were many conflicts and disagreements between the Conference and the Commission. Each had its own constituency--the Commission represented the University and the Conference represented the grass roots residents in the area. A constant effort was made, however for recognition and consideration of the needs of both groups, and in the final analysis these efforts benefited both the University and the community residents.

Embarking on Revitalization
The long range conservation program for the Hyde Park-Kenwood area involved three separate projects.

The first was a slum clearance project called Hyde Park A an B which centered around 55th and Lake Park.The area survey conducted by the Conference in 1950 clearly indicated this as the central core of blight in the community. In 1953, the Commission and the Conference together approached the Chicago Land Clearance Commission in an unprecedented move and asked that the city agency examine this particular area. In 1954, 47 acres of land was designated for total clearance and three years later, Webb & Knapp of New York City, was selected as the developer for this project. The Hyde Park Shopping Center, which houses the Co-op, highrise apartments and about 250 townhouses were built on the cleared land.

The second major project was the South West Hyde Park Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Project. It was organized and spearheaded by the University of Chicago under a State authorized program in order to provide needed student housing. The plan under this project (approved in 1956) involved the acquisition and demolition of about 15 acres of land between 55th and 55th Streets, Cottage Grove and Ellis avenue, plus a rehabilitation program for the remaining buildings running south of 56th Street to 58th Street covering an additional 40 acres. This project, after court battles establishing its legality, was not implemented until the end of 1962. The cleared land had been designated for student housing but eventually was developed into playing fields for University sports activities.* During the long delay due to the litigation, student housing was provided through the University acquiring and rehabilitating many existing small apartment buildings scattered throughout the community. These were primarily structures built in the 1920s. In the final analysis, this approach to the problem served the community well since there was no market for these apartments and the buildings were increasingly becoming a problem.

[*except Pierce Tower dorm and Court Theatre/Smart Museum]

The third and main project was the Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Project. When the Chicago Land Clearance Commission agreed to investigate the possibilities of a clearance project in the community in 1953, it was on the condition that they would undertake the project only if it was part of a larger conservation plan for the over-all community.

Because of this condition, it was necessary for the community to take steps to begin such planning. The University of Chicago and the Commission worked on two fronts toward this end. They jointly applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Field Foundation to establish"planning unit" to begin planning a conservation program. They also worked closely with other private and public organizations toward the enactment of the U.S. Housing Act of 1954 to provide federal financial assistance for this type of conservation program. Upon the passage of the 1954 Housing Act, the process of designation Hyde Park-Kenwood as the first urban renewal project in the nation began and the city subcontracted the planning job to the Planning Unit established by the University and the Commission.

Planning Begins
The Conference has worked closely with city agencies in the development of the the clearance project. They now insisted that there be full citizen participation in the development of an urban renewal program. The Conference and the community were very fortunate in that Jack Meltzer, the director of the Planning Unit, wanted citizen participation just as strongly as the residents insisted upon it.

In 1956 the area was officially designated a Conservation Area and a Conservation Community Council (CCC) consisting of 11 residents of the community was appointed by the Mayor which for most of its years of its existence was led by Edwin A. Rothschild. The CCC is responsible for the first step in the approval process of an urban renewal plan and subsequently plays the same role for amendments to the Plan with respect to changes in property acquisition and land use designations. The HP-KCCC also undertook reviewing redevelopment proposals to make its recommendations to the city although this was not one of its legally required functions.

That same year (1956), the Preliminary Plan was completed and approved, which enabled the federal government to reserve $25,835,000 of federal money for the project. These funds would be released provided that (1) the final plan was satisfactory and (2) the City of Chicago would provide and additional one-third of its share of the total estimated $39,500,000. the Preliminary Plan was then presented to the community, too.

By this time, progress had been made toward checking deterioration in the community through the efforts of the block organizations and the staffs of both the Conference and the Commission. Both organizations worked very closely on several court cases which served to enforce the single family zoning for the mansions in Central Kenwood, returning mansions previously converted into rooming houses back to single family use.

While these two organizations were fighting those particular cases in court, a group of young matrons living in the area embarked on a positive program of attracting families to purchase these large homes for single family use. The Kenwood Open House, an event where several homes were opened to the public each year for a tour, and the development of enticing brochures which were taken to large concerns in the city in a effort to attract young executives to the area, were the two major means used by the Kenwood "Ladies". Needless to say, their efforts were extremely successful. Kenwood was the earliest area within the community to stabilize and where homes are sold by whites to blacks, and by blacks to whites in a free flow without regard to race. (The Kenwood Open House Committee continues to meet and to serve as the watchdog for that part of the community.)

In Hyde Park itself, by 1956 block groups were so alert to watching for and reporting to the Conference any signs of illegal conversions in its many apartment buildings that it led the Building Commissioner to comment that even a stick of lumber for a bookcase could not be delivered in to the area without a report being made to the Building Department. But much remained to be done to improve the maintenance of standards in apartment buildings, many of which were owned by absentee landlords. Block groups had also achieved some successes through close cooperation with the city for such services as street cleaning, garbage collection, clearing of vacant lots for playlots and the like. In many instances, they supplemented these services by doing the job themselves. The city's program of posting for street cleaning was born out of the posting of flyers by block groups in order to get streets and curbs cleaned.

The Planning Years - 1956-1958
When the Preliminary Plan was presented, a special "planning committee" of the Conference undertook the role of the middle man in the citizen participation program that followed. Members of this committee were residents of the community and [it] was mostly composed of laymen although there were a few who were professional planners. The members of this committee presented the proposals of the Preliminary Plan to block group meetings, got the reactions, comments, criticisms, and suggestions from the residents and relayed them to the Planning Unit. These initial meetings were often followed by block groups meeting directly with Meltzer where the difficulties and problems of proposals were discussed, debated, argues and sometimes changed or modified.

Over 300 block and area meetings were held during the two years the plan was discussed in the community. There were many changes in the plan as a result of the interaction between planners and community--some were major and some minor. The people in the community were asked to look at the plan not in terms of their own property or block, but in terms of the overall community needs and conditions--a highly difficult undertaking. By the time the discussions came to an end, those who were concerned about any proposals under the plan knew more clearly the reasoning behind them even though, regardless of the logic presented, many felt the planning was done for the direct benefit to the University and other institutions and with less regard for the community's residents.

Because discussions of the proposals in the program were held via the block group organizations, the participants in its development included residents of all economic, cultural and racial levels. It was interesting to note that on several occasions where strong protest arose over similar proposals--one of which would be in a lower income, working class, block and another in a middle class University faculty block--the arguments raised by both were identical with the only exception being the difference in their articulation of the protest but not in the feeling or meaning.

The "final plan" was released for community discussion early in February 1958. After a month of meetings to review it at the block level, public hearings were conducted in March by the CCC. There were additional changes and modifications made and the CCC approved the plan and submitted it to the city. When the final revised plan was presented to the City Council late in 1958, it received wide community support. The City Council's Committee on Planning and Housing held its public hearings on plan. There were 135 witnesses, 90 of whom were individuals or representatives of groups from within the community, who testified at the five days of hearings. Major opposition to the plan came from Msgr. John Egan representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and was backed from within the community by a local group of residents known as the Hyde Park Tenants and Homeowners Association. Their opposition centered on the failure to provide public housing in the plan, and to secure definite commitments for new middle-income housing. The destruction of sound buildings, the prospect of displaced families being relocated into crowded neighborhoods, and the ambiguity of rehabilitation standards were also questioned. In response to some of these concerns, prior to the submission of the plan to the full City Council, a commitment was secured from the Chicago Dwellings Association to provide two million dollars of middle-income housing, the rehabilitation standards were clarified, and there was a reduction of clearance in the northeast corner of the community.

There was, in spite of--and in some case because of---the vigorous opposition of the two above mentioned groups, overwhelming community and city-wide support for the plan. The Committee on Planning and Housing unanimously recommended that the City Council approve the plan with a strong recommendation that a minimum of 120 public housing units be included in implementing the program.

On November 7, 1958, the City Council approved the Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan and the federal government authorized the City of Chicago to proceed with its execution in January, 1959.

The Urban Renewal Plan
The urban renewal plan called for a clearance of 101 acres of land. This was about 20% of the area excluding the land clearance project and the University's campus area. Of the buildings proposed for demolition, 78% were substandard. An integral part of this project was the large scale rehabilitation program involving close to 2,400 remaining structures.

The plan provided for expanded space around existing schools for building new plants or additions to the old ones, or for needed play space. At t he time these proposals were made, schools were overcrowded, but as the population dropped in succeeding years, school expansion was not necessary in many instances. Some of the designated school sites still provide open space for the schools while others have been redesignated for other uses.

Although the community is almost surrounded by park land--Jackson Park on the east, Washington Park on the west, and the Midway on the south, there was little in the way of park and playground facilities within easy walking distance of the interior of the community. These were also provided for in the plan and except for one park/playground site, the Conference's Parks and Recreations Committee headed by Barbara Fiske, provided the vehicle for the community to participate in planning the new parks and playgrounds. John Hawkinson, a local artist, helped the committee and the block groups in designing the parks and playlots in their immediate areas through the creative use of sand boxes and simulated trees and equipment.

Shopping facilities which originally ran the length of major through streets were considered obsolete. Along 55th Street many of the stores were vacant or had marginal uses. These were eliminated and new commercial space was provided in smaller shopping centers. Most of the displaced businesses either closed or moved out of the community. Some remained in the community and moved into existing spaces not scheduled for demolition. Several displaced businesses banded together, formed a cooperative and built the Kimbark Shopping Center with several of the key businesses [long] in occupancy.

Space was also provided for institutional expansion for churches, hospitals, private social welfare agencies, as well as for the University.

Small spot clearance areas were designated for off-street parking. The community wanted off-street parking but it turned out that residents did not want to pay for the privilege. Therefore, most of these sites were later redesignated for other uses, usually for housing development.

The remainder of the land cleared was for the development of about 3,000 new dwelling units. The Chicago Dwelling Association built its commitment of $2 million of middle income housing in the multi-apartment structure housing elderly persons and families at 51st and Cottage Grove. Additional moderate/middle income family housing units were developed under special FHA insured programs including the cooperative built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union at 48th and Lake Park. The CCC adopted the Conference's recommendation that the public housing sites should be scattered and after much heated discussions and hearings, six family units were designated and built in the 5600 Dorchester block, another six in the 5100 Blackstone block, and 18 "modular" units at 50th and Blackstone. Two developments for elderly housing were built--18 units at 55th and Woodlawn and 8 units at 53rd and Woodlawn. Another 64 units of family housing is located in a [CHA] building at 50th and Cottage Grove on land the CHA had acquired prior to the approval of the Urban Renewal Plan and was the only site of public housing built on the periphery of the community. These 120 newly constructed units were supplemented in subsequent years by public housing eligible persons and families using CHA issued Section 8 certificates which allowed them to rent units at market rate. The eligible family or individual pays 30% of their income toward the rent and CHA pays the landlord the balance. There has been a constant danger of concentration instead of dispersal through use of Section 8

The rehabilitation phase of the urban renewal plan was slower in getting started and did not really begin until 1964 after it was stimulated by new development on some of the cleared sites. It continued at an accelerated rate in the 70s and 80s and most often occurred when properties (single family and multi-family) changed ownership or when rental apartments were converted to condos. As housing prices rose, more rehab took place, and areas where it was felt no change would ever occur, are even now joining the rehab/condo parade.

Officially the Urban Renewal Plan will come to a close within the next three and a half years [1999]. There are still some problems--maybe they'll be resolved by closing time or maybe they will be resolved later when renewal activities in North Kenwood-Oakland finally get underway. Nonetheless the purpose of the urban renewal--to stimulate the physical up-grading of he community--has certainly occurred throughout Hyde Park-Kenwood marking it a successful program.

It was not, however, just an Urban Renewal project that made the revitalization of Hyde Park-Kenwood Community a reality. It was the in-depth involvement and participation of hundreds of residents to make the program work. They are too numerous to name but they were blue collar workers, white collar workers, postal worker, school teachers, small business owners, government workers, executives, lawyers, University faculty, staff and students. Leadership came from all walks of life--especially at the block club and regional area levels.

Looking back, those were noble goals that were set some 45 years ago by the organizers of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference--to build and maintain a stable interracial community of high physical standards. To the credit of those early leaders, and the dedicated and enthusiastic involvement of the community's residents, the goal has been achieved.


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