Hyde Park is very much a company town,’ said Peter Cassel, director of community development for Antheus Capital, which owns more property in the neighborhood than anyone except the University of Chicago. ‘As the University grows, so too does the neighborhood.’”1
Company Town is the leading motif for this reflection on the rich history of the Lutheran church in Hyde Park. Different motifs would certainly work to tell this neighborhood’s story. I propose an interpretation from the perspective that focuses on economic-social class –a significant factor that is frequently minimized in the writing of church history. Traditionally, we have been reluctant to face up to issues of social class. Most Americans deny that we have social class problems in the United States. But Martin Luther King’s movement emphasized these issues more than most, and the labor union movement in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s called attention to social class discrimination and conflict.
The current re-shaping of Hyde Park began sixty or more years ago — in the mid-1950s — when the powers-that-be decided to reverse the growth of a working class and poorer population that had emerged in the wake of World War II, mainly by means of the urban renewal project begun in the early 1960s. This was the first such project in the United States, supported by congressional legislation that was written in large part by lawyers representing the University of Chicago. That development completely re-shaped 55th Street.
The lower economic groups were by that time compressed into the northwest quadrant of the neighborhood — University Avenue to Cottage Grove, and 55th Street to Hyde Park Boulevard. This northwest sector was reconfigured so as to create a barrier between it and the university. (A university spokesperson recently acknowledged publically that this was indeed an aim of urban renewal.) Four buffering institutions were anchors of the new configuration — George Williams College (YMCA), Osteopathic Hospital and Medical School, Augustana Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran School of Theology — the latter two positioned on land assigned them as part of the urban renewal project, the first two have long since departed to the western suburbs and now replaced by upscale housing and a Mormon church.
Street talk characterized these developments as “middle-class blacks and whites shoulder-to-shoulder against the poor.” In more acceptable public relations talk, it was said that since Hyde Park had historically been a middle- to upper-middle class community, the new developments were simply restoring its original identity. The community re-shaping was enabled by the collusion of the university, local ward politicians, and Mayor Daley — the same coalition that, according to Professor Dick Simpson, carried out the destruction of the historic Italian/Greek neighborhood on South Halsted street in order to build the University of Illinois at Chicago and its ‘University Village.’
In the 1950s the University of Chicago was beleaguered — students and faculty were difficult to attract. There were three problems, popularly described as free love, communism, and crime in the streets. The university decided against relocating, choosing instead to attack the three problems. The first more or less took care of itself, since changing social mores rendered free love moot as an issue. Left-leaning faculty were either eased out or otherwise induced to soften their voices. The university developed what has become the third largest police force in the state of Illinois and one of the largest private security forces in the country. The move to bourgeoisify the population, thereby moving out the street gangs, overt prostitution, and other undesirables, was integral to the university’s efforts and fully supported by the buffering institutions in the neighborhood.
Only old-timers might remember Hyde Park of the 1950s and 60s, including its overt racism. I moved into Hyde Park in 1959. Fast food restaurants were not permitted in the neighborhood until the 1970s, and family retailers (e.g., Sears) have likewise been kept out even to this day. The public reason: “they attract the wrong kind of people.” The same was said a few years ago when the Harper movie theater was closed down after the university bought its property. There were many more bars than there are today — three student pubs on 55th Street alone, of which Jimmy’s was the least imposing.2
In its July 6, 2012, issue the Chicago Reader summarized this history by reprinting a 1977 article from Tem Horwitz’s Sweet Home Chicago 2:
[Hyde Park] used to be a bohemian enclave, a tourist attraction for northsiders in search of a Saturday night thrill. Fifty-Fifth Street was famous for its bars, where the jazz greats of the bebop era appeared; an artists’ and writers’ colony flourished here in the mid-1950s with the Compass Players and the Second City Company. But there’s nothing bohemian about Hyde Park now, thanks to a university-backed urban renewal project that replaced most of the seedy, low-rent apartment buildings and storefronts with expensive townhouses and suburban-style shopping centers. The encircling black ghetto was kept at bay. Hyde Park remained a middle and upper-class preserve, and Grey Line busses began bringing tourists down to see Chicago’s only stable, successfully integrated neighborhood.
Fear of crime is pervasive everywhere, although police department statistics show that Hyde Park is relatively safe. The University maintains one of the largest private police forces in the U.S. and white “security telephones” are located every few blocks, but the streets are still deserted after dark. [Except for films] other types of entertainment — live music, for instance — are seldom available, allegedly because the University discourages anything that might attract “outside elements” into the neighborhood. So Hyde Parkers are forced to schlep up to the Loop or the North Side whenever they feel like having a good time, which makes owning a car almost a necessity.3
Hyde Park is now witnessing the most extensive redevelopment since the urban renewal projects of the 1960s. Three large projects — two of them truly massive — carried out by the university and Antheus Capital are now moving to re-write the history of our community. In two articles last year, the Chicago Tribune wrote of developers who envision that Hyde Park has the possibility of becoming a “world-class neighborhood.” The Harper Court project (at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue) and City Hyde Park (at Lake Park and Hyde Park Boulevard) project are signals of this move toward world-class existence.
A world-class neighborhood requires world-class people, and that entails a shift of population — what I call “bourgeoisification.” Gentrification refers to middle class people moving into a neighborhood that requires re-building to meet the needs and satisfy the life-styles of the new population. Bourgeoisification refers to the replacement of the working class population with a different social class all together, namely, with the middle and upper-middle classes. Following World War II, large sections of Hyde Park north of 55th Street were working class and lower-middle class. In fact, there were substantial working class sections that dated from the Columbian Exposition of 1893. There has been a concentrated effort to move out these lower socio-economic people since the urban renewal of 1960. I ran across many examples of this trend when I worked as a student with Alderman Leon Despres’s efforts to include low-cost housing in the urban renewal zones, and again in the years 1967-1976 when Neva and I lived in the working-class part of Hyde Park and took leadership roles in Philip Murray Elementary School. I served as president in the late 1960s of the first Parents Union in Chicago — a forerunner of the Local School Council movement. We worked to bring multi-cultural, urban-relevant programs and curricula into the school.
The Lutheran Church in Hyde Park
With some important exceptions, the Lutheran Church in Hyde Park has replicated a traditional response to society that was prominent in the nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the socialist revolutions, the Lutheran churches allied themselves with the established order rather than with radical movements whose goal was to change society and overturn that order. As a result, by opting for the bourgeoisie the church lost significant numbers of working class Christians. Lutherans retained their sense of responsibility for the welfare of society, however, in the formation of what is known as “inner mission.” In essence, this alliance turned churches away from efforts to change society and instead toward binding up the wounds of those who suffer from injustice or calamitous events. These inner mission activities of pastoral care, social work and acts of charity were and are very impressive — Lutheran Social Services of Illinois is an example. Alongside government social welfare measures, such agencies as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities supply a major portion of charitable outreach in the United States today.
Lutheranism is no stranger to Hyde Park. Although this reflection centers on the congregation Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park and Lutheran Campus Ministry, there are at least three other elements to the Lutheran presence in this neighborhood: the Lutheran School of Theology4, an Advocate medical clinic, and the Lutheran individuals who live in the area but are not related to Augustana. Until a few years ago, there was a fifth element: an apartment house for disabled adults managed by Lutheran Social Services.5
The congregation has been for the most part a beneficiary of Hyde Park, the seminary and the university: from the beginning, these institutions have attracted the people who constitute Augustana Lutheran Church. The congregation began as a mission of Salem Lutheran Church (then located at 28th Street and Princeton Avenue): among its first members were the Swedish maids and housekeepers who worked in the homes of wealthy Hyde Parkers and residents of Kenwood (including, we should remember, the owners and managers of such companies as Sears and Armour meat packing). Augustana was located on an out-of-the-way street corner, where it also provided housing for the domestic workers. But in the mid-1960s, the university, socio-political forces, and demographic transitions entered the congregation’s life in the form of the urban renewal program. Augustana’s quiet corner was deemed more suitable for park land (tennis courts, to be precise), and the congregation agreed to swap its land for a choice piece on 55th Street, on the edge of the university campus. By strange coincidence, the church burned down while this move was being negotiated.
At some point after its founding in 1903, the membership of the congregation migrated upwards in terms of economic and social class from the working class Swedes to the very middle class members of the community. True to its Lutheran heritage, Augustana has devoted itself to spiritual, educational, and pastoral ministry to the people who were brought to its doors by larger social and demographic forces. That it has flourished for several decades — and continues to — is testimony that it has stuck to its last to provide enriching ministry.
You might say that Augustana has fulfilled its calling as a Good Citizen in its neighborhood. Part of this calling has been to bind up the wounds of those who have suffered the slings and arrows of life. This happens through contributions to LSSI, membership in the Hyde Park Kenwood Interfaith Council — particularly in its program to provide transitional housing to immigrants and others — and by participating in The Night Ministry’s programs of feeding the hungry, as well as in local literacy programs. Individual members are personally active in other charitable efforts. Relatively little of this work targets the Hyde Park community itself: it works mainly on the periphery of that community and in other parts of the city and state.
Does the Good Citizen try to change its society and the structures that wound?
Does the Good Citizen try to change its society and the structures that wound? Augustana’s most vigorous action aimed at societal change is its outreach to the LGBT community and in its years-long membership in the community organization SOUL (Southsiders United for Unity and Liberation), which in turn allies itself with the Alinsky-type organization IIRON. The congregation welcomed gays and lesbians into membership and leadership in 1992 — seventeen years before the ELCA voted in 2009 to ordain gays and lesbians — and more recently it has joined in the push for marriage equality in the Illinois legislature. With SOUL, clergy and members have protested unfair banking practices and worked for justice on other socio-economic issues.
The salient point, as I see it, is that little or none of this activity (beyond being a welcoming community) takes place in the immediate Hyde Park neighborhood. This raises the central question: In a community such as Hyde Park, does the church have no other possibility than to be the Good Citizen, a chaplain, so to speak, to those who live in the company town? Particularly when the company is so deeply embedded in the fabric of the congregation?
The Church as Good Citizen
What are the issues for the Good Citizen in Hyde Park today? It’s not a question whether the “new” Hyde Park will be populated by happy people. The shifts in population will complete the process of bringing to the area people who want to live in this kind of neighborhood. Nor is it the question whether benefits will accrue from the formation of the New Hyde Park. There is a nice dovetailing of the businesses that are being encouraged and the people who will be the residents. For example, in June a student-friendly restaurant relocated from a residential part of the neighborhood to a much larger location across the street from the university campus. The owner tells me that this relocation would never have happened without the support — financial and otherwise — of the university. Swanky stores and restaurants are being located near the new Hyatt hotel on 53rd Street. The South East Chicago Commission (which was established in the 1960s as the university’s community development arm; its first director was the brother of the president of the university) is a conduit for assistance and advice to businesses in Hyde Park. Overall, in the words of a local businessman, Hyde Park “will become more generic as time goes on with more generic chain stores.”
Is the history of a community a moral or religious concern, since the citizens of the community are overwhelmingly those who have benefited from that history while those who were displaced are no longer a present reality?
I see several issues facing the Good Citizen. First, the New Hyde Park is made possible only by a massive population displacement that is also a social class displacement from working-class to middle and upper-middle class. This raises the difficult question of whether the history of a community is a moral or religious concern–recognizing that the citizens of a community are overwhelmingly those who have benefited from its history, while those who were displaced are no longer a present reality. Are we responsible in any way for the policies that have made our happy state possible while those policies have displaced a large group of people to make room for us?
The second issue is whether there is any moral significance to the existence of a company town, particularly when the company is both despotic and beneficent. As a member of the seminary community, I am well aware of the great debt that we owe the University of Chicago. It has made our very existence possible. My work in the religion and science field would have been impossible without the resources of the university. Members of the university community have been generous with their time and effort, and their presence has attracted visiting scholars to LSTC from all over the world. My own studies at the University of Chicago have shaped my life in fundamental ways, instilling in me a critical method of thinking that lies at the heart of the critique in this article.
Thirdly, we must ask: What’s wrong with the church filling the role of chaplain to a community? I live in a retirement community, and I know first-hand how important the chaplain is and how I benefit from his ministry. Neva and I have been members of Augustana for 40 years, richly nourished by the ministry, the friendships, and the sacramental life. Life in this company town could become a horror if there were no chaplains in our midst.
Finally, there is the question of values. With its distinguished history of commitment to reflecting on the values that make life worthwhile, the University of Chicago is a bastion of the highest humanistic ideals. The values that we hear supporting the new order in Hyde Park, however, are almost exclusively economic. The developers, the university statements, and letters of support that appear in the local newspaper are all focused on business development, better shopping opportunities and attracting people with upscale tastes. We hear little or nothing about the New Hyde Park being a better or more humane community.
But there are new movements at hand, some of them directly involving the company that runs this company town. A student group is asking for support in their investigation of racial profiling by the university’s police department; a disability task force recently surveyed ADA compliance in the community, discovering some items for concern; the Hyde Park Kenwood Interfaith Council obtained a meeting with the management of the new Hyatt hotel for assurances that employees would receive fair wages and work rules; there is a McDonald’s, whose workers are striking for decent wages; university hospital workers have protested unfair wages and work rules for years; petitions have circulated protesting the university’s decision to dismantle its level one adult trauma center, leaving the south side with no such center (footnote: all of the Advocate hospitals in the Chicago area have level one trauma centers). Interestingly, the Hyde Park Kenwood Interfaith Council is the most prominent social justice group in the neighborhood.
As I said at the outset, there is a rich story involved with the Lutheran Church in Hyde Park. Whether an agenda emerges from this story, I leave for others to decide. My only authority for telling and interpreting the story is the fact that it has been my story for more than 50 years. The church has been present in Hyde Park all those years, witnessing to God’s love in Jesus Christ. The future of that witness and the shape of its presence form the challenge for the next half century.
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- ^The Architecture News, “Breaking Ground,” August 10, 2011, http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=5582.
- ^In their youthful days, in the 1950s, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Shelley Berman performed at the Compass Bar, located where the fire house is now. The Compass Players were a forerunner of Second City.
- ^The Lutheran School of Theology falls outside the purview of this analysis because it is not really a Hyde Park institution. The seminary designs its programs to serve the larger national and international church. Only a cadre of its staff resides permanently in Hyde Park.
- ^This building stood at 55th Street and Cornell Avenue.