"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hyde Park Re-Visited

The Breakdown

The Hyde Park skyline just outside the entrance to Promontory Point
An overview: We've been here before, and it was time to come back.  Limited by time and wet weather, we felt that Hyde Park definitely deserved more time.  It's truly a great Chicago neighborhood.  Although best know for the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, Hyde Park is a cultural powerhouse.  In order to attract more residents and consumers, the University of Chicago is planning to redevelop much of the land it owns throughout the neighborhood, with plans for stores, residences, and hotels.

Hyde Park is proof that a diverse neighborhood can and does work, with no racial demographic making up the majority.  Although it is surrounded by some of the city's poorer and more crime-ridden neighborhoods, Hyde Park remains safe and alive.  Although high-end dining and nightlife exists here, Hyde Park isn't to be confused with Lake View or Lincoln Park.  Hyde Park is much more relaxed, and the pace much slower.  What it lacks in energy, it makes up in serenity.  The streets are lined with trees, the views of the Lake are stunning, and much of the architecture rivals that of any other city area in terms of beauty and history.  Hyde Park may not make for your destination every Saturday night, but it should be a frequent destination for any Chicagoan who wants to experience the oft-forgotten splendor of the south side.

The boundaries: Hyde Park Boulevard/51st Street to the north, 60th Street to the south, Cottage Grove Avenue to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east.  Nice little quadrilateral there.

The historic Hyde Park Bank
Population make-up: Hyde Park lost over 4,200 residents from 2000 to 2010, dropping from 29,920 to  25,681.  As of the 2010 Census, whites made up 46.7% of the neighborhood's population, followed by blacks at 30.1%, Asians at 12.3%, and Hispanics at 6.3%.  However, since 2000, only the Hispanic population has actually grown within the community area.

A brief history: The development of Hyde Park began in the 1850s when New York lawyer Paul Cornell purchased 300 acres of land in what today makes up the northern half of the community area.  Rail connection to the Loop would help the area grow over the next three decades, and it was annexed into the City of Chicago in 1889.  Two revolutionary events would follow shortly thereafter.  In 1892, retail magnate Marshall Field would donate ten acres in Hyde Park to the University of Chicago, founded by the legendary oil man John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper.  The university remains to this day one of the premier institutions for higher learning on the planet, and a major economic driver for the neighborhood.

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 remains to this date one of the most impressive of all world's fairs and was held mostly within Hyde Park's present day boundaries.  Only one building still remains, utilized for the past 85 years as the Museum of Science and Industry.  The exposition would bring millions from around the world to Hyde Park, including the now-infamous Dr. H. H. Holmes.

Despite remaining an upscale Chicago neighborhood through the 1920s, the Great Depression combined with Post-World War II urban flight contributed to an increase in impoverished conditions in Hyde Park.  However, the late 1950s and 1960s saw Hyde Park pull off one the nation's more successful (and in some ways controversial) urban renewal efforts.

Awe-inspiring Gothic architecture at the University of Chicago
Today, Hyde Park is a relatively affluent and diverse neighborhood, split nearly 50-50 between black and white residents, but with an increase in Hispanic and Asian residents as well.  The community area is an absolute treasure trove of culture, maybe more so than any Chicago neighborhood outside of downtown.  The University of Chicago, which owns much of the property in Hyde Park even beyond the campus borders, is looking to turn the area into an even greater mecca of shopping, dining, and entertainment.  Although bordered by some of the city's more crime-plagued areas, Hyde Park remains a safe neighborhood, bolstered by University of Chicago having one of the world's largest private police forces. Hyde Park is an iconic Chicago neighborhood and its impact within the city seems to be on verge of only growing stronger within the next few decades.

Getting there: Unfortunately, the "L" is not a direct option.  It is possible to take the Green Line to its southeastern terminus as Cottage Grove/63rd and then walk/bus three blocks north up Cottage Grove Avenue, but this is ill-advised by some due to some problems around the station at night in the Woodlawn neighborhood.  A better rail option is the Metra Electric Line to/from Millenium Station at Millenium Park.  There are three Hyde Park stops at: 51st/53rd Street, 55th-56th-57th Street, and 59th Street/University of Chicago.

By bus, your best way to get down there is the Hyde Park Express (2) and the U of Chicago Hospitals Express (192), which run from downtown to Hyde Park in the mornings, and come back in the late afternoon/early evening.  Other north/south options include: Cottage Grove (4), Woodlawn (172), Lake Park (28), and Hyde Park Blvd (6 & x28).  East/west you're looking at: E Hyde Park (5), and 55th Street (55).  Bus routes 170 and 171 also traverse the neighborhood.

Park 52 (1172 E. 55th Street)

Valet parking if you please.
Park 52 seems to be a controversial addition to the Hyde Park dining scene.  Judging from on-line reviews, people seem to either love it or loathe it.  One thing is for sure, it is a massive space compared to the seeming trend of storefront restaurants that have popped in the city over the past ten years.  The atmosphere screams lounge with its lush red interior booths.  For south side dining it can get rather expensive, but the price for dining is a steal compared to the new dining additions in the West Loop.  Despite the polarizing viewpoints, we wanted to take a look for ourselves at this contemporary soul food dining establishment on a Saturday evening.

Laura's Take: On a scale of 1-10 for restaurants in its price range, I'd give Park 52 a 5. I had a decent time, and the food wasn't BAD. I probably should not have ordered what I did, which was a vegetable and pasta dish, because it wasn't much more exciting than it sounds. However, there was something left to be desired in the atmosphere too - it just had this abandoned, vintage but not in a good way vibe. I think it was also too light in there for my taste on a Saturday night. Our waitor was attentive but I had the feeling that he was going through the motions a bit without his heart in it. I think the restaurant was a great deal bigger than it should be; maybe its atmosphere and business would improve it if closed off some of the areas and turned down the lights. If I ever went back I would probably go for a drink at the bar, which seemed like a focal point.

Shrimp and grits in the foreground, stir fry in the back.
Michael's Take: I GREATLY enjoyed my experience at Park 52.  Much has been said about the poor service at this restaurant.  Admittedly, while there was activity on this Saturday evening, the restaurant was probably 25% full at best, but we were seated promptly, and our waiter provided us with attentive service and helpful suggestions.  For an appetizer, the fried calamari was a satisfying diversion from the usual.  Rather than greasy breading which falls apart when picked up, this calamari was chicken fried, forming a solid, flavorful crust that even the Colonel would be proud of.  Also, instead of marinara, we were greeted with a spicy chili sauce which was quite tasty.  For an entrĂ©e, I couldn't avoid the shrimp and grits.  Even though there were only five shrimp in the dish, it was presented beautifully.  And these weren't popcorn shrimp, these were meaty tiger prawns.  The grits (if you haven't had grits, they're like farina/cream of wheat/smooth corn-flavored oatmeal) were smooth, highlighted by a scosh of mozzarella cheese melted in.  A little bit of red pepper flake provided some warranted heat to the dish.  I've had many many wonderful restaurant experiences here in Chicago, but the service and food far exceeded my expectations, and I can only hope any negative on-line reviews of Park 52 were just the exception, because my perception was far in contrast to much of what I've read.

Anything Else We Missed: See, there IS some nightlife in Hyde Park!  In the evenings, after 9pm or so, the restaurant turns into a lounge where legendary Chicago jazz and blues can be experienced.  One thing worth mentioning, there is hardly any parking in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant, and the $8 valet parking is mighty tempting.  We were able to find parking about two blocks away on a side street.  So if you're driving down to Hyde Park, neighborhood parking is a legitimate option.

Park 52 you are VERY plush!

Woodlawn Tap (aka "Jimmy's") (1172 E. 55th Street)

Wait, is it closed?  No...it's AWESOME.
Again, ignore the "no nightlife" perception that many have of Hyde Park.  No, it's not Wrigleyville, but you can find it if you know where to go.  That place to go is Woodlawn Tap (known by the locals as "Jimmy's" as well.  Parking across 55th Street is easy, and even if you see nothing but darkness behind the sign, just move closer to the intersection of 55th and Woodlawn - you'll find the entryway.  This smaller establishment has been a neighborhood institution for over half a century, and if dropping into a bar is part of your Hyde Park itinerary, it's hard to pass up on Woodlawn Tap.

Laura's Take: We didn't get to go "out" in Hyde Park last trip, but Woodlawn Tap was more what I expected and hoped for from Hyde Park's beverage scene. It had a very neighborhood, but urban, feel to it, with a good mix of people in there. It ranged from an older couple using sign language in the corner, to one pristine set of dreads at the bar. There are some unique-type beers on tap, which you will undoubtedly enjoy. The digs are a bit worn, but you gotta like that about places like this. The jazz music on the stereo somehow brought it all together. I'll definitely go back, even if it weren't one of the few bars I could find in Hyde Park.

All the usual suspects in this line-up.
Michael's Take: Woodlawn Tap is just a great place for a relaxing bev and some nice conversation.  It doesn't look like much on the outside, but.......well it doesn't look like much on the inside either.  The aged wooden interior and unremarkable exterior (is this place even open?  I mean, it's 6:00pm on a Saturday night) may make it seem like just another dive.  But inside the modest digs is a great beer selection including several local brews, some notably from the Argus Brewery in the Roseland neighborhood.  The crowd is a diverse mix of ages and ethnicities.  Service is friendly and helpful.

Anything Else We Missed: Food.  You can get burgers, brats, sandwiches, and a plentiful helping of fries.  Make sure you clarify the item and price with the bartender.  Sometimes they have the same item listed twice for two different prices.  Either way, even the higher price is still pretty inexpensive for Chicago standards.

Piccolo Mondo (1642 E. 56th Street)

That little kid is gonna be PUMPED
with what Mom got for carry-out.
Piccolo Mondo ("Little World" in Italian) may seem to have an identity crisis.  First of all it's an Italian restaurant, but it's also a Spanish tapas restaurant.  Oh, and it also has a deli in front of it.  Not only that, but it's entryway on the first floor of a dense apartment building is so nondescript that you could easily drive right by it unless you knew it was there.  But once you sit down, it's easy to appreciate a relatively affordable take on white tablecloth dining, with a non-stuffy attitude.

Laura's Take: So, back to that weird, abandoned and old-ish feel that I got at Park 52. Same thing here! Maybe it was the age of the building or the fact that I had to walk into a new building with a key to use the dated restroom. But the food was a little 70's looking as well. Everything tasted pretty good, though. I had a cheese-filled gnocchi with capers and olives. Come here if you want some Italian and/or Spanish options for food with a classic-style Italian atmosphere.

Michael's Take: I really enjoyed my spaghetti with calamari.  Calamari, whether fried or grilled, can very easily become tough and overly chewy.  In my dish, it was sauteed to be soft and tender, pleasant and enjoyable.  Also, there were enough pieces to complement the helping of spaghetti, so that the pasta didn't overwhelm the seafood and vice-versa.  The white wine garlic sauce may not have been startlingly original, but it was light enough that the meal wasn't sitting it it, and the dish had enough sauce to provide just enough flavor.

Anything Else We Missed: Piccolo Mondo is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012.  Perhaps one reason for its longevity is that it appeals to the diverse neighborhood that is Hyde Park.  While we were there in the mid-afternoon, about half the tables were full with groups as small as two and large as ten.  People of different ages and ethnicities were mingling, and enjoying a pleasant view of the Museum of Science and Industry across the street.  In addition, the restaurant features live music on Wednesdays.
Fancy, but affordable.  What else would you expect from your favorite ristorante/tapas joint/deli?

Promontory Point 

(55th Street & Lake Michigan)

The pathway leads to Promontory Point's field house

OK, so when we first visited Hyde Park on New Year's Eve of 2010, we got called out by a reader for not visiting "The Point".  Fair enough, we appreciate suggestions and constructive criticism.  Since this time we had decent weather, we made our way over to one of the most beautiful places to view Chicago's magnificient skyline.  There's not much to say other than you just need to experience it yourself.  First opened to the public in 1937, Promontory Point juts out of Hyde Park at about 55th Street and can be accessed by a passageway beneath Lake Shore Drive.  A running/biking path encircles the park and connects to the Lakefront Trail.  There's also a charming field house that understandably hosts many a wedding.  But the highlight of this wonderful bit of serenity is the view of downtown.  

Sadly, even one of the most beloved parks in the city isn't without controversy.  A 2001 plan by the City of Chicago proposed significant changes to this man-made peninsula in order to better preserve it, most notably by replacing the limestone steps with concrete and steel.  This was met with much disappointment from residents, and (to my understanding) the issue has not been quite resolved over a decade later.  Regardless of what happens, "The Point" is a standout in a park system full of gems.  If touring Hyde Park on a pleasant day, its well worth spending some time here.

Downtown Chicago from "The Point"

Hyde Park: The Final Tally

View of the Museum of Science & Industry from 56th Street
Perhaps one of the allures of Hyde Park is that its a safe neighborhood in what's considered to be a 

dangerous part of town.  Another draw is the great cultural amenities and legendary gothic architecture of the University of Chicago.  But what seems to make Hyde Park really special is it embodies in one location what draws people to cities as a whole.  It's that perfect combination of urban and natural.  In one neighborhood you have one of the nation's premier institutions of higher learning and arguably the best museum in the world of its kind in the Museum of Science & Industry.  However, you also have one of the city's most beloved parks along the city's most important resource (talking about the Lake...not Oprah).  While the odd numbered east-west streets are lined with shops and restaurants, t

he residential streets are lined with foliage.  For those who base their perception of Chicago on downtown, and for those who base their perception of the City on the north side, do yourself a favor and just spend a day down in Hyde Park.  There's more than enough to do to take up your day, and more than enough to have wanting to come experience it again.

Hyde Park outlined in red and the University of Chicago campus in pink.
Also shown on the map are the places we went in our first visit.

Chicken fried calamari at Park 52
The homey interior of Woodlawn Tap

Inside the Rockefeller Chapel on the
campus of the University of Chicago
The now-famous "lightsabers" that line the bridges
across the Midway Plaisance

Hyde Park and the University of Chicago are a quick Metra ride or shot up Lake Shore Drive from the Loop (blue).

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