Harper Court

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Hyde Park's Harper Court in the 1960s:
The Cure for the Ills of Urban Renewal?

Just off of Harper Avenue, half a block behind a thoroughfare (major on the scale of its environs), on the eastern edge of the center of Hyde Park lounges Harper Court. An ordinary enough triad of buildings shading a sunken courtyard, this unassuming complex embodies a very intentional legacy. This little buildings' burden, to respond to the casualties of urban renewal, was placed upon it just over 40 years ago. Since then, Harper Court has sheltered the non-famous of Hyde Park along side the famed of the area. This set of buildings stands in stark contrast with some of its more antiquated neighbors despite an attempt by designers to mimic the re-appropriation of the old Victorian brownstones of Chicago. It also, however, recognizes the way of the commercial future as a consolidated shopping area similar to two others that had already sprung up in Hyde Park just down the road at 53rd and Greenwood and four blocks away at Lake Park and 53rd.

The 1954 Federal Housing Act amended the 1949 Housing Act and provided funding to cities which were attempting to prevent blight and to initiate proactive 'renewal' projects in addition to simply demolishing slums and turning land over to private developers. This second act provided a significant amount of funding to Chicago, and Hyde Park turned out to be one of the country's most active participants. During the 10 year span of the project more than 850 buildings in Hyde Park-Kenwood alone were demolished. While some of these buildings were replaced, part of the intention of the urban renewal project was to thin out concentrated and perceivably over-congested areas. For that reason, much of the cleared land remained empty or was turned into recreational space. By 1962 so many buildings had been taken down or were slated for demolition that the neighborhood's community action group, Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference became very concerned about the fate of many of Hyde Park's favorite small businesses, including artisans, craftspeople and independent merchandisers. These various small, arts, craft and trade oriented businesses had been extracted from their stores which were very often in older buildings that elicited the lowest rent in town. This included the first art colony in Hyde Park, which had been housed in buildings originally constructed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The new shopping centers being erected in Hyde Park in an effort to consolidate business away from residences promised upscale settings, parking and new buildings at prohibitively high rent (as far as these small, independent businesses were concerned.)

Members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference approached Muriel Beadle, wife of then University of Chicago President George W. Beadle, with a plan to provide space for these small arts and trade oriented businesses at rent comparable to that being charged in the no longer extant store fronts. The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference hoped that this new space would enable almost twenty of Hyde Park's most beloved small businesses - businesses that they felt gave Hyde Park its unique character - to stay in Hyde Park despite urban renewal-centered destruction of their stores. Mrs. Beadle quite readily agreed to chair the committee for the erection of a low-rent, arts related shopping center that would cater to small businesses. In 1963 the Harper Court Foundation incorporated as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to "study[ing] means to prevent or alleviate the effect of urban renewal projects in eliminating the low-rental diversified properties which are necessary for the continuation of small businesses of special cultural or community significance, including the development of a project to accomplish said purposes." (Beadle, 135)

The Hyde Park Foundation was committed to providing low-rent store space to the low income businesses and craftspeople in Hyde Park, despite the fact that would mean building a new structure. In order to do so, the Foundation planned to secure readily available land, raise funds for the initial payment, borrow the rest on a long-term mortgage and impose a sliding rent scale for various tenants. The Foundation would make no money on the property and claimed that they intended this to be a true community endeavor. The right land was already available as it had been cleared during urban renewal for the new Police Station and Chicago Fire Station and a church parking lot but was not being used (or going to be used) by any of those entities. The Harper Court Foundation was the only bidder on the property due to the wording of the call for bids which was spun by a "friendly city council" (Beadle, 213) in favor of Harper Court. The fundraising efforts went better than planned and in fact so many community members purchased slow debentures that the Foundation was able to return more than $8000 to the University who had pledged to purchase $35,000 worth of debentures for the project. The community was also involved in rather extensive polling about which specific businesses and what types of businesses the neighbors wanted in this shopping center.

The Harper Court Foundation took advantage of a Federal Small Business Association loan and worked with the agency to convince them to allow funding to go to a center dedicated to the small business, instead of the small business owner directly. Without the loan, Harper Court may not have been financially sound. The SBA was also involved in loans to individual business owners within Harper Court. The Foundation finally had success working with the Chicago Urban Renewal office that had to approve the alternate use of the land they had labeled for another purpose and for shifting two small plots of land connected to the Harper Court plot. Mrs. Beadle says: "Thus the cooperation of the residents of a neighborhood, the city administration and its urban renewal agency, as well as two federal agencies, the Urban Renewal Administration and the Small Business Administration, have helped to create a physical development in which goods and services are not standardized but instead reflect the special character and aspirations of the renewed community." (Harper Court Foundation form letter in Hyde Park Historical Society
Papers, 7)

The process of fundraising for Harper Court took most of a year and construction of the buildings began in December of 1964. Keeping displaced businesses, Hyde Park history and local character in Hyde Park became a possibility later than anticipated. The building took in tenants between September of 1965 and March of 1966 and Harper Court, dubbed "a new center for the useful arts," was begun. The Hyde Park-Kenwood community demonstrated a spirit of salvaging some of the past before it was torn down, by creating a pictorial record of all buildings slated to be razed. These words and photos were collected into a small book called Segments of the Past. In that spirit Harper Court Foundation had the pathways around Harper Court paved with bricks from old buildings of Hyde Park (Business Week, 34). There were some hiccups with tenants and businesses in 1967 but the Harper Court Foundation claims that by 1968 Harper Court was stabilized and productive. In 1968, Harper Court's management was turned over to two "Hyde Park housewives" (Beadle, 360) who could devote all their time to the tenants and customers of Harper Court.
1968, the year of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violent riots involving the public, the police and bystanders and protests against American involvement in Vietnam, was a year in which the political atmosphere was surely affected by the results of urban renewal of the past ten years which may very well have contributed to the public distrust of the state. It seems as though Harper Court stood little chance to alleviate any of the pain experienced in the tension between the public and the state. Yet it seems that this attempt which was simultaneously official and of the public to "save the useful arts in Hyde Park" did manage to take some of the edge off of the mourning over the loss of buildings, character and business because of urban renewal in Hyde Park-Kenwood.

In the years immediately surrounding the opening of Harper Court, the Foundation and Harper Court itself succeeded to varying degree. The ability to return pledged contributions to the University of Chicago marked a distinct community (writ large) commitment to the success of this endeavor. The fact that many of the stores in Harper Court were rented before the launch party indicated that there were indeed useful arts anxious to participate in this kind of project. Though they were warned to expect a slow return on their monetary investment (told to consider it an "investment in their town",) the community members who bought debentures to fund the building had a financial return within one year of the opening of Harper Court. Harper Court Foundation was also able to cheer the fact that the 28 businesses that did move into Harper Court in the late 60s represented all the types of arts and skills that they had hoped including pottery, instrument repair, lamp making: the practical arts. In the late 60s and early 70s Harper Court served as home to several Hyde Park arts and culture institutions, including the locally beloved Hyde Park Art Center (Shaw) and the nationally renowned AfriCobra (Frye, 69).

Harper Court had its share of misses, as well. At least one nearby business was forced out of its store because of this building according to the story longtime Hyde Park tailor told the Chicago Tribune. He had been offered a spot in Harper Court but decided to stay in his comfortable store just across the street. When Harper Court started to succeed, his landlord (not connected to Harper Court) decided he could charge higher rent for a chain ice cream store and made the tailor leave. The very type of business that Harper Court Foundation intended to assist was being evicted because Harper Court was working. The most noticeable problem (noticeable to the Foundation and to those interested in its progress) is that only three of the business owners who were displaced by urban renewal could hold out long enough to take advantage of the low rent in Harper Court (Beadle, 231.) The others had left the immediate neighborhood or gone out of business all together.

These successes and failures, and the uniqueness of the endeavor, drew the attention of major local and national reports including The Chicago Tribune, Business Week and even the Wall Street Journal. These sources point to the originality of the plan and the pluck of the band of citizens who wanted to make things right in their own neighborhood. They also reported on the problems, including the casualty of the local tailor.

Beadle, Muriel. Where Has All the Ivy Gone?: A Memoir of University Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1972.
Frye, Daniel Joe. "AFRICOBRA: A Descriptive Study of a Nationalistic African American Artist Collective." Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1991.
Hyde Park - Kenwood Community Conference in Cooperation with the Department of Urban Renewal City of Chicago. Segments of
the Past: A Permanent Record of the Architecturally and Historically Interesting Buildings Being Demolished in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Program, 1962.
Shaw, Goldene, ed. History of the Hyde Park Art Center, 1939-1976. Chicago: Hyde Park Art Center, 1976.
"Small shops get their own renewal: Chicago urban renewal project houses 29 in special center, claims a first in U.S." Business
Week, 29 January 1966.
Various documents from the Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library including: archives of President Beadle papers,
President Levi papers, and Hyde Park Historical Society papers.
Video of the oral history of members of AFRICOBRA at South Side Community Arts Center

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