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September 19, 2010

Town vs. Gown

Ann Marie Lipinski, vice president for Civic Engagement, came to campus in 2008 with a broad but uncertain mandate. Her mission, as outlined in her conversations with University President Robert Zimmer, was to do what once might have seemed oxymoronic: Make the University of Chicago into the new model for how an urban research institution should interact with its community.

While the University has always dreamed big, the setting makes this new ambition different. How could the University of Chicago, the institution that sided with the tenant organizations of A Raisin in the Sun in supporting racially restrictive housing covenants, that bulldozed half of Hyde Park and a mile-long stretch of Woodlawn, become a model for civic engagement?

In Lipinski’s view, there are two conflicting legacies the University must build upon: The grand, outward-looking ambitions of its founding and the dark, insular legacy of urban renewal. The University can’t go forward without recognizing the lingering distrust of many in the community, nor can it revert back to its founding narrative, which emerged at a time when the Cubs were still the National League’s dominant franchise.

“Both of those histories are real,” Lipinski says. “I had been here about a month when I had a conversation with somebody who said to me, ‘What we all have an opportunity to do now is create a third and new narrative for the University,’ or a third chapter.”

That third chapter has involved significant steps to bring more retail to Hyde Park, a neighborhood known for its dearth of shops. In 2008, the University negotiated the opening of Treasure Island, a grocery chain, in place of the Hyde Park Co-op, a struggling grocer the University encouraged to close. The U of C has also begun the demolition of Harper Court, a local shopping center the University plans to rebuild and greatly expand.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of critics who claimed the University was moving too far, too fast, including the Hyde Park Herald, a local weekly.

“We understand the ‘town and gown’ difficulties and we know it is not easy to be the 800-pound gorilla, but there is an old history of cooperation and perhaps, we thought, it could be established again,” the paper wrote in one editorial. “What matters is the University’s apparent lack of interest in any meaningful, open communication.”

Lipinski said bad publicity should not detract from the larger progress being made. “You always worry about good and important work being overshadowed, including by [these] issues,” Lipinski said in an interview before demolition began at Harper Court. “I think that can be compounded by a lack of understanding—both within and outside of the University—of all the truly remarkable work going on.”

Just as significant as the perception that the University is disengaging on critical services are the suspicions that can swallow up goodwill. In 2008, when it was reported that the University had bought up property west of Washington Park, Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell raised a storm warning against University encroachment on the community. Lipinski insisted that the Washington Park investment was just that, an investment in the park, and not an act of land speculation ahead of the 2016 Olympics. At the time, Chicago was in consideration for the 2016 Games, and Washington Park was the planned site of the Olympic Stadium.

The park is “one of the great jewels of the park system,” Lipinski said, but is seen by many as a "boundary" rather than a "resource."

The question of what to do with existing real estate can spark dissatisfaction as well, as it did last fall when the University’s plan for a hotel at the site of the old Doctors Hospital on Stony Island Avenue was defeated by a referendum that banned alcohol sales in the precinct, making a hotel economically non-viable. Lipinski emphasized the need for communication on questions of retail and other development projects, pointing to the recent 53rd Street redevelopment and Harper Court process as indicative of an approach that constructively incorporates all viewpoints.

But openness and receptiveness don't fix all problems in everyone's eyes.

“Often in the corporate world, when management wants to do something that wouldn’t be good for [the rest of the company], they say ‘Oh, we just need to communicate about it,’” said James Withrow, a former chairman of the Hyde Park Co-Op's board, who blogs about the neighborhood at Hyde Park Urbanist. “Sometimes the policy just isn’t very good.”

David Hoyt, who contributes to the blog Hyde Park Progress under the name “Chicago Pop,” suggested that the administration and the community are both still stuck in a “grudge match” mentality over urban renewal.

“Its reflex response to many issues is to just kind of hunker down and get in a bunker,” Hoyt said of the University. “I think there’s a lingering legacy that results in the University not wanting to take [its] case out to [its] neighbors and lay it out there.”

As the University continues to plan developments south of the Midway, along Stony Island Avenue, and north of 53rd Street, the ghosts of community relations past will undoubtedly linger. How Lipinski, and the University as a whole, handle the practical challenges—as well as the continued growth of research-driven reform—will determine whether the new model creates a narrative worthy of the U of C’s big plans.

“I feel like there is an opportunity for this institution to continue to do a lot of what it is doing and step up in other ways, in manifest ways, and abehave as Chicago’s leading citizen,” Lipinski said.

(Excerpt from the Spring 2009 Grey City Journal, the Maroon’s quarterly magazine)

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