Goodnight and goodluck

A history of Hyde Park nightlife.

By Camille van Horne

Courtesy of Alex Gleckman

GREY CITY

  /  

November 29, 2011

The year is 1949, and the midnight walk down 55th Street is filled with bright light spilling from bar after bar, all busy with the regular weekend hustle and bustle. Students looking for nighttime entertainment can choose from over 30 Hyde Park establishments, from Woodlawn Tap to the 1750 Club. Fast forward sixty-two years and only a handful remain.

“There were 35 liquor licenses from Cottage Grove to Lake Park,” according to Woodlawn Tap owner Bill Callahan. “The 1940s and ’50s was when Hyde Park was happening.”

The “Fight against Blight,” a nickname for the infamous urban renewal program initiated by the University in the late ’50s, would change Hyde Park’s vibrant cityscape forever.

“The University wanted to maintain property values and a friendly campus environment,” according to Urban Affairs and Planning specialist Derek Hyra (M.A. ’00, Ph. D. ’05).

The University’s plan of urban renewal is largely considered one of the first major gentrification projects in the nation. Residential buildings were favored over storefronts on 55th Street—Hyde Park’s main drag—for fear that they would attract unwanted sorts from neighboring areas. “The University was surrounded by low-income neighborhoods and there was a fear of attracting crime,” Hyra said.

With partiers ranging from thousands of servicemen fresh out of World War II to businessmen en route to Midway airport, the strip of bars along 55th Street was more than just a Hyde Park attraction—it was a Chicago staple. In the Chicago Tribune’s obituary for Woodlawn Tap founder Jimmy Wilson, the strip is described as a place “where Nobel Prize-winners rubbed shoulders with workaday South Siders, where beat poets shared the mahogany with beat cops.”

Those bars that weathered urban renewal and its lasting influence on the neighborhood’s cityscape serve as witnesses to the rise and fall of Hyde Park nightlife.

Walk into Woodlawn Tap (commonly referred to simply as Jimmy’s) on a Thursday night and you’ll still see the glimmer of something like a vibrant night in Hyde Park. The scene is alive with students, scholars, and South Siders sharing pitchers and their thoughts on everything from Occupy Chicago to the pros and cons of ordering another grilled cheese. Push through the crowd at the front of the bar and go around a dark corner to see pinball machines and picnic tables packed with even more people. The bar glimmers with a selection of 10 beers on tap, but Budweiser is forbidden—the result of a feud against the brand led by Jimmy Wilson, who opened the tavern in 1948 and operated it until his death in 1999.

Jimmy’s has historically brought together a diverse clientele, many of whom would later become some of Hyde Park’s most notable residents. Saul Bellow and Dylan Thomas are rumored to have raised their glasses there. The Compass Players, a comedy ensemble largely comprised of U of C dropouts, performed at Jimmy’s from ’55 to ’58, before a number of the members went on to form the improv group Second City.

The Cove Lounge, located on 55th and Everett, is on the farther end of the 55th Street drag. A ’30s-style cherrywood bar and nautical theme invite a host of characters ranging from your middle-aged man in a red Adidas jumpsuit to worn-out University workers drinking the day’s long-awaited beer.

Kurt Vonnegut (A.M. ’71)was a regular back in the day when there was a piano and the place was called the 1750 Club. Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck would have a few beers and then head to the Point nearby, where he would take off his wooden leg and jump into the lake.

“This place keeps me alive,” says 90-year-old bartender Daiske Myagawa, who goes by Dyke.

Dyke is a fixture of Hyde Park nightlife, having worked at the Hideaway bar (now Kikuya Sushi) and the Falcon Inn before taking a turn as bartender for the Cove in 1997 on Monday and Wednesday nights.

In all his years, Dyke has seen, firsthand, the changes Hyde Park nightlife has undergone, along with its impact on students. For example, one of the biggest challenges in his career came from an influx of fake IDs from first-year students living in the Shoreland dormitory—something he calls a completely “modern phenomenon.” When Dyke lived and worked in Hyde Park in the ’50s and ’70s, the drinking age for beer and wine was under 19 in Illinois; fake IDs had never been a concern. But now that the Shoreland is closed, there have been fewer underage students attempting to enter the Cove. In some sense, things have returned to their old ways.

Surprisingly enough, the bar with the widest beer selection and biggest draw for students nowadays is the Pub, a private bar owned by the University and located in the basement of Ida Noyes. Beginning as a collaborative effort 30 years ago between the University and the Medici restaurant, “the bar is a distinct part of U of C culture,” according to Jake Spicer (A.B. ’97), a business consultant for the Pub.

The Pub prides itself on its exclusivity. Only University employees, alumni, and students over 21 are eligible for membership. Nevertheless, students find it to be a reliable hangout. “The Pub is awesome because it is a profound place for seniors, especially on Mondays. It brings together a familiar, yet unfamiliar crowd,” fourth-year Omar Massoud said.

While the University does provide a little nighttime entertainment of its own, its involvement in urban renewal is indisputably the leading cause of the lack of options for the Hyde Park community as a whole.

“Urban renewal eliminated the bars,” Callahan said. “Sheer luck led [Woodlawn Tap] to survive.”

Callahan believes that beneath urban renewal’s stated goal of creating a family-oriented Hyde Park was the subtext that “vibrancy was a bad thing.”

In Making the Second Ghetto, which focuses on the long-term consequences of urban renewal, author Arnold R. Hirsch makes an even bolder claim. He draws a deep connection between race and blight in the decision process made by former U of C president and chancellor Lawrence Kimpton. “Publicly, Chancellor Kimpton denied that community deterioration was a ‘racial problem.’ Privately, the goals he stressed for the renewal of Hyde Park were clearly racial in nature,” Hirsch writes. Urban renewal was a means to protect property value at the detriment of surrounding populations, in addition to creating barriers to entry for these populations.

However, according to manager of the Cove Todd Sleeper, who has lived in Hyde Park since he was a boy, the change was welcomed. “There was a swing in the neighborhood and people wanted a more residential area,” he said.

Hyde Park’s wild nights are still present in the minds of alums and older residents. Long-time resident Roger Deschner (A.B. ’77) describes the neighborhood’s nightlife as recently having gone “from bad to worse.” In Deschner’s time, “there used to be a rooftop bar on Del Prado and on the Hyde Park Bank with great views of Chicago.”

The Beehive on 55th was a great place for jazz, and, when the Cove and Jimmy’s were closed, the House of Tiki on 53rd Street was always the last stop. “At that point, we knew that we had had far too much to drink,” Deschner said.

Opened in 1962, right in the midst of urban renewal, the House of Tiki pays testament both to the ever-present need for bars in Hyde Park as well as to the struggles bars and lounges faced after Urban Renewal. The Tiki was decorated with beaded curtains and blowfish lights—fake “Polynesian” relics of the 1940s—and prided itself on its “Zombie,” a drink comprised of seven different shots, complete with an umbrella. The Tiki was one of the few 4 a.m. bars of Hyde Park and Jimmy Wilson was rumored to head over to the Tiki for a Budweiser after hours. It was also featured in Gene Hackman’s The Package.

“The Tiki was fabulous; it was just so tacky,” Deschner said.

Although the Tiki survived urban renewal, it closed in 2000, when owners Ted and Bea Ciral sold their bar to make way for another business which never came to fruition.

Those days are all but memories now. “I cannot imagine a fun place to dance in Hyde Park,” fourth-year Sarah Mendelsohn said. Massoud usually heads downtown when he is looking for “an actual bar.”

But with the recent influx of development by the University, many see a bright future for Hyde Park nightlife. Massoud believes that the University-led development of Harper Court may make a difference. “With Hyde Park businesses becoming more mainstream, it is only a matter of time before someone realizes there is a dearth of nightlife options in Hyde Park.”