July 14, 2004
Hyde Park ... Entrepreneurial Wasteland
Posted by Gordon Smith

Jacob Levy resolves the mystery that has been occupying Will Baude and Phoebe Maltz: why doesn't Hyde Park have any decent shopping? As a University of Chicago alum, I hold this topic close to my heart, and the answer turns out to be the obvious one: zoning.

Chicago is, generally, zoned so as to make commercial development extremely difficult--and institutionally arranged so that an individual Alderman (one's local city councillor) exercises tremendous discretionary power over zoning waivers. Vulgar public choice theory is overrated by many libertarians; but the rent-seeking dynamic doesn't get much more vulgar than the Chicago zoning code. The system is not designed to allow commercial (or residential) supply to spring up to meet demand. It's designed to allow elected and unelected officials to control their neighborhoods, for political or economic gain. There's clearly market demand for more commerce in Hyde Park-- and for commerce closer to campus than 53rd Street or Lake Park Avenue. But commerce can't get in the door. The landmark off-campus bar, Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, was closed for a year and a half when Jimmy died and left the place to his bartender, because it was now under new owenrship and had to re-apply for lots of licenses to continue doing what it had always done in exactly the same space. Bar Louie was delayed for who knows how long. Borders had to struggle for a good long while to get permission to open.

Levy goes on to tell a fascinating story of urban planning gone awry, including some details that I knew and many others that I didn't. Ultimately -- you knew it was coming -- the whole tale is intertwined with Chicago's sordid history of race management:

Neighborhoods that the city wanted to "protect" as white (or, in the case of Hyde Park/Kenwood, white and upper-class black) got surrounded with barriers (Interstate 90/94, the UIC campus, Washington Park) that made pedestrian traffic into them from surrounding neighborhoods as difficult as possible. Commercial barrenness and pedestrian inaccessibility were inescapable results, indeed were part of the point. When, inevitably, the strategy failed, Hyde Park was left as a pretty dysfunctional neighborhood.

That certainly jibes with my observations of Hyde Park. I loved my time at the law school, but Chicago is a city where history's girth is smothering.

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