Where is the shopping in our neighborhood?

and Phoebe
(multiple posts each; follow the links) have an exchange going
on a topic Dan
also recently mentioned: the stunning lack of commerce in Hyde Park, Chicago. The neighborhood has neither the amenities of a real college town nor those of a collegiate neighborhood in a big city (Phoebe compares it unfavorably with Morningside Heights, about which she is surely correct). The old joke goes that you can buy anything in the world you want to in Hyde Park, as long as it’s a book. Two of the country’s great bookstores are here, plus a very good used/ rare book shop, a very nice Borders, and a mediocre little Barnes & Noble. But (as Phoebe and Will point out) there’s nary a Gap in sight. No Banana Republic. No Indian food, no sushi, no Bed & Bath, no Whole Foods or Trader Joes, only one allegedly first-rate restauarant (though it isn’t) where outside speakers or job candidates can be brough without embarrassment, very few low-price studenty restaurants or bars. No comic book stores or gaming stores. No poster stores or boutiques selling precious little $200 Guatemalan peasant skirts. No Birkenstock dealer. And so on, and so on. The area around the U of C looks nothing like the area around any other American residential college or university I know of.
Says Phoebe:

Many Chicago students have a sort of shopping phobia, assuming that proximity to a source of, say, new tee shirts would cause the University to lose its intellectual edge.[…]If a GAP were to open on 55th Street, goes the argument, people would forget about Hegel and Aristotle and spend weeks on end trying to decide which jeans best flatter their asses. This is absurd–as much as they hate to admit it, Chicago students, like mere mortals, buy new clothing and accessories from time to time. It would actually leave more time for important scholarly business if Chicago folk didn’t have to sneak up to Michigan Avenue every time they wanted to buy pants.

Will responds:

Hyde Park is devoid of Michigan Avenue’s shopping opportunities not because people are afraid the GAP would destroy the young American Mind, but because UChicago (largely, but not exclusively) caters to folks who don’t buy (or won’t admit to buying) new pants so frequently that they want their blue jeans within walking distance.

Honestly, what are they teaching in University of Chicago economics classes these days? I thought Chicago was supposed to produce libertarians who knew to look for government failure behind market strangeness.
In short: it’s the zoning. Want to know why there’s no Gap on 55th Street? Click through to the searchable map. Pan up and down 55th Street, the barren wasteland that bisects Hyde Park. Do you see how much of it is zoned for commercial or business use?

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.

As I understand things, the rest of the story has to do with the way the U of C is laid out, with the university’s history of entanglement with Daley-Sr.-era urban renewal and urban planning, and with contemporary neighborhood politics. The layout is a real but minor problem. For as small a student body as we have, the dorms are spread all over the place, some farther away than one wants to walk at night or in the winter. That diffuses the student demand that ordinarily gets concentrated in a few blocks surrounding campus. We also have a very small undergraduate population for a research university, especially an urban research university. (Columbia’s is huge by comparison, and of course NYU’s is huge by any measure.) And undergraduates tend to have access to more discretionary income than do the doctoral students who make up such a large share of Chicago’s student body. So demand is weakened that much further.

Much, much more important is the University/city alliance on urban planning some decades ago– an alliance that, like everything else to do with Daley-era zoning and urban planning, was about race. Hyde Park was once one of the nation’s great centers of jazz and blues. But that was a long, long time ago. The University and the city shut the clubs down; they attracted the wrong element into the neighborhood, donchaknow. Not coincidentally, the clubs were on 55th Street. Jane Jacobs could have predicted the result all too easily. The neighborhood’s economic ecology has never really recovered from the decision to shut 55th Street down as a commercial district; and, as big stretches of the neighborhood became unpopulated at night, safety declined, further frightening away other businesses.

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.

Decades later, the local political power in Hyde Park is arranged very differently, while the memory of the University’s role in urban renewal is still sharp and bitter. So the officials who have discretionary power over what commerce comes in, and their constitutents, aren’t in any rush to turn the place into a college neighborhood, or into a gentrified faculty one either. The existence of university-centered demand for a good or service is not treated as sufficient reason to let anyone into the neighborhood to provide the service.

There are other issues that have nothing to do with the university’s self-image as being too lost in the books to get lost in the aisles. Parking is a recurring issue, here as in lots of dense urban areas. But the heart of the story is political power, allied to the university in a very bad cause decades ago, now arrayed against the commercial interests of the university’s residents; and systematically bad decisions about urban planning.

Don’t get me wrong; I love it here, and the neighborhood as well as the campus have real virtues. But there are also real quality-of-life sacrifices involved in living in a city neighborhood where there is so little walking-distance commerce, and so many barriers to developing more of it. Those sacrifices aren’t made necessary by the (deserved) pride our students take in their commitment to intellectual pursuits.

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