Harper Court

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Just off of Harper Avenue, half a block from the neighborhood’s major thoroughfare, 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 reveals the legacy of urban renewal just over 40 years old.

The 1954 Federal Housing Act amended the 1949 Housing Act and provided funding to cities that were attempting to prevent urban blight by initiating proactive “renewal” projects, demolishing slums and turning over land to private developers. During the project’s 10-year span, more than 850 buildings in Hyde Park-Kenwood alone were demolished, and many residents and businesses were displaced. While some buildings were replaced, many were not; part of the project’s purpose was to thin out concentrated and perceivably over-congested areas. By 1962 so many buildings had been taken down or were slated for demolition that Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, the neighborhood’s community action group, became concerned about the fate of many of Hyde Park’s favorite small businesses. Arts-oriented independent merchandisers had been extracted from their stores, which were very often located in older low-rent buildings. 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, erected in an effort to separate businesses and residences, promised upscale settings, parking and new buildings at prohibitively high rent.

“You are invited Harper Court's Light-Up and Launching,” 1965. Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Harper Court was intended to present an alternative that would preserve the unique character of the neighborhood. The process of fundraising for Harper Court took most of a year and construction of the buildings began in December of 1964. Tenants moved into the new buildings between September of 1965 and March of 1966 and it was then that Harper Court, dubbed “a new center for the useful arts,” was established. In 1968, once Harper Court was stabilized and productive, management was turned over to two “Hyde Park housewives”—as Muriel Beadle writes in her Where Has All The Ivy Gone?—who could devote all their time to the tenants and customers of Harper Court.

In the years following its opening, Harper Court and the Foundation succeeded to varying degree. Many of the stores in Harper Court were rented before the launch party, indicating that there were indeed useful arts anxious to participate in this kind of project. The 28 businesses that moved into Harper Court in the late 60s represented a wide sampling of practical arts including pottery, instrument repair, and lamp making. In the late ’60s and early ’70s Harper Court served as home to several Hyde Park arts and culture institutions, including the beloved Hyde Park Art Center and the nationally renowned AFRICOBRA.

Harper Court had its share of misses, as well. Only three of the business owners who had been displaced by urban renewal could hold out long enough to take advantage of the low rent in Harper Court. The others had left the immediate neighborhood or gone out of business all together. And then, shortly thereafter, due to the success of the shopping center, some independent craftsmen were evicted due to increasingly expensive rent. One tailor was forced out in favor of a more lucrative ice cream parlor.

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 invested in maintaining the integrity of their own neighborhood. ◊

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