While the renowned University of Chicago dominates the physical landscape of Chicago’s Hyde Park at a cursory glance, the neighborhood is its own distinct self, a cultural hub whose offerings stretch well beyond its academic anchor. This is a neighborhood with its own historical society, not to mention signature events like the Chosen Few DJs Picnic, Sound System Block Party (a.k.a. The Silver Room Block Party), and Hyde Park Jazz Festival; all of which draw crowds from across the city every year. Beyond these blockbuster events, though, are plenty of reasons to visit at other times.
The tree-lined streets, tucked-away community gardens, free little libraries, community pantries, and organizations like Brave Space Alliance (the city’s first Black-led, trans-led, LGBTQ+ center) underscore the vibrancy of mutual aid in Hyde Park, present long before COVID-19 began. Though attention lately has been on the neighborhood’s newest addition, the Obama Presidential Library, Hyde Park is also home to many keepers of history, including the DuSable Museum of African American History, and The Emmitt Till and Mamie Till-Mobley House. Here’s how Hyde Park keeps it in the neighborhood, and how to enjoy it the next time you’re on the South Side.
What to Do
Nestled in the wild spaces between South Lake Shore Drive and Cottage Grove, the Garden of the Phoenix is an unlikely island of calm in Jackson Park: koi swimming under the reflection of stone lanterns; a wooden, open-air pagoda; and a tree so old it’s reclining. The arched footbridge and meandering pebbled paths ask viewers to consider each feature of the garden, gifted by the government of Japan for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Every April or May since 1893, cherry trees flower, rivaling in riotous color the twelve-foot steel lotus petals emerging from Skygazer (2016), a sculpture by Yoko Ono that rises from the ground just outside the Garden’s fence.
The Museum of Science and Industry, which houses the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere, is one of the few remaining edifices from the 1893 World’s Fair. It’s a veritable temple to science, and explores our inner child’s curiosities around how things work: a bicycle, pinball machines, tornados, farms, outer space exploration, and a whole lot more. For a breath of fresh air, walk around to the south side of the building, past the caryatids, and find the lagoon; or walk northeast, where a path under US-41 leads to Lake Michigan.
An incubator of Chicago’s young and emerging artists, the Hyde Park Art Center’s exhibition spaces, robust art programming, and studio classes offer artists and visitors reflective spaces to explore. True to its 80-year-old roots and absent of the oft-rarified air of art galleries, no wall space is saved here; even the exteriors boast blooms of wheatpaste, sweeping murals, and often chalk art on the sidewalk. The Center reopened to the public with special hours for high risk health groups on February 22.
What to Eat
Chicagoans go wild for the mild sauce with fried chicken, topped with a slice of white bread, at Harold’s Chicken Shack. Buy a scratch off while you wait for the do-not-pass-go famous chicken, doled out to patrons from the kitchen behind a plexiglass revolving door. Wings come in increments of two to 50. Harold’s built 20 official locations (and a few unofficial ones) over seven decades in Chicagoland and beyond, and it remains one of the city’s oldest Black-owned restaurants.
Head to Uncle Joe’s Tropical Dining, a Carribean-centric eatery, for jerk in many forms: chicken, salmon wraps, red snapper. Round out your order with classic dishes: curry goat, oxtail, plantain, callaloo, candied yams, pigeon peas and rice, and “rasta pasta.” Lunch specials make Uncle Joe’s a favorite for the neighborhood, particularly the young scholars from Kenwood Academy across the street. Add a bottle of mango jerk sauce in your bag, swag.
Pronounced vah-loyz, the 100-year-old cafeteria Valois has hosted many a politico over the years—from the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, to the country’s first Black President and one-time Hyde Park resident, Barack Obama. Affordable plates and the no-wait, no-frills setup draw a diverse cross-section of Chicagoans. Be ready to order when you get to the head of the line, and no one will mess with you. Grab a tray and slide on down.
Everything has got to sing when it’s as simple as a sandwich. A Hyde Park institution for more than sixty years, Morry’s Deli has picnic lunches at the ready for a trip to the beach, with sandwiches like brisket, New York pastrami, and roast beef, as well as Chicago classics like Italian Beef.
Where to Shop
Pretend to be Nina in the 1997 film Love Jones while looking through the stacks at Hyde Park Records, an analog music lovers’ paradise. Two turntables along the store’s back wall beckon you to sample before buying. In addition to new and used records, you’ll find DVDs, CDs, comics, books, vintage issues of magazines, and books looking for a second life. You can also find out which ice cream flavor Michelle Obama had on her first date with Barack; a memorial to the Obamas’ first date hides kitty-corner to the shop.
Like the imaginary closet of Denise Huxtable, everything in The Silver Room—books, apparel, jewelry, gifts—is cool, well-considered, and something you’d like to borrow if your pretend super-cool older sister would only let you. Synonymous with supporting Chicago’s Black artists, authors, and musicians, The Silver Room also throws the family-friendly, house-centric Sound System Block Party every July.
The doctor is in with the cure for boredom at First Aid Comics. Every week, look to the white board on Wednesday for new arrivals: graphic novels, manga, comic books from independent artists to the big publishers—it’s all on offer. First Aid stocks amusements for the young and young-at-heart: board games, vintage toys, and collectible card games. Find First Aid shop owner Jim Nurss immortalized with a mural from artist Chris Devins’s 2015 series, Hyde Park Heroes, at 5400 S. Lake Park West.
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