Friday, January 29, 2010

On O'Reilly and Why He's Wrong about the South Side of Chicago

The always subtle, considerate, and well-informed Bill O'Reilly recently made some pretty offensive comments about the south side of Chicago and Haiti. I'm sure most of you have heard about this already, but check out this Huffington Post article, as well as ChicagoNow's Kyra Kyles's post for more details. In a nutshell, O'Reilly stated that the south side, like Haiti, is a disaster area that cannot be saved, no matter how much money you pump into it.

First off, O'Reilly is an idiot and I absolutely think he gets paid to make people angry because that's what generates attention.

That being said, his comment really struck a nerve for me. On the one hand, I can chalk the statement up to ignorance-- he's not from Chicago and, from what I've read, hasn't spent any prolonged time here. What's more upsetting to me is that he is evoking and popularizing a misconception that is already held by many native Chicagoans. I was born and raised on the north side, and lived and went to school in some areas that weren't so hot, yet many friends and family from the old hood act worried, or at least uncomfortable, when they have to pass Roosevelt to come visit me in Hyde Park.

I recently had a friend (who grew up in the Chicago area) come to my place for the first time. The first thing out of his mouth was, "Wow, I was always scared to try to find street parking by the museum [of Science and Industry]. Who knew it was nice around here?!" Later in the night, I overhead him comment to his girlfriend that maybe they should put the south side on their radar when they start looking for a place to buy. This guy has lived in the city for 27 years, had been to the museum countless times, and yet had never ventured off the campus to the surrounding neighborhood. Once he was pushed to actually set foot in a south side community, though, he actually liked it.

I think a big part of the problem is that the media seems to talk about the north side as a collection of distinct neighborhoods, but treats the south side as a homogeneous community. If a crime takes place in Uptown for example, the media and Chicagoans in general are probably not going to generalize that Lakeview or Lincoln Park are also unsafe. If a crime happens in Englewood, though, people interpret that as meaning Hyde Park, Bronzeville, Beverly, Chatham, etc. are unsafe too.

That is not to say that many south side communities are not struggling. There's no doubt about the fact that there are several south side neighborhoods that have major problems with crime. At the same time, I think few people realize that there are about as many south side neighborhoods in the green (i.e. low crime) range as there are north side neighborhoods in this range. (The south side has more high-crime areas, but it's also twice as big as the north-side.) I'd also like to point out that the downtown area and hip west-loop have higher crime rates than many parts of the south side.

If Chicagoans from all sides of the city can support these healthy south side communities by frequenting existing businesses and investing in new commerce, then I think that this revitalization will spread to some of the red and orange areas. And please don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging a yuppy invasion or neighborhood flipping, I'm just saying that if you're a northsider willing to come to the Loop to check out a new restaurant, I see no reason why you should be afraid of safe-as-the-Gold Coast Hyde Park.

Ok, I'm done with my rant/lecture. Thanks for your patience. :-)

Monday, January 25, 2010

This week in Hyde Park....Week of 1/24

Here's your weekly list of fun things to do this week in Hyde Park:


  • Watch "creepy and atmospheric thriller" Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) at Doc Films. (7PM $5 general admission, Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall 1212 East 59th Street)
  • Drop in for an hour-long restorative yoga class in beautiful Rockefeller Chapel. Free for students, $5 recommended donation for everyone else (6:45 pm - 7:45PM, 1156 East 59th Street)
  • Stop in for Poetry Slam night at Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 7:30PM-"until", 5201 S. Harper).
  • Catch sci-fi flick The Fly (1986) at Doc Films. (7PM & 9PM $5 general admission, Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall 1212 East 59th Street)
  • Live music (and yummy traditional Italian fare) Wednesdays at Piccolo Mondo (7-11PM, 1642 E.56th Street 773.643.1106 / 9171)
  • Learn and practice Zen meditation at Rockefeller Chapel. (5:00 pm - 6:45PM, 1156 East 59th Street)
  • Catch the Coen's brother's A Serious Man (2009) at Doc Films. (6:45PM, $5 general admission, Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall 1212 East 59th Street)
  • Hear live blues at the Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 8PM-2AM, 5201 S. Harper). [Note--this is not particularly affordable, but it's a Chicago institution & worth checking out at least once]
  • Drop in for drinks and live music at Chant (no cover, 18% gratuity on all tabs, 9:30 PM-12:30AM, 1509 E. 53rd)
  • Hear live blues at the Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 8PM-3AM, 5201 S. Harper)
  • Drop in for drinks, appetizers, and live music at Chant (no cover, 18% gratuity on all tabs, 9:30 PM-12:30AM, 1509 E. 53rd)
  • Watch post-apocalyptic film The Road (2009) at Doc Films. (7PM & 9:30PM, $5 general admission, Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall 1212 East 59th Street)
  • Enjoy all-you-can-eat Asian-inspired brunch while you listen to live jazz at Chant's Sunday Brunch (starting at 11AM, 1509 E. 53rd)
If you know of something going on in the neighborhood that's not on the list, leave a comment or drop me a line at

[And FYI, I just changed the comment settings on the blog, so now you can leave a comment w/out having to be signed into a google account. Would love to hear from you!]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New in Hyde Park: The Big Easy-- Not Just Another Orly's

Since last fall, other Hyde Park locals and I had been closely monitoring the storefront at 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard, looking for signs of activity. Finally, about a month ago, a new awning appeared and the walls were painted (yes, I stuck my face against the glass to peek in..). A week later, a sign appears in the window advertising microbrews and Cajun fare. A week after that, lights were on and people could be seen inside eating & drinking, but it did not appear that the place had been opened to the public. It's not everyday that we get a new business or restaurant in the neighborhood, so the suspense was killing us. Finally, about 2 weeks ago, the spot finally opened officially for business under the name "The Big Easy" and Mr. Hyde Park and I rushed in to check it out.

If you're in a hurry, long story short, the food was generally very good Cajun fare reminiscent of Dixie Kitchen, the service was fine (but not great), and the place is definitely worth visiting. Check out the menu here. If you have a little longer, stick around for some history and a more detailed review:

First, the history...
1660 E 55th Street is famous (or perhaps infamous) among Hyde Parkers for its quirky history. The spot was originally purchased by David Shopiro in 1981 and, in the years since, saw several "makeovers" under his ownership. The restaurant and catering company was usually called Orly's, or most recently Hyde Park BBQ, and, in each incarnation, served up an eclectic mix of BBQ, sandwiches, Mexican and Italian cuisine, burgers, and baked goods (yes, all on the same menu). The restaurant (whatever the name) was often criticized for serving mediocre food, for having too broad a menu, and for having so-so service. While some Hyde Park locals had a strange affection for the place, most Hyde Parkers--myself included-- were just lukewarm to it, and it was never particularly successful. (And it was certainly never a place to which anyone from outside of Hyde Park would travel.) Each time the going got tough, Shopiro would announce that he was going to make the place over and then quickly re-open with essentially the same menu and decor. For this reason, Orly's became a sort of running joke in the neighborhood and fueled the negative stereotype that restaurants in Hyde Park don't have their acts together.

This summer, Shopiro announced another remodel of the place, closed its doors, and placed an ad on Craigslist seeking someone to become 90% owner of the spot and take creative control of the menu. (Fellow Hyde Park blogger Hyde Park Progress has a good post about this which provides more details--
check it out here.) After this announcement, the neighborhood had little news for several months.

Finally, this winter, we learned that Shopiro had chosen 26 year-old Jennifer Gavin for the job.
Shopiro didn't seem to publicize this as much as he could have, but not only does Gavin have classical and international training, but she was one of the last chefs standing on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey's reality tv-show Hell's Kitchen. It's not clear, however, whether Gavin has become 90% owner as Shopiro had sought in the Craigslist ad, or if they have worked out some other arrangement. In any case, it seems that Shopiro is maintaining more involvement in the restaurant than he had initially stated he would.

Ok, so now--finally-- back to my review. Mr. Hyde Park and I had dinner there at 8:30ish on their official opening night (they'd had a soft opening earlier in the month). The interior had been upgraded and looked good, although still had some undefinable hints of the 80s. We were greeted by the same goofy, absent-minded waiter who has been there the past 10 years (which concerned us a bit, to be honest). He promptly seated us and bumbled through the Cajun-Creole menu, making mistakes like calling jambalaya "gumboyaya." We ordered a seafood chowder and the gumbo to start-- both were very flavorful and rich. For the main course, my husband had the crawfish etouffee which was solid and fresh. He really liked it and said it was definitely as good as what they served at the well-loved, now defunct Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen, although it wasn't mind-blowing (I think he may have just had food-envy because what I got was better...). I ordered the Shrimp and Grits, which was by far the star of the show. They were DELICIOUS-- the grits were rich, cheesy, and not at all mushy. The shrimp were huge, fresh, and flavorful and they were smothered with a decadent apple-bacon sauce..... It just does not get better than that. We finished the meal with a plate of yummy bite-sized desserts-- including carrot cake, a peach cobbler brownie, and a New Orlean's-style beignet-- that they gave us on-the-house.

Overall, there are definitely some little glitches that will need to be worked out-- we waited too long for drinks, the waiter was pretty absent-minded, the decor still leaves something to be desired-- but I think Gavin knows how to make some delicious food, and that's what's most important. My biggest fear, though, is that the place won't be given the chance to come into its own. Many Hyde Parkers, especially the folks over at Hyde Park Progress, are pretty cynical about the Big Easy because of Orly's history and so they are essentially boycotting the restaurant. I'm not a fan of Shopiro's previous projects, either, and was disappointed to learn that he is still pretty heavily involved in the place. I think Gavin probably could make a better restaurant without him if not for his financial input, but I'm hopeful that she'll have the chance to prove her culinary chops and that her talent and youthfulness will give new life to the space. So, with all of this said, I urge you to check the place out, to approach it with an open mind, and to order the shrimp and grits.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What does "development" mean for Hyde Park?

Harper Court pre-demolition....

I posted a few days ago about the "redevelopment" project that is set to begin in the Harper Court space later this year. In a nutshell, the University of Chicago has purchased the complex and has hired the Vermillion Development firm (known for its experience with "university town" development projects) to raze the existing buildings and replace them with something shiny and new. I, unfortunately, am not privy to any of the specifics of the plan, but rumor has it that there will be a "tower" including a hotel and gym, possibly a cinema, and lots of commercial space.

Anyway, now that I know that the whispers of "development" in Hyde Park are becoming a reality, I'm sort of feeling uneasy. I'm going to be totally honest-- when I first moved to the neighborhood, I whined and complained to anyone who would listen about how Hyde Park would be perfect if only we had this-that-or-the-other yuppy amenity-- e.g. a place to get microbrews, a tapas spot, trendy sushi, and a non-strip-mall shopping complex with national and higher-end shops. With time, though, I've begun to develop a more nuanced perspective. On the one hand, I think having these things nearby would be great. On the other, though, I worry that too much development--particularly University-driven development-- runs the risk of fundamentally changing the character of the neighborhood and robbing Hyde Park of its distinctive quaintness and authenticity. If Hyde Park starts to look like downtown Champaign-Urbana or Ann Arbor, will it still be the Hyde Park I love?

What this all comes down to is that Hyde Park is not and (hopefully) never will be a college town in the traditional sense. Yes, it is the home to a world-class university and to thousands of students from all around the world, but it is also an economically and culturally diverse urban community within a huge metropolis. I get that the university wants its students to have access to cool places to hang out, drink, and shop, but I hope that the development project will also address and respect the needs and preferences of non-University Hyde Park-ers and Southsiders in general.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Things to do this week in Hyde Park! (Week of 1/17)

  • Take in theatrical performances, story-telling, films, and other MLK tributes at the DuSable Museum's all day Martin Luther King Day Celebration (Adults $8/Children $5, 10AM-6PM, 740 E. 56th)
  • Live music (and delicious traditional Italian fare) Wednesdays at Piccolo Mondo (7-11PM, 1642 E.56th Street 773.643.1106 / 9171)
  • Learn and practice Zen meditation at Rockefeller Chapel. (5:00 pm - 6:45PM, 1156 East 59th Street)

  • zzzz....slow night in Hyde Park...

  • Live blues at the Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 8PM-2AM, 5201 S. Harper). [Note--this is not particularly affordable, but it's a Chicago institution & worth checking out at least once]
  • Jeff Chan live at Chant (no cover, 18% gratuity on all tabs, 9:30 PM-12:30AM, 1509 E. 53rd)

  • Try food from around the world at the International Food Festival , UChicago's version of the Taste of Chicago (free & open to the public, 6PM-10PM, Ida Noyes Hall 1212 E. 59th)
  • Live blues at the Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 8PM-3AM, 5201 S. Harper)
  • The Chicago Legends Blues live at Chant (no cover, 18% gratuity on all tabs, 9:30 PM-12:30AM, 1509 E. 53rd)
If you know of something going on in the neighborhood that's not on the list, send me a comment or drop me a line at

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A quick post for my local readers...

Ok, folks, so I don't have much time to write, but I wanted to post quickly that Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that the city and university have (finally!) announced the winner of the bid to re-develop Harper Court. The lucky company is called Vermillion and, according to the article, they're planning to build a large mix-used facility and boutique hotel called Hotel Indigo. Read the full article here: Vermilion wins bid to demolish Harper Court, redevelop site

To get everyone caught up, Harper Court is an aging strip-mall-like structure on 52nd/53rd streets that housed the famous, now-defunct Dixie Kitchen and remains home to the Calypso Cafe and a handful of other Hyde Park businesses. The University purchased the complex a while back and has been working with the city to plan a large-scale "redevelopment project" (i.e. a plan to knock down and replaced the complex with something shiny & new). Several companies have made bids to win the contract to develop the space (including the company that worked on Block 37 downtown) and most proposed plans have included mid-rise structures, a gym, movie theaters, and a hotel. (See the university-run 53rd Street Blog for more history).

Long story short, big changes are about to come to Hyde Park and I think a lot of locals, myself included, have some mixed feelings about what they would like to see happen (I'll post more about this later...) First, though, I'd love to hear from you. How do you feel about the redevelopment project? What would you like to see happen? What concerns do you have?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things....#2

In the upcoming weeks, I'll be posting, in no particular order, my 10 favorite things to eat/see/do in Hyde Park, including businesses, parks, activities, you name it. A few days ago, I told you all about Jackson Park/Osaka Garden. Today, I want to tell you about Hyde Park Produce (1226 E. 53rd).

First off, I have a little confession to make that may be shocking to local readers... I've lived and/or gone to school in Hyde Park for about 8 or 9 years, but somehow never managed to visit the place until this year. I never had anything against it, I just always lived a little too far to walk and ended up instead grinning and bearing the crummy and over-priced produce at the (now-defunct) Hyde Park Co-op on 55th. Anyway, when I finally did make the (I know it sounds ridiculous now) 7 block trek to Hyde Park Produce, my world just turned upside down.

This place is amazing. The store is located in an admittedly blah strip mall but, once you walk in, it's a different story. The store is clean, well-organized, well-stocked, and full of piles of beautiful, bright produce of the same quality you would see at an outdoor farmers' market. You can find everything from your standard local veggies to exotic items like wild mushrooms, chiles, and bulk fresh herbs, all for shockingly cheap. Want to make some crazy complicated recipe from a Rick Bayless cookbook? You can easily find everything you would need here.

I was always under the false impression that the store only carried produce, but they actually have a pretty full stock of grocery items. You might not find every major brand name cereal that you look for, but you could very easily do all of your shopping here without having to go to a supermarket. The store also has a full gourmet deli counter, as well as prepared foods like soups, salsas, and tamales on the cheap.

I could go on and on, but maybe it's best I just point you to Hyde Park Produce's Yelp page, where the place receives absolutely glowing reviews.

A (teensy-bit political) Side Note: Some of you may be wondering why I would bother taking so much time to talk about something as mundane as a produce/grocery store. Besides wanting to promote a local business that I love, I also thought it was important to write about this place in particular because I want to dispel the misconception that Hyde Park is a food desert, or that we have less access to fresh foods than northsiders. I actually had a harder time finding cheap, high quality fresh fruit and vegetables when I lived in Lincoln Square than I do now! Of course, there is the broad and complex problem of limited grocery options on the Southside---which I won't even try to touch on here-- but I think Hyde Park Produce is a wonderful example of a place where southsiders of all income levels can and do come to buy fresh ingredients on a budget, and this makes me very happy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Things to do this week! (Week of 1/11)

Bored and broke? Here are some cool free & low-cost things to do in the neighborhood this week:

  • The final week of Heartland at Smart Museum of Art, a free exhibition of performances, drawings, photography, and installations made "in and in reference to" the American Heartland (5550 S. Greenwood, 773.702.0200 )
  • Semi-autobiographical solo exhibition of photographs by Chicago-based artist Anna Shteynshleyger at the Renaissance Society (5811 S. Ellis Avenue, 773.702.8670)
  • Bundle up and come skating on the Midway Plaisance Park Outdoor Ice Rink . Admission is free, skate rentals are $5. Hot chocolate and concessions available (12AM-7PM, east 59th Street at Woodlawn).
  • Check out the twice daily carillon recital at Rockefeller Chapel and then take a free guided tour. Then climb the chapel's 271 steps to get an amazing view of the city. (11:30 AM and 5:30PM, 1156 East 59th Street)
  • Catch super cheap quirky/artsy flicks during the week and 2nd run mainstream movies on the weekend at Doc Films. ($5 general admission, Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall 1212 East 59th Street)
  • Live music (and delicious traditional Italian fare) Wednesdays at Piccolo Mondo (7-11PM, 1642 E.56th Street 773.643.1106 / 9171)
  • Learn and practice Zen meditation at Rockefeller Chapel. (5:00 pm - 6:45PM, 1156 East 59th Street)
  • zzzz....slow night in Hyde Park...
  • Live blues at the Checkerboard Lounge ($10 cover, $5 for students+2 drink minimum, 8PM-2AM, 5201 S. Harper). [Note--this is not particularly affordable, but it's a Chicago institution & worth checking out at least once]
If you know of something going on in the neighborhood that's not on the list, drop me a line at

Sunday, January 10, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things....#1

Jackson Park & Osaka Garden: A huge park that begins at the Museum of Science and Industry and extends south into the Southshore and Woodlawn neighborhoods, Jackson Park is probably the closest thing Chicago has to New York's Central Park (and was, FYI, designed by the same guys). What makes it so wonderful is that, once you're inside, you feel completely cut off from the bustle of the city. It is quiet and peaceful, a great spot for birdwatching, and full of beautiful flora and fauna. There is a big lagoon (where you can fish!) that stretches out from the majestic back entrance of the museum and, forgive me for being cheesy, looks like a moat around a castle. If you walk deeper into the park, you'll also stumble across the strange-but-beautiful, 24ft high gold Statue of the Republic.

The highlight of the park, though, is Osaka garden which sits on Wooded Island. To try to sum it up, it's a classic Japanese strolling garden, complete with bridges, a pagoda, shady trees and rolling hills. It's a perfect place to bring a book or to just sit and think. I think only pictures can truly do it justice, so see below.

Thanks to Jim Watkins for the beautiful pictures of Osaka Garden. Find him on Flickr.

Hyde Park, Chicago for Dummies (Lesson 1)

View Larger Map

Hyde Park locals, bear with me, but I think it would be worthwhile to take a minute to provide some basic information about Hyde Park for those who don't know much about it. (If this is all old news to you, feel free to roll your eyes and skip to my next entry..)

Ok, so first of off, let's talk about the location. Many northsiders seem to be very confused about this. I cannot tell you how often I see articles in the Chicago Tribune and Suntimes that describe events as having taken place in Hyde Park when, in fact, they were in Woodlawn or Washington Park. According to most maps, Hyde Park goes East to West from the lake to Cottage Grove, and North to South from about 50th to 59th (i.e. the "Midway"). Just north of Hyde Park is Kenwood, home of Mr. Obama and some of the most beautiful homes you've ever seen. Hyde Park and Kenwood are sort of like Siamese twins and are often considered a single community, even though they are technically separate neighborhoods.

Knowing and understanding the boundaries of Hyde Park is important, I think, because misunderstandings about it often cause people to make inaccurate generalizations about the crime rate in Hyde Park. Yes, the nearby Washington Park neighborhood can be a little rough around the edges and you do hear frequent news of crime in that area. Same with Woodlawn. You might be surprised to learn, though, that the crime rate in Hyde Park-Kenwood is about the same as it is in Lincoln Park-Lakeview, i.e. extremely low. The local public schools-- Ray and Hart-- are some of the best (and most multicultural) in the city. [I'd also like to add that, in spite of some enduring problems with crime, Washington Park and Woodlawn have been revitalized in past years and really have a lot to offer, including new businesses and beautiful parkland].

Another common misconception about living in Hyde Park is that you're removed from most of the goings-on in the city. Not at all true. The neighborhood is literally less than 10 minutes from downtown, and rarely more than 20-30 to any part of the northside. The #6 bus will take you to Michigan Avenue in 15 minutes, or you can hop on the #55 and take it to the Green or Red lines.

There's also tons to do within the neighborhood (see my upcoming posts for a list)-- from live music to museums to bookstores to great restaurants to the beach. What I love most is that you can live locally and walk pretty much anywhere you'd need to go.

Check out this HydePark/Kenwood travel wiki for more info. I'm not a contributor to the wiki and take issue with some of their comments about local dining, but otherwise they provide a pretty thorough guide to the area.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Who/What is Ms. Hyde Park? (new and improved version)

Who am I?

I'm a young professional, born and raised in Chicago. I grew up mostly on the north side, but have been a Hyde Parker for about 8 years. I've lived, worked, and gone to school all over the city from Rogers Park to Uptown to Lincoln Square to Humbolt Park to Austin, and have spent time pretty much everywhere else in Chicago. I deeply love this city and many of its neighborhoods, but Hyde Park is my favorite. Why? Well that's largely what this blog will be about but, in a nutshell, I love that Hyde Park is diverse and multicultural, that it is jam-packed with art, culture, and affordable food, that it is very walkable (i.e. you can easily get to great parks, the lake, dining, nightlife, and shopping by foot) and that it somehow manages to feel like a small-town and the big city at the same time.

OK, but why the Ms. Hyde Park blog?

I think a lot of people misunderstand and/or under-appreciate Hyde Park because they just don't know enough about it or haven't had the right person show them around. I'd like for this blog to serve as a sort of guide or reference for people who are visiting Hyde Park either from within Chicago or across the country, as well as a place for locals to discuss community issues and to find and share recommendations about what to eat, see, and do in the neighborhood and nearby. My hope is that this will be a blog about what makes Hyde Park such a wonderful, unique community, and what can make it even better.

I have to confess-- my motives for wanting to help others love Hyde Park are just a little bit selfish. You see, I've noticed that good businesses and restaurants in the area often struggle more than they should because locals are cynical and outsiders simply don't bother coming into the neighborhood to give these spots a chance. This lack of engagement with the community has been a barrier to great existing businesses being as successful as they could be, and to new businesses coming to the area. I'm in favor of organic, grassroots-driven growth and development in Hyde Park and I think that this happens when people get excited about what a neighborhood has to offer. My basic philosophy is that the more energy, enthusiasm, and interest in Hyde Park we can generate, the more we can help the neighborhood, its businesses, and its locals to thrive.

So, with all of this said, welcome to my blog! Please feel free to comment or email me at to let me know what you think so far, to ask questions about the blog or the community, or just to say hi.