I hate to admit it, but the Hyde Park Shopping Center is my favorite public spot in Chicago
Many of Chicagoland’s most cherished public spaces are tucked away in the hearts of neighborhoods, known only to a lucky few. This summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) want to shine a spotlight on these special places across Chicagoland through the “What Makes Your Place Great? Your Secret Corner of Chicagoland” contest.
From June 2 through July 26, 2010, entrants can e-mail original photos or videos showcasing their favorite undiscovered public places across Chicagoland, along with a 250-word-or-less description, to firstname.lastname@example.org. The four chosen winners will win a prize package that includes passes to the Brookfield Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago History Museum, or CAF – and the chance to be featured in a CAF tour this fall.
To get your creative juices flowing, MPC staff will be profiling their favorite spaces throughout the summer. To enter your own favorite space, read the complete contest guidelines at placemakingchicago.com.
This question was tough for me to answer. I consider myself pretty outdoorsy, you know, chasing- bears-down-a-mountain-in-a-canoe-with-chin-stubble outdoorsy. So when MPC's Placemaking guru Karin Sommer (check her out on WGN) asked me to share my favorite undiscovered public place in the Chicago region, I gulped, hung my head, and said, "Well, there's this plaza at the Hyde Park Shopping Center ..."
There are certainly other places I enjoy. I spend hours every weekend reading and swimming at Promontory Point, I stop most nights on my bike ride home to take in the night skyline on the 18th Street bridge, and there are a few others I prefer to remain undiscovered. But when it comes right down to it, many of the places I enjoy don't attract enough other people to be labeled "public."
Then there's this courtyard (check it out on Google Maps, it faces 55th Street, just west of Lake Park Avenue.) It isn't exactly "public" either, given that the courtyard sits in the middle of a privately-owned shopping center. But that's where the private aspect largely ends. Every morning there is a constant flow of people—old and young, all races, homeless and mansioned, families and singles, cyclists and walkers, readers and talkers, bird-feeders and bird-shooers, would-be artists and would-be art critics ... everyone, including the odd Nobel Prize Winner—in and out of this courtyard. A half dozen benches are oriented toward a small, burbling fountain, while a dozen or so tables are scattered about and easy to move around, enabling groups large and small to congregate, debate or satiate any number of gastronomic urges.
People come to grab a coffee at a Francophile's dream, the Bonjour Cafe and Bakery, where the entire staff speaks French (the cookies are dry, but everything else is great.) Others come to the toy store, bike repair shop, optometrist, or the post office. Others just come to be around others. Some sit for minutes and sip their coffee, some sit for hours as friends and neighbors come and go. Kids chase pigeons, and pigeons chase kids, and the dogs don't know what to do.
Just the way it's positioned, if you're on foot coming from the south or west, you basically have to walk through the courtyard to get to the grocery store, drug store, and hardware store on the northern, more auto-oriented side of the complex. That makes for casual interactions, a momentary respite from streets, cars and buses, and for many, the easy decision to come back the following weekend and have a croissant before heading off to buy detergent.
Having the public there isn't enough, and I give all the credit in the world to the owners of center, because on any given weekend there are art, book or plant sales. I've seen blues acts, African drummers, and something akin to rockabilly on a small stage by the fountain. In winter, many Hyde Parkers trek there to buy wreaths and Christmas trees. The grocery store next door often roasts a pig on a spit at the northern end of the courtyard, which makes for one of the city's more unique conversation starters. The frequent active activity makes for a fun change of pace from the more sustained passive activity.
So here's what I propose: This coming Saturday, put on some sun block, toss a book in a backpack, and ride your bike down the lake to 55th Street. Have a pastry, enjoy a coffee, and just sit and read. That's all you have to do. The neighborhood will come to you if you go to where the neighborhood goes.
So, what's your favorite public space? Snap a photo or shoot a video today and submit it to email@example.com.
MPC and Placemaking Chicago are grateful for the generous contributions of our sponsors and donors: The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Prince Charitable Trusts, and Perkins+Will.