By Hannah Hayes
Photos by Stacey Shintani

As cars honked and shoppers paused to listen, a cluster of cyclists gathered at 35th Street and King Drive to hear John Boyer, Dean of the College, speak through a megaphone about “the most famous parking lot in the city of Chicago.”

One hundred and fifty years ago, the first University of Chicago campus was perched on the edge of a Civil War prison camp. As Boyer recounted the University’s eventual relocation to Hyde Park, his audience pored over maps, snapped photos, or just loosened their helmets and listened.

Joining Boyer were Terry Nichols Clark, Professor in Sociology, and Mark Hansen, Dean of the Social Sciences Division, both in shiny yellow cycling attire. Clark recalled Bronzeville during Prohibition, when it was a thriving port of entry for millions of former sharecroppers. Hansen walked listeners through decades characterized by housing projects and economic decline, presidential conventions, and the rise of the Democratic Party machine.

This on-location history was part of the Chicago Studies-sponsored South Side History Bike Tour held on October 4. Chicago Studies creates opportunities for students in the College to explore the city, both academically and first-hand.

Beautiful fall weather helped attract more than 100 students, faculty, and Hyde Park residents to the much-anticipated annual event. Through lectures and exercise, riders broke free of neighborhood boundaries and reflected on the rich cultural history of the South Side.

“I’ve always felt that you could see a lot of things from a bicycle that you couldn’t see from a car or train,” said Boyer, who organized the first trip eight years ago. “For many of our students who are coming to this great metropolis for the first time, this is a wonderful introduction to the city with a historical perspective.”

As the group pedaled through the changing landscape, children waved and residents shouted greetings from their porches along a route stretching from the University of Chicago to the University of Illinois-Chicago, including the neighborhoods of Douglas, Bridgeport, and Canaryville, near the Union Stock Yards.

Expanding their boundaries

The trip offered first-year students a chance to venture beyond Hyde Park and view the University in a broader, urban context.

“My mother did some research about neighborhoods like Bronzeville, and she thought it really sounded like a cool place,” said Caroline Wooten, a first-year from Massachusetts. “I’m so happy to be able to go and learn more about the city this way.”

One student said his Chicago knowledge is limited to Wikipedia, and third-year Katie Waddle admitted she didn’t know enough about the adjoining neighborhoods and looked forward to learning more. “Dean Boyer knows more than anybody about history of the South Side and the University.”

For many, the tour is an annual event. David Schalliol, a graduate student in Sociology, has participated for the last four years. “I think it’s a good thing to get students out and about seeing the South Side at the pace of a bike instead of the CTA bus or train,” said Schalliol.

“It contextualizes the development of the South Side within the University, and students unfamiliar with the history of Chicago’s South Side hopefully see the part that they play a little more clearly.”

The University and the city

The ride kicked off at the DuSable Museum of African American History and proceeded through Bronzeville to the Prairie Avenue Historic district. On the way, they pedaled past the homes of the University’s early supporters, where familiar names such as Ryerson, Rosenwald, and Swift became more than just a location or lecture hall. Details of the University’s role in the complex fabric of the city’s development were made visible at each of the dozen stops. The three guides blended history with political theory, economics, and urban development.

At the Bronzeville stop, Clark pointed to Prairie Shores, a development built by former University trustee Ferdinand Kramer, noted for his role in blending mixed-income integrated housing on the South Side. Chicago was also the backdrop for three University of Chicago Nobel laureates in economics, Clark pointed out. “Bob Fogel, Gary Becker and Jim Heckman all studied the racial impact on markets and measured discrimination.”

The tour continued toward the University of Illinois to Jane Addams’ Hull House, on through to the site of the Stockyards, where Chicago earned its reputation as “Hog Butcher to the World.” Heading back toward Hyde Park, political history came to life as Chicago’s mayoral lineage was recounted in front of the Bridgeport home of both Mayor Daleys and the Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th Street and Cottage Grove Boulevard. The tour ended near the home of another famous Hyde Park resident, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“The idea is that once students take the tour they can replicate it and embrace Chicago,” said Boyer. “Chicago is not just a location between 55th and 49th (streets), and it’s not the Loop either. We’re interested in the neighborhoods.”