These days, it seems the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park has been put on the map as the stomping grounds of President-elect Barack Obama.
There are walking tours that show off his favorite restaurants and coffee shops, magazine and newspaper articles that highlight his barbershop and favorite bookstore, commercials and even tourism guides that tout the neighborhood because of its connection to the celebrated Chicago icon.
But long before the historic community nurtured Obama and his family, it was the home of the University of Chicago, the Catholic Theological Union, dozens of churches and a few prominent museums.
Almost since its founding, Hyde Park has been considered a unique community because of the eclectic mix of people that settled there, the distinctive architecture, the social activism and because of the upbeat, sophisticated and intellectual mood that envelops the area, said Donna Schwan, chief executive of MetroPro Corp., a real estate company based in the heart of Hyde Park.
Schwan calls Hyde Park Chicago's original Gold Coast, a neighborhood where residents hired the best architects and builders to construct their homes at the turn of the century. And many of those amenities were preserved, making the neighborhood's structures rich and pronounced.
"Hyde Park is an architectural dream," she said. "The people that built up the neighborhood brought in products from all over the world. There are houses with Italian marble. The real estate in this community is invaluable."
Obama technically lives in neighboring Kenwood but had an office and spent some of his time in Hyde Park. Still, the community boasts its own list of prominent residents: former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Muhammad Ali and Marshall Field have all called the neighborhood home at some point.
Though the community now hosts residents of varying incomes and ethnicities, it wasn't always that way.
Hyde Park was founded by Paul Cornell in 1853. Cornell was a successful lawyer and businessman and he purchased 300 acres of land just seven miles south of downtown Chicago and began to develop it. He was able to convince some of his wealthy friends to buy property in the neighborhood with the idea that it would be a resort.
In the 1890s, the University of Chicago was founded in Hyde Park and soon after the Chicago Theological Seminary relocated there. At one point, Hyde Park had dozens of hotels that lined the lakefront.
But during the Depression, businesses in Hyde Park struggled and the neighborhood became less saturated with the rich. As some of the high-rise hotels became rental units and condos, the community became more diverse and more middle class and working class residents could afford to move in.
To make Hyde Park stable and accommodate the wave of newcomers, a group of residents formed the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. That organization helped support dozens of block clubs that were tackling issues of safety, poor landlords and deteriorating schools, said Gary Ossewaarde, secretary of HPKCC.
"To have a vibrant neighborhood, you need a mix of people," he said. "Some people wanted Hyde Park to be more middle class, others said it should be welcoming to everybody."
The mix of people add to the culture of the community. There are corporate businesses in the neighborhood, but there's also a wealth of family-owned restaurants, community-owned convenience stores and book stores. In Hyde Park, there are soul food restaurants right next to Thai eateries and rib joints just blocks from more posh eateries. There is the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the Museum of Science and Industry and The Oriental Institute.
"The Hyde Park neighborhood has been very stable for decades," said Don DeBat, a media consultant who represents the South Side Builders Association. "It's near the lake. It's very cosmopolitan."
Because it's such a sought-after neighborhood, developers are busy constructing more residential units there, DeBat said. And if Chicago is selected to host the 2016 Olympics, Hyde Park will become an even more valuable community offering close proximity to the games, he said.
Today, Hyde Park has a prominent reputation because of the list of scholars that originate there, but it's a neighborhood that is accessible to people of all income levels, Schwan said. There are studio condominiums that sell for as little as $70,000 and single-family houses that are priced up to $2.5 million.
"When people call us and ask to look at property, if they are nervous about what they can afford, they don't have to be because we have all price ranges, and we are accommodating," she said.
Plus there are plenty of rental units.
Like other Chicago communities, Hyde Park struggles with crime, but it's not plagued with problems. According to recent crime statistics, there were 1,158 indexed crimes reported in Hyde Park between September and November. Compared to the safest district, which had about 751, and the district with the most crimes reported at 3,274, Hyde Park is doing well.
"We are one of the lower districts statistically in violent crimes and shootings," said 21st District Cmdr. John Doty. "We have a large student population, many that go to the University of Chicago. They are international and national students and this is the first time they've been in an urban setting. We work to educate them on the ways of the world. They have to be cognizant of their surroundings."
The Obama connection to Hyde Park hasn't driven up real estate prices, Schwan said. But it has sparked a lot of attention, welcomed by some.
"There's a lot of interest in Hyde Park," she said. "Word is getting out. We're showing to people from all over the country. We're excited about all the attention."
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