A Hyde Park time capsule

55th StreetAs the microphone was passed to him, a dapper Joe Marlin, AM’54, AM’60, slowly stood up and looked out at the audience.

“I’d like to start out with an apology,” he said. “I moved to Hyde Park in 1953. So I can’t tell you all old stories about the neighborhood.”

“I feel like a baby,” another man said later. “I came here in 1961.”

Look who’s talking. On Saturday this 21-year-old intern went to the Blackstone Library on 49th Street and Lake Park Avenue. The day’s event was fitting for the Chicago Public Library’s oldest branch: the “Hyde Park-Kenwood Stories,” a gathering for sharing neighborhood memories.

They weren’t kidding around—save for a few folks, I was the youngest person in the library’s basement auditorium by 50 to 60 years. Feeling a touch out of place, I secured a seat in a back corner and waited for the storytelling to begin.

Head librarian Lala Rodgers told the 40 or so guests that each speaker would get only five minutes, pointing to a trusty helper with a timer and a sign that said “Wrap It Up!” in big, bold letters. Alas, the gray-haired woman left in charge of this timekeeping never could master the stopwatch, and it beeped unpredictably throughout the whole two hours. We never saw that warning sign again.

But who needed it anyway? The stories were fascinating. One man told of living next door to Al Capone’s brother. Another woman told of working in the old Rosenwald mansion. Someone shared a cocktail glass from the original Morton’s Restaurant at 56th Street and Lake Shore Drive, and remembered the exact day he swiped it—June 6, 1964.

Who knew that the intersection where Ratner Athletics Center now stands used to be the site of the Frolic Theater? Or that 55th Street was a main drag filled with clubs, bars, and lounges? Or that streetcars used to take locals close to the lakefront in the summertime, and that the Jackson Park lagoon offered boat rentals for 25 cents?

Tropical HutThe most touching moment came when Arlene Rubin asked the group to shout out their favorite defunct Hyde Park location. Their faces lit up, each mention bringing a new swell of smiles and cheerful side conversations. The Tropical Hut! Kiddie Kicks shoe store! The Eagle Pub! Wimpy’s! The Bee Hive Lounge!

I listened in amazement at how much of their beloved neighborhood they had outlasted and how unwavering their love for Hyde Park was despite the changes.

No one could master the microphone. People complained they couldn’t hear. There were a few arguments over specific dates and locations. But in all, the gathering was a welcome trip back in time.

Afterward, caught up in the moment, I climbed the stairs to the library’s first floor. I reached the top and was instantly bumped by a baggy-clothed teenager, his eyes fixed on his iPod instead of me in front of him. The spell broke.

Luke Fiedler, ’10

Photo of 55th Street courtesy of the University of Chicago Library (Archival Photographic Files, apf2-09780, Special Collections Research Center)

August 6, 2009