Chicago Stories and Tips

Hyde Park, Revisted

Robie House Photo, Chicago, Illinois

"I miss everything about Chicago, except January and February." ~ Gary Cole

When we moved into a third-floor 51st St. Hyde Park apartment back in the winter of 1981, it was all of 26° Fahrenheit outside and a stiff wind was whipping off the lake at about twenty miles an hour.

Welcome to Chicago!

Over the next five years, we toughed out arctic winters and sweltering summers in a neighborhood that was an improbable blend of academic types and working class folks. Life in Hyde Park was the quintessential graduate student rite de passage, and intense as it was at times, when we left, we sorely missed it.

Here we were twenty years later, teenage son in tow, showing him "our" Hyde Park. We began with the Museum of Science and Industry. This vast museum houses a grab-bag of permanent and visiting exhibits. Surely some would appeal to him.

However, we made the mistake of visiting on a rainy, blustery Saturday, the sort of nasty day that makes parents of restless children confined indoors begin to tear out their hair; that is, until the parents all (more or less simultaneously) have a brainwave: "I know! Let’s take the kids to the Museum of Science and Industry!"

So there we were with the Teeming Millions, as Cecil Adams would say. The sea of humanity queuing for tickets should have been our cue that this wasn’t going to be the quiet, somewhat fusty place we remembered back in the 80’s. No indeedy. The big draw, it seems, was a exhibit called "Body Worlds," put together (or, should I say disassembled) by a German fellow named Gunther von Hagens.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the publicity – much of it negative – that’s since surrounded this traveling exhibit. The controversy stems from von Hagens’ use of actual human cadavers – or bits of them – preserved by a high-tech method that plasticizes the major organs, circulatory system, musculoskeletal system, and so on in an incredibly lifelike and graphic way. The brouhaha has largely centered on how von Hagens acquired the cadavers, although other critics simply question his motives: are they educational or is he merely capitalizing on the public’s fascination with the macabre?

What fascinated (and appalled) me most were the parents with very small children. Frankly, I’d think this stuff would give most small children nightmares, yet there these parents were, earnestly pointing at the fetus in the eight-months-pregnant woman who had been neatly severed lengthwise the better to display a cross-section of her womb: "Look, Tyler. There’s the umbilical cord!"

Honestly, what is WRONG with people?

After an hour or so with the Teeming Millions, we were ready for a quieter place to seek shelter from the elements. We had our own little parental brainwave, recalling that the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago had always been a favorite place years back to spend a peaceful hour or two in contemplation of the past. It contains some terrific artifacts from the ancient Near East acquired during the University’s many archeological digs in that region over the past century.

Although the Oriental Institute had obviously received some much-needed renovation since we’d last visited, the core collection was as we remembered it, with such highlights as an enormous Assyrian human-headed winged bull and a vibrantly colored tiled lion mosaic from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.

Our faith in museums restored, we emerged to find that the rain had passed. There was even a hint of sun peaking through the clouds as we strolled through the main quadrangle of the University of Chicago, pausing at Cobb Gate to point out the famous gargoyles to Greg. He seemed totally unimpressed.

Then it was time to walk over to the James Franck Institute, where Jack had had his office back in grad school. The institute is just across from where the first sustained nuclear reaction took place back in 1942, a feat commemorated by a Henry Moore sculpture entitled "Nuclear Energy" on the original site. Again, Greg seemed underwhelmed. Perhaps it's only our generation that is obsessed with the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the nuclear age.

A better bet was to head for lunch at Edwardo’s pizzeria (see separate review), passing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in route. I lobbied futilely to stop at several of my favorite Hyde Park bookstores, specifically the Seminary Co-Op (I still have shares), and my very favorite used bookstore in all the world, 57th Street Books. But it was not to be. I was vociferously outvoted by Jack and Greg, who knew perfectly well what "just a few minutes" could mean. They were hungry and having none of it.

By mid afternoon, we’d visited two museum, taken a stroll around campus, seen a few notable landmarks, and had a nice lunch. Now what? Well, there were certain things Jack and I wanted to see just for old times’ sake. For starters, we needed to check up on the Hyde Park parrots.

Back in the late 1970’s, a couple of parrots of a species originally from Argentina either escaped from their owners or were set free. No one knows. Then, defying Chicago’s frigid winters and urban environment, the parrots managed to build a nest in a tree right across from the apartment building where former Mayor Harold Washington lived.

Soon the original pair had done far more than be fruitful and multiply -- there was a large colony of parrots housed in a substantial, sprawling nest in the upper limbs of the tall ash tree. The secret to their success, apparently, was this tightly-woven and wind-resistant structure, which provided shelter from the cold.

No other Chicago neighborhood could boast something quite so incongruous as the Hyde Park parrots.

And the parrots had a patron – Mayor Harold Washington himself. There was always a police car parked in front of the mayor’s apartment building, right across from the parrots’ nest. The joke was that the police weren’t there to protect the mayor, they were there to make sure the parrots didn’t come to any harm. Eventually, the original tree that housed the parrots came down in a winter storm, but the parrots had by then colonized several other trees in the area.

So there we were, out near the lakefront, looking for parrots. Suddenly, we heard an unmistakable SQUAWK as a large, bright green bird flashed by. A Hyde Park parrot!

Our son thought we were demented as we began hugging each other, exclaiming, "Look! Did you see it?" Not sure how to respond, he feigned interest – a mistake as it promptly goaded us into a quest to find one of the new parrot colonies. Luckily, the nests are easy to spot before the trees leaf out, and it took us only a few minutes to spot several twiggy masses in tall trees nearby.

We had one last pilgrimage to make before leaving Hyde Park. Years back, a friend and I shared a weekly ritual that sustained us through years of grad school. We’d buy fried chicken from Harold’s Chicken Shack (thighs for me, chicken livers for her), then enjoy our little feast while watching the Sunday evening episode of "Doctor Who" on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station.

On this visit to Hyde Park, since we’d just had lunch and weren’t hungry, I just wanted to drive by Harold’s, just to reassure myself that it was still there. Alas, the original Harold’s had closed some years back and moved several blocks away to a location in a small shopping mall. Like Edwardo’s pizza, Harold’s Chicken Shack was a southside original that spread far and wide. (In fact, now there are something like sixty chicken shacks in the chain.)

The Hyde Park Harold’s was memorably housed in a decrepit corner building on a run-down block and was a mom-and-pop joint in its purest form. There was a hand-lettered sign on the door that laid down the law on the premises:


My friend and I found this injunction to be so Hyde Park in its essence that to this day all either of us has to do is intone, "No dogs eating bicycles" to reduce the other to helpless laughter.

The new Harold’s in Hyde Park may lack true southside ambience, but it still features a wacky neon sign. The original sign was surely worthy of a spot in some neon hall of fame. A portly chef (presumably Harold) wields an axe, which rises and falls as the chef "chases" a giant flapping chicken.

Even though the old Harold’s Chicken Shack is gone, and Harold himself has repaired to that great chicken shack in the sky, it’s good to know that certain traditions live on.

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