Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Once upon a time, Chicago’s artists and bohemians flocked to Hyde Park. Photographers moved into empty concession stands from the 1893 World’s Fair between the Metra and Stony Island Avenue. Little by little, the area became an artists’ colony, with used bookstores, restaurants, studios, a guitar shop, a coffee shop and more. The cheap rent and lack of amenities 1 allowed any number of artists to live and work, from sculptors to watercolorists to writers to blues musicians, attracting Chicago’s greatest artistic minds like Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow. Even several University of Chicago professors, enacting new theories from the Chicago School of Urban Sociology that emphasized interacting with the city, joined the literary and intellectual community at the end of 57th street. According to bookseller Reid Michener, people were “full of ideas, full of theories, full of vigor and curiosity.”2

The colony leaked its artsiness across the neighborhood, especially along 57th Street. Many more artists lived in the Choudich Castle and in “cable court” on 57th and Harper.3 This area contained studios, including that of modernist Emil Armin, and businesses like the Clark bookstore. The area around Cable Court benefited from nearby saloons, the Beehive jazz club, the original location of the Medici Gallery and Coffee Shop, and the Compass Players, the improv troupe that became the Second City. Cable court also saw an early location of the Hyde Park Co-Op4. The Co-Op, one of the world’s first cooperative grocery stores, was founded in 1932 in response to the Great Depression and expanded rapidly. By the time it became one of the first tenants of the Hyde Park Shopping Center, it offered a nursery, a credit union, a home economics specialist, a library and a weekly newsletter. Locals say, however, that this move precipitated the decline that led to its failure due to mismanagement in the early 2000s.5

Mary Louise Womer at the 57th St. Art Fair, (1965).
Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Further west, 57th Street hosted still more artists and writers. On Dorchester, enigmatic surrealist painter and “Queen of the Bohemians” Gertrude Abercrombie lived with her allegedly-cat-burglar husband, Frank Sandiford.6 At 57th and Kenwood, literary Hyde Parkers could find yet another bookstore in a collection of “reddish buildings” called the Goff House that housed artists, studios, a theater troupe and a restaurant called the Tropical Hut. It also contained Mary Louise Womer’s gallery, the “Potte Shop,” which sold art from University students and neighborhood residents. Womer realized that her gallery couldn’t accommodate everyone, so she founded the 57th Street Art Fair in 1948, where artists could make money without competition from corporations. Artists at the fair included arts colony residents, students at UChicago or SAIC, and artisans from the community. Of the first fifty artists, only seventeen were professionals, and the fair itself was organized by volunteers.7 Just like the fair, the nearby Hyde Park Art Center, which helped sponsor the first festival, reflected the existing community within Hyde Park by exhibiting local artists and offering classes. Both institutions offered a certain irreverence compared to the University: for example, one artist tried to sell a canoe with which he had paddled up the Mississippi, while exhibition afterparties invariably featured “Art Center Punch.”8

Customers at the 57th St. Art Fair, (1965).
Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Much of this bohemian vibe began to falter with the introduction of urban renewal. As Womer would explain, urban renewal eliminated all “marginal commercial space in Hyde Park”.9 Because of the buildings’ dilapidated condition, the art colony had served as a low rental area that could take in those who couldn’t afford rent otherwise. The very “blight” and presence of saloons on 55th Street that made the area a target of urban renewal allowed the bohemians of Hyde Park A to thrive. Those institutions that still exist (the Art Center and Arts Fair, for example) now often lack the bohemian atmosphere that had aided their formation. As writer Betty Hechtman explained, urban renewal made the neighborhood safer, but more “antiseptic”.10

As a consolation prize for the Art Colony, Hyde Parkers led by Muriel Beadle pushed for a shopping center to rehabilitate the artistic community. To that end, the Urban Renewal commission and Small Business Administration helped create a shopping center at Harper and 53rd to house artists, artisans and small businesses like bookstores, cafes and music shops.11 Though the artists colony couldn’t be preserved intact, Harper Court nonetheless included a bicycle shop, restaurants, clothing shops, a record store, the Fret Shop (where folk music superstar Joan Baez supposedly anonymously hung out)12 and much else. Nearby, an independent playhouse, the iconic “House of Tiki,” and the YMCA made Harper Court the neighborhood’s town square.13 Longtime Hyde Parker Nina Helstein describes playing music in Harper Court with her friend Paul Butterfield (a famous blues musician), as old men played chess. Its eventual closure in the early 2000s, she said, was “like something torn from your heart”.14 To Nina and many others, the new primarily-university-owned shopping center of the same name is no replacement.

Nowadays, Hyde Park’s bohemians exist mainly at its fringes. Neighboring Woodlawn contains the Experimental Station, which hosts several studios, Blackstone Bicycle Works, Build Coffee, the offices of the Hyde Park Herald, and the ever-popular 61st Street Farmers Market.15 To many, the Experimental Station is a quintessential Hyde Park institution, despite its actual location in Woodlawn. Even the Hyde Park Art Center, which continues its programming undiminished, occupies neighboring Kenwood. Washington Park and South Shore reflect the work of artist and University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates and the University’s Arts and Public Life initiative, like the Arts Block by the Garfield Green Line.16 Ironically, while the University extends its artistic reach outside of the neighborhood, several student-run fixtures like WHPK, Doc Films and the UChicago Folk Festival have begun losing funding.17 Despite a few outliers, like the 57th Street Art Fair, Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and Connect Gallery on 53rd Street, the non-university bohemian community of Hyde Park has been pushed to the fringes of the neighborhood or displaced entirely. Will they all live happily ever after? That’s for the next generation of Hyde Parkers to decide.

Super Mart at Harper Court, Hyde Park, (1966).
Courtesy of the Housing and Urban Development National Archives.


  1. Betty Hechtman Interview
  2. Hyde Park Historical Society Collection, Box 51a, folder 1
  3. Betty Hechtman Interview, Hyde Park Historical Society
    Collection Box 51, Folder 9, Mildred and Burt Clark Box 51a,
    Folder 1 (Reid Michener Interview) Folder 6, (Mary Louise
    Womer Interview)
  4. Hyde Park Historical Society Hyde Park Coop Records, Box 1–the
    early location was a former ice house on Harper and 56th
  5. Nina Helstein interview
  6. Betty Hechtman Interview
  7. Betty Hechtman Interview, Hyde Park Historical Society
    Collection Box 51a, folder 6 (Mary Louise Womer Interview)
  8. Hyde Park Historical Society Collection, Box 32, Folders 14-17
  9. Hyde Park Historical Society Collection Box 51a, folder 6 (Mary
    Louise Womer Interview)
  10. Betty Hechtman Interview
  11. Hyde Park Historical Society Collection, Box 32, Folders 7-9


“57 Street Art Fair Founder, Mary Louise Womer, dead at 87,” Hyde Park Herald, November 12, 1997, 6.

“Art Colony Plays Swan Song,” Hyde Park Herald, May 9, 1962, 10.

Betty Hechtman, interview with author, August 24, 2023.

Christine Vollmer, interview with author, August 22, 2023.

Delgado, Gustavo. “Doc Films Fundraising for $60000 in Upgrades amid Budget Cuts,” Chicago Maroon, April 9, 2023.

Edgar, Hannah. “Sounds Reborn: How the University of Chicago Folk Festival built its own Tradition,” Spring 2023.

“Hyde Park Classics”, various posts on Facebook group, Accessed July 2023.

Hyde Park Historical Society Collection, Boxes 30, 31, 32, 51, 51a, 60,
62, 72, 88. Hanna Holborn Grey Special Collections at the University
of Chicago Regenstein Library, Accessed July 2023.

Hyde Park Historical Society Hyde Park Co-Op Records, Box 1, Hanna
Holborn Grey Special Collections at the University of Chicago
Regenstein Library, Accessed July 2023

Latiak, Dorothy S. “Literary Greats Added to Local Art Colony,” Hyde
Park Herald, December 26, 1990, 4.

Nelson, J. R. and Leor Galil. “WHPK Faces A Funding Crisis that Could
Take it Off the Air,” Chicago Reader, July 18, 2023.

Nina Helstein, interview with author, July 2023.