Friday, January 8, 2010

Books, Urban Renewal, and Some Local History: The Annual Hyde Park Book Fair

A Bounty of Books in the Fall

When I first moved to Chicago nearly ten years ago, into the seemingly cozy neighborhood of Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago is located, it was with surprise and delight that I discovered a fairly large used book sale taking place, only a few weeks after my arrival. The annual book fair or "used booksale" as it is officially called, has been taking place for many years now, according to local sources, and has filled me, over this past decade, with that little spark of curiosity and excitability that comes when the treasures of unknown books are to be found. Surely, many of you readers experience this when you enter into a used book shop, but this experience is ever-heightened for me when the left-overs of someone's attic, basement, or trash turns out to be a booty of interesting books, all waiting to be picked through and over and discovered by 20-something graduate students, patched-elbow professors, friendly widows, and all others in between.

For many, used book sales are like bargain or church basement sales, thrift store runs, or antique markets. You never really know what you're going to find. And that is part of the joy, if not the main joy of it: discovery. Especially if you are the kind of person who is the consumate curiosity seeker, always wanting to learn something new and different. When I first discovered the used book sale here, it was in 2001, just weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11. I'd settled in as a new and clueless graduate student at the University of Chicago. I roamed around the neighborhood, sipping the modest brew of the French cafe and bakery, while nibbling on a fatty but delicious croissant stuffed with nutella. Early in my wanderings, I discovered that Hyde Park was ripe with people who liked to ask for money. It was on my way to this first used book sale that I recall a man sitting on the street near a Korean Restaurant. As I passed, he called up to me: "Hey, brother! Could I get some change for food?" I wasn't inclined to giving money out on the streets, and when I realized I had a nice fresh apple on me, I offered that. The man whinced, his eyebrows twisted into a knot, which pulled his eyes, nose, and mouth into a tightness that made him look like a pastry! It was as if I'd not only sickened him by the fresh bounty of the earth, but offended him for offering such. "No way!" he retorted. "I wanna Happy Meal!"

These occurences became ever more frequent over the years, but perhaps not ever as comical as my "Happy Meal" moment. After this first encounter, and moving on to the sale itself that first year in 2001, another interesting observation was that people were drooling over the books, even before the gates were open. It's like yard sales, where antique shop owners in my hometown back in New York would show up one or two hours before the yard sale opened! Similary, the human jackals of the book genus would all show up in the early hours or night before, and try to get a glimpse of that cheap copy of Sartre's L'Être et le néant or Trollope's Barchester Chronicles. Not that any of us would have the time to read these things. But it goes to show the power of human desire to aquire books, especially so-called bargain books. And in the case of the Hyde Park sale, the price of books drops every successive day, usually from $2 per hardback to $1, to 50 cents, and then on the final day something like $1 per bag or box! But by that final day, the best of the pickin's are gone.

When I started to do a little research on the history of this sale, I discovered a little of the history of the Hyde Park neighborhood, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods of Kenwood and Woodlawn. Though I didn't find a compelling history of the book sale itself, these ancillary tales of the history of Hyde Park are telling of the broader story of mid-20th century America. In 1949, there was a move toward so-called "Urban Renewal," which in many cases was aimed at "removing poor people," though it was often cast as "upgrading neighborhoods." For a period of thirty years or so, projects of Urban Renewal found a home in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The most forceful of these projects began in the early 1950s. This was still a time in Chicago when Restrictive Covenants were common: "RC"s were modes of segregation, where home owners would purposely not sell to people of specific racial or ethnic background. In Hyde Park, though, before the Civil Rights movement, RCs were connected with Urban Renewal to some degree. A move was put forward to basically remove the "blight" of Lake Park and 55th Streets, which are the main arteries of Hyde Park today, as well as other extremeties of the neighborhood, such as Cottage Grove and the Midway.

It took over a decade to complete this, and included various litigations, but what happened was that homes, rentals, and other buildings were bought up and torn down. According to some locals who've been around since those days, 55th was a thriving musical scene, especially jazz and blues. But to the University and city, it was considered a magnet for those they did not want around. Whatever poverty or "blight" existed, it was ripped out by this project of "Urban Renewal." Perhaps the oddest of stories I heard regarding this time period was back in about 2002, when I was still a student, and then working at the University library. I'd known two local Hyde Parkers, who'd been in Hyde Park for a very long time: one had lived here since the 1960s, another was born here in the 1940s. And they knew the history, as well as the archival materials in the Univeristy collections regarding restrictive covenants and urban renewal.

The story went that when all of this was taking place in the 1950s, some high ranking officials in the University, perhaps the president and board, had two significant plans to deal with the "urban blight" and crime that was threatening the university and its community. The first plan involved moving the University of Chicago, piece by piece!, from Hyde Park to Aspen, Colorado! It was the "let's get the hell out of here" plan. The second plan was to revisit the design of the 1893 World's Fair and the work of the sculptors and architects of the Midway, which is located just south of the main campus of the University, by about 58th Street. Specifically, this plan involved creating a moat around the University of Chicago--to keep "undesirables" out! That's right, a moat! It was thought that they could keep the students in and everyone else out. But like I said, this is from two sources within the University, who've been around for a long time. I do not have a paper or archival source at this time to support it.

Either way, it is an interesting story and history, which makes us consider the relative impact that urban renewal has had on Hyde Park over the past sixty years, and the legacy of poverty still with us today.

There is still the consideration of the axiological role of books and their relation to socio-economics; and moreso when we consider the role of a used book sale in a well-off neighborhood, surrounded by not-so-well-off neighborhoods. Axiology, which is a study of value, and a topic I addressed in a blog last June, may be analyzed from the point of the basic question "what is and how do we define the idea of 'value'?" Into this picture, we must consider issues of "value gradation"--for example, individuals living on the street place an understanding of value in the context of survival: food, clothing, shelter; whereas those in ever increasing social and economic locations begin to see a more diversified understanding of value, when daily living becomes more palatable, or simply possible. So where does "the book" fit into this scenario? That's a good question. I'm not sure I have an answer, but a "used book sale" may offer the opportunity for both the pleasure seeker and the impoverished of purse to find immense treasures and offerings.

Now besides this other bibliotourist above, who is clearly reporting for some local magazine, there were a great diversity of people enjoying the bibliographic fruits of this annual mainstay. After I'd found my fill of this year's pickin's, I sat down at the adjacent cafe, bought myself a pastry and coffee, and looked over my new (used) books. I looked down at my feet and couldn't help but notice a ripped out page from a book. In fact, there were dozens of pages free floating and flying about in the breeze just near me. The one closest to me turned out to be p. 23 from the illustrious classic "The Catcher in the Rye," by the recently late J.D. Salinger (1919-2010). I read "The Catcher..." I think in my first or second year of college, and remember a professor telling me "don't you think you're a little old for that?" Oddly, I'm not sure I got the true gist of the book even at my "advanced" age those sixteen years ago! Even if such books are age-specific, and speak to a more generationally specific slice of the population, there is still a certain timeless quality to such works.

But like many things in this world, the chief "...Rye" character and oft-described anti-hero Holden Caulfield, whose angst, loneliness, and isolation from and in the world seem to echo the elements of the day of the book fair. Crowds of people all tending to their reading desires and solipsistic tendencies to gather books, retreat to a corner, and read in solitary repose; the old and worn books of the fair, like this Salinger novel, falling hopelessly apart, its leaves of torn pages flying to the wind, isolated from the world in which they were created, alone on the cool pavement of autumn waiting for a street sweeper to come along and toss them into a bin; or even this quiet, wandering, and solitary pigeon, pacing across the sidewalk, thinking to him/herself where that next bread crumb will come from. Books, reading, wandering, searching: we're all among one another, but so too in solitary worlds of reflection. And books are the partners, who join us in these expeditions. And sometimes a pigeon.

1 comment:

  1. This was beautifully written. I especialy enjoyed your powerful conclusion.