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Outside opinion confirms this picture of an affluent, educated populace. An international market-research company called Claritas, based in Arlington, Virginia, divides the nation's multitudes into 50 demographic groups, and 62 lifestyle (or purchasing) clusters, then sells very localized information to retailers who want to avoid building a Champagne store in a Budweiser neighborhood.

According to Claritas, central Hyde Park--Kenwood is totally Taittinger. Within a half mile radius of the intersection of Kenwood and 54th, 60 percent of adults are what the company labels "Urban Up and Comers," young people in white-collar occupations, with high levels of education and medium-high incomes. More than 40 percent of those over 25 have graduate degrees. "Up and Comers" play tennis, eat out, travel abroad, and read the Wall Street Journal. South of 55th Street, Comers most often fit the lifestyle cluster the company calls "Young Literati": serious readers who pop vitamins, plan for purchases, peruse GQ. North of 55th one finds more "Bohemian Mix," also white collar but more likely to shop at the Gap, skim Elle, watch Face the Nation. Hyde Park also harbors a sizeable block of "Movers and Shakers," older, highly educated, dual-income couples who browse Business Week, and listen to National Public Radio.

Push out a mile farther, into the upper 60s or the lower 40s, and you begin to see the limits of South Side revitalization. Despite the burgeoning real estate booms in Woodlawn and North Kenwood, "Up and Comers" gradually give ground to "Metro Mix," a group with less education. "Metro Mix" often segues into "Difficult Times"--single-parent families with higher unemployment.

image: Location, location, location
Location, location, location: the combination of urban and more bucolic vistas makes Hyde Park a more and more attractive place to live.

Within Hyde Park--Kenwood, however, the seller's market has progressed to phase two, from residential to retail. All those Comers and Shakers have attracted more and more businesses to the neighborhood. People from all over Chicago have always come to Hyde Park to buy books. Now people from Hyde Park no longer have to go all over Chicago to buy everything else. "The number of businesses has skyrocketed," says Irene Sher, commercial real estate guru for the SECC. Recent additions include a new Ace hardware store, an Office Depot outlet, more specialty boutiques along 53rd Street, and multiple access to Starbucks coffee. Residents can pick up a lamp, note-taking equipment, a scone, and a latte to support their reading habits.

Retail offerings have expanded enough to create some tensions among long-term residents, who worry that accelerated growth could replace the tranquility and character of neighborhood shops with the clutter and commotion they associate with the North Side. Alderman Preckwinkle's office has been working for more than a year with the City's department of planning to secure a tax increment funding (TIF) district along 53rd Street. For 23 years, all increases over the area's initial property tax levies will be used to fund development, making the area more attractive to a "better mix" of retailers, via enhanced streetscaping and off-street parking, a prospect that concerns some, who fear that it could raise rents, driving out the smaller businesses such as Rajun Cajun, a creole/Indian eatery that caters to local tastes and budgets, in favor of cookie-cutter national chains.

"I'm not worried about commercialization," says broadcaster Ferguson, "but I want it to reflect the values of the community and not be imposed. No one wants Borders Books to come in here and threaten the Seminary Co-op bookstores. But I think we can handle both, we can have planned retail growth without endangering our uniqueness." Jo Reizner, director of real estate for the University, echoes her sentiments. She admits that "Most Hyde Parkers do want more retail outlets, more places to shop," quickly adding, "but not all that much more."

image: Hyde Park

Universally welcomed, however, is the influx of new and varied restaurants. Eating out in the 1970s meant choosing between Thai cuisine and the Valois, Gallic for "see your food." Now three local restaurants rate stars in either the Chicago Tribune or Chicago magazine: southern cooking at the Dixie Kitchen, Caribbean cuisine at Calypso, and at long last French, La Petite Folie, which has become the leading local spot for faculty recruitment dinners.

Better housing, less crime, more services, "all these improvements add up," says Webber. "You don't have huge progress every day or even every week, but you chip away. Robie House opening as a full-time museum: there's a big improvement. A lawn in front of the Museum of Science and Industry rather than a sea of parking lots: that matters.

"There are still problems, of course. Parking was bad and has gotten worse, and as we add more students, it will be worse still until a new garage opens," a 1,000-space facility on 55th Street between Ellis and Greenwood Avenues this December.

"And we need more affordable houses with yards," Webber continues. "I think Woodlawn and North Kenwood are our future there. But on the whole, Hyde Park is a much, much better place than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The University played a big role in that and the fact that we're about to invest another $500 million in new campus construction sends a powerful message. But lots of people deserve lots of credit."

The improvements, large and small, seen all over the neighborhood, do add up. Accumulated over an afternoon tour, they seem to have won over the poet's partner, Jeff Chase. Dyrud found him two places he liked, a third-floor condominium on Everett, with two porches, lake view--at least in leafless seasons, if you're over six-foot--and a dining room painted "willow." He also liked East View Park; elegant older structures, again near the lake, in a park-like setting, and no dogs. "This place has a nice kind of quiet," he tells her. "I like it."

"Good," she replies with genuine pleasure, heading back to the office. "I just wanted to persuade you that you can find a place here. I wanted to convince you that this is a lovely neighborhood."

"I am pleased to say," Chase responds with equal sincerity, "that you have done that."

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