Alivisatos describes his approach to development and public security | Local News
Paul Alivisatos settles down slowly.
The airy office of the new University of Chicago president in Levi Hall is filled with books handpicked by Seminary Co-op staff — everything from academic hits on aesthetic theory to Ben’s “High-Risers.” Austen on the residents of Cabrini-Green – which he gradually gets around reading.
He lives downtown at the moment, but plans to move into the President’s house at 59th Street and South University Avenue this summer. (For now, Robert Zimmer, his predecessor and now chancellor of the university, is still staying there.)
A few more months isn’t that long, anyway, considering Alivisatos’ return to the neighborhood took four decades in all. Like all the other presidents of the U. from C., he came to administration from academia, where he continues to conduct research on nanomaterials. But he is also the first president since Edward H. Levi, in office from 1968 to 1975, who was an undergraduate at the school.
Alivisatos spent his freshman year in 1977 at the Shoreland Hotel, 5454 S. Shore Drive, which the university had just purchased and was beginning to convert into a dormitory. (It housed students until 2008 when the school sold it to Mac Properties. The company renovated the building and now rents the units as luxury apartments.)
“Two floors were converted into dormitories and the other ten were still occupied by single rooms with many elderly residents,” Alivisatos said. “It was a fascinating sociological mix of UChicago students aged 17, 18, and seniors.”
At school, Alivisatos said he liked to visit the Seminary Co-op bookstore and “just pick up the books.” He was also president of Doc Films, the student film society at U. of C., where he engaged in “very hardcore semiotics” and browsed the group’s 35mm film collection housed at Cobb Hall.
“I spent a lot of time doing stuff like that,” he said. “I certainly didn’t expect to become a teacher.”
After Shoreland, he lived in a series of apartments around Hyde Park-Kenwood before graduating in 1981: in Indian Village, in a townhouse on Maryland Avenue that has since been replaced by the U. of C. Medical Center and an apartment near the Hyde Grocery Park Co-op. Among the restaurants still existing, he ate at Valois and Salonika; he also spent three days as a waiter—”I couldn’t cut it”—at Agora, a Greek restaurant in the storefront now occupied by Noodles Etc., 1333 E. 57th St.
“I liked to walk a lot, so I ended up walking through Hyde Park the whole time,” he said. “It has grown a lot over the years since then, and there are a lot more things that make the cultural life and experience better than it was back then,”
“I will say that I also really enjoyed living in Hyde Park back then, despite the fact that, I would say, it probably wasn’t as culturally vibrant as it is today – for me it was still a wonderful experience.” he continued. “Sometimes I feel like people describe both college and Hyde Park (at the time) as kind of a dark age. For me, I was happy here.
Of course, the development Alivisatos points out is largely due to the influence of the U. of C. – the Harper Court project has changed the face of retail at the corner of 53rd Street and South Lake Park Avenue, and the school maintains a large commercial real estate portfolio in the rest of the neighborhood. (It has unloaded many of its residential properties in recent years.) Representatives from the university’s Commercial Real Estate Operations and Office of Civic Engagement are ubiquitous presences at local development meetings.
The development at the south end of Midway Plaisance and in Woodlawn has a new undergraduate dormitory and the David Rubenstein Forum, a meeting place for academic initiatives and community members. In Washington Park, the U. of C. is gradually completing its Arts Block, which includes the Arts Incubator and the Greenline Performing Arts Center.
“I think it’s extremely important for the university to be deeply engaged in this, to do things, not just be there,” Alivisatos said. “I’m very interested in the Washington Park and Woodlawn areas, and I think the university can work with the community…to have better, thriving communities in that area.”
He pitched the idea of job training initiatives and small business resources in Washington Park, and said he wanted to attract more permanent institutions to the neighborhood.
“I expect there will be other anchor tenants in due course who can also help shake things up,” he said. “The university can do a lot, but it is only one type of institution. I would like to partner up to help lead others and to help make this a more vibrant spectrum.
The activities of the U. of C. in and around Hyde Park have often drawn criticism. A Herald editorial in 2014 decried the lack of community input into the Harper Court project. More recently, local activists have accused the school of helping to displace low-income black people from Hyde Park and surrounding areas – a coalition of local groups released a repair request from school in February, for example.
Alivisatos emphasized that he would like any development to involve the community, and said meetings with local groups and individuals have given him a sense of optimism “that we can do things that are really good”.
“I think it’s really important for us to work and listen with the community early on what the needs are and what we can do,” he said. “We have the opportunity, together, to think about how to create more economic activity without displacing people? We know it’s a hard thing to do, but we should do our best to achieve it.
Outside of development, the U. of C. also plays a central role in local policing and public safety, with the University of Chicago Police Department patrol area extending from 37th Street to 64th Street and from Lake Shore Drive to Cottage Grove Ave. And shortly after Alivisatos started work last year, Hyde Park saw a particularly heartbreaking burst of violence on November 9, when the recent college graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng was killed during an attempted robbery and a group of gunmen opened fire on 53rd Street. In January, a UCPD agent shot and wounded a gunman near Kimbark Plaza.
Following these incidents, the U. de C. outlined a near-term policing strategy, but also described a more ambitious commitment by the school to “do more to support the social and economic health of communities surrounding the university to tackle root causes of violence”, as Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee wrote in a December 10 message.
Alivisatos quoted the recent hiring of new UCPD leader Kyle Bowman as cause for optimism. “I think he’s going to bring a lot of energy, thought and care to this role, so I’m happy about that,” he said. (The Herald has requested an interview with Bowman.)
He also mentioned initiatives such as the violence prevention fund that the school recently launchedwhich will distribute grants to local organizations for violence prevention work in the Mid-South Side.
“We would like to make these investments towards the end of the spring quarter so that they start to be active during the summer,” Alivisatos said.
“The discussion we just had about how we can have continued development, growth and economic activity, that should also be part of our long-term vision,” he continued. “It’s ultimately tied to this issue of public safety – if we have a healthier, more vibrant economy, I think we’ll be in a better position.”
Writer Aaron Geter contributed.