The heart of Hyde Park: With UChicago support, black-owned businesses thrive on 53rd Street

eric williams silver room

For more than 15 years, Eric Williams’s shop, The Silver Room, set trends on Chicago’s North Side with an expertly curated mix of merchandise and an annual block party that drew thousands. But by 2015, Wicker Park’s rising rents and proliferation of chain retailers had Williams convinced that it was time to seek a neighborhood with more diversity and a richer cultural vibe.

With the help of UChicago’s Commercial Real Estate Operations (CREO) department, he quickly found a new home on a street overflowing with energy, creativity, and diversity. First a pop-up shop and now an anchor of the revitalized 53rd Street in Hyde Park, The Silver Room is one of a number of thriving black-owned businesses that form the heart of the community.

Local input informs the business mix

CREO contributes to a strong Hyde Park business district by providing commercial space to a diverse group of shopping, dining, and entertainment tenants. The street’s mix of businesses has evolved since the University hosted a visioning process in 2012, bringing community members and business owners together to identify what they wanted to see in the neighborhood.

“We look for tenants based on what we heard,” said Derek Douglas, the University’s vice president for civic engagement and external affairs, “and have thought carefully about the mix in order to bring in businesses that are complementary to — not competitive with — what was already on 53rd.” For example, Jojayden offers custom-made clothing, while nearby Sir & Madame showcases original ready-to-wear designs. Diners can enjoy American Southern fine dining at Virtue, the only Chicago restaurant on Eater.com’s list of America’s sixteen best new restaurants of 2019, or they can grab lunch at the fast-casual Soul Shack down the street.

And the clientele of 53rd Street businesses is as diverse as the storefronts, said Erick Williams, Virtue’s owner and executive chef, who was the longtime executive chef at mk in River North before opening Virtue in University-owned space at 53rd and Harper in 2018.

Why did he choose to locate his restaurant in Hyde Park? “The question is, why not Hyde Park?” said Williams. “It’s pretty appealing. One of the great things about the neighborhood is that it’s so diverse — you see it in every facet of living, from who’s dating whom to economic diversity to educational diversity, and the richness of that diversity is something to be desired throughout our city. We’re thankful to the University and to the community for really supporting this space that adds to the soul of downtown Hyde Park.”

Sir & Madame was located in Ukrainian Village when Hyde Park natives Autumn and Brian Merritt (who met as students at Ray Elementary on Kimbark) heard about the opportunity to open a pop-up shop on 53rd Street in 2014. “In the early 2000s, it felt like Hyde Park had plateaued a bit — like there wasn’t as much energy or effort put into making sure small businesses were successful,” Autumn remembers. “But things have come full circle, and now it’s reminiscent of what it was back in ’98 or so,” when the Merritts worked in local coffee shops and boutiques. After their successful pop-up run, the pair moved Sir & Madame to a permanent space in Harper Court in 2015.

The University’s thoughtful approach to developing a mix of tenants has distinct advantages for the neighborhood and for local business owners, said The Silver Room’s Eric Williams: “If you’re working with a normal, for-profit landlord, national chains take over.”

Building community, one storefront at a time

erik rico nance soul shack

Erik Nance, owner of the Soul Shack and its next-door neighbor, Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, as well as LiteHouse Whole Food Grill and Mikkey’s Retro Grill, appreciates the changes on 53rd Street since he opened his first restaurant there seven years ago. “People are now drawn to 53rd for entertainment, food, and shopping,” he said. “It helps everybody on the street,” including those who, like Nance, aren't University tenants. The business model at Nance's restaurants is all about giving back: He provides free meals to those in need at LiteHouse, and hires employees from the South Side who need a second chance, including ex-offenders and people experiencing homelessness.

That community-minded approach aligns closely with CREO’s. Douglas says that CREO looks for “businesses owned by people who are deeply committed to community and want to become part of the fabric of Hyde Park.” For example, The Silver Room is also an art gallery and community hub where people gather to enjoy everything from tango lessons and DJ sets to language lessons and storytelling showcases.

Eric Williams also partners with the University on community-wide arts events such as the Silver Room Block Party — which drew 50,000 people to 53rd Street and brought about $2.5 million into Hyde Park in 2019, he estimates — and the Harper Court Summer Music Series.  “Everybody wins” through these partnerships, he says: “I get to put on cool events, the University gets this vibrant neighborhood, and the community gets a place to hang out and dance. Plus, people who’ve never been to Hyde Park before come in for these events and see all that we have going on here.”

In addition to sponsoring events and offering affordable space, the University provides support to business owners through CREO, including marketing services that Williams says are crucial to the success of independent businesses. “If you’re an indie business, you just don’t get that kind of help. That’s one of the ways this street is a great model for how public and private institutions can work together. The University isn’t some monolith — it’s a collection of people who have a vision of trying to create a better community.”

Williams’s other neighbors on 53rd Street and Harper Court include the following black-owned businesses, some of which are tenants in UChicago properties: Anthos Training Clubs, A’Vents by August, Connect Gallery, Ja’ Grill, Kilimanjaro International, and Kimbark Beverage Shoppe. Elsewhere in Hyde Park, you’ll find B’Gabs Goodies, Gilda Designer Thrift Boutique, The Silver Umbrella, Sip & Savor, and Wesley’s Shoes.

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