HYDE PARK — It’s a neighborhood where legends are made.
From the moment Paul Cornell set down stakes on 51st and Hyde Park Boulevard, the once sleepy hamlet has served as a training ground for people committed to changing the world, for better or worse. Scan a list of Hyde Park notables and you’ll find activists, artists, economists, Supreme Court judges and the occasional Nobel laureate.
You’ll also find a number of political firsts. The first black mayor. The first black female senator. The first black president. And next week, perhaps, the first black female mayor of Chicago.
While Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle may have a reputation for being serious and demanding, her affection for her adopted hometown is apparent.
It may have been chance that led 18-year-old Toni Reed from St. Paul, Minn. to Hyde Park’s University of Chicago campus in 1965, but it was love — community and familial — that has kept her there.
“An older friend of mine was attending Lake Forest College and suggested the University of Chicago,” recalled Preckwinkle in an interview with Block Club Chicago. “Back then, it was hard to do campus visits beforehand, so I didn’t see it until I was here.”
Preckwinkle was impressed by the community’s racial and economic diversity, a welcome change from the neighborhood where she grew up.
“Washington Park, Jackson Park, the lakefront…the area is unique and extraordinary in its diversity,” she said.
But the city itself, particularly the area surrounding Hyde Park, felt like another world entirely. She could see the decades of aggressive neglect that plagued the Southeast Side, and felt compelled to do something.
Well before becoming the neighborhood’s alderman in 1991, a role she would hold for two decades, Preckwinkle volunteered on high-profile political campaigns, like Hubert Humphrey’s presidential bid, and Paul Simon’s run for lieutenant governor.
In her spare time, she tutored schoolchildren in Woodlawn. She went on to teach in Chicago for a decade.
She also joined a few organizations, like the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI-IPO), with whom she credits for shaping her worldview.
“The progressive politics are the ones I adhere to today. I’m grateful for all the people in that organization that gave me that political foundation,” Preckwinkle said.
“There were communities struggling with disinvestment, and I wanted to work with residents to change it,” she said, noting the work she’d later do as alderman to bring affordable housing developments like Willard Square to the ward.
As an undergrad, she could be found hanging out at the Blue Gargoyle, a community hub for teens and young adults in the area, or with friends at Ciral’s House of Tiki, a popular dive bar in East Hyde Park that closed in 2000.
Her favorite Hyde Park haunt, though, might be Valois, the cafeteria-style restaurant favored by residents and city power players alike. She keeps an office space right above it, and grabbing a quick breakfast there has become part of her Election Day ritual, she told Chicago Magazine.
Her go-to order? Scrambled eggs and potatoes with turkey sausage on the side.
“I love the turkey sausage. I get it every time,” she said.
The Cook County boss still holds a monthly breakfast with elected officials at Valois and other Hyde Park restaurants — a chance to check in with aldermen and state reps.
Pizza Capri, another family-friendly local institution, is where Preckwinkle gets her chicken Vesuvio fix.
In her downtime, she loves strolling in the Garden of the Phoenix (known to locals as the Japanese Garden), walking her daughter’s rescued pit bull, Don, and visiting museums (her favorite being the Museum of Science and Industry, of course) with her grandchildren.
Preckwinkle said that if she wins next week’s runoff, the one thing she’ll be taking with her to City Hall are the progressive values she’s known for — the values that were shaped by her life in Hyde Park.
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