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Olympic Legacies: Give or Take?

Chicago’s historic parks and its rich architectural legacy are among the strongest selling points for promoters seeking to attract the 2016 Summer Olympics to this city.

In selling the games to Chicago’s residents, meanwhile, promises of park enhancements and sports programs for kids, as well as affordable housing, have been featured alongside visions of jobs and boom times.

But current plans put great burdens on parks, and they involve the imminent demolition of a major responsitory of the city’s historic architecture (see part two).

In many cases promised “legacy” facilities seem designed not to meet actual needs of current park users but to accommodate the requirements of Olympic planners. In many cases they involve taking away existing resources while promising residual benefits sometime in the future.

In some cases they involve taking away facilities that have been only recently built.

In Jackson Park, an Olympic field hockey venue is planned — on the site of a world-class track and football field next to Hyde Park Academy. It’s one of only three regulation tracks at Chicago schools.

The track and field opened just eight years ago, funded by a community-led drive which raised well over half a million dollars, including support from the National Football League.

“It’s eight years into a minimum 35-year lifespan,” said Ross Petersen, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.

Under the current plan, the new track will be bulldozed, along with an adjacent baseball diamond, he said. Chicago 2016 has promised to rebuild it after the games, he said, although a permanent field hockey field facility has also been touted as a possible “legacy.”

The field hockey was moved to the school after the original proposal, using popular soccer fields near a lakefront nature sanctuary, led JPAC to vote against using the park for the Olympics. Petersen said the council is grateful for the site change, but when he asked at a recent meeting whether members wanted to pass a new resolution updating their stance, no one offered a motion.

In Douglas Park, recently rebuilt gymnasiums and a pool serving the Collins Highcampus — reportedly updated at a cost of $30 million — will be demolished to make way for a $37 million velodrome for bicycle racing. Afterwards a pool “may” be moved to the park from the South Side aquatics center, and Chicago 2016 promises to convert the highly specialized, elite outdoor venue into a year-round “multisport facility.”

In Lincoln Park, Chicago 2016 is touting a legacy of 20 new tennis courts after the Olympic tennis venue is taken down. They will replace 20 existing tennis courts.

Washington Park has attracted the most attention. There a $400 million temporary stadium for opening ceremonies and track events, along with a $100 million aquatic center featuring four pools, will be sited on the open meadow that dates to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1870 design.

The thousand-acre park, listed on the National Registery of Historic Places, comprises one-seventh of the Chicago’s parkland and features 14 baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, and cricket pitches. Under current plans, it will be closed for at least four years to accomodate the two-week 2016 extravaganza.

The Washington Park Advisory Council has endorsed the siting, although only a few of the 26 conditions it issued two years ago as requirements for its support have been addressed. But a number of community, citywide and national groups have opposed the use of the meadow for the stadium, including the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, Friends of the Parks, Preservation Chicago and the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

NAOP objects that Chicago 2016 plans “threaten the park’s signature public open spaces and sweeping vistas, jeopardizing [the] integrity, significance and public use” of “a masterpiece of America’s preeminent landscape architect.” According to NAOP, “plans to tear down the stadium following the Olympics are unrealistic” — and even if they are carried out, the new ampitheater and aquatic center would “take a major open space and restrict its use to specific activities, and a much more limited user population.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Washington Park’s 125 Anniversary Marked

A month-long celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the naming of Washington Park will highlight the park’s “rich and vibrant” social and cultural history, said Elizabeth Babcock of the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project.

A community celebration on Sunday, May 7, 3 p.m., in the park’s refectory (5531 S. Russell Drive) will feature a buffet dinner and a talk by local historian Christopher Reed, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University. Presentations will be given by community groups which use the park — including the Washington Park Forum, an open discussion group which has met continuously since its origin in the 1920s, when Washington Park was a gathering place for soapboxers.

Historical photos and archival material gathered by students with the Civic Knowledge Project will be displayed, and residents are encouraged to bring their own photos to be digitized during dinner, with complementary “Treasures of Washington Park” CDs available at the conclusion of the program.

On Saturday, May 13, at 8 a.m., UC Professor Aaron Turkewitz will lead an introduction to bird-watching starting at the park’s field house.

On Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m., Washington Park Advisory Council President Cecilia Butler and two UC graduate students will lead a walking tour of the park, covering the park’s design and development and how race and class issues have played out there. Starting at the field house, the tour concludes at the historic site of the Washington Park Forum, with a public debate by current members of the forum and local school debaters.

On Saturday, May 27, at 10 a.m., Loyola historican and archivist Ellen Skerrett and St. Ignatius College Prep teacher John Lillig will lead a tour of prominent sites from James Farrell’s novels.

On Tuesday, June 6, the advisory council will host Washington Park Discovery Day for children from neighboring schools, with displays by the city’s cultural institutions and recreational agencies.

Washington Park was initially designed in the 1870s by seminal landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux. The park’s central green was a pastoral meadow featuring grazing sheep; today it’s the largest ballplaying field in Chicago, named in honor of Harold Washington, said Butler.

Racial issues played out in Washington Park during the post-World War I Great Migration, said Babcock. Pioneer black banker Jesse Binga was the first African American to live on South Park Drive, and his home was firebombed repeatedly; by the 1930s, the entire neighborhood was African American, said Babcock.

The Bud Billiken Day Parade, founded by the Chicago Daily Defender in 1929, was part of an effort by African Americans to claim their right to use the park, where they were initially unwelcome, Babcock said.

The Park District rebuffed the advisory council’s efforts after Mayor Washington’s death to renamed the park for him, Butler said. But she adds, “When you say ‘Washington’ today, very few people who live around here think ‘George.’”

Butler enumerates the park’s “treasures” — Lorenzo Taft’s massive sculpture “Fountain of Time” (recently restored, with the restoration of its wading pool imminent); the DuSable Museum; the city’s only water slide; the city’s only arboretum, and its oldest tree. The council’s goals include a permanent bandshell for the many large cultural events that now use portable stages.

The May 7 buffet dinner (tickets are $25, donations at the door accepted) will benefit a new disabled-accessible playground at the park.

Butler has served on the council since its inception in 1986 — and she points out that 2006 is also the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Park District’s advisory councils, instituted by Mayor Harold Washington.

The Civic Knowledge Project is sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Humanities Division and seeks to build bridges of knowledge and discourse between the University and South Side communities.

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