Friday, March 27, 2009

Nowhere, Illinois

I have to admit having been puzzled for years at the outcry against the proposal to re-locate the Chicago Children's Museum to what is currently the Daley Bicentennial Plaza at the north end of Grant Park.

Having spent a great deal of time there over the past 20 odd years I can say that DBP is certainly not one of the loveliest parks in the city. I was also curious at the claims of the folks who live around the park about keeping Grant Park "forever open, clear and free", since most of the recreational activities currently there block essential views of the lake and the skyline and they are certainly not free.

But upon further consideration, the blathering of the pro-museum crowd, especially that of Mayor Daley made even less sense. At the height of the furor, during the ribbon cutting at a new housing development on the south side, at an event that I attended, the mayor accused the residents who lived around DBP who opposed the museum of being racists.

Daley elsewhere dubbed Frank Gehry's serpentine BP Bridge which connects Millennium Park to DBP as the "Bridge to Nowhere", ironic since the place he called nowhere is named in honor of his father.

This week I've been reading through Lynn Becker's comments on the subject in his excellent blog ArchitectureChicago PLUS. His posts about why the museum should not go there made me entirely re-think my position on the subject. You can read some of his views here.

Reading Becker made me realize this: That the people living around the park deserve to be heard on issues concerning their neighborhood. And yes it is indeed a neighborhood, albeit a vertical one.

Some critics say the neighbors are selfish because they believe that DBP is their own private park. This is nonsense. If the folks living around Humboldt or Garfield Park or any other public park in the city were to express concerns about development in their neighborhood, no one in their right mind would claim they were being selfish.

Living downtown does not exclude one from being able to make a case for your community. It certainly doesn't merit the lack of transparency from city officials and least of all the hurling of convenient racial epithets. The opponents of re-locating the Children's Museum to DBP are concerned that the development of the museum would greatly increase the volume of traffic in DBP. This is a valid concern.

While Millennium Park is by all accounts a rousing success insofar as bringing people downtown, does this necessarily mean that thronging masses need to spread out all over Grant Park? Does the fact that DCP lacks the attractions of its neighbor to the west make it inferior? Most importantly, if a park does not attract millions of visitors per year, does that make it a failure? I would answer a resolute no to all three questions.

Millennuim Park's success notwithstanding, it is not a park at all but a playground. It is a collection of attractions. In that respect it is no different from Navy Pier, where the Children's Museum currently resides. It is the antithesis of the urban park, an essential space conceived to be the "lungs of the city", a place where city dwellers could go to free themselves of the everyday stresses and strains of city life.

The genius of Grant Park is the fact that one can in a few steps go from the heart of the commercial city to the relative peace and tranquility of open park land. All this while never losing the urban experience as the backdrop of the city is ever present. That peace is broken only a few times a year when major public events are held in the park such as parades and the annual Taste of Chicago, when those who know better avoid the area like the plague. But it is the relative absence of people rather than the thronging masses that make the park such a great space, the ability to remove oneself from the city without ever leaving it.

That is what Daley Bicentennial Plaza with all its faults has going for it. The joke is what people do after they cross the BP Bridge is turn around and walk back. Well I don't see that as a bad thing. For the handful who remain east of Millennium, the rewards may be nothing more than this, relief from the madness, exactly what parks are meant to do.

In a few years Bicentennial Plaza will need to be ripped up in order to replace the sub strata that separates the park from the parking garage below. The architecture critic for the Tribune, Blair Kamin suggests that two design possibilities be presented, one which includes the Children's Museum and one which does not. On that I agree, since given the mayor's tenacious advocacy, the eventual construction of the Children's Museum for better or worse, is virtually a fait accompli. A rethinking of the mediocre design of DCP would be a welcome change. Where we disagree is his assertion that the main problem with DCP is that it is "underutilized."

He also argues for greater access to the lake from DCP. Again I disagree. While I vigorously support the re-opening of Queen's Landing, the crosswalk that leads from Buckingham Fountain to the lake, I don't think we need to lead people by the hand to the lake everywhere along the lakefront. The lake is alluring enough on its own and those so inclined will always find a way to get there. The uninitiated will simply head back to the attractions of Millennium Park, back to where they belong.

That underutilization that Blair Kamin refers to is precicely what DCB, and the lakefront need in my opinion. Please let's not add more attractions to a park that already has more than enough of them. I think any new design for Daley Bicentennial Plaza should not try to re-invent the place, the changes should be kept to a minimum. Let's not kill it by over design.

Goodness knows we have enough of that already.

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