Friday, April 30, 2010

Fixing a Hole

Dig an enormous hole in an industrial area in the middle of the city for over one hundred thirty years. Then fill it with garbage for thirty more years. What would you do with such a piece of land after it is used up? You may not think this would be a promising site for a city park but that's exactly what has been done in the Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago's south side.

Stearns Quarry provided the limestone blocks that shored up the city against the lake, as well as lime and crushed stone for concrete and other purposes from 1833 to 1970. When the quarry closed, the site was used as a dump for construction refuse and ash from a north side incinerator. This activity created a landscape of ridges and valleys, not exactly of Grand Canyon proportions to be sure, but quite unusual for a region whose natural topography has all the contours of a Formica counter top.

The creators of Stearns Quarry Park, which opened in 2006, took advantage of this unlikely site and created one of Chicago's, newest, most unusual, and in my opinion most spectacular parks.

Chicago parks traditionally place landscape at one end of the functional spectrum and recreation at the other. Most of the city's larger parks combine carefully designed landscapes emulating nature in one guise or other in one part of the park, and recreational amenities such as ball fields, playgrounds, and field houses in another.

The former Stearns Quarry is located directly north of McGuane Park, one of only a handful of parks in Bridgeport. Its location could not have been more serendipitous when it was turned into a park as it provided the landscape counterpoint to the strictly recreational McGuane. As a landscape, SQP is not a traditional landscape park which in Chicago implies a design that attempts to be as invisible as possible. By contrast, here the human element is ever present employing an elevated boardwalk and arrow straight trails that lead you through the park under the architect's direction. One may be put off by this highly regulated style of landscape design but in the context of this particular park, it works to stunning effect.

The centerpiece of the park is what's left of the quarry at the northwest corner of the park. Here the limestone bedrock of Chicago is exposed forming at 25 foot cliff surrounding a pond that is stocked with game fish. This corner of the park resembles in miniature the canyon area of Matthiessen State Park about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. The pond is fed by a stream that flows down a terraced rock bed from a fountain which is fed in turn from runoff rain water diverted from sewers in the neighborhood. This is just a small part of the push toward sustainability, which is an integral part of the park's design.

Another "green" feature of the park is limiting the introduction of plants to species native to this region. Apart from a specific philosophy of landscape architecture, this eliminates the need for any excessive fertilization or irrigation.

From the depths of the quarry, the paths lead you up to the heights of the mounds, the highest of which is 33 feet above street level. While not exactly a dizzying height, the mounds do provide a fantastic view of the neighborhood and the Loop some five miles away.

Bridgeport was settled by immigrants from diverse cultures, attracted by the employment opportunities made possible first from the construction of the Illinois-Michigan Canal, then the stockyards and dozens of other industries. The number of church spires visible from the tops of the mounds attest to this fact, as do the modest, well kept homes that surround the park.

The genius of the Stearns Quarry Park is that it does not hide the industrial legacy of the neighborhood but embraces it. From the mounds on the east edge of the park you gaze upon the small manufacturing companies that continue to do business across Halsted Street. The larger panorama from up above provides a view of miles and miles of residential neighborhoods mingled with industry. The view is peppered with smoke stacks, water tanks, power lines and the Stevenson Expressway. Beyond the expressway is a terrific view of the skyscrapers of the south Loop skyline. Jets frequently pass above making their way to and from Midway Airport, about five miles southwest of the park. While the industrial features may not be enticing to all, anyone with an interest in Chicago, its history, and the city environment in general will truly marvel at the magnificent view.

Most significant of all is that this is a neighborhood park serving the needs of its community. The day I was there, a beautiful Saturday in early spring, the park was populated with a diverse crowd, all seeming to get a terrific charge out of strolling through this unique park. And virtually everyone I encountered smiled and said hello. Not bad for an old pit in the middle of a big city.

The Chicago Park District has put together as one in a number of a series of audio guides, this excellent tour conducted by my friend, CPD's official historian Julia Bachrach. In the tour you will also hear the voices of the park's architect Ernest Wong, and Park District project managers Claudine Malik and Bob Foster. From the linked page there is another link that will take you to a PDF map of the park.

By all means go and experience this amazing view of Chicago's past, present and future.

1 comment:

Pete said...

What a wonderful re-use of what otherwise could have easily been just another landfill.