Monday, August 19, 2013

My park

Humboldt Park, 1995
I've been thinking about parks lately. Our book, The City in a Garden, A History of Chicago's Park's has recently been revised; you can buy it here. Fourteen years ago, Judith Bromley and I were sent by the book's author Julia Bachrach all over the city to photograph parks in various states of disrepair. Julia sent me back in 2010 to revisit some of the parks that had work done in the intervening years and other parks that did not exist a decade before, including of course Millennium Park. That park caused a furor among some people who believed that the money spent to create the extravagant downtown park would have been better spent on the neighborhood parks instead.

Well I have first hand experience that gives credence to my belief that those critics had no idea what they were talking about. Beyond the boon to the city that Millennium Park brought, obviously the critics have not visited the neighborhood parks in the past ten years, as a great deal of time, money, and effort have gone into their restoration and rehabilitation.

What attracted me to Chicago parks in the first place, photographically speaking that is, was their design. Some of the most renouned landscape architects this country had to offer designed parks in Chicago: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jens Jensen and Albert Caldwell to name only three. Over the years their parks have been neglected (to put it mildly), and much work has been done in the last decade to bring back a semblance of what these designers originally intended.

Needless to say, a lot of things have changed in the hundred plus years since most of Chicago's parks were conceived and built, including the very function of the urban park itself. Once the "lungs of the city", parks provided a refuge for urban dwellers from the inexorable grind of the industrial city. In a time of few options for city folk to get away from it all, urban parks were the essential civilizing institutions of the city. Today we have far more options for our free time, and in this day and age of play dates and organized sports, the folks who run the parks place their emphasis on structured recreation for their visitors over spontaneous activities such strolling or simply watching the world go by. The carefully nuanced landscapes laid out by the parks' architects often have to compete with ball fields, basketball and tennis courts and playgrounds.

Regardless, much to the city's credit, both aspects of Chicago's parks, the landscape and the recreational facilities have been vastly improved since the time The City In a Garden was first published in 2001. One of the prime examples of this urban renaissance is Humboldt Park.

I lived the first ten years of my life in an apartment building on Humboldt Boulevard on the northwest side of Chicago. Technically we were in the community of Logan Square, but everyone on our block considered themselves Humboldt Parkers, after the great park three blocks south of our home. To some Chicagoans today, the very mention of Humboldt Park inspires fear, evoking images of street gangs, poverty, drugs, and crime. To others the park with its rose garden, expansive lagoons, splendid Schmidt, Garden and Martin boathouse and refectory, and miniature prairie river fed by a natural spring, represents a magnificent work of design, the work of one of the great prophets of landscape architecture, Jens Jensen. Still to others, Humboldt Park is the heart of Boriqua, Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

To me, it's simply my Humboldt Park.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of riding on my father's shoulders in Humboldt Park as he whistled the Colonel Bogey March while strolling past the hill that I would later sled on, and the lagoon where I would learn to ice skate and play hockey. During the summer we'd use two perfectly spaced trees as soccer goal posts where we'd take turns shooting at one another. Or we'd just go for long walks through the park, which was really the best thing of all. Where the Loop was the domain of my mother, Humboldt Park was where I spent time with my dad. As he worked long hours on weekdays and Saturdays in his paint shop, the limited time we had together on Sundays in that park was special.

Drawn by the the American Dream of owning a house in the suburbs, my family moved out of our old neighborhood which had become shall we say, rough around the edges by 1968. That was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed. We weren't touched directly by those riots that decimated the West Side of Chicago, but the parkway in front of our house served as a staging area for troops from the Illinois National Guard (who were issued the famous "shoot to kill" order from Mayor Daley the Elder), as they prepared to engage the rioters only two miles away. But none of that phased me. Responding to my protests about leaving our home, I'll never forget my father pointing to a discarded broken bottle on the sidewalk saying: "don't you want to get away from all this?" I can't recall my response but it was probably no.

We moved out of the city and into the suburbs in August of that year, exactly during the time of the infamous Democratic National Convention and the riots that took place downtown. The whole world may have been watching but not us, we were too busy moving. On the surface things seemed pretty idyllic. Our house had a big basement where I could permanently set up my trains, and we had our own back yard with its own trees, perfectly spaced for goal posts. On the other hand, in the suburbs I experienced for the first time in my life bullying, political intolerance and bigotry. Shortly after we moved, in the middle of the night I heard gunshots, also something new to me. To add insult to injury, my beautiful five speed Schwinn Stingray bike which I rode without incident in Humboldt Park, was stolen from our garage.

Our new house in the suburbs did have a park only three doors away. But it wasn't Humboldt Park, not by a longshot. My spirits were lifted briefly when one Sunday my father took me to Columbus Park, not too far away. I felt right at home there, little did I know at the time there was good reason for the similarity, that park was also the work of Jens Jensen. But we had little reason to schlep ourselves down to Columbus Park when we had a perfectly serviceable park practically next door. After that, Sundays were never quite the same.

That first year in our new home was probably the toughest year of my life; I didn't fit in at my new school and I missed my old friends and my old home. Suffice it to say, that experience only intensified my love of Humboldt Park. I went there every chance I could, going so far as moving back into the old neighborhood many years later.

This little trip down memory lane is a story the likes of which is told in big cities all over this country. Most people tend not to stay put, they move on, and the memories forged during the formative years of childhood are the ones we grasp and hold onto our entire lives. Perhaps because Humboldt Park was taken away from me (so to speak) at an early age, I never let go. Even though I spent far more of my formative years in the suburb, Oak Park to be exact, forging lasting friendships and determining the future course of my life there, I still tend to answer the question: "where did you grow up" with "Humboldt Park".

We no longer live within walking distance of Humboldt Park as we moved up to Rogers Park on the far north side of the city ten years ago. But our son spent his first two years worth of Sundays in Humboldt Park, on top of his old man's shoulders as I whistled the Colonel Bogie March while strolling past the hill where children still sled in the winter, and the lagoon where no one in these days of liability concerns is permitted to skate upon. Today we have three parks within walking distance of our home and take advantage of them every chance we get. My children learned to skate, sled, and do lots of other great things in those parks, they even learned the pleasures of just walking around taking in the scenery. Since we don't plan on leaving our current digs anytime soon, our children may not develop the same wistful relationship with their parks as I did with mine.

But I certainly hope they do. Those memories of Sundays in the park with my father, and later with my children, are some of the sweetest of my life. Despite its shortcomings and all the heartaches and tragedies that have taken place within its borders and the surrounding neighborhoods, it will always be a part of me, my beautiful Humboldt Park.

Humboldt Park with Jens Jensen's Prairie River, 1997. In the first decade of the 21st Centrury the park underwent a major restoration and the Prairie River, the centerpiece of Jensen's design, was returned to its original splendor.

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