Friday, February 27, 2015

Washington Park

View of Washington park looking toward South Open Green
I've spent a lot of my life in Chicago's parks. Ever since I first laid eyes on the magnificent sculpture by Loredo Taft, known as The Fountain of Time, there's always been a soft spot in my heart for Washington Park on the south side. I got to know the park in earnest in the mid-nineties when I began my extensive photographic survey of the parks of Chicago. Of all the landscape parks of this city, Washington stands apart in its great expanses. The field seen in the photograph above, originally called South Open Green, (today officially referred to as "Common Ground" Meadow), is certainly the widest expanse of open land in all the city's parks. As you can see, ball fields occupy the meadow as they have for nearly 150 years, ever since Paul Cornell, the founder of the community of Hyde Park who originally laid out Washington Park, convinced landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to put them there. In addition to the numerous baseball, softball, and football leagues that play their games in the meadow, Chicago's premier cricket league also calls the meadow it's home.

The biggest event the park hosts, is the picnic that follows the annual Bud Billiken parade which terminates in Washington Park. On any given weekend during the warmer months, you'll find it brimming with humanity in this, one of Chicago's loveliest parks.

But not today on a frigid late February afternoon, where aside from a couple of joggers and one solitary gentleman on foot, my only companions were a pair of cardinals and a few dozen black-capped chickadees, gleefully chirping and flitting from branch to ground and back, keeping me company.

With a fresh blanket of snow on a bright winter day like today, a park will reveal itself in ways it cannot during the summer when foliage and people are around. Being able to see from one end to the other, the landscape architects' work becomes readily apparent. Here you begin to understand that the great meadow is not just a flat patch of open land, but a carefully planned clearing, arranged brilliantly within the context of the rest of the park. Setting the meadow apart from the city to the west, is a ribbon of contoured land forms called berms. This undulating landscape, subtle as it is, serves two purposes. From the inside, it keeps the city beyond the park, with its visual clutter and traffic noise, out. From the outside, by hiding the ball fields within, it emphatically states to the world that this is first and foremost a landscape park, not a playground.

Section of Washington Park included in the University of Chicago bid for Obama Presidential Library
I'm afraid we don't put too much importance into the role of the urban landscape park anymore. To the designers of nineteenth century parks like this one, there was a premium put on open space in a naturalistic setting, intended for nothing more than walking or sitting, a place to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, including throngs of people. Today, big parks occupied by few people are seen as wasted space. Newer parks like Millennium Park and the new Maggie Daley Park downtown, cram as many activities, and people, as possible within their boundaries.The overall design effect is a jumble, not altogether different from an amusement park. Landscape parks if they're successful, give us a unified design with one feature effortlessly flowing into the next. New York's Central Park is a good example. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is even better. Not surprisingly, those two magnificent parks were designed by the same team of architects who designed Washington Park, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The ribbon of berms, trees and walkways on the western edge of Washington Park that Olmsted and Vaux carefully designed, about twenty acres in all, is in itself the size of a small park. This is the section of the park that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered to swap with the Park District for vacant city property, so it can be lumped together with nearby property as part of a bid for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The board of the Chicago Park District, following the mayor lock, stock, and barrel, has agreed to carve up Washington Park. It hasn't been disclosed exactly how the western edge of Washington Park would be used in the proposed design, but if built, it would definitely change the character of the entire park.

It's easy to see why this patch of park land is coveted by the planners of the bid. Just west of the park, on the other side of King Drive, lie acres of vacant land, much of it owned by the University of Chicago, the sponsors of the bid. The site is perfectly situated in terms of transportation, less than a mile away from the Dan Ryan Expressway and directly underneath a CTA elevated station. While the available land is large enough to build a sizable building for
Vacant land immediately west of Washington Park
the presidential library, there may not be enough real estate necessary for the inevitable parking requirements, not to mention the landscaping around the library building that seems to obligatory as far as these things go. As others have pointed out, underground parking, similar to what currently exists at the Museum of Science and Industry, might solve that problem, and the willingness to scale back on the footprint of the entire library complex, would make this site feasible without intruding on Washington Park. There is also additional vacant land directly south of the site, across Garfield Park, just visible on the right of the photo that could possibly be incorporated in the design of the library complex.

I mentioned in the previous post, my opposition to taking over any part of Washington Park for the site of the library on the grounds that public land should not be surrendered for a private venture. In the case of this park, it's completely ridiculous to suggest that real estate located elsewhere could possibly make up for the loss of existing parkland that as we have seen, plays an integral role in the design of the rest of the park.

Furthermore, Washington Park has great significance to this city, as testified by its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately that distinction carries no weight as far as preservation is concerned, and as our mayor has shown before, he has no qualms about running roughshod over preservation issues regarding this city's architectural treasures.

They say that all politics is local yet in an interesting turn, this issue may be a 180 degree reversal of that old axiom. In a few weeks time, the president will have the final say about the location of his legacy library. That decision will more than likely be made before the runoff mayoral election between Emanuel and his opponent Jesus Garcia in April. I imagine it would be a tremendous slap in the face to the mayor if Obama chooses New York or Honolulu over Chicago, especially coming right before the election involving that president's former Chief of Staff. If that should occur, you can bet Garcia will make hay of the fact that the mayor couldn't bring home a prize that many in this town think is rightfully ours.

The land grab of public property that the mayor is advocating, is controversial, and it may be subject to law suits. If those suits become a reality, they could very well become the deciding factor that kills Chicago's chances for getting the presidential library.

And if that comes to pass, Garcia would indeed have a point that by not coming up with a more workable plan, Emanuel blew our chance of getting the library. Who knows, that might even be just enough ammunition to swing the election Garcia's way.

I'm on the fence right now but there are certainly loads of people in this city right now who would love to see Garcia become Chicago's first Latino mayor. They just may get their chance.

And Rahm Emanuel will have only himself to blame.

1 comment:

Pete said...

The city could avoid sacrificing public park land and build the library on centrally located, highly accessible land it already owns - the old Michael Reese Hospital property on the Near South Side. (The city could even gift the land to UC if the school is really hellbent on hosting the library.) True, the area isn't exactly blighted and in desperate need of an economic boost, but I highly doubt that a presidential library would give much of an economic boost to Washington Park or anywhere else anyway. Daley made a foolish land grab of the Reese property for his failed Olympics bid, and putting the Obama library there would make the best of an otherwise bad situation.