Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Humboldt's Folly

The Humboldt Park Beach as it looks nine months out of the year. 
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Take half of the Humboldt Park lagoon and transform it into an inland beach. Instead of the dangerous age-old practice of opening up fire hydrants on blistering hot days, a new beach would provide the residents of the community a safe place to get cool relief from the summer heat. It would give kids a place to go during summer vacation, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. And in true Chicago fashion, it would be a bone to throw at a community that was growing impatient about being ignored and disenfranchised.

My mother wasn't buying any of it. A resident of the Humboldt Park community since 1940, my mom had a great fondness for the park, its history and its beauty. Upon that lagoon she was a passenger on countless row boat rides in the summertime. She learned to skate as I did upon its frozen water in the winter. She'd stroll as a teenager, later as a mother pushing me in a stroller along the park's miles of paths along the lagoons, prairie river, and the artesian well that fed them. In her youth, the park was accessible day and night when people in the neighborhood would bring chairs, sit, and discus the affairs of the world until the wee hours. Some brave souls would even camp out all night to escape the summer heat in the days before air conditioning. Humboldt Park in the forties, still retained most of what made it one of the crown jewels of Chicago's park system.

That nighttime tradition was long gone, but another was still going strong when I arrived on the scene and lived three blocks from Humboldt Park in the sixties. A regal equestrian statue of the Polish (and American Revolutionary War) hero Tadeusz Kościuszko stood proudly near the north entrance to the park. Every year, on the Sunday closest to May 3rd, a parade would pass in front of our home on Humboldt Boulevard. It was Chicago's annual Polish Constitution Day parade, which would terminate at the base of the Kościuszko monument. There, politicians of all ethnic stripes gathered to address the assembled throngs of Chicago's Polonia. It was at one of these celebrations, most likely in 1966 or 1967, where upon my father's shoulders, I caught my first glimpse of the ruddy complexion of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and my one and only glimpse of Senator Robert F. Kennedy who made an annual pilgrimage to the festivities in front of that magnificent 1904 statue, the work of Kasimir Chodzinski.

Polish Constitution Day festivities, Humboldt Park, 1935. The lagoon
that was replaced by the current beach is visible in the background, behind the monument.
The monument was moved to its current location on Northerly Island in 1978.
(photographer unknown)
By the seventies, much had changed. Due to neglect both from the city, and the users of the park, Humboldt Park started to become rough around the edges. Trash carelessly strewn about was not collected, park buildings were vandalized and boarded up, and the statues of Alexander von Humboldt, Leif Ericson and Kościuszko, symbols of the ethnic communities who once called Humboldt Park home, were covered in graffiti.

Eventually the park became rotten to the core as gang violence, drug deals, prostitution, and the detritus that followed them, became as much a part of the park's landscape as Jens Jensen's prairie river, the Schmidt Garden and Martin boat house/refectory and the two Edward Kemeys bison that stand guard in front of the rose garden. No one in their right mind would dare venture into the park after dark, unless they were looking for drugs, sex or trouble. To many residents of the city even to this day, the words Humboldt Park evoke danger and despair.

Part of my mother's attitude about the inland beach which was built in 1973, was just sour grapes. She re-affirmed those feelings of long ago the other day when she told me she always felt the project was unnecessary as she got along just fine growing up without a beach in Humboldt Park. Why on earth she felt, couldn't the people living there at the time do the same? After all, there were plenty of other amenities in the park, including a perfectly functioning swimming pool. If folks had the urge to stick their toes in the sand, the beaches of Lake Michigan were a just short bus ride away; heck in a pinch, you could even walk there and back as she did many times in her youth.

But I think her feelings went deeper than that. The decline of the neighborhood where she spent her formative years and beyond, hit my mother harder than she ever let on. Back when the idea of replacing the lagoon with a beach was made public, she intimated that the people in the community who did not care enough about the park to take care of it or at the very least, pick up their own trash, had no business making demands to change it. In those days as an idealistic teenager, I thought her feelings were harsh, inflexible, and mixed with a touch of intolerance toward the community. After all, the whole world had changed since 1940, not just Humboldt Park.

Restored walk along lagoon and the most iconic building of Humbolt Park,
the Boat House and Refectory, May, 2015
Like I said, to me the inland beach seemed like a good idea.

Of course at the time, I had little understanding of the history and architecture of the park. Humboldt Park and its two sister west side parks, Garfield and Douglas Parks, were laid out back in the late 1860s. Their first architect was William LeBaron Jenney, most famous for being credited, at least here in Chicago, as the father of the skyscraper. Jenny's designs for the parks, much of them never realized, were very much based around the lagoons, with water comprising up to fifty percent of the area of his plans.

The man who today is most associated with these three great parks, is Jens Jensen, a native of Denmark, whose first job in the Chicago parks was as a laborer in Humboldt Park. Through hard work and talent with all things horticultural, Jensen quickly worked his way up the ladder to become that park's superintendent, only to find himself out of a job when he refused to play along with the corrupt administrators who were running the west side parks. His unemployment didn't last long, Jensen was soon re-instated and ultimately became the superintendent of Chicago's West Park District, this in the days before the umbrella organization, the Chicago Park District, back when the city's parks were governed by several smaller administrative bodies.

Build it and they will come: planting natural flora
in a park will inevitably attract natural fauna.
Case in point, this Great blue heron looking for
his dinner in the Humboldt Park lagoon. 
Jens Jensen fell in love with the landscape of his adopted home in the American Midwest. The plans for his parks called for features that embraced the local prairie landscape rather than rejecting it as was the custom of the day. Unlike his contemporaries, Jensen did not believe that he could improve upon nature. As landscape architect, he was particularly adamant about the use of native plants and materials in his designs. Jensen described the philosophy of his art in these words:
Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.
Beyond Jens Jensen's philosophical ideals of reflecting nature by using native materials, there is a pragmatism to his approach as native species require little human intervention to keep them thirving. Long before the word "sustainability" crept into the common lexicon, Jensen's landscapes with their native species of plants which attracted and sustained native species of animals, required little maintenance compared to the work of his contemporaries featuring exotic plants which required constant attention. Jensen's landscapes, literally grew themselves.

That is certainly not the case with an inland beach. When the word came out last week that the Chicago Park District does not intend to open the beach this summer, they cited the astronomical cost it takes to sustain it. Water that supplies the beach has to be continually pumped in, filtered,  and chlorinated in order to make it safe for swimmers. Unlike a swimming pool, the used water in an inland beach cannot be recycled, it all ends up in the sewer. Sand, which is imported from the Indiana Dunes also has to be continually replenished. By the Park District's estimate, the cost of sustaining the Humboldt Park inland beach is about one million dollars per year.

Simply put, an inland beach is not only ecologically unsound, but financially impractical as well,  As the terrible state of the finances of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois force drastic cuts in the operating budgets for each park, serious choices have to be made.

Unfortunately the Chicago Park District did itself no favors with it's tactic of not publicly announcing its plans to keep the beach closed this summer. Instead they chose to keep their cards close to the vest in the hope that by keeping the issue out of sight and mind, no one would notice the fact that the beach simply wasn't going to open this year.

Well the community did notice and not surprisingly, its members were not happy.

At a public meeting, hastily convened at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse adjacent to the beach last week, Park District officials enumerated their reasons for not opening the beach, and community members expressed their reasons to keep it open. The PD folks suggested the money could be better spent in other ways that would keep the residents of the community happy and wet. They were figuratively speaking, booed off the stage.

It's a bitter pill to swallow for a community to have something taken away from them, but the Park District has compelling reasons to shut the beach down.

I don't have numbers to back this up, but from my personal experience, the Humboldt Park Beach never seemed to be heavily used. In the considerable time I've spent in the park, I rarely saw more than a handful of folks use it at any given time, it was in fact not unusual to see as many lifeguards on duty as visitors. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. I've stated before that a park's success should not be measured entirely upon the number of people who use it. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite should be a factor, as one of the joys of a city park is being able to escape the maddening crowds. However given the tremendous expense and amount of land devoted to the this one amenity which is open for only 90 days out of the year, it may be hard to justify keeping the beach. On the 275 days every year when the beach is closed, the area taking up dozens of acres of precious parkland is partially fenced off, and resembles a construction zone. Combined with the mechanical equipment necessary to keep the beach running, for three quarters of a year, this considerable chunk of real estate in Humboldt Park is a no-man's land, and an eyesore,

Then there is the historical significance and the architectural integrity of Humboldt Park. Much work has been done in the past decade to restore Jens Jensen's Prairie River back to its original splendor. Unfortunately, the waters of the river have to be restricted by a levee in order to avoid mingling with the the beach water. Other smaller lagoons to the north and east which once were part of the greater lagoon, have been closed off as well. These transitions are ugly and disrupt the continuity of the system of lagoons and rivers that were so carefully planned by Jenny and later Jensen.

Lagoon split in half: on the levee that separates the waters of the restored prairie river, right, from the beach,
Of course most users of parks are not concerned about historical significance and architectural integrity, they are interested in the amenities that cater to their needs. This is entirely reasonable, as a public park is many things to many people. For that reason, our parks are the most democratic of all our public spaces. Jens Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Alfred Caldwell, and all the great landscape architects responsible for our parks understood this.

My son and I visited our old stomping grounds this past Sunday. As he went off to play basketball, I ran into a friend who was exploring the nooks and crannies of the park with his daughter, as I did with my children and my parents did with me. As I continued my own exploration, I came in contact with people of different ages, ethnicities and tax brackets. They were engaged in all sorts of activities: fathers playing soccer with their kids, families picnicking, old men (and a heron) fishing, children on swings and monkey bars in the playground, couples (and several turtles) sunbathing, nature lovers enjoying nature, ballplayers playing ball, bikers biking, joggers jogging, and folks just strolling, taking in a lovely spring day in what is still one of the most beautiful places in Chicago. All the while, salsa music blasting from a large party at the east end of the park, no doubt a preview of the massive Puerto Rican Festival to be held in a few weeks, provided the soundtrack for a magnificent urban experience.

Tanks containing chlorine and no swimming sign in front of the no-man's
land that is the site of the Humboldt Park Beach when it is not in use,
which is most of the time.
The architects of our parks knew that in order to achieve the goal of providing as many functions a park could reasonably accommodate, a careful balance had to be reached where one function flows seamlessly into another, contributing but not interfering. On top of that, the great landscape architects like the ones mentioned above, designed their parks to appear effortless and natural, as if they were not designed at all.

Unfortunately, the Humboldt Park beach disrupts Jens Jensen's thoughtful balance in every respect; it could just as well have been dropped into the park from outer space. The inland beach is a very nice perk for the people in the neighborhood who take advantage of it. But given the fact that the beach serves only a handful of people for a brief part of the year at a great cost, in terms of the environment, aesthetics, economics, and space, I believe that its ultimate fate needs to be seriously questioned. At the risk of sounding like my mother, perhaps the thing should never have been built in the first place.

I have no doubt the Humboldt Park community who struggled to get the beach built in the seventies, will not let it go without a fight, which of course is their right. As I said, it's a very difficult proposition to take something away from a community, especially a lovely amenity like a neighborhood beach. Humboldt Park today may not be exactly what it was during my mother's childhood, but what is indisputable, is that today it is light years ahead of where it was forty years ago when the beach was built. Inside the park's boundaries are limitless year round opportunities for visitors to take advantage of, just as Jens Jensen intended. Much has been lost in the nearly one hundred fifty years of the park's existence, such as boats upon the lagoon, camping out under the stars, and Kościuszko. But other great things have come along to replace what has been lost, and I dare say that Humboldt Park today is as vital and vibrant as ever.

Sad as the possible loss of the neighborhood beach may be, reclaiming the enormous amount of space it takes up has the potential of making Humboldt Park all the better. Painful as it might be, in the end I believe rethinking the beach is the right choice for the park and vast majority of people who use it.

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