Monday, May 25, 2015

Humboldt Park, again

From DNA Chicago, here is a piece about the conception and building of the Humboldt Park inland beach that the Chicago Park District has decided not to open this year. You'll find within that piece, a link to an article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 10, 1973 describing the plans for the conversion of the century old lagoon into a beach, as well as a photograph showing the dredging of the lagoon to make way for the beach. 

I remember it well. My family left Humboldt Park in 1968, but on ocasion my father and I still visited the park where we used to spend our Sunday afternoons together.

We paid a visit as the dredging work was underway. It was a scene that nearly broke my heart. As the water was drained from the lagoon, neighborhood residents were invited to harvest the thousands of fish who once inhabited the lagoon. In a scene that could best be described as resembling Sebastio Salgado's photographs of the mines of Serra Pelada in Brazil, hundreds of individuals, covered head to toe in mud, plodded through the former bed of the lagoon, plucking the helpless fish, mostly carp, out of the remaining puddles of water in which they were stranded. The fish not "lucky" enough to find a small pocket of water to briefly keep them alive, suffocated as they lay in the mud. The sight, smell and pathos of the scene is something I will never forget.

For my father and me, it was the end of Humboldt Park as we knew it; I don't recall the two of us ever visiting it again together.

According to the DNA Chicago piece, the new beach was an instant success, drawing up to 20,000 on peak days, flying in the face of my memories of having never seen more than a handful of people using the facility. Mayor Richard J. Daley promised that more beaches similar to Humboldt Park's would be built, but in the end, only one came to be, that one in Douglas Park, another west side park that is virtually the mirror image of Humboldt. That beach closed sometime in the 1990s with little fanfare.

The article implies that City Hall broke its promise to the city by not building more of the inland beaches. As I pointed out in my previous post, an inland beach is a tremendously expensive venture, as well as environmentally unsound and destructive to the historical integrity of the parks where they would have been built. As the seventies, the nadir for historical preservation came to a close, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the idea of building these inland beaches in our historic parks, lost its appeal.

In my opinion, we can be thankful for that.

Much of the strong sentiment for keeping the Humboldt Park beach open comes from the fact that building it in the first place was a hard fought battle waged by the Puerto Rican community who still has strong ties to the park and the neighborhood, despite the re-gentrification that has been taking place for the last generation.

There has been resistance to the changes going on in the community. One recent effort has been the successful eviction of an annual event called Riot Fest, a Punk Music festival and carnival that has taken place for the last three years in Humboldt Park. Last year, rainy weather combined with record crowds took their toll on the park. The organizers of the traveling festival held in several cities across the country, agreed to pay the city for the cleanup of the park to the tune of $182,000.

The opposition to Riot Fest led by Alderman Robert Maldonado and a group calling itself Humboldt Park Citizens Against Riot Fest, cited the festival's taking over virtually the entire park for their activities.

Charlie Billups, a spokesman for the citizen's action group said:
We cannot allow big corporations that are making a lot of money to have blanket access to the parks.
The group also cited "ecological damage to the park" as another of its grievances.

In an attempt to ingratiate the folks who wanted them out, the producers of Riot Fest offered to contribute $30,000 toward the effort to keep the Humboldt Park Beach open.

The opponents of the festival weren't moved by the offer (30K being a mere drop in the bucket compared to the one million dollar annual upkeep for the beach) and last week, it was announced that the festival will be moved to Douglas Park.

Although they overstate the ecological damage, I entirely agree with the citizen group's concerns about the festival taking over the park in mid-September, both for the event itself, then the subsequent cleanup time. Despite the indisputable money the festival brings into the community, it is simply wrong to close off a public park to accommodate a privately sponsored event that charges admission for the privilege of entering the park.

Unfortunately some of the community's objections to Riot Fest are troubling. It is understandable that the Puerto Rican community has concerns that many of its members are being priced out of Humboldt Park neighborhoods. Along those lines, there have been comments that imply that much of the objection from the community toward Riot Fest has to do with the fact that it attracts non-Puerto Ricans to the park.

This quote is taken off a Facebook post from a group (or possibly an individual) calling itself "Chicago Puerto Rican Community":
Now that the Riot fest has been taken out of Humboldt Park those in heavy favor of the fest lashed out and said that Humboldt Park is not Puerto Rican and even threaten to have our alderman kicked out in favor of someone that will side with those that want Puerto Ricans Gone. (emphasis mine)
The Puerto Rican community certainly has left its mark on the neighborhood. Totems of la comunidad Boriqua were erected on Division Street (which runs through the park) in the form of two enormous sculptures a half mile apart representing the Puerto Rican flag. The street between the sculptures has been dubbed Paseo Boriqua. In a couple weeks following a parade downtown, a huge festival commemorating Puerto Rican Day will fill Humboldt Park as it has for nearly forty years. The Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is housed in the park's ornate Stables and Receptory Building.

Humboldt Park unquestionably remains the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

In my previous post, I described the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade that ended up in Humboldt Park at the base of the statue of Tadeusz KoĹ›ciuszko where a huge celebration took place. For many years, Humboldt Park was the center of Chicago's Polonia. Before that it was the heart of other communities as testified by the monuments and institutions in and around the park. The Norwegian American Hospital, where I was born, borders the park. The apartment building and immediate neighborhood where my mother lived between 1940 and 1968 were predominantly Jewish. The church down the block where my son and I were both baptized was built by Irish Catholics. The city's most beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Holy Trinity, designed by Louis Sullivan is a few blocks east of the park as is the community known as Ukrainian Village. The park itself was named for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and much of what we know of it was designed by a man from Denmark.

Statue of the Norse explorer Leif Ericson looking toward the East Lagoon
of Humboldt Park.
Noting the pride of the Norwegian Community who is responsible for the statue,
the boulder upon which he stands is inscribed:
"Leif Ericson, Discoverer of America."

Yet no one would have ever dreamt of calling Humboldt Park, Polish, or Norwegian, or Danish, Jewish, Irish, Russian, Ukrainian or German, even though all those groups left indelible marks on the community.

The Puerto Rican community continues to be a vital and integral part of Humboldt Park and its environs but no, Humboldt Park is NOT Puerto Rican, because no one group can legitimately claim exclusive rights to it.

Simply put, Humboldt Park, as is the case with all our public parks, belongs to everyone.

The discussion of the future of the beach, much like the discussion over Riot Fest, has been framed around the context of socio-economic justice and race. Along those lines, the inevitable rhetoric over money spent on downtown parks, (namely the new Maggie Daley Park), versus neighborhood parks has been voiced. But all this is little more than demagoguery; the real issue regarding the inland beach is finding the practical means, and a legitimate rationale to keep open an enormously expensive amenity used by relatively few people for only three months of the year.

So far, no one has come up with the dough or short of that, a credible reason to choose the beach over the other essential features of Humboldt Park. My prediction is that the beach will remain closed this summer and a potential impasse between the community and the Park District will keep the twenty acres of Humboldt Park devoted to the beach, drained and useless to anyone for the foreseeable future.

The only winners in that scenario would be a handful of activists who will claim bragging rights for having stood up to the Park District.

If that happens, it would be a terrible waste of a precious resource.

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