Thursday, July 27, 2017

Little Orange Dots

I've written before of the plans to build the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago. The project no doubt will be a tremendous boon to the city and to the community in which it resides. I'm happy the Obamas and the powers that be settled on the South Side of Chicago, because frankly, that's where the attraction belongs. I call it an attraction rather than a library because all of its holdings will be digitized, no papers will be stored on site. Perhaps Presidential Digital Repository would be a more appropriate term.

However as I've stated before, I'm less than enthused about the city's and the Obamas' cavalier attitude about building the proposed attraction on existing park land. It's clear where the former president's sympathies lie. Talking about the proposed Presidential Library/Digital Repository at the unveiling of the design, Obama said this:
It's not just a building. It's not just a park. Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side,
Obviously to Barack Obama, to all the people working on the project, and to a great many Chicagoans, the benefits of having such an institution in the city, especially in a neighborhood that has seen better days, outweigh the loss of several acres of parkland. After all, it's just a park right?

Frankly I find this attitude, while understandable, grossly shortsighted. Our public parks are a public trust, they are meant for the use of the public, and should not be surrendered to private interests, even worthwhile ones. Unfortunately the city does this all the time when they rent out park space for commercial events such as the massive Lollapalooza Music Festival which will be taking place in Grant Park next weekend. This means that unless you're willing to drop hundreds of dollars on a ticket to the event, that enormous, important downtown public park will be off limits not only next weekend, but now for the setup, and for whatever amount of time it takes to clean up the mess.

What's more, many of our parks, including Jackson Park which is where the Obama Library will be built, are significant architectural landmarks designed by some of the greatest landscape architects this country had to offer. They are an important connection to our history as well as works of art in their own right, Compromising them is no different than significantly altering or tearing down our most beloved architectural landmarks. Sadly, we do that all the time.

Obviously this is a losing battle, and Chicago has taken the easy way out. This city has no intention of giving up millions of dollars of much needed revenue just so you and I can spend a summer afternoon strolling through Grant, or any other park that has some kind of paid festival going on, any more than it's going to give up the chance to be the home of the Obama Library. Still reeling from the potential lawsuit preventing the George Lucas Museum from being built on the lakefront, causing the Lucas family to give up their plans to build here, Mayor Rahm Emanuel doubled down on his efforts to not let that happen with the presidential library. Even the park's most visible advocacy group, the Friends of the Parks, has remained uncharacteristically silent on this one.

Two potential park sites were on the docket during the preliminary competition to bring the Obama Library to Chicago. The first runner up was on the western edge of Washington Park. I wrote about that site here two years ago. The site that was selected is on the western edge of Jackson Park, from 63rd up to 60th streets. One could consider Jackson and Washington to be one continuous park connected by the Midway Plaisance which surrounds 59th and 60th Streets in Hyde Park. The entire collection of parks and green space was the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux who are perhaps best known as the architects of Central and Prospect Parks in New York City. While altered substantially, both parks have retained much of the spirit of those two remarkable architects. Perhaps the greatest alteration occurred at the Jackson Park library site, where football and baseball fields used by Hyde Park High School were added decades after the park was built. Those facilities will need to be moved for the sake of the library somewhere, most likely elsewhere in Jackson Park.

What remains then of the site you may ask, once the ballfields are removed? Hundreds of trees, many of them mature maples, London planetrees, cottonwoods, lindens, honey locusts and many other varieties including red and white oaks which judging by their girth, were most likely around at the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Surrounding the ballfields, gentle berms create a varied topography breaking up the tedium of Chicago's flat landscape.

When my daughter and I visited the site the other day, orange spots were painted on the trunks of every single tree on the site, save for the immature trees planted on the parkways, indicating they were all slated for removal:

White oak (center) that was probably around at the time of the Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Trees of different varieties framing Hyde Park High School

London planetree with orange dot at its base, marking its doom, along with the rest of the trees pictured on this post.

Here is a link
to Blair Kamin's Chicago Tribune article on the unveiling of the design of the presidential library, the work of New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, that would occupy the Jackson Park site. From the rendering you can see that the parkways are untouched, but everything else, including the gentle berms and the century plus old trees are to be leveled.

As they say, you have to break an egg to make an omelette. I get it, you can't save everything, especially in a city that intends to grow and prosper. But this design appears to me that, just like the football field that was plopped down in the middle of the park, it was rendered without any consideration to the surroundings in which it is to be built. Jackson Park is a very special place and each segment of it was carefully designed to lead into the next. The Obama Library design as it exists on paper, could be plopped down into any part of the city. Its rigid, formal plan contrasts drastically with the free-form English garden style plan of Jackson Park.

To my eyes it would appear from visiting the site, that the design of the library could and should be altered to fit into the landscape, and in the process, save at least some of the century old trees. I'm not entirely against removing trees, even ones that have been around for over 100 years, for an important project, but you have to have an awfully good reason to do it. That would be the very least they could do.

But I wouldn't count on it.

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