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People’s Park: If Grant Park is Chicago’s front yard, then neighborhood parks are its familiar and intimate backyards

Parks & the Great Outdoors, Swimming & Beaches Add comments

By Dale Eastman

Javier Torres knew the sounds and smells of Harrison Park even before he’d arrived in Pilsen, on the city’s Southwest Side, just a month ago. Torres’ father was for years part of the regular summer migration of temporary workers between Mexico and Chicago. Since money was always tight, tales of summer ballgames and sweet mangos bought from street vendors were often the only offerings he’d bring home to his son.

Factory work was what brought Torres’ father to Chicago, and Torres, an engineering instructor in Coahuila, Mexico, who’s now on summer sabbatical, tried it for a while, too. But working six days a week, 10-12 hours a day, for only $4.25 an hour didn’t suit him as well as it had his father 30 years before, and the tall and wiry Torres often found his thoughts wandering back to the park.

Last week, with the days getting longer and the inside of the factory getting hotter than he could bear, Torres quit his job, borrowed a battered brown desk from his sister’s apartment, and went into business for himself. He set up shop on the Wood Street sidewalk just south of 18th, at a well-trafficked opening to the wrought-iron fence surrounding Harrison Park—eight acres of green grass that’s nearly the geographic, if not spiritual, center of this largely Mexican community.

Torres realizes he’s inserting himself into a busy marketplace; a string of vendors—many of whom staked out their spots years ago—laces the perimeter of the park, their carts kept freshly supplied by the trucks of produce that drive up and down the streets, stopping only long enough to toss off bags of oranges or cucumbers or ripened watermelons. But a smart businessman who knows his customers can always carve out a corner of the market, and by the looks of the crowd gathered at his stand and the way he’s serving up corn on the cob and enormous cups of fat strawberries buried in whipped cream, Torres has already developed a buzz. After years of neglect and decay, Harrison Park, too, has recently become the center of a good deal of talk, in large part because of the $3 million building that was just completed here, which includes two gymnasiums and a senior-citizen center, as well as rooms for ping-pong and video games, day care, arts and crafts, and weight lifting.

The West Side neighborhood that surrounds Harrison Park was originally settled by Czechoslovakians, but for the last several decades Spanish, not Czech, has been the language most often heard echoing from the three baseball diamonds, from the yellow and orange swing sets tucked in rows under an enormous stand of trees, and now off the park’s new gymnasium walls. Harrison and the dozens of other neighborhood parks in Chicago—most not more than 20-acre plots of land—were nearly all acquired between 1910 and 1920, during the city’s social movement, which also saw the creation of a series of settlement houses, largely for immigrants.

Decades before, when architects and planners were only just betting that Chicago would grow into a city of some consequence, visionaries had set aside large two- and three-hundred acre tracts of land, and the result was that the city already had the beginnings of a sophisticated system of public parks when Daniel Burnham set down his 1909 plan. Often called “pleasure grounds,” these large-scale parks—including Jackson, Grant, Lincoln, Humboldt and Douglass—with their lush gardens and meandering paths were about beauty and tranquillity and escaping from the increasingly dirty, overcrowded and chaotic place Chicago had become.

But the enormous number of immigrants streaming into the city after the turn of the century often worked so hard and so long, they didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to stroll around the lakefront. In truth, what they desperately needed were places where their children could get involved in organized sports, where they themselves could learn English or to sew or cook and, because most lived without conveniences like running water, a place where the whole family could go to take a bath. When the neighborhood parks were created, mothers suddenly had an easily accessible place to take their children during the day and after school; fathers, too, could stop off on their way home from work and shower and shave (the park district even supplied soap and towels), and often—because the field houses quickly became community meeting centers—the entire family would spend the evening at the park sharing supper with friends, listening to music or attending a festival.

For years the system worked, but by the time the late Mayor Harold Washington asked architect Walter Netsch to take over the presidency of the Park District, the concept of neighborhood park as social institution had pretty much died. “As white, middle Europeans moved out of the neighborhoods,” laments Netsch, “the park system spent less time [in upkeep] and the staff seemed less motivated [to maintain social programs] because Latino and black representation in the park system was so low.” Netsch’s charge: to make the parks system more people-oriented once again.

Although the park district’s most recent management and programming upheaval suggests that Netsch wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped, parks like Harrison signal a kind of rebirth. What once had been written off in a Friends of the Park memorandum as “the worst maintained [park] in the system; grounds in terrible condition with evidence of long-term massive soil erosion and general abuse,” had by last year metamorphosed into a $3-million showplace that FOP executive director Erma Tranter thinks could be the new model for what a park’s building should be. Designed by Julie Gross, a park-district architect, as a one-story, red-brick semicircular building with columns and awnings of dark green, the new Emiliano Zapata Center reaches out to encircle a lush swath of newly planted green grass—often filled with sunbathers and picnickers—in an enormous hug. A refurbished playground takes up the southeast corner of Wood and 19th, and often is the most crowded place in the park. Within the last several years, a two-story building that had once been used by boat owners to work on the crafts, had also been turned over to the El Centro Muse del Bellas Artes Mexicanas (Mexican Art Museum).

Nowadays, when Susie Konieczny visits Harrison Park—which is usually at least three times a week—she finds it hard to believe that it is the same place she’s been coming to for 35 years. Konieczny, who babysits neighborhood children for a living, often feels like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, gathering additional charges as she makes the two-block walk from her house to the park.

Making her way around the park—sometimes running after her gaggle of kids, sometimes dragging them wearily in tow—she eventually runs into Torres, where a half-dozen outstretched arms are reaching for snow-cones and sliced and salted cucumbers. Torres, with only a little more than a week on the job, admits it’s too early to tell whether he can make a go of things financially. It’s hard to imagine, however, his smile being this wide if he’d stayed at the factory.

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