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A Day in the Park: On the Lakefront, from Dawn to Dusk

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Photo: Elias Cepeda

Summertime brings people out to their lawns everywhere. Good neighbors may have good fences in the backyard, but front yards welcome exhibitionists, chatty neighbors and strangers who stop by lemonade stands, especially on sunny days. In suburbia, homes are ripe with lawn during the summer, inviting kids in bathing suits and on bikes. Grown-ups hold barbecues and everyone plays ball. In the city, the boundaries dissolve even further. Deprived of personal front yards, we share. We play in the sun together. Like any neighbors trying to share space, we fight sometimes, too. Rather than argue about who gets the tricycle next, our neighbor’s browning grass, or how much the lemonade should go for, we wish Taste of Chicago never got Grant Park, we ask why the pavement’s crumbling and we grumble about the money being spent—or not—on improving our front yard.

It’s a complicated shuffle, especially when Dad isn’t Chief Executive of the Front Lawn. There’s the Park District, of course. They take care of the lawns, but not the ones in Millennium Park. Those are under the Department of Cultural Affairs. And they contract operations out to MB Real Estate, which deals with the day-to-day challenges of a much-loved park. They too contract out some of the work—they hire a cleaning staff to do things like pick up trash, wipe benches and the Bean, and clean bathrooms. “The largest problem about keeping Millennium Park looking good is, as its popularity increases, so does of course the traffic flow,” says Neal Speers, director of operations for the park. “Grass isn’t designed to have 100,000 people walk over it every day,” says Speers, who has to “find the balance of protecting the landscape but still letting people use it.”

There’s one especially important feature of the park that absolutely can’t lose its sheen, no matter how many people experience it. It’s interactive. It’s shiny. It’s beautifully designed. And it gets smudgy really, really easily. It’s not an iPad—it’s Cloud Gate. The Bean, a tourist destination but one that locals hold close to their hearts as well, is made of stainless, not smudgeless steel, and it takes a lot to keep it clean. Speers makes sure the Bean stays shiny 24/7/365. Like a well-cared-for iPad, the Bean gets an “arm’s-length” wipe-down with a microfiber rag multiple times a day by a cleaning staff. Twice a week, it gets a wash more like the one you give your car, with “a very soft brush on the end of a long hose.” And then, twice a year, in the spring and fall, it gets completely buffed, like your grandma’s silverware.

The Park District has sculptures sizeable, though not quite shiny enough, to compete with the Bean: the Agora sculptures, those 106 headless, armless bodies pacing south Grant Park. Cleaning isn’t as much of a concern here—they’re intended to rust over time. But the Park District has other things to keep clean, and like the Department of Cultural Affairs, they hire private contractors to landscape, to clean, to build. Some things, however, are beyond their control. The Park District isn’t in charge of the paths and roads—that’s the job of the Department of Transportation. And there’s programming—some by the Department of Cultural Affairs, some by the Office of Special Events, some by the Park District. You figure out which events are more cultural, more special, or more, well, parky.

Photo: Ella Christoph

What about the things that fall through the cracks, or the weeds that grow in those cracks, caught between the road and the lawn? In Grant Park at least, there’s the Grant Park Conservancy. “They serve as our eyes and ears,” says Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, spokesperson for the Park District. “Obviously, the Park District employees can only be at one place at a time.” Bob O’Neill, president of the Conservancy, tries to be everywhere else, snapping photos of those weeds, the broken benches and the torn-up roads, making sure each department does its job. The Conservancy’s Board works with the city to maintain, and improve, our front yard for the long term as well. They look for sources of funding, like the Lollapalooza music festival, which finances thousands of trees for Grant Park as well as funding other parks throughout the city—our backyards. O’Neill says his group tries to “activate” the park, making it more sustainable, environmentally and financially. That means natural wetlands, not BMX events. (There was one last year. We “had it moved,” says O’Neill. “It really trashed the park.) Cafes are nice, says O’Neill, but not “fourteen McDonald’s.”

It’s a delicate balance, creating a communal front yard that Chicagoans, and their visitors, can enjoy and love. With so many constituents, nobody’s happy all the time. Thanks to Lollapalooza, tourists couldn’t visit Buckingham Fountain for a long weekend. Without it, though, there would be fewer trees—and less music. Walkers, runners, bikers, roller-bladers, strollers and Segways, scrunched for space, aggressively, and accidentally, duke it out on the trail. Everyone agrees it should be easier to access the lake, despite moves in the right direction, like Frank Gehry’s BP Bridge and the 11th Street pedestrian bridge and plaza. Right now, a row of fencing, a row of concrete blockades and ten rows of speeding cars separate Buckingham Fountain from the lake. A crossing at Queen’s Landing, a proposed $30 million pedestrian passway, would change things, but the city will need to get funding for it first, perhaps from a corporate sponsor.

Some plans are moving forward, though, like turning Northerly Island into wetlands that naturally integrate with the lake, and the North Grant Park Renovation Project, which reimagines Daley Bicentennial Plaza, including the controversial move of the Chicago Children’s Museum into the park. “The idea is to always make it more interesting, more beautiful, more natural,” says O’Neill of the park. He says they’ve come a long way. “Before, people didn’t want to live on Grant Park and it wasn’t considered a neighborhood or a home,” he says. “We want a lot of different uses and activity and beauty, and everything coming together for that. And it’s happening.”

We put O’Neill’s claim to the test: What really does go on in our front yard? As O’Neill would put it, is the park activated? On Thursday, August 12, eight intrepid journalists reported from the fields of Chicago’s front yard, from sunrise (5:56am) to sunset (7:55pm), a sweaty fourteen hours. The near-ninety-degree heat may have scared off some—we didn’t see any canines dragging their humans to the dog park that morning, nor any thrashers in the skate park that afternoon. But we weren’t the only ones venturing into the heat. So grab a lawn chair, get out on the grass and meet your neighbors. (Ella Christoph)

Dawn Breaking, with Reality

Photo: Elias Cepeda

5:53am, Roosevelt and Michigan

I expect to see real things by the lakefront at the break of dawn. At sunrise, who else would be there but the real, being whoever they are, doing whatever they do? If you’re jogging at sunrise you are a real runner. If you are sleeping on a bench at sunrise, you are a real homeless person. No soliciting scam underway, there.

There are certainly many homeless people sleeping outside on benches. The first seven people I see are doing this. But there are plenty of runners, too. They pass right by the sleeping transients, just like me, only faster. (Elias Cepeda)

Throw Me a Line

Photo: Elias Cepeda

6:30am, Museum Campus

I’ve learned from rural movies and people who know how to do useful things that early morning is the time for fishing. But still, if you are up at 4am prepping and packing up just to cull through the waters of Chicago’s disgusting portion of Lake Michigan, dammit, you really want to fish.

And if you do, this seems like the type of day to do it. It is a summer morning, not very hot yet, with an entirely clear sky and water as clear as it will get—gin-clear, they say. But all the way up the lake from Roosevelt to Randolph, I find only one person fishing.

He looks like a professional golfer. He’s got on a white baseball cap, white polo shirt, and black slacks and he’s been fishing for most of the morning. He’s using a long line, just north of the Field Museum and west of the Shedd Aquarium. There are two Tupperware containers at his feet, to the right. One has his lunch, the other contains live bait—teasing last meals for the fish.

I ask him if he fishes here often. He says yes. He doesn’t seem to speak much English and he points, saying something. I don’t understand or look where he is pointing so he smiles and says it again, pointing once more at a bucket beside him.

His bucket, with“Soy Sauce” printed in large black letters with Mandarin characters below, is so large I imagine it’s a restaurant-sized wholesale container that used to be filled with the condiment.

Now the bucket is filled about three quarters of the way to the top with water and five still-living fish. For some reason, their equilibrium is thrown off and they just float near the top on their sides.

Maybe he said “perch” to me—it is perch-fishing season, and the seasonal ban on fishing them ended as July came to a close. He says that early morning is the best time to fish. His bucket backs him up.

It is 6:30am. I ask if he eats the fish, which, in a less modern and recreational time in history would be an entirely stupid question, instead of just a partially stupid one. He nods twice and says yes.

Every time I ask him questions he turns and looks at me. But otherwise, he concentrates on his line. He lets me photograph the fish when I ask. “It’s okay,” he says. And then he goes back to tending to his line.

The man is friendly, but he’s clearly there just to fish. It might be the language barrier, it might be something else, but he doesn’t talk about things I don’t ask about or elaborate on answers to the questions I do ask.

That might be the point of fishing at sunrise, though. Wherever this man goes next, it’s likely there will be plenty of talking involved. (Elias Cepeda)

Clean Sweep

7:09 Roosevelt and Columbus

When Susana first came to Chicago from Jalisco, Mexico to stay with family, she thought she would only be here for one year. More than a decade later, she is married, lives near Midway Airport, has three kids and works for the Park District, keeping Grant Park clean.

The work is seasonal, five months out of the year, and this is Susana’s second season. “I came to Chicago fifteen years ago. When I was young and single,” she says with a laugh while stabbing a piece of trash on the ground with her litter stick, then dropping it into a white plastic bucket she carries with her.

We meet on the paved pathways of Museum Campus. Susana wears the Park District’s neon green t-shirt, work gloves and a ponytail. She says she likes working this shift.

“It’s nice. We’ve got this beautiful view every morning,” she says, facing the lake and making a sweeping hand gesture across the horizon. I think about other Park District workers I’ve known whose job it is to pick up garbage. First of all, most of them don’t actually pick up much garbage. Secondly, none of them smile this much while doing it.

Susana hopes the Mayor’s Office of Special Events or the Tourism office can find room for her when the clean-up season ends. Last year Susana got to work in pairs. She liked that better. This early in the morning there are many homeless people around, perhaps some with mental-health issues and drug habits. “I do get a little scared working by myself early in the morning,” she says.

All that said, Susana says mornings usually run smoothly. “[The homeless people] know who we are so they get out of the way when we come by to clean.” (Elias Cepeda)

Bucking Expectations

8:04am, Buckingham Fountain

This early in the morning most visitors to the city are still asleep, but even at eight in the morning, Buckingham Fountain attracts the occasional spatter of tourists, inevitably with cameras in hands, capris on legs, ready to Experience Chicago. They seem unsure of how to approach the fountain, straddling the faded turquoise of the railings and rotating along its circumference slowly, waiting for some sort of feeling to set in. Once they’ve spent a few moments glancing up at the vertical stream, at the Loyau seahorse statues, the multi-tiered and floral-imprinted fountain, they raise their cameras.

Photographing the fountain makes the tourists anxious, their cameras swaying from hand to hand with an indecisiveness on how to best document this Experience. You’d think the advent of digital cameras would wash away any anxieties about taking the right photos, but there still seems to be this lingering fear that they’re not creating a comprehensive record of the moment. Awkward circumference-meandering sets back in. “Which direction of skyline backdrop will be most representational of my self-transcending vacation?”

One woman forgoes documenting her own experience entirely in favor of trying to find the angle to recreate the opening shot of “Married with Children.” The time spent on experiencing and documenting are disproportionate. These visitors to the fountain seem more intent on completing their tourist checklist than appreciating the majestic beauty of Chicago’s front yard in the early morning. (Todd Hieggelke)

Setting Sail

Photo: Todd Hieggelke

8:54am, Columbia Yacht Club

To anyone who rides the lakefront bike path downtown, the site of the Columbia Yacht Club is familiar. The big ship, a 372-foot onetime Canadian icebreaker and ferryboat named Abegweit, looks like a castaway from Navy Pier that’s managed to somehow float into harbor just south of the river, a nautical giant that looms over the rest of the boats. Inside the ship, huddles of tanned teenagers wearing swimming trunks and life jackets surround a small folding table. When you’re lost in your own social awkwardness, it’s hard to recognize how much these scenes look like cocktail-parties-in-training. The circles of conversation around the room show there’s a singular topic of excitement: sailing. The teenagers are all students enrolled in the summer’s Columbia Sailing School.

At 9:00, the fifty or so young students promptly exit single-file out of the ship and onto the pier to its south. The pier is flanked by shelves of boats: canoes, kayaks and sailboats, stacked four rows high, and the students head directly to the sailboats lined up at the southernmost point of the walkway. From here, they find their boat for the lesson and roll them over to the loading ramp, handling the masts with cautious trepidation. As each student’s boat lands faithfully in the water, the faces light up with a glow that comes with experiencing something great for the first time. (Todd Hieggelke)

Requiem for the Masses

Photo: Emma Ramsay

10:40, Pritzker Pavilion

The ideal soundtrack for a mid-morning stroll in Millennium Park would probably not be that of an overwrought battle scene ripped straight from a film. However, as I take my seat at the Pritzker Pavilion, I cannot help but make the comparison. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus will perform Dvorak’s “Requiem” tomorrow night. The notoriously foreboding composition sounds all the more menacing live. Even during an open rehearsal, everyone sounds full form, save for the occasional tune-up or sheepish grin from one of the soloists.

The seating bowl is something else entirely. Here, conversations carry on. Elderly gentlemen begin their crossword puzzles for the day. Families with young children, perhaps on their way to gawk at the Bean or splash around in the spitting fountains, pause for a moment to hear the music. Some spectators take photographs. Groups of poorly dressed tourists, bored teenagers and Girl Scouts file in as the music progresses. A children’s day camp and their frazzled counselors watch from the periphery. They don’t stay for too long. Then again, few actually do.

For most of these people the music is nothing more than a curiosity. For others it is noise, indistinguishable from the distant hum of speeding cars. While there’s something to be said for being able to give undivided attention to a musical performance, sometimes the audience itself offers a show far more entertaining than the one onstage. To watch these people sit impassively during such an intense experience, to see the unaffected expressions on their faces is at once humorous and deliciously ironic. (Emma Ramsay)

A Second Chance, Naturally

10:52, Northerly Island Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

“Actually, she’s pretty dehydrated,” says Dawn Keller. “Ugh. Fleas,” she adds, picking the insects off the baby possum in her hands. The possum is about four weeks old, she says—you can see her pouch developing.

Keller flicks the fleas into the grassy field a step outside her door. The space-age building holding the Park District and the rehabilitation center is the only reminder that the man-made Northerly Island, now an oasis of wildflowers and dirt paths, used to be an airport. Now it smells like grass and blossoming flowers, not fuel.

Keller is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She’s essentially an ER doctor for animals, and the rehabilitation center provides triage care for Chicago’s wildlife. Keller treats 3,200 animals a year in her tiny one-room “hospital,” then releases them down at a nature reserve in Barrington. Yes, Chicago has wildlife—migratory songbirds, hawks, pigeons, possums and squirrels are just a handful of Keller’s patients.

It comes as a surprise to most human visitors to the center too. They stumble upon an injured bird or their kids discover a stranded baby squirrel in the backyard. They care enough to call around or look online and discover there’s a place for these creatures.

This morning, a middle-aged Russian woman brings in a baby squirrel she’s named Chimera. Another woman brings in a baby squirrel her son found in the backyard. A father and son bring in two squirrels, just three days old, the boy and his friends found underneath a tree. It’s the second round of squirrel birthing, says Keller. She sets to work, giving them fluids and antibiotics intravenously, weighing them, listening to their throats to see if they have pneumonia, if they’ll make it. She’s optimistic about this batch.

Today is pretty calm for Keller—one morning she had eighty-seven animals under her care. As the visitor drop-off hours come to a close, Keller remarks, “It was a squirrel day.” She might not get any more animals today, but she’s far from done. She’s got to get her patients ready to return to nature. (Ella Christoph)

Dead Silence

Photo: Emma Ramsay

11:30am, Randolph and North Field Boulevard

Adjacent to the Cancer Survivors Garden on Randolph are the painted dead trees, a Park District-helmed installation-art project that’s inspired equal amounts of curiosity and contempt these past few months. A small forest of mangled-limbed trees has sprouted up in Grant Park. With their garish orange and yellow hues, they certainly do not go unnoticed. Many are quick to write off the Park District’s attempt to bring patrons’ attentions to the beauty of nature for their gaudiness. But are they?

I don’t consider this question upon my arrival. At that point, I’ve romped around in Millennium Park in balmy mid-morning August weather for a good while. As I approach the trees I smile. I take a breath. I do not just feel at ease. I am.

The trees of “Painted Forest” offer viewers a rarity in the city nowadays: a true moment of calm. Perhaps more so than other installation pieces, they masterfully explore a host of contradictions. They stand solemnly in the face of Lake Shore Drive, yet they provide a tranquil, contemplative space. Viewers are, for the most part, alone. Their vibrant color scheme belies their morbid nature. If nothing else, the trees take on the complex relationship between life and death.

Look beyond the aesthetics and the overreaching intentions that inspired the painted dead trees. Only then can they be appreciated.

I realize this as I stand in the “forest.” I let my feelings take precedence. And then these two-tone yellow-orange trees begin to look beautiful. (Emma Ramsay)

And Tutus Too

Photo: Rhianna Jones

1:47pm, The Great Lawn

Four teens wear teal tutus and complementary flags, standing at the foot of the Great Lawn at Millennium Park. They hold a large map, clearly lost. Maybe they’re junior Cirque du Soleil performers gone astray, or perhaps they washed ashore from some urban mermaid colony… Their project, slightly less surreal, still echoes of the fantastical.

These tutued teens are part of a pop-up performance act. They come from the Yollocalli After School Matters summer program, based in Pilsen at the Yollocalli Arts Center (although After School Matters has a presence throughout the whole city). According to Lashawn Jones, 16, the program “keeps kids off of the streets and enables them to express themselves through art.”

Corinne Jones, 16, shows me the troupe’s map. It’s redolent of a treasure hunt. But the team isn’t looking for treasure; they’re hoping to give a surprise gift to the people around them. As the culminating event for the series, the twenty or so teens are putting on a pop-up performance show at various locations in the Loop, starting off at the Thompson Center, then heading to the Cultural Center and the Bean and finally, ending at the Buckingham Fountain.

Because the group didn’t want to walk around “like a crazy circus troupe,” they split up into smaller groups. This decision was decidedly “silly, considering our group leader, is a man running around in a blue sequin dress” quips Dominique Jackson, “and now we are lost.” By now they probably missed the Cultural Center show, but since it is so close I point them in the direction anyhow and the troupe prances off on their merry way. (Rhianna Jones)

Chasing Crazy

2:02pm, Chase Promenade

The same foursome of performers runs frantically through the promenade following the beat of what sounds like the bucket boys. I walk briskly after them. A bona fide pop-up performance begins at the north end of the Bean. There’s a band of clowns, jugglers, the tutued drill team, dancers and slam poets, a marvel for both unassuming natives and timely tourists. And like any entrepreneurial street actors, they ask for donations, so they can have an end-of-summer party.

When I ask these four if they’re excited about going back to school, they unanimously reach the verdict of “sort of.” They’d rather talk about their summer, how they’ve gotten the chance to be tourists in their own city. Jackson especially loves the “tall shiny buildings” that make the lakefront such a gem. The group heads off to its final destination, led by a bicyclist with feather boas and a water cooler in tow. United, this costumed flock is a non-crazy, but urbanized, circus troupe of sorts. (Rhianna Jones)

Picture Perfect

4:38pm, Michigan and Jackson

Just south of the Art Institute, Shion Payne sits and offers to draw portraits of pedestrians passing by. She used to study at the Art Institute but now she’s taking some time off. “Whenever I’m not working, or when I get bored, I sit outside the museum in this shady area and make free portraits,” she says. She does it for fun, for practice drawing and for the generous tips her models leave. She’s also made some friends in the process. “I know some street clowns and they’re hilarious,” she says. (Ashley Abramowicz)

Engineer a Win

Photo: Lindsey Kratochwill

6:28pm, Softball fields, Columbus and Balbo

With the sun finally making its way behind the city buildings, the four baseball diamonds suddenly fill with players. Without uniforms, the players are casual and calm, taking cans from the case of beer on the side of the diamond between innings.

“We’re part of the designers league, from architectural and engineering companies,” says Sheldon Hall, one of the players. “Everyone who’s here are co-workers or friends,” he adds.

“I’m subbing today, though I’ve actually played with this team once before,” says Chris Henao. He’s happy to get the chance to play—his own team’s game was cancelled this Wednesday due to Lollapalooza trash clean-up in the park.

The players tell me the weekly games are a great way for companies to build camaraderie amongst their workers. Hall says that, though his company is small, they gather their team from co-workers, friends and siblings.

For Henao it’s a way to appreciate the end of the summer. “We’re running out of warm days, half way through August. I’m just trying to take advantage of it while I can. The weather’s unpredictable in Chicago, so when it’s a nice hot day, I like to be outside,” he says. (Lindsey Kratochwill)

Come and Contact

Photo: Lindsey Kratochwill

7:27pm, Pritzker Pavilion

Three people begin to dance. Three soon becomes four, then five, soon eight people are dancing on the lawn.

Malian musician Toumani Diabaté has begun his set, part of the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series, and he’s set into action something you don’t usually see in public spaces.

People, mainly in pairs, gracefully use each others’ bodies to guide their own movements. Inhibitions are limited, and everything flows, from dancers lifting one another in the air to rolling in the grass. This dance is known as contact improv, and the jazz series has drawn these dancers to the park.

“I usually go to jams. We have jams in dance studios every week,” says Azya Barron, who usually dances at Links Hall in Lakeview and hasn’t danced in the park before.

The dancers draw a varying crowd throughout the evening: some take photos or videos, others ask what it is they are doing. Barron says the aim isn’t to perform. “I think it’s cool that people watch and get into it, and sometimes other people who haven’t seen us before start to join in,” Barron says.

Diabaté’s artful and unique kora playing can be heard even blocks away, but the contact improv dancers customarily move in silence.

“We usually dance to no music, but this is fun. I’m enjoying the jazz. Anything that doesn’t push you too much but gives you a little bit of something to work with,” Barron says. (Lindsey Kratochwill)


7:49pm, Spirit of Music Garden

In the evening, the city is in preparation. People file into parks, a dribbling stream of sticky bodies carrying bottles of wine, folding chairs, picnics in baskets and paper bags. The air becomes thick with the scent of bug spray, just seconds after I notice the swarm attacking my ankles.

As everyone settles in to their respective places in the grass, on benches—or perhaps they continue on their way—sound begins to push through, bouncing off buildings behind us. Samba plays from one stage, another amplifies Malian music. Street performers compete for ears and the chess booth blasts the radio, which feels inhuman and removed, in comparison.

Maybe it’s because the city’s constructed skyline acts as a visual buffer. Maybe it’s the sunrise that’s most impressive, since Lake Michigan lies to the east. But regardless, the sun sets, and transfixed on the life that gathers on the edges of the city, I hardly notice. (Lindsey Kratochwill)

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