In Chicago and Philadelphia, the Difference a Park Makes
Posted: Monday, March 13, 2017
Source: New York Times
CHICAGO — Despite the bitter wind, Kim Wasserman showed me around La Villita Park. Occupying 21 acres in the middle of this city’s largest Mexican-American neighborhood, called Little Village, the park used to be a brownfield and illegal dump. Back then, the site leached toxins into hundreds of nearby basements. Sickened residents protested for years. The federal cleanup, finally completed in 2012, became the largest urban Superfund project in America.
Ms. Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, then helped lobby the city for the park.
She pointed out where residents got the playground, ball fields, skate park and community gardens they wanted. The $19 million park now hosts city-sponsored sports programs and free concerts. During warm months, Ms. Wasserman said, formerly incarcerated young residents from Little Village help keep an eye on La Villita, discouraging gangs from moving in. “The community feels ownership of the place,” she said.
One result in this city known for its murder rate: next to no violent crime in the park, according to Ms. Wasserman.
Chicago is at the forefront of a growing, big-city trend. It has been undertaking a major parks and open space program, upgrading neighborhood playgrounds and recreation centers, scooping up acres of disused land for new green areas and repurposing large swaths of formerly industrial waterfront. Aided by a longstanding tax that goes directly to parks, these efforts to improve public space, begun under the city’s former mayor, Richard M. Daley, have gathered steam since Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011.
They have met with some of the usual resistance from state authorities reluctant to finance city improvements and from some aldermen who want money now allocated for parks, trees and after-school programs redirected toward violence-prevention. The mayor has testily noted that after-school programs and parks, like La Villita, provide exactly the sort of safe spaces for young people that help reduce crime.
From Philadelphia to Seattle, other American cities are also banking on parks and public spaces to drive social and economic progress. Parks may not seem particularly urgent compared with the latest gangland murder epidemic; but the effort in Chicago to improve and expand them has, neighborhood by neighborhood, delivered long-term rewards. A few downtown showpieces, like the urbane Riverwalk and glamorous Millennium Park, have reaped immense financial windfalls for the city. Barack Obama’s presidential library in Jackson Park promises to become a major new attraction and help rejuvenate that part of the South Side.
Other park projects are not making headlines but are making a difference. I caught up with Mayor Emanuel one afternoon at an arts and recreation center in Ellis Park in Bronzeville, one of the city’s historic African-American neighborhoods. The center, on former Chicago Housing Authority land, is a sunny, brightly colored two-story building with big windows and a state-of-the-art indoor pool. It’s linked with a network of related improvements to transit, public health and street life in Bronzeville. Like La Villita, it was among various long-percolating community-initiated dreams, realized only lately, thanks to a cocktail of financing the mayor helped mix.
“Urban policy often focuses too much just on housing,” Mr. Emanuel told me, grateful to focus on what has become a central plank of his administration and not talk policing or murder rates. “Housing alone doesn’t make a neighborhood.”
That’s a view shared by Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia, who was swept into office last year on a platform committing hundreds of millions of dollars to fixing up some 400 dilapidated green spaces, ball fields, pools, libraries and recreation centers in underserved districts. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the 10 most-populated cities in the United States. The plan focuses on the city’s neediest areas.
Hunting Park, in North Philadelphia, is an example. For years, it was a troubled place before its revitalization started in 2009. Since then, crime has plummeted 89 percent, probably not all thanks to improvements to the park, though Philadelphia authorities attribute declines in prostitution and drug dealing to families taking over the park.
I spent an afternoon with the city’s parks commissioner, Kathryn Ott Lovell, touring crumbling libraries and rec centers in North and West Philadelphia now scheduled for makeovers. Once great buildings, still bustling with children, they remain critical to their neighborhoods, barely held together today by bubble gum and underpaid, overworked custodians who are among the city’s unsung heroes. Changing demographics, new technologies and evolving demands by residents on parks and libraries to be complex community hubs require that these places receive more than just a fresh lick of paint or sod.
They need extensive rethinking. The William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia has pitched in an additional $100 million to help make all that happen, its biggest grant ever.
“We want every Philadelphian to be able to walk to a place that says, ‘You are worth it,’” Ms. Lovell explained.
Chicago is trying to send the same message. East of Little Village, in the Bridgeport neighborhood, Studio Gang, the highly regarded architecture firm, has designed an elegant new zinc-clad public boathouse, with clerestory windows and a jagged roofline (based on stop-action photographs of rowers, the architects say), providing a gateway from Bridgeport to the waterfront. Farther north, the 606, Chicago’s version of the High Line, which opened in mid-2015, has turned a defunct rail corridor into a wildly popular pedestrian greenway.
And to the south, near Lake Calumet, in an area of shuttered mills where Chicago approaches wilderness, Big Marsh has lately opened as a public bike park and nature preserve carved from nearly 200 acres. I drove to Big Marsh with Michael P. Kelly, the chief executive of the Chicago Park District, who envisioned it becoming “a major new attraction” for cyclists, then took me to a housing project called Altgeld Gardens Homes in far southeast Chicago.
There, the city has installed playground equipment and spruced up parts of Altgeld Gardens’ decrepit 1920’s-era rec center, including an indoor swimming pool. At the center, Mr. Kelly introduced Brian Bradley, the park district’s supervisor for Altgeld Gardens, a huge, quiet man who, in his spare time, teaches young residents how to box.
“This is a community that fights hard,” Mr. Bradley told me. We were standing beside the heated pool, a magnet for older residents and children, with a view onto the playground. “Places like this are where everybody comes together,” he said.
Mr. Bradley recalled growing up in a different neighborhood, whose park and rec center became his salvation and second home. He paused.
Tears suddenly welled in his eyes, and he apologized. The Altgeld Gardens rec center still needed repairs. But the park district’s improvements so far have sent a message: “Growing up in a place like this you can feel nobody cares,” he said.
“These changes tell people they’re not forgotten.”