The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Citizens Inspire Park Reform: 1970s-1980s

citizens-inspireBy the early 1970s, as citizens became concerned about proposed alterations and the overall management of Chicago's parks, a new era of activism began. Several years earlier, when construction crews started cutting down trees to make way for a major roadway extension through Jackson Park, Southsiders chained themselves to trees. Construction of buildings along the lakefront drew public outcry. As a result of these criticisms, the city adopted the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance in 1973.

Throughout the decade, citizens complained that a political patronage system produced an unqualified and incompetent park work force, that parks in minority neighborhoods were overlooked, that programs were poorly developed, promoted, and unreliable, and that facilities and landscapes were neglected and rapidly deteriorating. In 1974, after Chicago Tribune writer, Jory Graham, published an article entitled, "A Slow Death for the Parks," in The Chicagoan, a group of concerned citizens responded by forming the Friends of the Parks. At the same time, a group organized after the CPD announced plans to demolish the historic South Shore Country Club building. Having acquired the recently defunct 65-acre private club to expand its lakefront holdings, the Park District planned to raze the elegant facility. An angry coalition quickly formed and convinced the CPD to rescind this decision.

In 1982, a group of citizens and civic groups filed a formal complaint against the CPD with the United States District Court. This document asserted that the Park District's policies and practices discriminated against residents of Chicago's African-American and Latino communities "in the supply, distribution, and maintenance of recreational services, programs and facilities." The following year, the dispute was settled through a consent decree. The CPD formed a task force, which undertook an exhaustive study and issued a series of recommendations in 1987. This effort resulted in a plan to decentralize management of the parks, divide resources and staffing in an equitable manner, undertake landscape and facility rehabilitation projects, and adopt a system of citizen-based advisory councils to review Park District plans, policies, and operations. By the late 1980s, many of these reforms had begun. Among many new initiatives, the CPD rehabilitated 500 deteriorated park playlots over a five-year period. A major reforestation effort and a series of architectural projects were conducted, including the restoration of the South Shore Club facility (now known as the South Shore Cultural Center) and Café Brauer in Lincoln Park. The discovery of thousands of archival plans, drawings, and photographs in a sub-basement vault beneath Soldier Field helped to bolster restoration efforts.

1. Lois Weisberg, "Friends' Long History Remembered by Founder," Friends of the Parks Newsletter, Summer 1982.