Much Ado About Nothing (Being Built In Grant Park)

(Photo: Innocent place of learning for kids…or the crux of all evil? Credit: Chicago Children’s Museum.)

I don’t have an answer to the question of whether the Chicago Children’s Museum should be allowed to build a new home for itself in Daley Bicentennial Plaza, a.k.a. the woefully underused northeast corner of Grant Park. But I do think the possibility deserves to be debated, and not cut off at the knees as the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune would have it.

Last year, the 25-year old museum announced plans (PDF link) to relocate from it’s longtime Navy Pier home to bigger digs in Daley Bicentennial Plaza, replacing an aging field house in the process. However, in a controversial September 2 editorial, the Chicago Tribune railed against the plan, instead holding fast to the 110-year-old Illinois Supreme Court ruling, based on an 1836 civic decree, that buildings are forever banned in Grant Park.

I don’t know, forever sounds like a long time to me. It’s not an opinion shared by Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, either, who on Tuesday called for a wider debate, on the merits of the museum’s still-developing design plans–and the current worth of the underused corner of Grant Park where the new museum building would sit. Kamin notes that even starchitect Renzo Piano (designer of the Art Institute’s vaunted new modern wing), thinks of Daley Bicentennial Plaza as “nowhere”. Since, according to the Chicago Park District, the park area will have to be replaced in the next few years to fix water leaks in the Monroe Street garage below, Kamin opines that everyone should keep an open mind when deciding what to put there next.

I tend to agree. In its opposition editorial, the Trib certainly made some spurious claims. For one thing, Grant Park is simply not an “unobstructed space”. No matter how curvy the top of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion bandshell is, it’s not a sculpture. It’s a roof. Yet, how many loving paeans to the place have been printed in the pages of the Tribune since Millennium Park’s (tardy) dedication?

For another, it is ludicrous to call downtown Chicago an unwise place to seek to attract more visitors. If downtown Chicago, with its comprehensive transit facilities, wide sidewalks, bevy of crosswalk timers, and massive underground parking lots aimed at getting people out of their cars isn’t the one part of town we want to attract visitors to (two words, dear Trib: economic vitality), I’d like to know where they’d like us to send them.

But what really made me pause was this sentence:

“Rather than piggybacking on Millennium Park, the Children’s Museum can be the prime draw in its own community elsewhere.”

Last time I checked, downtown Chicago was the one neighborhood all Chicagoans can, and do–and should–call claim to. We are not an elitist city. We do not need an elitist downtown. Telling a cultural institution aimed at all Chicagoans to (in this case literally) pack up its toys and stay on its own side of town, in its own community elsewhere, harkens back to our city’s days of municipally sanctioned racism, when people of color were relocated to public housing on the west and south sides specifically to try and keep them out of the Loop. That our city’s main daily can say in all seriousness that downtown Chicago is too good for a children’s museum suggests a downtown Chicago that I’m certainly not living in–nor would I want to. The next time anyone is searching for evidence of the Tribune’s alleged fascist editorial leanings, look no further than this one sentence. It speaks volumes.

In fact, the Trib’s editorial was also challenged on these grounds, by prominent South Side pastor Rev. Michael L. Pflegler. In a September 9 letter to the editor, Pflegler called the newapaper’s stance an “elitist and narrow-minded view” that “is morally indefensible and should not be allowed to prevail.” Pflegler underscored the fact that there are no “outsiders” when it comes to Grant Park–no matter how socioeconomically privileged park neighbors may be (and no matter how much they may think Grant Park is “their” park by dint of sheer proximity), it is the right of all Chicagoans to use the park, no matter where they come from.

In a for more politic way, the Chicago Children’s Museum said essentially the same thing in its own published rebuttal. Essentially, a museum aimed at all Chicagoans has a place in downtown Chicago–especially one that is being designed to sit substantially below street level (as were the Harris Theater and Pritzker Pavilion in adjacent Millennium Park).

Hmm. I certainly never thought I’d see the Trib go toe-to-toe with Gigi Pritzker (you know she’s the museum’s chair, right?), especially with a Pritzker so firmly on the populist side. Now who do you think is going to win that battle?

In fact, who should win the battle is far from clear. Invoking a century-old law that has just been flouted in a such a major municipally and, er, millennially way is hypocritical. And assuming any group of Chicagoans has any stronger or weaker right to be in downtown Chicago is absurd. But the decree and court findings do exist for a reason: we Chicagoans (and how I love, finally, grouping myself into that term now) take our lakefront access very seriously.

And we’ve come a long way. We no longer have a downtown lakefront half-given over to surface train tracks and parking lots. We’ve wisely covered that all over with even more parkland, and with carefully designed, cherished public buildings. So it seems to me the record shows we are of two minds about the downtown lakefront. And that’s OK.

I think with a full and fair debate, vetting of plans, and some honest soul searching, we Chicagoans–park neighbor and Pritzker, museum goer and managing editor–will figure this one out. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. We’re wise enough to know the difference between art and overkill when it comes to Grant Park. As long as we’re unfettered in our debate, I’m sure an appropriate choice will prevail.

And then watch how fast the Tribune publishes an opening-day, commemorative insert.

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