Chicago’s Most Important Open-Space Issue in 20 Years

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(Photo: Would you bring your children here…and would they be welcome? Credit: sscornelius.)

Such is how a high-ranking executive (choosing to remain anonymous) at one of Chicago’s most prominent greening organizations labeled the ongoing citywide argument over whether the Chicago Children’s Museum should be allowed to move from their current rented space at Navy Pier to Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park. Considering that museum chair Gigi Pritzker publicly waded into the debate in this morning’s Sun-Times (and how often does a Pritzker do that?), I agree. According to Pritzker:

“The thing that’s sad is the loudest voices — it doesn’t mean the whole community — seem to have that component [racism] to them”.

What amazes me, as I continue blogging about this still-snowballing affair (not to mention receiving high-ranking confidential emails from those with a stake in it), is how, in these days of raging political correctness, it seems to be more acceptable to actually espouse racist opinions than to point them out when others engage in them. An editorial in the September 19 Chicago Tribune called Mayor Daley “crass”, “bizarre”, and “irresponsible” to suggest, as he did on Monday, that race has anything to do with the opposition of the New Eastside Association of Residents (NEAR) to the museum’s proposed relocation to Grant Park. The editorial celebrated 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly for rejecting the plan.

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s analysis of the issues underlying the controversy, also in yesterday’s Trib, was on surer ground. Kamin correctly pointed out the many permanent buildings in Grant Park that already ignore the Illinois Supreme Court’s nineteenth-century decree that buildings be barred from the park. Not the least of these structures, of course, the 130-foot-tall Pritzker Pavilion, not to mention the Harris Theater, four Exelon Pavilions, and the still-standing Petrillo bandshell, all of which have made Grant Park a vibrant, attractive place to be for Chicagoans and Chicago visitors.

Kamin also points out the lack of opposition from local conservation heavyweight Friends of the Parks, quoting bicycle-loving organization president Erma Tranter as saying:

“They’ve come a long way in modifying it down [the museum’s building plans]. We think they’re getting there.”

Even more interestingly, Kamin underscores the outright support for the museum’s plans on the part of Lois Wille, author of the accepted history of Chicago’s accessible lakefront, “Forever Open, Clear and Free”. Queried Wille in an interview this week:

“How should ‘common ground’ be defined in the 21st Century, compared with the
19th?”

A question fleshed out by Tranter:

“Ward was pretty clear that he was trying to keep that land available for people to walk on, very democratic land that you could play on, do very diverse things on.”

For Kamin, Wille, and Tranter, that’s an aim that won’t be tarnished by the relocation of the Children’s Museum to Grant Park (much as it wasn’t by the construction of Millennium Park on Grant Park’s northwest corner).

So why are we even discussing racism? Because, as has been widely reported, racist comments were made and repeated to attendees at the public meetings hosted by Alderman Reilly for NEAR members in condo buildings adjacent to Daley Bicentennial Plaza, and made it into the media. Pay close attention folks, because that’s a fact conveniently left out of the Tribune’s editorial yesterday.

CTA chair Carole Brown acknowledged the comments; Gigi Pritzker acknowledged the comments; south side Reverend Michael Pflegler acknowledged the comments; the mayor’s press secretary, Jackie Heard, acknowledged the comments. Comments like:


Why don’t they move the museum to the South Side?

Don’t bus strangers in.

And my personal favorite…

Will the children going to the museum be allowed to use Grant Park’s playground?

Were whatever Trib reporters who also attended those NEAR meetings otherwise occupied while comments like these were being made (and the signs that bore them carried)? Or, as I suspect, were they overruled in reporting on the comments by the powers-that-be on the Tribune’s editorial board until the decree hit the fan?

I have a few more questions, too:

–Since the Chicago Park District already maintains a swanky, sizeable, developer-built park with a playlot smack in the middle of the New East Side for the benefit of adjacent condo buildings, why the controversy over out-of-neighborhood kids overrunning parkland that sits farther away from those condo buildings across a major roadway?

–Beyond not acknowledging the racist comments of NEAR members, why hasn’t one Tribune editorial ever mentioned Lois Wille’s support of the Children’s Museum’s planned move? (God knows, the Chicago Reader practically screamed it nine days ago).

–Where is the opinion of Chicago’s other major conservation organization, Openlands, in this?

–And, just how much of this debate centers on a potential tit-for-tat between Reilly and citywide aldermen over control of local land in the face of the construction of new athletic structures–especially in Washington Park–if Chicago gets the Olympics?

But don’t let my curiosity about those questions overshadow the evident racism in NEAR’s opposition to the museum’s move. It may be impolitic to make accusations of racism when there’s no record to suggest it. But it’s pathetic for one of the largest newspapers in the nation to ignore those comments in its editorial pages on the same day it’s reporting on them in its news pages.

So far this week, we’ve seen the Chicago Tribune and 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly go toe-to-toe with Mayor Daley and a prominent Pritzker. I don’t know who among them is going to be left standing, politically, when all is said and done. But whoever isn’t will not be coming out of this mess untarnished.

Already at this point in many minds, much like the wags at NEAR.

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