New Eastside Elitism

(Photo: A case of mistaken identity in downtown Chicago’s New Eastside.)

Although I, too, have highlighted the racism that some members of the New Eastside Association of Residents (NEAR) have used to fuel their opposition to the Chicago Children’s Museum‘s proposed move from Navy Pier to new digs at Daley Bicentennial Plaza in the northeast corner of Grant Park, that’s not really the crux of NEAR’s opposition. Nor do I believe that NEAR members pass fitful, sleepless nights, tortured by the fear that a 110-year-old Illinois Supreme Court decree barring permanent structures from Grant Park will be flouted by the Daley administration.

As surprising as it may sound, I think both arguments are red herrings for what’s really at the heart of New Eastside residential opposition to the museum’s plans: plain-old economic elitism.

It’s a time-honored Chicago tradition: developers produce condos in a heretofore sleepy corner of downtown and market those condos to suburban Cook County residents who would love to live in the city, if only the city weren’t so, well, city. Prospective urbanites buy into plans and prospectuses highlighting panoramic views, leafy streets, and a level of exclusivity–read: safety–to calm minds enough to loosen wallets.

Of course, development begets development, especially in the soaring Second City. Eventually the city swarms in. Views are lost, congestion is gained, and the newcomers find themselves smack in the middle of the city they originally had experienced from the sidelines. It happened in Dearborn Park. I blogged at length about it last year at Folio Square (see here, here, and here). And if the Chicago Children’s Museum gets its way, it will happen to the wags at NEAR.

Now, the way my mother taught me about life, the simplest, most obvious answer is usually the best one. I can easily understand high-rise residents not wanting to lose the cachet of their isolation from the world around them. I can’t, however, understand them all, en masse, suddenly getting civic religion, pulling out their Plans of Chicago and Forever Open Clear and Frees, and channeling Montgomery Ward.

Can you?

That angle is a convenient one, but if half of the folks at NEAR who have wrapped themselves in the Chicago flag of late can actually name the authors of either one of the above-mentioned tomes, I’ll start taking driving lessons tomorrow. While I never cease to be amused by the capacity of urban newcomers to be surprised when they wake up to the fact that they’re actually residing in a big city (and–surprise–a living, breathing city that never ceases to change), I don’t exactly feel sympathy for fellow Chicagoans who believe that they’re somehow better than…well, other Chicagoans (the non-Bucksbaum, non-Pritzker, nouveaux riche elements of Burling Street, anyone?).

All of which brings me to what I found during my afternoon walk on the New Eastside today: curiously erroneous signage prominently posted in the tony neighborhood’s centerpiece Lakeshore East Park. Those in the know will recall said park was designed by acclaimed landscape architect James Burnett and funded by the neighborhood’s developers, to be given over to the Chicago Park District upon completion. That transfer happened on July 16, 2005. Trouble is, the park still doesn’t show up in the CPD’s online database of facilities (not even under the numeric name by which it appears on the Chicago Interactive Zoning Map, Park #546). The above link is to Lakeshore East developer Magellan’s marketing page.

What I find curiouser, if not outright ominous, is the prominent placement of signage labeling the park as “Private Property” smack in the middle of all three public access routes into the New Eastside from the north, south, and east. Fresh, new, unweathered signage.

S private sign 1.jpg

(“Private-property” sign at south roadway entrance to New Eastside.)

N private sign 1.jpg

(“Private-property” sign at north roadway entrance to New Eastside.)

E private sign 2.jpg

(“Private-property” sign at east pedestrian stair/elevator entrance to New Eastside.)

Such signage is obviously out of place in a public park. That was also the very surprised opinion of “Rachel”, the worker who answered the phone at the 42nd Ward office of Alderman Brendan Reilly when I called to complain about the signage this afternoon (she said the office would look into it).

Knowing full well the greenspace was in the inventory of the Chicago Park District, I went looking for the CPD’s own signs. There were two of them, and I had to hunt to find them. They were nowhere near the “Private Property” signs posted at the park’s public entrances. Instead, they were planted in two corners of the park facing directly into blind corners.

Exactly where no members of the public will ever easily see them.

park overview graphic.jpg

(Location of “private property” and park district signage in Lakeshore East Park, looking west.)

SW sign front 1.jpg

(Park district identification sign in southwest corner of Lakeshore East Park.)

SW sign back.jpg

(Blind corner facing park district sign on the southwest.)

NE sign front 1.jpg

(Park district identification sign in northeast corner of Lakeshore East Park.)

NE sign back.jpg

(Blind corner facing park district sign on the northeast.)

Now I can accept accidents and flukes as much as the next person. But I’ve lived in Chicago for long enough to know that nothing happens in this town without a reason. If you can think of a better reason why a public park in the middle of a controversial, exclusive neighborhood fails to appear in the local park authority’s inventory after two years and is festooned with “Private Property” signs at its public entrances–an explanation that doesn’t have to do with somebody trying to keep someone out–I’d love to hear it. The “Private Property” signage should be removed and replaced with Park District identification signage immediately.

I believe when a person says “Put the museum on the South Side” it’s a racist comment just as strongly as I believe that the placement of this signage in Lakeshore East Park is a deliberate attempt to keep non-resident Chicagoans out of the New Eastside. As a resident of the 42nd Ward, I think that stinks.

And that’s about as simply as I can put it.

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