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

(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

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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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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6 replies

  1. Cheryl is spot on. This is nothing but cronyism; The city will fund much of this (of course not including the huge overrun), the operators of the garage will get more money (with out having to pay for the roof repairs they should be funding, not tax payer money). How does the Mayors nephew being involved with the Museum not be discussed more?

    And Pritzker, how tough is it to give away millions when your grandparents left you with Billions. It’s like you or I donating $500…big deal. Priztker should shut her yapper to claim ridiculous comments like this. The education lesson she is teaching is, when in doubt pay off the mayor, and then cry racism.

    [Editor’s Note: Jeffery Ayersman is Treasurer of the Prairie District Neighbors Alliance.]

  2. Cheryl, nothing in life is free, is it? According to the museum’s website, Thursday evenings from 5pm to 8pm are free for everyone, as is the first Mondy of every month (for kids 15 and under). Beyond that, children under one are always free, membership.

    This is in line with the Art Institute and the Chicago History Museum, both of which maintain at least one free evening during the week–and both of which charge higher admission fees than the Children’s Museum.

    If you’re suggesting a handout, I don’t agree with that. Any cultural insitution must balance the need to be accessible to those of lesser means (which free evenings and free days certainly accomplish) with the need to not go broke. In a world of dwindling arts and education funding, free admissions are simply not an option anymore, unless you know of a funding stream that I don’t.

  3. 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 Neighbors (NEAR) have used to fuel their opposition to the Chicago Children’s…

  4. No offense Mike, but there is nothing inherently racist about ANY of the comments reported.

    Case in point is the question of why the Museum MUST be built in Grant Park, instead of somewhere else in the Ward, or somewhere else in the city like the Southside, as some local residents have asked?

    Its a fair question that I’d like an answer to.

    After all, if the Children’s Museum is so committed to serving minority children, wouldn’t it make more sense to locate it in a predominantly minority neighborhood, where it would be more accessible?

    And given the economic boost that a 700,000 visitor a year attraction provides, what’s racist about siting the museum in a neighborhood in dire need of economic development?

    Ah…but some will say that downtown is more accessible by public transportation. True, but whose fault is that? CTA head and Museum board member Carole Brown, as well as the Mayor, who oversee a public transportation system that is very good at funneling people into downtown chicago, but makes it very difficult for folks in one neighborhood to get to another.

    Speaking of which, where’s the Pritzker outrage over a public education system in Chicago that requires kids to commute downtown and pay $8 a head to learn that water runs down hill?

    Yes, racism is alive and well in Chicago, but its not eminating from downtown residents. Its seeps out of the Mayor and his policy makers, who oversee a public transportation system that is adept at bringing low-wage workers downtown to sweep our offices, but not bringing economic development to their neighborhoods. A public school system that denies minority children basic access to a sound
    education. A police force that lines Division street with officers every Saturday and Sunday night to make sure drunken revelers get in their cabs safely while Englewood boils like Baghdad.

    Of course, ALL of this debate ignores the fact, pointed out by the Sun-Times today, that the average visitor to the Children’s Museum is white, 6 years old, and arrives by car with a parent. That pretty much moots any accusation of racism on the part of local residents, don’t ya think?

  5. Hey-

    Thought I would comment on-line here. You’ve got the one side of the debate down cold–but I think the opponents of the Grant Park side have something important to say, and it’s actually an advanced lesson in Chicagology.

    Here’s how it runs:
    Grant Park is *not* the only available site for the Children’s Museum. How about Block 37? Lord knows there ought to be enough space over there.

    As an alderman put it the other day speaking to our Local Government and Politics class at Columbia College, we could just as easily frame the issue this way: There are plenty of other available spaces if Mayor Daley’s developer friends would only make them available.

    Anway, I dunno… My wife’s take on this was more self-serving: “by the time it gets built our kids will be too old to use it much.” Very clear on her self-interest. Classic Chicago.

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