In 1955, an intense, seemingly unprecedented heat wave hit Chicago. We can imagine our forebears madly fanning themselves with squashed hats and ragged hand fans. I can see the weathered faces staring out from creaky wooden porches in Lawndale, in Canaryville, in Lincoln Park. Fewer than 10 percent of Chicago homes had air conditioning. The heat seriously threatened the lives of the elderly and children. Chicagoans found an elegantly simple solution: they packed a blanket, pillows, we can imagine candles and playing cards, and headed to the parks. They slept outside and saved their lives.
Grant Park was littered with Chicagoans so sure of their common ownership of their city that they just went right outside, headed to the lake where they could be sure it would be cooler, and went to sleep. Imagine that — they knew they were safer sleeping outside than they would have been sleeping in their own overheated homes.
The Board of the Chicago Children's Museum has put forth a proposal to move the Museum from its current Navy Pier digs to the northeast corner of Grant Park. What does this mean in specifics? It means an application on the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, to be decided by the Plan Commission on May 15, and a planned development zoning request (exciting stuff) that would create a "subarea" (Subarea D) in the Park. The permitted uses in this subarea would be "museum" use, as well as the field house, restaurants and liquor licenses.
"Restaurant-s. Plural," Alderman Reilly emphasized. The museum would also continue to charge admission.
In the beginning, opponents of the plan were a group of homeowners abutting the park to the north along Randolph Street. Originally they were portrayed as grousing about increased traffic and clutter in their affluent neighborhood. Their complaints, characterized as such by the press, emboldened Mayor Daley to accuse them of rank NIMBYism and, worse, subtle racism and classism. According to the mayor, what they were really worried about were all the poor black and brown kids coming to their neighborhood to enjoy the Children's Museum.
After the relocation story garnered public attention — in no small part due to the tenacity of freshman 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly and the well-organized residents' group Save Grant Park — it was quickly hijacked from a strictly legal question into a public relations contest, where we were encouraged to guess at motives. What was in the hearts of those in support, and those who oppose?
Mayor Daley's shameful accusations added fuel to that noxious fire. Perhaps in narrative retaliation, opponents of the move speculated as to the grandiose desires of the Pritzker family, in particular Museum Board President Gigi Pritzker, as the inspiration for the attempted move to Chicago's uniquely public front yard.
There is no real reason to believe that the estimable Board of the Chicago Children's Museum have any but the purest motives or that it is a "land grab" for the well-heeled. Nor is there any reason to believe opponents of the move, including the nearby residents, are motivated by anything but a passion for public space and the future of park space in Chicago.
Forgetting the clout-heavy Pritzker name, and forgetting the NIMBY cliché, what is at issue here?
"It sets a very dangerous legal precedent for the development of Grant Park," Peggy Figiel, a mother of two and a leader of Save Grant Park, told me. "Grant Park is supposed to be forever open, free, and clear... and we owe it to future generations to protect it for them, as well. Chicago has less park space than the top 15 major US cities — it's important to preserve park space."
And the NIMBYism?
"We've had almost 3,000 people sign our online petition; only 25 percent are from our neighborhood."
"Forever open, clear, and free" is a reference to the original dedication of Grant Park — "Lake Park" at the time — a dedication deemed perpetual by the Illinois Supreme Court in the so-called Montgomery Ward decision, the result of a suit brought by the retail giant against the Field family in their efforts to build the Field Museum in Grant Park.
Seems pretty ironclad: the highest court in the state has decided definitively that building in Grant Park is illegal — in a way that, in fact, even predates the existence of Chicago itself, which was incorporated one year after the dedication of "Lake Park."
Readers who have seen Grant Park will note a significant problem for this argument. Namely, Millennium Park and the Harris Theater. They exist. Grant Park has been built on, and to good purpose. The Children's Museum has an admirable goal of improving the museum for Chicago's children — arguably a public service. Bob O'Neill, President of the Grant Park Conservancy, put it well to Ben Meyers of the Chicago Journal: "This is a way to get more public assets through private funds." And when asked, Alderman Reilly denied that he objects to building in parks in principle, potentially lending credence to "not in my backyard" (or, as Eric Zorn put it, "not in my front yard") accusations.
"I don't object to building in principle, no. I oppose building in Grant Park because it's illegal. Grant Park is a special exception. These covenants were put in place a full year before the city was even incorporated... To clarify, though, I do have a concern about the Chicago Park District leasing off public lands to private institutions — I think that is a disturbing trend that we've seen. It started in Lincoln Park with the Latin School soccer field. This was essentially selling off — or 'long-term leasing off' public property."
Alderman Reilly's deeper point, however, is that Grant Park is unique, and past mistakes don't justify future ones, particularly if they continue to conflict with a law. Peggy Figiel was more concise — "That's the thing — by law, this is only location that has to be ruled out."
Indeed, Alderman Reilly submitted a list of 24 potential alternative locations, a suggestion that was met with a form letter in response.
Terseness may be the museum's standard method of reply; a list of questions submitted to the museum's spokespeople at the high-powered PR firm Hill & Knowlton earned a four sentence reply that included an insinuation that the Save Grant Park group was led by paid Reilly consultant.
"Let's lay that out on the table," Reilly says in response to that accusation. "They are referring to David Clarkin. He's a public relations consultant who helped with my transition into office, absolutely. He's not retained by me and hasn't been for months. He was approached by the group and volunteered his services. This is a case of Hill & Knowlton not winning on their message, and trying to kill the messenger."
Whether or not Hill & Knowlton is trying to kill the messenger, and whether or not paid consultants are involved in the Save Grant Park group is immaterial. Even If Gigi Pritzker is indeed making some kind of power play, and even if the park's neighbors have some nefarious ulterior motives, it doesn't change the law, and it doesn't change the facts. We can never know what is in people's hearts, but the law is on paper.
Let's review the case.
• Canal Commissioners, in 1836, a full year before the incorporation of the city, dedicate land to be kept "forever free, clear and open."
• The Illinois Supreme Court, in a series of four decisions, affirms that the intent of this dedication is perpetual and literal.
• The building of the Harris Theater, and Millennium Park, are built but never face full legal challenges, the sole challenge being thrown out on a technicality (the plaintiffs lacked legal standing).
• In order to meet the legal protections of lakefront space set forth in the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, a proposal must meet all of 14 standards, including this one: "(5) Maintain and improve the formal character and open water vista of Grant Park with no new above ground structures permitted."
It is not fully clear why the museum and the mayor believe that the northeast corner of Grant Park, some 1,000 yards from Navy Pier, is sufficiently more accessible to the working-class children of Chicago than Navy Pier to justify breaking the law; nor is it clear why the museum has so steadfastly refused to consider other nearby locations — past their own claim last summer that no other location was "offered" to them.
Absent that case, then, there seems to be no compelling reason why the public, who own Grant Park in common, should transfer that ownership to a private interest, no matter how noble that private interest is. Accusing one's opponents of selfishness cannot undo a legal decision or change the letter of the law. Trumpeting the nobility and altruism of your mission cannot create an argument.
"Winning in the court of public opinion" is a very nice word game, but we cannot have a just — or sane — society based on who wins in that court of public opinion. And not only because the victor in that court tends to be the one with the most cash.
During our next heatwave, or cause for city-wide celebration, Chicagoans should not have to step outside only to find themselves surrounded by private property.
The City's Plan Commission will rule on the first part of this application at a public hearing on May 15th, at 1pm at City Hall.
NOTE: Navy Pier commented on this story only to say that they support the museum's decision to stay or go, and that no reason was given to them for the move, and that their lease was good through 2010. Unfortunately I was unable to connect with Bob O'Neill, President of the Grant Park Conservancy, for an interview (he did in fact grant a request). I would therefore refer you to Ben Meyers excellent article at the Chicago Journal, which features a discussion with Mr. O'Neill: "So Begins the Battle."