“Skip the Screen, Save the Green”: We Need the Crystal Gardens

The Navy Pier shouldn’t replace the real wildlife of Crystal Gardens with a paid simulation, and the UChicago community should advocate for this green attraction to stay.

By Cherie Fernandes

I know I’m a live-laugh-love suburban mom at heart because I spent a good chunk of New Year’s Day cooing over a video playlist of 2021 memories, courtesy of my phone’s photos app. An image of my sister peeking out impishly from behind a palm tree gave me pause, however; God knows we hadn’t managed a trip to the Caribbean. The location marked “700 E. Grand Ave, Chicago’s Navy Pier” was enough for me to place it as the eventful second day of a summer college visit trip: While mom pulled our disgruntled father into a caricature portrait (“he got my nose wrong!”) at the ground-floor kiosks, my sister and I had ambled up a massive staircase and found ourselves in a pocket of tropical paradise.

Nestled in Navy Pier, Crystal Gardens is an indoor botanical garden spanning an acre. Upon stepping through the double doors, visitors are greeted with equatorial warmth and the murmur of bubbling water as they take in a 50-foot arched ceiling. The glass atrium houses nearly 90 live palm trees—among other verdant foliage—against a backdrop of twinkling lights and leaping fountains.

Cut to decidedly-not-paradisiacal present day, which sees me flipping through images of the garden on the internet and considering the merits of a second visit. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the architecture concept art of the space’s future, featuring uprooted trees and the atrium awash with technicolor waves reminiscent of bad 2008 Microsoft WordArt. What had I discovered? Navy Pier is slated to replace the open-access tropical garden with “Illuminarium,” a pay-to-enter virtual reality experience that spells “the next generation in immersive entertainment,” by early 2023.

It’s easy to give this development an idle “tut” and “what a shame” as technology marches on, to think that the small crowd of sage-clad protesters insisting “Skip the Screen, Save the Green” are well intentioned, but naive. The reality, Navy Pier contends, is that the Pier has suffered significant losses in tourist revenue during the pandemic. A grand, paid experience like Illuminarium would draw more visitors, conferring positive externalities on the surrounding businesses; Navy Pier PR representative Madeline Sweeney notes, “It’s incumbent upon us to develop attractions that support the maintenance and viability of Navy Pier and boost the local economy,” pointing to the “70 tenant businesses on the Pier, which create more than 3,000 local jobs.” Furthermore, the experience Illuminarium offers would be in keeping with the attraction’s values of education and environmentalism, transporting visitors to an immersive African safari experience. The Pier will continue to offer outdoor green space in the form of Polk Bros Park, but while personal attachments to Crystal Gardens are not unappreciated, the attraction is currently “underused,” and the space is better suited to house Illuminarium.

The reasoning is compelling for all of five seconds, at which point we remember that this scenario could be ripped straight from an unwritten sequel to The Lorax. Even beyond the intense irony of replacing real wildlife with a paid simulation, Navy Pier severely underestimates the community value of Crystal Gardens. The need for additional forms of revenue is understandable, but many point out that Crystal Gardens specifically need not be displaced. The IMAX theaters on the pier have recently been permanently shut down. Not only does this closing suggest that there simply isn’t demand for immersive digital experiences among visitors —after all, who would spend their day at the pier on virtual experiences when there are boat tours, museums, and kiosks to explore?—but that there is also a prime space for the introduction of the Illuminarium. Surely replacing the IMAXs, or a variety of other venues, is a viable alternative to tearing down the gardens. 

Navy Pier’s decision, then, is based not only on a need to build Illuminarium, but also on the perceived need to remove Crystal Gardens: It’s seemingly not pulling its weight as an attraction. However, the garden’s characterization as “underused” doesn’t do its unique contributions to the community justice, particularly regarding the proffered alternative of Polk Bros Park. An outdoor area like Polk Bros can be enjoyed for a whopping one-third of the year, when Chicago isn’t uninhabitably cold. That Crystal Gardens is an indoor green space is what makes it special: It offers a peaceful and temperate respite during freezing months in the Windy City. Chicago has few public indoor gardens, and none are as desirably located. The value of genuine contact with nature is well-documented; to uproot these decades-old, towering palms would spell the loss of crucial mental and physical health benefits to the community.

Additionally, with its $30+ entrance fee, the introduction of Illuminarium marks the elimination of one of the few free experiences on the Pier. Conversations about the divide between Chicago-as-experienced-by-tourists and Chicago-as-experienced-by-Chicagoans have become increasingly relevant in campus discussions of violence and safety, but it’s also present in the form of accessibility limitations on one of the city’s most famed locations. The Illuminarium alienates residents who cannot pay for the experience, a direct contrast to the Crystal Gardens’ walk-in policy and long history of partnering with local nonprofits for educational programming.

And if the garden and associated programs have been lacking in attendance as of late—as most tourist attractions are while the city tries to buck the pandemic—perhaps they simply ought to be advertised more. I’m adamant that, for all of UChicago’s gargoyles trussed in ivy, the Lakefront Trail’s sparkling shoreline, and the Bean’s…bean-ness, the most Instagrammable spot in the city is Crystal Gardens. The environment is genuinely gorgeous, whether you’re there to curl up with a book under a leafy palm or pose by an arching fountain. Additionally, revenue and engagement from the many high-end celebrations the space is rented out for could be substantial should its popularity be bolstered. Crystal Gardens could be anything from a gem of a tourist experience, to a peaceful sanctuary, to a stunning and nostalgic wedding venue. This beloved community space in Chicago should not be torn down.

Droves of Chicago residents have been participating in the effort to save Crystal Gardens since September, with a growing Instagram account featuring hundreds of comments showing support and a Change.org petition with over 23,000 signatures (as of January 16). At this point, vocal public support is the best avenue, and I urge the UChicago community to engage with both of these materials. Do yourself a favor and make a visit to the gardens—it may well be your last opportunity—and, if you find yourself understanding why thousands of people don’t want to see its loss, tag your posts with #SaveCrystalGardens. We can begin 2022 by breaking out of our infamous UChicago bubble and standing against the loss of something precious to the city of Chicago.

Cherie Fernandes is a first-year in the College.