After city efforts to secure the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games reached new heights last week, local South Side residents and community activists filled the Washington Park Field House Saturday morning to discuss the impact of pending Olympic plans on their neighborhoods.
Cecilia Butler, in her 16th year as president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, made the morning’s agenda clear from the beginning.
“Today is not a meeting of why we don’t want” the Olympics, Butler said to the roughly 50 people in attendance.
“Otherwise, we will be here for days,” she said, reminding the audience to consider “what it would take for you to support the Olympics.”
The community meeting stemmed from the Chicago Olympic Committee’s decision late last month to make Washington Park the prospective site of a 95,000-seat Olympic stadium, pending Chicago’s selection in October 2009 as host city.
The decision, which Butler said was a surprise to her and other community leaders, has propelled the 380-acre historical park to the center of a debate among area residents, many of whom fear the plans will run them out of neighborhoods they have lived in for decades.
“As a child, I went to day camp here,” Butler said, adding that suggestions made to the advisory board at the meeting would be directly delivered to the mayor’s office and superintendent of parks.
“The power of your advisory council depends on what work you want to put in it,” she said.
Before opening up the floor to the audience, Butler said she has supported the city’s plan to convert the Olympic stadium to a permanent 10,000-seat amphitheatre after the Games.
She said the city has seriously considered the advisory council’s request to build the stadium in the Seven Hills area on the southeast portion of the park, rather than the common grounds, which have been home to community sporting activities for over half a century.
Butler said the Chicago Olympic Committee and City Hall have been cooperative and open to discussion with community leaders.
“I’ve seen it [the park] go from nothing to something,” said Barbara Prude, who lives at East 60th Street and South Eberhart Avenue. A supporter of the Washington Park Olympic plans, Prude suggested urging the city to focus on potential parking shortages, tax increases, street lighting, and jobs for local residents.
Butler said the advisory council has suggested that the city convert the area behind the nearby DuSable Museum into an underground parking lot, similar to Grant Park and Millennium Park downtown, to address the parking situation.
Local resident Kamilah Jarvis said one of her biggest concerns was the neighborhood’s poor driving conditions. She also called for improved street lighting around the park, the need for hotels, and more grocery stores.
“The streets have to be paved and drivable, not a roller coaster ride,” she said to a round of applause from the audience.
Linda Austin, president of the Harris Park Advisory Council, echoed Jarvis’s sentiments, supporting a Washington Park–housed Olympics.
“We need improvement here,” Austin told the advisory board.
Samantha Robinson of South Chicago said the city should connect with advisory councils in Atlanta, host of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and “learn from them.”
“I know that there are no cookie-cutter solutions to this,” Robinson said.
The city moved another step forward Thursday in bolstering its candidacy, becoming the first of the three competing U.S. cities—along with San Francisco and Los Angeles—to unveil its official Olympic logo. Dubbed “the beacon” by its designers, the logo features an Olympic flame and silhouette of the Sears Tower–dominated skyline, along with a green and blue color scheme that represents the city’s waterfront and parks.
Saturday’s meeting fell on the same weekend as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s European tour of Athens, the 2004 Olympic host, and London, host of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, in an effort to compare notes with the successfully selected cities.
The meeting soon deviated from its intended purpose, and an agenda intended to garner support for a local Olympics was opposed by some community members.
“There are more pressing needs for our community than an Olympic stadium,” said Hal Easton of Woodlawn, adding that he feared gentrification would evict him and fellow residents from their homes.
The atmosphere turned heated with a brief appearance by Bill “Dock” Walls, a candidate for Chicago’s February 2007 mayoral election. An aide under the late former Mayor Harold Washington, Walls insisted that his appearance was not political.
“Yes, we want the 2016 Olympics…but I have a commitment to Washington Park,” Walls said. “It’s important that we’re having these discussions now and not waiting until they’re breaking ground.”
Walls spoke emphatically in front of the group, but incited emotional responses from audience members when he referred to developing the Washington Park community regardless of Chicago’s securing the Olympic bid.
Walls said that local colleges such as Malcolm X College are in need of athletic facilities and that he would support building a stadium in Washington Park even if Chicago loses the bid. The mayoral candidate added that new and sophisticated athletic facilities would encourage low-achieving students to strive toward higher education at colleges serviced by the new stadium.
“We have companies that we as a community can go after,” Walls said. He also referred to U.S. Cellular’s sponsorship of the Chicago White Sox stadium and corporate sponsorship of the renovated Soldier Field.
About 10 people stormed out of the room in response to Walls’s statements.
“We need to unite as one and concentrate on what’s going on in our community…before the Olympics come,” said Murray Johnson, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association.
Several audience members continued their criticisms of the city’s proposed plans to build in Washington Park, taking argument along racial lines.
“This is [happening] because we are the least resistant,” said local resident Theodore Drew, referring to the area’s predominantly black population. “Take it to Grant Park, take it to Lincoln Park,” Drew said about the proposed Olympic stadium.
Some members of the audience complained about the influence of the University of Chicago. One emotional argument called for the Olympic Committee to build the stadium on the track behind Ratner Athletics Center.