May 9, 2014

Decay in the white city

Jackson Park’s better days have past, but students have the opportunity to restore one of Chicago’s great pieces of history.

A priceless work of art by one of America’s great masters turns up on the University of Chicago’s doorstep. Over a century old, its edges are frayed, its details covered with dust; it needs a facelift. Even as concerned curators and fans begin planning restoration, only a dedicated handful of UChicago students take part in preserving the piece for future generations.

Cosmopolitan UChicago students, take notice: This scenario is unfolding as you read, but the masterpiece in question isn’t a painting or sculpture. It’s Jackson Park, a local gem of landscape architecture that needs our attention.

Just off the Midway’s eastern end, Jackson Park stretches for nearly 550 acres along the lakefront, and holds history on a scale to match. In 1890, Frederick Law Olmsted had already given shape to New York’s Central Park and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol when Chicago architect Daniel Burnham asked him to design the grounds for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. As anyone who’s read The Devil in the White City knows, the next three years saw a heroic effort to transform a barren lakeside marsh into a paradisiacal spread of lagoons, canals, and Neoclassical palaces. The buildings have since given way to meadows and woodland, but we can still appreciate Olmsted’s vision—to provide “greater enjoyment of scenery than they could otherwise have consistently with convenience within a given space”—whenever we jog, bike, or walk through Jackson Park.

However, when we do, it’s also easy to notice signs of decay. Invasive plant and animal species have been crowding out Olmsted’s carefully arranged flora. Invasive human species—drug dealers and prostitutes—have periodically plied their trades in the park’s playgrounds. Even law-abiding users have taken their toll on the park’s infrastructure; the Darrow Bridge, linking 59th Street to the lakefront, has been “closed for repairs” since November. That hasn’t stopped joggers (myself included) from ducking under the construction fence and taking their chances on the cracked concrete.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of plans to bring Jackson Park into the 21st century. As the Maroon reported last month (“Jackson Park To Add New Amphitheater, Museum, and Café In $10-Million Renovation,” 4/18/14), local nonprofit, Project 120, is about to break ground on $10 million worth of renovations, crowned by a sleek new amphitheater set to open in 2016. The park is one of the first beneficiaries of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to rebuild city playgrounds, and the Army Corps of Engineers has unveiled a plan to bring invasive species under control. Meanwhile, the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) continues to clear weeds, repair trails, and step in where city funding falls short.

And the University of Chicago? “We see small groups of students here and there,” explained JPAC President Louise McCurry. She also mentioned a larger group on O-Week’s Engage Chicago Through Service day. But for most of the year, JPAC has to look elsewhere for large-scale collegiate support. Employee Gary Ossewaarde explains that the group sees “large contingents from your rival colleges and universities.”

Sure enough, the top of JPAC’s Volunteer Opportunities page features a crowd of smiling Northwestern students. They seem to have recognized that revitalizing Jackson Park will require something that no philanthropist’s check or City Council resolution can provide: manpower. McCurry and Ossewaarde mentioned multiple projects—clearing an Olmsted-designed music court, pulling weeds from the shoreline, spreading mulch for a new playground—that will need a long, sweaty day of volunteer labor. These projects are sure to pile up as Jackson Park’s development plans move forward.

Are they worth it? Students busy with other brands of community service might reasonably wonder if Jackson Park’s crumbling footbridge and invasive species deserve to take precedence over the South Side’s trauma patients and homeless veterans. In a city as troubled as Chicago, they might ask, should we really spend our limited service time on a park?

Absolutely. Not only have scores of studies linked urban parks to a city’s environmental, civic, and physical well-being, but Jackson Park may offer one of the clearest paths (pun intended) for service-minded students seeking to make an impact within four years. Campus environmental clubs, this means you. The Green Campus Initiative (GCI)’s Facebook page, after listing the group’s efforts for campus-wide recycling and energy reduction, promises interested students, “We’re also looking to partner with other RSOs this year on several projects. [I]f you have a[n] idea, please contact us!”

In that spirit, I would suggest that GCI and its allies broaden their scope beyond campus proper. What kind of impact could their service have in Jackson Park? According to Ossewaarde, JPAC devotes four three-hour workdays per month to the physical upkeep of the park. It doesn’t take a math major to realize that even a small fraction of the time spent recycling and canvassing on campus could go a long way towards improving the greenery just off campus.

But still within walking distance for us to enjoy. “The most important thing I want you to write in your column,” McCurry told me over the phone, “is that Jackson Park is the best park in the city.” Not many Chicago residents—and even fewer college students—are within walking distance of a public golf course, miles of wooded trails, panoramic views of Lake Michigan, and the legacy of one of the greatest artists in American history. “No other park has that.”

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College majoring in history.