Garfield Park Isn't the Hellhole You Think It Is

Garfield Park Isn't the Hellhole You Think It Is

DSC_0050Chicago winters are enough to make you want to pack up and move away. Don’t get me wrong; I love this city as much as I love my left arm, and I think the city is just as beneficial to my well-being. I think the cooler weather gives Chicagoans a reality check that makes us more down-to-earth and human than people in other cities (L.A., cough cough). Still, I get cabin fever every winter, wishing there was a better way to go out and experience the city without spending tons of money on the restaurants and theaters that are the typical Chicago winter activities. And thankfully last weekend, Katie and I found the perfect balance for a frightfully cold winter day: the Garfield Park Conservatory.

A lot of people flocked to this Conservatory back in 2001 when Dale Chihuly’s glass art was on display. But I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about this place since then, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. This place is amazing. Just starting out with the fact that the greenhouses let you be in the sunlight, in January, without a coat on—heck yes! I didn’t even realize the things I was missing about the warm weather, like the heavier, moister air, the sweet-fresh smell of moss and flowers, and my muscles relaxing in the more forgiving temperatures.DSC_0038 Even though we were only there for an hour, it was the perfect break from an unavoidable winter.

The Conservatory has over 7 indoor greenhouses, with even more outdoor gardens once the soil defrosts. You first walk in to the Palm House, a hugely dramatic room that carves small paths that let you get up close to dozens of different types of trees and DSC_0005plants. From there, we went through the Show House (currently changing exhibits) and to the Horticulture Hall, where plants were being cultivated for display. Then came the Aroid House, my favorite. Greenery surrounds a koi pond, still decorated with some Chihuly glass art, and there is a little bench on which to sit and admire the fish, feel the comforting humidity, and take in the flora. A young woman sat on the bench doing her knitting, and while mostly I was really annoyed at her for taking up the space and not letting anybody else sit there, I know I would have been blissfully content if I were in her place doing the same thing.

DSC_0036The Desert House was surprisingly cold and obviously dry, so we skedaddled through there (let’s be honest, cacti are never as exciting as blossoming tropical flowers) to the Children’s Garden, which looked super fun with a big slide and lots of interactive plants and path designs. We didn’t linger too long because that would have made us the creepiest childless people in the building, so then we moseyed through the Sugar from the Sun room, which is filled with interesting biological tidbits (science teachers, this would be a great destination for you!) and sensory activities. We even got to scratch the bark of a cinnamon tree to release the spicy scent, and I got to brag that I knew that cinnamon comes from tree bark because I saw that once on a Kashi commercial.

DSC_0026The final room we visited was easily the most dramatic: the Fern Room. I learned that designer Jens Jensen (yes, that Jens Jensen—did I neglect to mention that? No wonder this place is so intelligently and beautifully designed) wanted the public to experience what an Illinois landscape would have been like millions of years ago. Hence, moss covering every square inch of the room, water falling down the walls and into a pond in the room’s center, and leaves sprouting out at every possible angle. The room had such a calming effect that I even noticed the guests becoming a little more laid back, spending a little more time taking in the experience and quietly waiting if there was a hold-up in the path ahead of them. (Surprisingly for a Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend, it was never that crowded. There was a good amount of people, but we never had that sheep-in-a-turnstile feeling.)

DSC_0042Sporadically placed throughout the gardens were small activity tables for children, staffed by Conservatory workers who helped the kids appreciate more about their visit. The workers were all so friendly and excited, and not only did they make me want to be a little kid again, but they made me want to be at an age when it would be perfectly acceptable to be underpaid in such a job. Sigh.

The best part is, this entire experience was free, and there was plentiful street and lot parking that was also free. There was also a green line stop about a block away. Basically, you have no excuse not to go. But just in case you’re thinking, “I need one more reason…”, firstly know that you sound like a pretty high-maintenance person, but also know that just south of the Conservatory, Garfield Park continues. And it is impressive.DSC_0013

About a block south rests the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, one of the top 5 impressive buildings I have seen in Chicago. Built in the Spanish Revival style, it has a façade more ornate than any I’ve seen in the city, and is capped with a golden dome that recalls a brighter time in Garfield Park’s past. Because it was a Sunday, the building itself was closed, but Katie and I (being the creepers we are) peered inside to a striking art deco-looking interior. A pool sat in the back, overlooking a lagoon, and the expansive park was a wonderfully open, if deserted, area to take in the not-so-distant skyline.

And to address the elephant in the room, we felt safe the entire time. A neighborhood’s never going to improve if you keep ignoring it. If you haven’t been to Garfield Park in a long time, then it’s time to go back. Now.DSC_0077

Garfield Park Conservatory

300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago

Garfield Park Field House


100 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago

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  • How is the Conservatory doing? A few years ago they were hit by a very localized hail storm that broke so much of the glass roofs and windows.

    I love this place and should visit this Winter or Spring. Remember folks, after the Spring tulip season the conservatory uproots the bulbs and gives many of them away to the public. Watch for the announcement on their web site sometime in late April or early May.

  • In reply to severson12:

    It seems to be doing great! I remember the coverage about the hail storm but all of the glass seemed to be restored. The only "construction"-like area was the Show House, but since that's the place with changing exhibits, it makes sense. Thanks for the heads-up about the tulip bulbs!

  • Not to mention... the people living in Garfield Park are very welcoming too. As a new resident & home owner, I felt the need to add that as well. We still suffer from crime, drugs and gang activity but the neighborhoods are fighting back hard. The area is heavily populated so there are always ears and eyes watching. The bad part is we're not getting any help from the Alderman, who seems to do nothing at all...?

    We have loads of affordable housing, historic Brownstones, a busy shopping corridor (if you're into sneakers and hip-hop fashion) we're located between the Blue Line and Green Line Trains and close to I-290. I can be inside the Loop in 10 minutes. The area is becoming more diverse by the day, it's certainly vibrant and far from boring. And artist seem to appreciate the affordability and the action. Lots of gardeners in GP if you're into that (

    Garfield Park is ready for small business owners to invade so I encourage all of you entry-level entrepreneurs to consider East & West Garfield Park.

    We could use a few interesting places to eat and drink.

  • In reply to transplant:

    That should read

  • In reply to transplant:

    Thanks for the info! We had the feeling that the area was pretty vigilant against crime, but didn't know for sure so didn't want to speculate. I agree--a couple new restaurants could do a lot for the area.

  • During the late Sixties through the Eighties police officers would meet at the "Gold Dome" to drink their coffee or do other mundane things like write reports. The reason was simple. Someone figured out it was the only place in the area out of range from snipers in buildings and on rooftops.

  • In reply to Peter Bella:

    Haha...are you serious?? I guess it's not the worse place to be when avoiding sniper fire!

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