Chicago led country in creation of neighborhood parks

Note: Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Flashback had full-page feature by Ron Grossman headlined “Pioneering parks.” I did not copy Grossman’s idea for this post, although it appears that way. I had this piece written on Saturday but held it for my usual Monday posting. Although the timing of Grossman’s article was unfortunate for me, the Tribune’s large readership fulfilled my wish that the history of neighborhood parks in Chicago be better known.

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As a 30-year Chicago resident and 13-year Chicago Greeter, I’m always happy to learn more about this city. I’ve been catching up on Geoffrey Baer’s public television programs during the pandemic and tuned into Ten Parks That Changed America. Chicago made a contribution to the ten — and what it is surprised me.

If you haven’t seen the program, would you care to guess? Perhaps Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition? Garfield Park, with a conservatory unlike any seen before? Millennium Park, brought about through public-private partnership?

Nope. Chicago’s contribution isn’t one park but a new style of park with a new building type. Field houses, first built here, were part of a pioneering philosophy that parks are not just beautiful pleasure grounds for passive enjoyment but centers of year-round programs and activities located where ordinary people live.

“Our idea of what a park could be began in early-20th-century Chicago,” Julia S. Bachrach, Chicago Park District historian, told Baer on the program segment. Bachrach’s The City in a Garden: A History of Chicago’s Parks, which happened to be on my bookshelf, offered more information.

At the start of the 20th century, the ideal of a city park was a sprawling landscape designed for strolling rather than active recreation. Chicago’s showpiece parks, such as Jackson and Lincoln Parks, were away from the central city into which immigrants were pouring. There was a desperate need for open space in the most crowded neighborhoods.

South Park Commission Superintendent J. Frank Foster believed that more than fresh air was needed in immigrant neighborhoods, however. Inspired by Chicago’s settlement houses, he thought of parks not as passive spaces but as vehicles of social reform. Smaller neighborhood parks could provide necessities such as healthcare, education, and basic hygiene as well as amenities such as swimming pools, gymnasiums, and ball fields. For children, there would be playgrounds and supervised activities as alternatives to the streets.

“Instead of sprawling, natural-looking landscapes designed for a gentle stroll,” Baer said on Ten Parks That Changed America, “these types of parks were jam-packed with pools, gymnasiums, and ball fields where immigrants could get a healthy does of exercise.” And more. These smaller parks would also have an innovative building, the field house, a multipurpose community center providing recreational, social, and educational programs all year.

People could come to the field house to shower, eat a hot meal, study English, get a vaccination, learn a craft, perform in community theater, and take advantage of the myriad other offerings that kept growing. A number of the South Park field houses contained the first branch locations of the Chicago Public Library.

In 1907, after the South Park Commission created 10 new parks, President Teddy Roosevelt commented that the success of Chicago’s neighborhood parks was “the most notable civic achievement in any American city.”

The South Side parks inspired the West Park Commission to establish new parks for the first time in 30 years, some on sites smaller than 10 acres. Park districts were established in areas newly annexed to the city, and many of them built field houses.

“Chicago’s experimental new parks redefined what an American park could be, and soon other cities were inspired to build their own small parks filled with the amenities the working class needed most,” Baer said.

Today there are more than 240 field houses in Chicago parks. In every season the Chicago Park District, which consolidated the multiple park commissions, offers hundreds of activities for young people, adults, and seniors throughout the city.

The story of Chicago’s pioneering role in the neighborhood park movement ought to be better known. Stories such as the transformation of Jackson Park for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Montgomery Ward’s fight to preserve the downtown lakefront are staples of Chicago history. I’d never heard about Chicago’s leading the way in the neighborhood park movement before I watched Ten Parks That Changed America.

The small, not-so-pretty neighborhood parks hadn’t seemed special because they were everywhere and much the same. It had never occurred to me that they represented a visionary shift in thinking about parks.

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