I have lived in the same house in southeast Evanston for almost 40 years. Just two blocks away, at Lincoln Elementary School, sits our little field of dreams. Actually, it’s a play field for a landlocked urban school that only has two small playgrounds for over 500 kids. So that green space has always meant a lot to the school and the neighborhood. And over all of the years that field has been part of my daily life, it has met some challenges to its existence. Earth Day seems like a good time to remember a couple of them.
My memories from the years my children grew up included lots of informal weekend sports played there by kids from all over the neighborhood. This was the place we took our children to try riding their two-wheelers for the first time so they would hit a soft and forgiving surface when they fell. During school hours when my children went to Lincoln, it was filled with the happy shrieks of kids just running around during the hour-long lunch break (imagine!), just for the pure joy of it.
But since empty land is precious and parking can be a challenge in the block surrounding the school, many years ago the field was “repurposed” to become a teachers’ parking lot. It was our community’s version of the Once-ler from The Lorax by Dr. Seuss chopping down the Truffula trees. It took a huge community outcry in which school parents worked with their neighbors to write letters, attend meetings, and confront the teachers’ union and school board. I remember citing Joni Mitchell’s version (that’s how old I am) of Big Yellow Taxi in my letter:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
After some months of protest, the asphalt was chopped up and the green field returned. We all congratulated ourselves and the kids went out to kick balls and pick dandelions.
The more recent assault on this little green spot occurred following the renovation of Lincoln School. During the year of constant construction, the field and playgrounds were filled with building materials, vehicles, and debris. At one point, the entire school was dismissed onto a patch of asphalt the size of a classroom. Inside, things were not much better. It was a year during which the kids were cooped up and confined, with little opportunity to run or play, but everyone agreed the end result would be worth it.
Well, we did get a beautiful and larger school, but we also got a retention pond in place of a level playing field. At first, it didn’t seem that bad. In the winter of 2013, it was fun to sled down the sides of the pond into the level basin. But this cruel winter put an end to even that simple pleasure as sledding was judged too dangerous due to the snow and ice. The field was fenced off to school children and neighborhood kids alike, and “danger keep off” signs decorated the fence. In addition, rain and melting snow turned our little field of dreams into a mud pit as it fulfilled its responsibility and retained water.
Once again, the school families and neighbors united to protest. It seems the city’s new Storm Water Control Ordinance was not taken into account in the renovation budget. Thus, creating the water retention pond was the only affordable option. At the end of March, however, the PTA received a sympathetic response from the Evanston/Skokie School Board Finance Committee and was hopeful that there would be a short-term solution to leveling the field once again.
This week, April 21-25, is also Public School Volunteer week. So it seems fitting this Earth Day to pay tribute to two generations of public school volunteers and their community allies who have fought to keep this little patch of green earth free to once again host school events like carnivals and “Laps for Lincoln,” to be a place for pick-up soccer games and picnics, and to bring the beauty of running across a simple field to another generation of children.
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