Our Great Gallery Of Ghosts [appearing in the 5/1 Tribune]

From residents and tourists alike, Chicago keeps its secrets.

Behind every statue is a hidden back story…every beach, a treasure of buried loves and lies…every urban splendor, a dreamer’s struggle to make it happen…every cemetery, a history of creators and criminals. Our most benign secret may be 7300 acres of lush park lands and shore lines. The largest park district in the US boasting 552 parks, 38 beaches, and an annual budget of almost $400 million.

Few of these facts are what will be luring thousands starting again this spring. With a remarkable 8% of the city’s acreage devoted to open nature, visitors will be embracing our preserved nature with everything from the fury of ball and beach games to the fun of picnics and pleasant day-dreams.

Without their knowledge, though, ghosts will be out there with them….!

Grant Park is our oldest, founded as Lake Park in 1844. By 1901 it took the name of President Grant, in 1926 added the Lincoln Monument, in 1927 the renowned rococo Buckingham Fountain, in 1931 the Petrillo Music Shell hosting today’s Jazz & Blues Festivals, in 1933 the Columbus monument, in1968 the whole-world-is-watching demonstrations during the Democratic Convention, in 2008 the national rally celebrating Barack Obama’s victory. Nearby are unmarked graves of thousands of Southern prisoners who died ugly deaths in what was called Camp Douglas during the Civil War.

So. This year’s strollers, runners, and picnickers will be sharing the same spaces with some of our city’s best and worst ghosts.

Ten miles due west of our earliest park is one of our latest: Columbus Park. Jens Jensen was an architectural dreamer who shared the same vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie school.” Between 1916 and 1920, Jensen took the empty farm lands and sand dunes hugging the western borders of the city to craft his “balm for the human soul” in the form and feel of the American Midwest. The ghosts here are less known, for they hide far outside the limelight of Grant Park. And yet how many childhood echoes and lovers’ whispers still haunt its still lush greenery. I know, for I was among them.

Between Grant and Columbus are prized parks like Lincoln, Jackson, Washington, Garfield, Douglas, Humboldt, and now Millennium. The secret histories of their ghosts — some still living — are left for this year’s visitors to guess for themselves. Or, in City Hall’s archives, to discover for themselves.

Welcome to everything you ever wanted to know or forget about Chicago.

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