Chicago’s parks are a monument to its civic values

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As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all normal urban lifestyles, including public access to leisure facilities and civic spaces, the fabric that unites our neighborhood is being tested and facing new challenges. Many of Chicago’s parks and civic spaces are playing a larger role in daily life, with more and more people using them during what were once “off” hours. At the same time, city parks play a central role in debates about our society’s priorities and who these spaces serve. Much of the conversation is about what role these spaces should play in representing our civic values ​​and how they should change over time and with us.

In Chicago, communities display their values ​​as new public spaces come to life and community activists emerge in their long struggle to reclaim historic public spaces in their neighborhoods.

As you stroll through Mary Bartelme Park in Chicago’s trendy West Loop, you won’t immediately understand Mary Bartelme’s legacy as a teacher, Illinois’ first female judge, and advocate for women and children, but you will understand that she was important and that the people of Chicago aim to remember her. Although this park commemorates Bartelme, it is not a monument for her. This is a public space designed for neighborhood residents and celebrates a Chicago resident who represents the community’s shared civic aspirations for inclusion, universal opportunity, equal justice and charity.

Choosing Bartelme as the space nickname honors her accomplishments while implicitly acknowledging past injustices that, until less than a century ago, prevented someone like her from accessing such a prestigious office.

A notable example of a community coming together to honor society’s ability to change for the better is the upcoming AIDS Garden Chicago. Soon tucked away in the lawns of North Lincoln Park, south of Belmont Harbor in the Lakeview neighborhood, this garden designed by a design studio will honor the memory of Chicagoans lost to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. nowadays. The new 2.5-acre garden was created through a partnership between Chicago Alderman Tom Tunney, the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Parks Foundation and several community and neighborhood groups. While its only feature visible today is the 30-foot-tall green metal sculpture “Self-Portrait” by AIDS activist and artist Keith Haring, it will soon include intimate spaces filled with plantations designed for gathering, remembrance. , reflection and celebration.

The implicit story of this new park refers to the changing cultural attitude towards gay and queer communities, not only in Chicago, but nationally. LGBTQ people account for the overwhelming majority of HIV / AIDS deaths throughout the crisis and their plight has too often been overlooked by governments and civic leaders in the last decades of the twentieth century. The location of the garden commemorates a popular lakeside space that was unofficially claimed by the community as early as the 1960s. Photographs from the time show dozens of mostly gay men gathered at the “Belmont Rocks” as they are seen. was calling – smiling, sunbathing and enjoying Chicago’s sunny summer days as a community. A few decades later, in the same place where the community has come together in a less tolerant world, the city is building a space that commemorates their plight, honors their memory and recognizes their dignity.

While creating new gathering spaces is a great way to invest in communities and recognize the groups that inhabit them, Chicago is exploring other opportunities to ensure it continues to reshape its cityscapes to reflect the civic values ​​of the community. Similar themes of representation, remediation and commemoration are found in efforts to rename public spaces, especially following recent civil rights protests and protests across the country in response to police killings of blacks. Americans. For example, after years of attempts by local students and community activists, a historic public park on the city’s West Side that was originally named after Stephen A. Douglas – a 19th-century senator and supporter of slavery – was converted back to Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and intellectual leader of the same era.

This community momentum may well lead to further name changes in Chicago’s historic parks, such as the Jackson and Washington Parks on the South Side, where community activists have been seeking for years to replace the names of US presidents, in large part. due to their controversial legacy as slave owners. . Such changes, while seemingly superficial, create powerful statements about the people these spaces serve and the values ​​our society embraces.

When we choose to honor the legacy, achievements and struggles of those who embodied these civic values ​​that define us today, we communicate our society’s ability to change, grow and evolve towards greater recognition of the equity and justice. If we choose to continue to take back control of these spaces, communities can begin to feel ownership of these spaces in ways that were not possible before.

The question that should ultimately guide our decisions both on the creation of new public spaces and on the reconsideration of existing spaces is: who is the public space for? Should he be forever attached to the people and ideas that came before us, however fit they may be to the present? Or should it be flexible and serve the needs, preferences and dignity of the individuals and communities who collectively own them today? As we hear loud and clear from Chicago communities, these spaces belong to the present and should reflect the values ​​of the present.

Is moving our public spaces away from mores, messages and people who no longer represent us a significant change? The answer is yes and no. No, because there is clearly more tangible progress to be made in shaping our cities and neighborhoods to better serve and respect the people who live there today. But yes, because changing a name can and does lead to broader conversations about the drought of opportunity and investment some communities face and the legacies of racism and wrongdoing that brought them there. Ultimately, every small step towards creating a more holistic and inclusive cityscape, true to our past, representative of our present, and reflecting the values ​​that will guide our future, is progress.

Chris Freda is a planner, designer and project manager at Design Workshop.

Manisha Kaul is Principal / Director of the Chicago Studio at Design Workshop.

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