Mayor Emanuel Expands City River Walk and Park Spaces But Do Black Chicagoans Care?

On Monday, addressing both community and political stakeholders, Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly and Mayor Rahm Emanuel made their presentations at the new XS Tennis Village in Washington Park announcing the new plans.

Kelly says, “The vision for Chicago parks and open space and comprehensive plan for Chicago lakefront, riverfront, natural areas and our neighborhoods. We call this plan “Building on Burnham”. This plan complements the diversity of our people and our neighborhoods.”

He mentioned, “Living near a park will also increase your property value. In Chicago, if you live within 2 blocks of a park, your property is valued more. $900 million every year. Nearly half of Chicagoans live near a park.”

The Chicago Park District and the efforts of the mayor’s office will expand the Chicago Riverwalk from downtown’s entertainment district which has featured satellite restaurants from local businesses. In the last three years, the Chicago River has become a tourist centerpiece as well as an alternate route for residents to enjoy the walk as well as appreciate the functionality of the river.

The announcement on Monday is exciting news for key communities such as Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park who will benefit from the extended river walk along the trail.

XS Tennis Village President and CEO Kamau Murray PHOTO: Mary L. Datcher

President and CEO of XS Tennis Village, Kamau Murray introduced Emanuel but beforehand he acknowledged both Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) and Emanuel’s commitment to providing the land and financial resources for the facility’s new athletic home.

“This space was an empty lot, the site of the Robert Taylor Homes and Kamal had a different idea. I want to thank him for having a vision,” said Murray.

As Emanuel stood at the podium as renderings of newly renovated parks and facilities both completed and future projects flashed across two jumbo screens—he laid out his vision to beautify the city through private and public funding.

“In 2011, consistent with my campaign pledge, we began to make the Chicago river our next great recreational park. We closed the last two cold plants left operating in any major American city.”

With the new mantra, “a city in a garden” the city will increase 985 acres of parkland and extend 11 miles of new access to the river.

“We ensure our children and our grandchildren will inherit that is both more inclusive and more cohesive. Burnham’s first goal for Chicago was to preserve our lakefront. Other cities on the Great Lakes use their lakefront as ports for the industry from Gary to Milwaukee to Cleveland to Buffalo,” he addressed the audience. “Today those cities are trying to reclaim their lakefronts as open spaces for open use. But here in Chicago, our predecessors took steps over a century ago to ensure our lakefront remained.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveils new plans for “Building on Burnham” at XS Tennis Village. PHOTO: Mary L. Datcher

The mayor’s focus on converting various unused railroad lines to bike and walking trails began with the launch of the 606 which runs 2.7 miles along the Bloomingdale Line on the Northside. It has become a summertime hit among many but still has had some concerns among residents who live along the trail which has raised questions about safety. Although there have been minimum occurances—the city will apply this model in the Pilsen community where the rail line will be converted to a walking and biking trail.

New additions include a rock climbing wall at Steel Workers Park on the Southside; a  finished pool and event space 31st St. Beach Harbor and brand new amenities for triathletes at Ohio Street beach.

Starting this year, renovations at North Ave Beach include a new boardwalk, upgrading and adding concession space which will make the shoreline “more welcoming for a family”, said the mayor. Overseeing a multi-million make-over, the city re-opened Theatre on the Lake creating six acres stretching east and south along the lakefront. The 19,000 square feet venue is opened year-around and accepting bookings for 2020.

Gately Park in West Chatham is included in these plans. Alderman Michelle Harris (8th Ward) said she’s excited about the significant undertaking.

“This is a $44 million project that will be built next door to the stadium–the football stadium. It’s an awesome opportunity for our community. After School Matters will bring their major programming to that site. They’re putting in $22 million in private funding. It’s a great opportunity for our kids to be involved in ASM,” she said. “I’m more excited about the ASM component, not that I’m not excited about the track and field component. It became a priority two years ago.”

Harris said she sat down with the mayor, Elzie Higginbottom, Conrad Worrill and convinced the mayor to sign on.

“Now, I have two great business people coming together on why there’s a need—giving them the history of why our children are running in the hallways,” she said.

An alumnus of Chicago Vocational High School, Harris understands the necessity of creating a state-of-art track and field facility for the area.

“It is such a big school. For track and field, there was one floor for the girls and the other floor for the guys running down these concrete halls along the terra cote walls. It’s not the best environment for children on how to run long-distance. This opens the doors for competition to come out the Southside where we did not have this beforehand,” says Harris.

Although there aren’t big park spaces within the 3rd Ward, Alderman Pat Dowell says there have been major improvements to some of the smaller field houses in her ward. Currently, an expansion to Williams Fieldhouse in the Dearborn House is underway. Last year, a new park and playground in the Bronzeville community were dedicated and named after Hadiya Pendleton. What does the mayor’s recent announcement of these upgrades, expansions, and build-outs mean for the city’s predominately African American communities?

Dowell says, “What was discussed today is the bridges that are now connecting our communities to the lakefront where we’ve been ignored historically over time. The opening of the bridge at 35th St., the mayor mentioned another bridge at 39th Street and 43rd Street and further down the lakefront. It will provide access to the African American community who had not had access.”

There Southside has become new territory for developers and Northside transplants who are being pushed out by rising property taxes along with the high expectations of the Obama Presidential Center in the middle of Jackson Park. Are these aggressive changes for Black residents or is it an added incentive for new residents—speedballing gentrification woes?

The alderman believes the same quality amenities should be afforded to Black communities.

“We’re seeing the same value where we live. We won’t sell out our own property to people just to make a buck. We have a role in gentrification as well. We’re deserving of these types of improvements just like everyone else in this city of Chicago,” Dowell explains.  “We shouldn’t be ignored or feel afraid of improvements that come to our area. We have to take those improvements, make the best of them and create businesses in our community. Pay our property taxes and continue to move forward.” 














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