Children versus selfish neighbors, and other nonsense

Here’s a question: When a museum wants to relocate, who has to give way?

That’s the subject of a battle between the Chicago Children’s Museum (which wants to build its new facility in Grant Park, the city’s front yard) and those who want to preserve the legal precedent keeping the park "forever open, clear and free."  This would be of merely local interest except that municipal open space throughout the nation is disappearing under a pile of buildings somehow represented to be in the public interest–museums, or performance spaces, or public sculpture, or bandshells, or even formal gardens that take the place of open green lawns.

The worst thing about the Chicago battle is the dishonesty of the museum’s allies, including Mayor for Life Richard M. Daley.  They’ve sought to portray the battle as pitting selfish neighbors concerned only with traffic congestion in their elite neighborhood against the city’s children.  Worse still are the people, including the Mayor and museum Board Chair Gigi Pritzker, who claim that racism is at the root of objections to erecting yet another building in an already overcrowded park–that the real issue is the hostility of the park’s wealthy white neighbors to having poor black and Hispanic children play in their front yard.

This, of course, is nonsense.  Black and Hispanic children, as well as their white, Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander counterparts, play in the park all the time–in the water spurting from its many fountains, on the softball fields surrounding its greenswards, on the ice rink facing Michigan Avenue, on the tennis courts squatting in one corner of the park, on bicycles they rent from the city’s bike center.  (Whoops!  The McDonald’s Cycling Center, named after the corporation paying for it.)  But that list of facilities underscores the real, and valid, objection to the proposal: that short of paving over the entire park, the city could hardly do more to create a barricade between its citizens and their lakefront. 

It has already given permission for the Art Institute of Chicago to build another building next to its existing three–though that means replacing something that’s free with something that charges admission.  It has already tortured the English language (a Daley specialty) by claiming that a permanent bandshell is a piece of art, simply to take advantage of an exemption for artwork in the prohibition against building in the park.  It has already built a building exactly where no building was supposed to be built by securing the consent of all the direct neighbors and pretending that was enough, though the park belongs–just as Daley says–not to the neighbors but to the whole city. 

And now it wants to build yet another admission-charging institution on yet another patch of what’s left of the city’s green space, and has the nerve to accuse those who object–those who are prepared to fight, as A. Montgomery Ward was at the start of the last century, to keep Grant Park unspoiled for the use of the public–of being racists.

Of course, Ms. Pritzker, who’s singing lead in this disgraceful chorus, long since decided that facilities in the park are better than parks in the park: it was her generosity (and the Nonprofiteer doesn’t overlook this) that paid for the so-called artwork–actually a bandshell–designed by Frank Gehry and plopped like an exploded pop can between the people and their lakefront.  But the park doesn’t belong to Ms. Pritzker, or the Chicago Children’s Museum, or any other worthy but private entity–it belongs to the citizens of Chicago.

Debates about public policy should be conducted honestly.  Shame on the Children’s Museum, Mayor Daley, Ms. Pritzker and other museum allies for playing the race card in a city already sickeningly segregated–particularly when it’s fair to lay quite a bit of that segregation at Daley’s door.  He refuses to use his virtually endless political capital to help it integrate economically and racially by insisting that  public housing be erected in every neighborhood and not just in places already poor and brown or black.  The Mayor has always hidden behind the excuse that any alderman has the privilege to block any development in his/her ward: what’s a poor powerless mayor to do?  This, of course, is a principle he’s happy to abandon in the case of Grant Park, whose alderman has come out quite firmly against this latest conquest of green by concrete.

The Nonprofiteer suspects you’d find a similar battle if you looked in any major city in the country.  The "festival retailing" and "active leisure" people have ganged up on the open space forces, and they won’t be happy until there is no true parkland left at all–not in Central Park, not in Macarthur Park, not in Grant Park, not in your downtown or on your river or by your lake or facing your mountain.



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One Response to “Children versus selfish neighbors, and other nonsense”

  1. Sam Davis Says:

    The Nonprofiteer cites (perhaps without knowing she is making this case) compelling reasons to transfer control of parks, etc., to dedicated trusts that have governing boards drawn from all stakeholders and are removed from political control and government ownership. (Randal O’Toole has some interesting proposals re this in his new book “The Best Laid Plans.”)

    Why? Because the affluent, artsy crowd will almost always “out-politic” everyone else in seizing and maintaining control of “public space,” such as parks and in otherwise getting their favorite activities and events funded with tax money.

    While in theory all the citizens of Chicago own parks, etc., in reality, the municipal government does, and that translates to effective ownership and control by the well-organized politically. It always works this way.

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