Friends of the Parks Blog

Remarks on Equity & Resistance at the 2018 Parks Ball

Thursday, September 20, 2018



Daniel LaSpata, Planning & Policy Associate:

Good evening!

It is my pleasure to welcome you to our “Black and White Party for the White City” commemorating the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  We hope you’ve enjoyed the music of the fair that greeted you during the reception and the narrated tour thanks to Ray Johnson of Friends of the White City.

We are excited to share more of the story of the World’s Fair with you through the lenses of resilience and resistance.  Earlier this year, Friends of the Parks co-hosted with the Hyde Park Historical Society and the DuSable Heritage Association a lecture and tour of Jackson Park framed through the experience of Frederick Douglass, whose resistance to the ‘White City’ was played out in part by his role representing the country of Haiti—the only African diaspora country which had a pavilion at the Fair.

Tonight, we tell more of the story, through the voices of women.

And to do so, I am happy to hand the mic over to three fabulous females of Friends of the Parks: our Board Secretary and chair of our Board Governance and Nominating Committee, Troy McMillan; our executive director, Juanita Irizarry; and our board chair, Lauren Moltz.




Troy McMillian, Board Secretary and chair of our Board Governance and Nominating Committee:

Chicago’s World’s Fair rose out of the ashes of the Chicago fire. I hope you know your Chicago history—remember the Great Chicago Fire took place in 1871.  Two decades later, Chicago showed off with the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  It was a marker of Chicago’s resilience.

But it was also marked by resistance:

Ida B. Wells was a well-known African-American activist, community-builder, and journalist, who specialized in bringing light to the unjust lynchings of Black men.  She came to Chicago to protest the exclusion of African-Americans from any kind of significant representation and participation in the World’s Fair. A mentor to W.E.B. Du Bois and a good friend of abolitionist and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass, she wrote the majority of the pamphlet called: “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition”


Its preface reads as follows:

“Columbia has bidden the civilized world to join with her in celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, and the invitation has been accepted. At Jackson Park are displayed exhibits of her natural resources, and her progress in the arts and sciences, but that which would best illustrate her moral grandeur has been ignored.

The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery, would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown the world. The colored people of this great Republic number eight millions – more than one-tenth the whole population of the United States. They were among the earliest settlers of this continent, landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 in a slave ship, before the Puritans, who landed at Plymouth in 1620. They have contributed a large share to American prosperity and civilization. The labor of one-half of this country has always been, and is still being done by them. The first crédit this country had in its commerce with foreign nations was created by productions resulting from their labor. The wealth created by their industry has afforded to the white people of this country the leisure essential to their great progress in education, art, science, industry and invention.

Those visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition who know these facts, especially foreigners will naturally ask: Why are not the colored people, who constitute so large an element of the American population, and who have contributed so large a share to American greatness, more visibly present and better represented in this World’s Exposition? Why are they not taking part in this glorious celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of their country? Are they so dull and stupid as to feel no interest in this great event? It is to answer these questions and supply as far as possible our lack of representation at the Exposition that the Afro-American has published this volume.”

As we all know, we as a society are still working on the concerns raised in Ida B. Wells’ pamphlet—here in Jackson Park, across Chicago, and across this country.

Nonetheless, after the fair, Chicago’s resilience continued to be manifest as Daniel Burnham (thanks for being here, Daniel Burnham, by the way) turned his attention to developing the “Plan of Chicago,” which became known as the Burnham Plan. It prominently featured an amazing park system–with many big regional parks, connected by tree-lined boulevards, and even proposals for what became the county’s forest preserves.

The vision of Chicago’s early park planners and that of Friends of the Parks is that parks should be democratic spaces–open to the masses.

“The Lakefront by right belongs to the people,” wrote Burnham. “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

Thank you Mr. Burnham!


Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director:

While the vision of Daniel Burnham, Montgomery Ward, and their contemporaries inspire us, we as an organization have been grappling with the gap between that vision and the reality of how some Chicagoans—back then and now—at least some of the time experience Chicago’s parks.

And, we recognize the on-going need for resistance and resilience.

In that spirit, it behooves me to make some connections to another significant event that some of us are remembering today as well.

On the heels of a hurricane on the east coast, we have arrived at September 20, the anniversary of Hurricane Maria pummeling Puerto Rico, the island of my heritage.

Behind me you see slides of bomba dancers in Chicago’s parks.  Bomba is a music and dance of resistance and resilience, celebrating the African roots of Puerto Rican culture.  We enjoy these slides thanks to the photography and community leadership roles of Charlie Billups, our photographer here tonight and one of our newest board members. He is a native of Puerto Rico, and for many years now–my neighbor–near The 606 and the border of Logan Square and Humboldt Park, the Puerto Rican “barrio” where tonight so many of our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, our fellow countrymen, our “compatriotas,” are gathered at another gala—that of Humboldt Park’s National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture—one of Chicago’s Museums in the Parks, (converted from a former horse stable, by the way, not built newly in a park to create a museum, for the record.)  Their program tonight is focused on commemorating this somber anniversary.

Not only the physical space on the island but the people of Puerto Rico both there and here have been beaten down in many ways over the last year.  My own step-daughter moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago to live with us as a result of the hurricane (and is here with us today.  I’m so going to get in trouble for this.)

And there’s the incident surrounding Mia Irizarry (no relation, thanks to the many of you that asked.)  A Puerto Rican woman who lives here in Chicago, an incident that made the news in which she was harassed in Caldwell Woods, a Chicago Forest Preserve, by a man who didn’t think she as a Latina had the right to peacably have a picnic in a park or even be in this country.

And my and Charlie’s own experiences at Humboldt Park and its Park Advisory Council—in a park situated in what is now a gentrifying community—are sometimes marked with the tensions between the cultural and community-building activities that the Puerto Rican community has enjoyed in Humboldt Park for so many years and the types of activities that some of the neighborhood newcomers think are more appropriate.

Exclusion.  Resistance.

In response to our struggles with gentrification and alienation and in the face of the president’s inhumane responses to the great devastation of Puerto Rico, we rise up in resistance.

Both here and on the island.

Just today the Humboldt Park community sent another—and final—load of supplies to Puerto Rico—not long after we all learned of the Government of Puerto Rico report that approximately 3000 people died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria.

300 people died in the Chicago fire.

Post-fire and post-Fair, Chicago laid out a system of parks and beaches and boulevards and field houses in the insistence that a healthy system of parks was key to being a world class city.  Of course, they didn’t bounce back immediately.  20+ years had passed since the Great Fire when the fast-growing metropolis pulled off the World’s Fair.

In post-hurricane Puerto Rico, at this point, they’re talking about selling off public beaches. Coincidentally, my step-daughter was here in Chicago visiting with us when the Lucas Museum battle came to a close in 2016.  On the very day that Lucas said that he was abandoning Chicago because he didn’t get the lakefront site that he demanded, an announcement was made in Puerto Rico about selling off public beaches.  It’s no secret that Puerto Rico’s economy was already struggling badly before the hurricane.  Their budget woes have looked quite a lot like Illinois,’ actually.

I so hope that in Puerto Rico’s pursuit of resilience, they can hang on to what has long been a particularly unique reality in the Caribbean—their system of public beaches.  And may they derive inspiration from the post-crisis city that produced the Burnham Plan.

Though I wouldn’t suggest they look at our current example, as the City keeps insisting on handing lakefront parks over for development for $10 for 99 years.



Lauren Moltz, Board Chair:

As we reflect back on the Gilded Age economy and attitudes that gave us the Burnham Plan, we realize that we have come quite far but also have a long way to go.  We value the concept of parks as democratic spaces while acknowledging that many among us have not always been or felt welcome in them.  We refer to our parks, and especially our lakefront, using the Lungs of the City concept that traces back to times of utter urban filth and stench and the respite from such conditions that urban green and blue spaces could represent.  Yet we acknowledge that many Chicagoans aren’t familiar with the metaphor or are too consumed with keeping their children fed, educated, and safe from gunshots to be able to prioritize the role of parks in public health, environmental health, community health, or even individual health.  And yet others have endured green and blue spaces that are subject to so many in-ground or in-water toxins or ambient environmental pollution that those spaces are no true escape at all.

And at this year’s Parks as Democracy? conference, we had a plenary panel at which we discussed the North Branch Parks and Preserves vision, thanks to a very informative presentation by Richard Wilson (who is here with us today) and moderation by one of our newest board members, Anton Seals, (who is here with us today.)  As Friends of the Parks and the other members of the North Branch Parks and Preserves coalition resist the plan we’ve seen so far coming from Mayor Emanuel and Sterling Bay as the North Branch Industrial Corridor redevelopment is planned—as we seek much more parkland than is currently conceived of—the panel generated energetic feedback from the audience and a very important conversation.  A concern about a lack of equity was noted, as some asked why anyone would put so much money into a huge new north side park when Chicago’s west and south side are so underinvested.  And others noted that the industries displaced from the area to make way for the parks we so desire are probably headed to south side communities that have long been dumping grounds for dirty industry.

Next year is the 110th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago,” and our mayor has been evoking the Burnham Plan quite a lot—talking about “Building on Burnham” in referencing his plans for our park system and in casting his vision for the transformation of former industrial sites along the Chicago River.

With these contexts and conversations in mind, Friends of the Parks’ extended environmental scan and strategic planning process has given birth to a new mission statement as well as a new vision and values statement.  I’m going to read them for you, but you also have a copy of them in your bag to take home with you—and memorize! J

Mission: Friends of the Parks inspires, equips, and mobilizes a diverse Chicago to ensure an equitable park system for a healthy Chicago.

Vision: Friends of the Parks envisions a well-balanced Chicago park system, protected by Chicagoans for Chicagoans, to advance the individual, community, public, ecological, and economic health and well-being of our city.

Values: Friends of the Parks believes that a healthy park system:

  • is equitably distributed and resourced
  • contributes to inclusivity and democracy
  • offers a balance of recreational and natural resources
  • contributes to neighborhood safety
  • ensures gathering spaces that help to build community
  • supports the rejuvenation of the body, mind, and spirit
  • promotes the health of our environment
  • forms part of a healthy economic base for our neighborhoods and the city


It was already a new “Daniel Burnham” moment, and then we heard that Chicago will have a new mayor.  Together, we have an extra-special opportunity for change in Chicago.

How will we live into this moment, and what will our legacy be?

Will you join us we resist injustice and fight for resilience?  As we support and promote one another and every community while also resisting bad park policy and ensuring the resilience of Mother Earth?

We sure hope that our time together tonight will serve to inspire, to equip, and mobilize you to strive with us for “Healthy Parks for a Healthy Chicago!”

As we tackle the next iteration of our work according to our new mission, vision, and values, we are so glad to be doing it under the leadership of our executive director. And it is our pleasure to share with you a big secret.  The official public announcement should be made next week, but we got special permission to share this news with you today.

Juanita Irizarry has been chosen to be among the 2019 cohort of the Chicago United for Equity fellows!

Chicago United for Equity takes a systems approach for racial equity by cultivating a 9-month civic activation program for individuals across government, organizing, media, business, union, and non-profit organizations.  The fellowship trains Chicago leaders to reimagine structures, policies, and practices through a racial equity lens to building a more just, equitable, and inclusive Chicago. The program offers the opportunity to learn from change movements across the country, meet people with different types of power in Chicago, and practice making change with a supportive team.

The work of the 2019 CUE cohort will be featured as a playbook of equity strategies for our region, and individual Fellows and their host organizations will be recognized for their work as equity leaders in our region.

We are so excited for this learning and leadership opportunity for Juanita and Friends of the Parks as we strive for Healthy Parks for a Healthy Chicago!



“Park Positive” Progress.  Is It Enough?

Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director –  Thursday, May 10, 2018

I had the distinct pleasure of serving recently as one of four judges for a graduate school debate among students in a University of Illinois at Chicago urban planning class.  The students had chosen as their final project the topic of whether the Obama Presidential Center would be a good community development tool for the neighborhoods surrounding Jackson Park.  As a former student in that very program and community development concentration, I was tickled to observe how the students were processing the information they could find and to participate in a debriefing session afterwards in which I was able to share with them more insider knowledge than what they were able to find publicly available.  Notably, all but a few of the students stated during the debriefing that while they are excited about the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago, they would feel most comfortable that the benefits of the OPC would be derived by incumbent residents of the community if there were a formal community benefits agreement (CBA) in place.

(And–I won’t leave you hanging–the “cons” won per their performance according to the academic construct and guidelines for the debate.)


While the Obama Foundation says it is committed to strengthening the community in the vicinity of the OPC, the Obamas have been unwilling to engage the leadership of the Obama Library CBA Coalition in conversation about a CBA.  They say they can and will do a fine job of serving the best interests of the community without the accountability measures that the CBA Coalition calls for.

Since that debate, the Obama Foundation has released a list of its commitments to the community.  They are listed here:

In the midst of the changing landscape, the Obama Library CBA Coalition has adjusted its strategy a number of times. The current demand is that the City of Chicago pass a CBA ordinance before the City Plan Commission approves the OPC’s latest proposal for its campus.

You can read the elements of the proposed ordinance here:

Friends of the Parks is pleased to participate as an Ally Member of the coalition in light of the alignment between the Sustainability Platform and our concerns.

As a reminder, Friends of the Parks maintains our firm belief that the OPC should not be built in a park. While we welcome it to Chicago and particularly the South Side which groomed President Obama, we have consistently called for it to be located on the 11 acres of vacant land across the street from Washington Park.  And we have maintained that if it must be in a park, we will advocate for “park positive” outcome, which includes the replacement of all green space taken up by the OPC and the recreational amenities that are displaced.

That said, in the current run-up to the May 17 Chicago Plan Commission meeting at which the Obama Foundation will seek approval for the 19.3 acre Obama Presidential Center campus, Friends of the Parks recently has been asked various times to comment on whether the current OPC proposal adequately replaces parkland.

As part of the above-mentioned community commitments, the Obama Foundation recently released this statement regarding their efforts to preserve parkland:

Preserving Parkland: Designed to honor Olmsted’s democratic idea of a park as a gathering place open and accessible to all.

In their report to the South Park Commission in 1871, famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux said the park they envisioned was intended for everyone, but in particular for the “thousands of the very class of citizens whose convenience most needs to be considered…the toiling population of Chicago.” The landscape architects believed that urban parks not only provided refuge from the stresses of city life, but were also democratic and cultural places for all classes of people to interact. The OPC landscape will embrace the design principles of Olmsted and Vaux and honor the rich history of the park.

  • The Obama Presidential Center will sit on 19.3 acres of Jackson Park’s 540 acre park, continuing Chicago’s rich tradition of museums in the parks.
  • The footprints of the OPC’s four buildings total only 2.6 acres of the 19.3 acre site. Of that 2.6 acres, 1.6 acres worth of “roof” area is covered by totally accessible open space. The remaining 16.7 acres will remain completely open and publicly accessible, including landscaped active and passive areas and a one acre plaza.
  • With the road improvements being considered and our design to preserve parkland for the public, there will be a net gain of parkland in Jackson Park.
  • The parkland at the OPC will give South Side residents a world-class park, with lush gardens, varied topography, beautiful walking paths along the Lagoon, children’s play areas, and a great lawn that can be used for quiet relaxation, special events, or everyday fun like sunbathing and grilling.  The landscape will also include upwards of 400 new trees to be planted across the site.
  • In recognition of Jackson Park’s status as one of the state’s premiere bird-watching sites, the landscape will include plants that attract a broad range of birds and protect their natural habitat in the space.
  • The OPC design will make improvements to enhance access to the Women’s Garden.
  • The OPC campus will also retain the historic comfort station.
  • Continuing President Obama’s commitment to protecting the earth’s resources, the OPC will be, at a minimum, LEED v4 platinum certified.

In response to questions about the adequacy of the Obama Foundation’s approach to offering a “park positive” outcome, Friends of the Parks offers the following statement:

Of course, everyone wants a black and white answer.  What is the exact amount of parkland that the Obama Foundation should replace?  But it’s more complicated than that.

The answer as to the amount of green space the OPC owes Chicago is premature.  The Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District would like Chicagoans to accept their premise based on the assumption that streets through the park will be converted to green space.  But that issue is still being studied under the required Section 106/NEPA federal review processes.  All potential alternatives are supposed to be considered in a thorough analysis that normally takes a couple of years for a project of this scope.  Yet we are being asked to sign on with support this month.  It begs the question whether we are being asked to accept a done deal that will be justified after the fact.

Additionally, they want us to accept the greening of Cornell Drive as adding parkland while they add a cement plaza on their campus.  That doesn’t sound consistent.  If it is grass that makes a space part of park replacement acreage, then their concrete plaza shouldn’t count in their figure of parkland added.

Meanwhile, the same National Park Service which the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District are citing as affirming their plan as a sufficient substitution for public parkland suggested at the most recent Section 106 consulting parties meeting that a baseball diamond that must be replaced could be located on the Midway Plaisance.  That is ridiculous!  So while there may be an effort to comply with the letter of the law to replace parkland, there doesn’t seem to be a priority to comply with the spirit of a truly park positive outcome.  Upon hearing a few years ago of the plans for the OPC in a park and the Obama Foundation’s commitment to a park positive outcome, Chicagoans envisioned more than what we seem to be getting.  We expected new parks to be created in the community, not just a reconfiguration of the spaces and uses within the current boundaries of Jackson Park.

As such, we have encouraged both the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District to seek vacant land nearby for a baseball facility to add actual park acreage while also replacing that specific amenity that the National Park Service indeed insists must be replaced.

Additionally, in the spirit of being a “good neighbor,” to use the words of the Obama Foundation, we have encouraged them to pay for a new field house in Jackson Park.  It would be unseemly for the OPC to create a new recreational building on its own campus while the Park District’s facility across the street remains run down.

Similarly, we have called upon the Obama Foundation to raise money to pay for all of the new recreational spaces envisioned in the new South Lakefront Framework Plan.  The Obama Foundation’s desire to locate in Jackson Park catalyzed a park visioning process which created huge expectation in the community.  But what most people don’t understand is that most of the elements envisioned in the exciting new Jackson Park and South Shore plan have no money attached to them.  It behooves the Obama Foundation to ensure that the community doesn’t have to wait decades for the realization of a new dog park, tennis courts, lawn bowling area, pickle ball courts, etc. that are supposedly coming in exchange for letting the Obama Foundation build on public land. 

And, many neighbors remain unhappy about the changes to the nature sanctuary that would be imposed based on the latest golf course design, not the least of which is the part where one would risk getting hit with a golf ball while walking a section of the nature sanctuary path.  Though the Obama Foundation points out that the golf course is not part of the OPC campus or project, it has been made clear that Mr. Obama personally called Tiger Woods to ask him to design the new golf course.  All of the components of the new South Framework Lakefront Plan and the proposed OPC are inextricably linked, and we have communicated to the Obama Foundation that they still need to make sure that the nature sanctuary situation is made right.

Additionally, determining whether the open space on the OPC campus is truly public has a lot to do with whether we can all access it under the same terms that Chicago Park District parks are accessed.  For example, if I wanted to get a permit to have a family reunion on the OPC campus, how would I do that?  And would there be extra limitations to doing that because of security issues related to the nature of a presidential library?  The Obama Foundation has expressed to Friends of the Parks that their intention is to keep the space publicly accessible, but they have acknowledged that they hadn’t yet considered many of the implications we brought up with them and hadn’t begun to figure out the mechanisms to make sure it works.  The OPC should not receive Chicago Plan Commission approval without assurances to the public that these mechanisms are all in place, and the space truly will remain public at all times and in perpetuity.

We also call on the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District to include in their lease agreement the ability for the public to bring their concerns about the “public parkland” on the OPC campus to the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners.

Here’s why. Millennium Park closed this most recent St. Patrick’s Day.  It was roped off, with security guards protecting it.  Most people don’t realize that Millennium Park is not part of the Chicago Park District.  We’re supposed to understand it as public parkland.  But it does not have the same regulation and accountability mechanism as the rest of Chicago’s parks.  Friends of the Parks has specifically experienced Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly stating at a Park District Board of Commissioners meeting that Millennium Park is not his responsibility. Neither will the OPC be.  But then, where does the public go to complain when necessary?

These things combined would make for a much more park positive outcome than what the Obama Foundation has committed to publicly to date.

Additionally, another statement recently has been put out by Jackson Park Watch, collaborators in the effort to ensure an appropriate decision-making process around the OPC.  They rightly point out that the federally-required Section 106 and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review processes that are in motion require the consideration of alternative scenarios.  To highlight this issue, these neighborhood-based watchdogs just released a study raising questions about the proposed closure of Cornell Drive and other streets in Jackson Park and offering alternative views.  Their study and attendant statements are available here:

Friends of the Parks affirms the idea that an appropriate review process requires the consideration of such alternatives and would slow down the pace of the review process, rightly so.  A project of the scope of the OPC would normally take about two years and would certainly disallow groundbreaking on the OPC campus in the fall of 2018 as is the Obama Foundation’s aim.

We have communicated to the Obama Foundation our insistence that they adhere to the requirements of the Section 106 process. While Friends of the Parks has stated that we do not plan legal action in this matter, we are aware that other groups continue to consider legal approaches to ensuring compliance with the federal review process and/or other protections for public land. The Obama Foundation has agreed that the former president of the United States is committed to honoring federal processes.

Please join us in continuing the call for an above-board, honest, and comprehensive review process and timeframe as together we seek the most “park positive” outcome for Chicago’s revered South Parks system and the surrounding communities.