Battle at Jackson Park

“Watch out there is just no sidewalk at all,” says Margaret Schmid, as we take a walking tour of Jackson Park, the 500-plus plot of public land on Chicago’s South Side that will one day house the Obama Presidential Library.

With her is Brenda Nelms. The two women are leaders of the Jackson Park Watch, an ad hoc group that has become a thorn in the side of the Chicago Park District, raising questions about the current operation of the Park, as well as what it will become and how it will be preserved.

Along the way there are broken sidewalks, busted benches, underpasses that routinely flood and a vacant music court.

“And it would be lovely to have that again,” Schmid says, “but now it’s all broken up.”

These are just a few of the issues Schmid and Nelms say they have taken to the Chicago Park District. “We bring attention to whatever seems to be the most interesting critical question and they rarely even say hello,” Schmid says.

Take a tour with Louise McCurry of the Jackson Park Advisory Council and you will see the rocky shoreline at 67th street that she says was once one of Chicago’s best beaches and is now filled with large rocks and concrete.

Or go a little farther south to what is supposed to be a place of serenity and you will find a nature preserve that is overgrown, in need of attention, not to mention, McCurry says, heightened security.

“It's a place where the local drug seller is there early in the morning,” McCurry notes.

Both Jackson Park Watch and the Jackson Park Advisory Council have certain things in common: they support the construction of the Presidential Library and they love this land. (Jackson Park Watch however raises questions about proposed traffic patterns.)

But the current state of parts of the park is what divides them and raises a critical question about how well it has been maintained.

“I think the Park District right now is our best resource in the city,” McCurry says and cites Jackson Park Watch with being a divisive force.

“Maybe when you come and yell at people and accuse people they are not as responsive as when you say how can we get this problem solved.”

“We are raising questions. Some people see that as trouble,” says Brenda Nelms.

Questions, for instance, about the Darrow bridge.

“The bridge has been closed for three years now,” Nelms says. “It’s been 15 years that people have been asking for it to be repaired.”

“We started bringing all those things out two years ago,” McCurry responds. “It’s important to say that the Park District is very responsive.”

“There’s just not been the kind of attention that us, and many others, would like to see,” according to Schmid.

Officials at the Chicago Park District, despite repeated requests, declined to be interviewed for this report.

But in a written statement the Park District noted it has invested---on average---just over $2-million a year over the past 10 years in Jackson Park. And reconstruction of the Darrow Bridge should begin next year with completion in 2019.

A proposed PGA golf course that would combine the 18-hole Jackson Park Golf Course and the 9-hole South Shore Golf Course also divides the two groups and Nelms and Schmid question how well the park will be maintained after the Obama Library is built.

“We are very skeptical that new installations, new plans will be maintained after the first five years…after the glitz wears off,” Nelms says.

“I’m a problem solver, not a criticizer, because criticizing doesn’t give you anything,” McCurry replies.

Asked if they are troublemakers, Schmid says, “I don’t think so.”

“We are asking questions trying to get answers that everyone should know,” says Nelms, as the Battle for Jackson Park continues.

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