News & Politics » Neighborhood News

A clearing in the Jungle: public and private sectors meet in a locally controlled park



The two and a half acres of land sit within a triangle formed by the intersection of three streets -- Jonquil Terrace and Haskins and Hermitage avenues -- just south of where Rogers Park meets the Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.

For a backwater parcel with a low book value, it is incredible how feverish concern has been over the triangle. The property lies within the neighborhood known positively as North of Howard, or derogatively as "the Juneway jungle" -- a poor area amazingly fertile in its efforts to become a place where low-income people can live comfortably. Agreement on how best to use the triangle has not come easily. Should housing go there? What kind of housing? If not housing, then what?

The long-in-coming answer: the land is being made into a park. And no ordinary park at that. The aptly named Triangle Park, opening this spring, is considered the first large play space in Chicago to be developed in a public-private partnership. The players include the city, Amoco, and a nonprofit corporation from the neighborhood that is going to manage the tract. "That land was once the worst-looking place around here," remarks Sister Patricia Crowley, executive director of the Howard Area Community Center. "Now it is a gift to the neighborhood."

A 14-square-block area that was once part of Evanston, North of Howard had fallen on particularly hard times by the mid-1970s. Its stately courtyard buildings were in grave disrepair, and those that were not abandoned bulged with the disadvantaged; the tenants were mostly black, and they were rough. "Back then this neighborhood looked like Hanoi during the Vietnam War," recalls the Reverend Robert Tschannen-Moran, pastor of Good News Community Church. "It was a bombed-out ghetto. Many buildings were burned-out shells. No one, including the city, was paying attention to us up here. The streets were a mess, the business district was down-and-out, and there were bars everywhere. There was probably a murder a month."

The Haskins-Hermitage triangle contained more than its share of troublesome buildings, causing the city to designate it and some surrounding land an urban renewal area in 1976. In time, the buildings were razed, and then came the issue of what to put on the land next.

Since so much of the area's housing stock was in horrible shape, some neighborhood activists came up with the idea of constructing new low-income units on the triangle. In 1980, Peoples Housing Inc., a development offshoot of Good News Church, joined clout-heavy builder Thomas Rosenberg to propose building 164 units of subsidized town houses and apartments for families and the elderly.

But this plan, like others that preceded it, was turned down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. City sources say the housing would have been annoyingly near the noisy Howard el terminal, and the elder quarters in particular indelicately close to Calvary Cemetery. Tschannen-Moran adds another reason: "Basically they didn't want any more low-income people up here."

Meanwhile, an uncommon regeneration was occurring in North of Howard. Good News Church opened an alternative school, created Peoples Housing, and then founded Good News Partners, a development group with an evangelical flavor ("Before they nail the first nail each morning," laughs Tschannmen-Moran, "they say a prayer"). Under Sister Pat Crowley, the Howard Area Community Center became a burgeoning social-services agency. The Chicago Area Renewal Effort Service Corporation (RESCORP), a consortium of 50 savings and loan associations, rehabilitated 12 substandard buildings in partnership with Amoco. The upshot: the Northpoint Apartments, 304 new units of subsidized housing, finished in 1983. And in 1981 residents eliminated three of the most troublesome North of Howard bars by voting one precinct dry.

In 1981, a man named Jim Hobson took over the nearby Kiwanis playground. Tiny Kiwanis contains a field house the size of a two-car garage, one basketball court, and some swings, but Hobson filled his playground with programs. Hobson's success underlined the need for open space.

And there was the triangle. By now it boasted a rusting tot lot that the Park District had installed, and a section of it had become a public garden, where Laotians, Mexicans, whites, and blacks -- the rich ethnic mix that composes North of Howard -- worked side by side raising vegetables each summer.

The redevelopment of the neighborhood brought some bitter debate; the old-line Rogers Park Community Council, for instance, strenuously opposed low-income housing for North of Howard. And in the fall of 1982, it was council leaders Delores Collins and Charlotte Goldberg who, according to Collins, first raised the possibility of a park on the triangle. "The idea made sense," remembers 49th Ward Alderman David Orr. "It looked like housing wasn't realistic, and now all the players were together and they weren't fighting. RESCORP had just put in housing for low-income people, so that need was somewhat taken care of, and HUD seemed uninterested in backing anything [on the triangle] anyway."

But how to get a park? Five years ago, Ed Kelly still rode high in the saddle as superintendent of the Chicago Park District, "and many of us were suspicious of having a park if it were controlled by the Park District," says Orr. But when Harold Washington was elected mayor, the alderman began promoting the notion of some sort of public-private park, a reflection of Orr's passion for such joint ventures.

In time funds were knit together to launch the park. The city committed $42,000 in community development funds to the project, and $100,000 in conservation grants was secured from the state of Illinois. In addition, the Amoco Neighborhood Development Corporation pledged $75,000 in operating moneys. The park would be leased from the city for $1 a year and run by the nonprofit Triangle Park Corporation (TPC), whose board today represents a range of neighborhood groups (to its annoyance, the Rogers Park Community Council, based south of Howard, was not invited to send a delegate). The TPC president was -- and is -- a local mother named Rosa Martinez.

In the meantime, the CTA acquired nearly two acres of the urban renewal land for car storage and a new turnaround. An additional third of an acre went to an art-supply manufacturer for its parking lot.

In the fall of 1984, Art Traczyk, a city of Chicago landscape architect, ran some neighborhood meetings where residents were shown a mock map of the park and asked to rearrange little pieces meant to symbolize various features. Should the teeter-totter go here? What about the baseball diamond? Ultimately, however, most of the active characteristics of the park were scotched because including them would have jacked up insurance costs to prohibitively high levels.

So the park, for which ground was broken last September, has materialized as a relatively passive affair. It will consist of a grassy field and areas designed for free play. The landscape, delicately bermed, will have a sandbox, a picnic area, and horseshoe and barbecue pits, as well as lots of benches. The foliage will include white ash trees, red and Norway maples, and flowering shrubs. The community garden has been relocated to a city-owned plot across the street. A winding emergency traffic lane lies where a stretch of Juneway Terrace once ran; an alley has been turned into an emergency thoroughfare. The total cost of creating Triangle Park has climbed to nearly $600,000, the extra money coming from the city's community development coffers.

"Triangle Park is supposed to be a place where kids can play their own games," says Tschannen-Moran, "or where our people can just sit, get out of the high-density urban sprawl, and relax." Triangle Park itself will offer no official programming, but the TPC intends to fill the landscape with activity. The Howard Area Community Center is going to base its summer camp in the park this year. Kiwanis Park may train its baseball team there. The Good News Church will host a monthly community picnic.

"Triangle Park is a model for the whole country," beams David Orr.

What Orr fails to realize is that there is now a movement dedicated to such undertakings. A group called the Trust for Public Land began encouraging the development of community-run parks and gardens in Oakland, California, in the mid-1970s. The current hotbed of this activity, however, is New York. There the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, in conjunction with the city, has helped start community parks in every borough, 35 of them owned and operated by resident-controlled land trusts. The typical community park in New York is passive, although the Open Space Coalition maintains a hefty liability-insurance policy, enabling a community land trust to sign on in order to permit play equipment and teams ports.

"In New York, our park department doesn't have the money anymore to act responsively to community needs," says Tom Fox, the Open Space Coalition's executive director. "In the 30s and 40s the parks here had 40,000 employees. Now there are 4,200, to maintain 26,000 acres. As a result, the parks suffer, and particularly the small ones closest to home. But with neighborhoods developing their own parks, we have a new model, one that combines local initiative and government activity."

In North of Howard, there are apprehensions. The neighborhood is still visited by crime (two drug-related murders occurred last fall), and there's a fear in some quarters that Triangle Park will turn into just the newest hangout for North of Howard's young toughs and drug dealers. "When the summer comes," observes Grady Humphrey, a paralegal who challenged Orr in February's election, "that park is where bad folk are going to congregate. Many parents have stated that they don't want their kids over there, because there will be drug dealing." Says Beata Welsh, a home owner on Juneway and a former TPC board member, "We do have problems in this neighborhood, and so any park is open to abuse."

The police have promised to help patrol Triangle Park, and the Triangle Park Corporation is weighing whether to hire its own security. Four Peoples Housing buildings adjoin the park, and Tschannen-Moran, for one, expects these residents to watch over the landscape and protect it. The park will be closed from 11 PM to 6 AM, for whatever that's worth, and the usual restrictions will be posted.

"You know," explains Tschannen-Moran, "no weapons, no illegal drug trafficking."

"But the fears about trouble are well founded," admits Sister Pat Crowley, "and they are our concern, too. But what they [critics] want is an ideal world. They want Triangle Park open, stocked with programming and equipment and a staff. What we have done is design the park in the only way viable from a financial point of view. So we have this passive space.

"What has to happen now is for the people in this neighborhood to say, OK, this park is ours, and we are going to make it what we want it to be. There must be pride. But if people take ownership of the park, it will be a wonderful place. That may be idealistic. The other question, of course, is what would the triangle be if we hadn't have claimed it? just a piece of unused land sitting there, and isn't that worse?"

Triangle Park will be dedicated around Memorial Day, after the sodding is complete.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

Add a comment