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Expelled From the Garden

Why are the remains of Pritzker Park lying in a vacant lot?

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Nine years ago an art project was unveiled at Pritzker Park, and its boosters boasted that it might last forever. "It's the best thing I've ever done," sculptor Ronald Jones told a reporter. "Once the park is used and becomes popular, it will be hard to do away with."

He was right, sort of. The project, at least bits and pieces of it, is still on display--it's just in a different location. "If you want to see it I know where it is," says Greg Gillam, a north-side writer who stumbled upon it by chance. "I can't believe it's there, but it's there."

Pritzker Park was built on a small piece of land on the northwest corner of State and Van Buren, where the Rialto, a low-rent hotel, once stood. But the Rialto burned down in 1990, and the city wasn't eager to see it rebuilt--with the South Loop real estate market heating up, the last thing Mayor Daley and his planners wanted was to bring back an SRO.

So they decided to put a park there. After all, the Loop could always use a little extra green space, and a park would be a nice way for Daley to thank Cindy Pritzker for raising money for the Harold Washington Library. And it wasn't as though developers were stepping forward with immediate plans for the site, though city officials did let it be known that the park would be replaced should a deal emerge.

Over the course of a few months, thousands of dollars were raised, mostly from the rich and well connected. "A bold, green, dreamy retreat from the Loop's hard-edged, concrete milieu," is how Jeff Huebner described the park in a New City article. It was little more than a dot of green, about 33,000 square feet, in the shadow of the el. It was, Huebner said, "less a public park than a three-dimensional artwork with grass and flowers--you can have a tree planted in your name there for $1,000." A meandering path cut through the park, and there were several plaques thanking Pritzker and other donors, many of whom paid to have trees planted in memory of deceased loved ones.

Jones had been commissioned to put together something a little different, and he did--he re-created Rene Magritte's surrealistic painting The Banquet. At the center of the park he put a diagonal wall, bounded by urns and backed by 13 lindens. At the far side were "council rings," a series of curved benches made of concrete that surrounded a sandbox inscribed with the question "What Do We Plant?" It was a little avant-garde and cheeky. The sandbox inscription was a subtle dig at the old Mayor Daley, who used to dismiss his critics by saying, "What trees have they planted?"

But over the years the park proved hard to maintain. Homeless people, ironically, began to sleep there, and the sandbox began to smell like a public urinal. Finally the city decided to try something else. This past spring the wall, the council rings, the plaques, and the trees were carted away, and the park was fenced off. Behind the fence now stand two big signs announcing plans for a new park--also designed by Jones--that will feature a "grove of trees," a "cosmic garden," and a "little terrace."

But some passersby missed the old park. "One day in May or June I walked by and saw that the old art project was gone," says Gillam. "I knew it had fallen into disuse and the sandbox was pretty rank, but there was no explanation. You wonder what happens to these things after they're gone." Then about two weeks ago he was walking with friends through the vast field of vacant land between Roosevelt Road and Chinatown. "I love walking around there--it's a really wild mix of things," he says. "Someone said, 'Hey, that looks like marble over there.' We walked over and I saw a plaque that said Pritzker Park. It was just there in the weeds--the disassembled pieces of the old art project. The urns, the plaques, pieces of the council rings. I couldn't believe it. I mean, you see a lot of things dumped back there, but I never expected to see this.

"It gave me a weird feeling," he goes on. "I really enjoyed that park--I used to go by there all the time. You don't see public art projects that different. The way it was planted was so incredibly eerie--they duplicated the painting exactly. That was what was so profoundly amazing about the park. The colors were even the same. I'd just go down and look at it, and it was 'Wow.' It carried out everything the artist wanted to accomplish. Chicago does have, by accident, many unique things, and to me this sort of redeemed the city for all that money they blew on the owls on top of the library. I know this is a tangent, but it always struck me as particularly wasteful that the library, which is struggling for staff to reshelve all of its books, should have wasted so much money on those owls."

Gillam and his friends couldn't get over their find. "I hike around that land a lot," he says. "That is truly one of the great wonderlands of Chicago. I can't tell you all the strange things I've seen there--bizarre stuff like toilets and sinks and stuffed animals. You have the disused tracks and forest and prairies and foundations for buildings that used to be and a few abandoned railroad cars. There used to be guys in shacks who owned big, ferocious dogs. The first time I went there I was almost attacked by a rottweiler. Someone called it off at the last second. This guy was living in a shack with a tin roof and a chimney made out of old coffee cans.

"I came from a smaller town, Orlando, which is very clean. To me, Chicago is out of the movies. I've always been amazed at the stuff that goes on here. But to find the remains of Pritzker Park there? That was bizarre by any standard. It was so overwhelmingly creepy and sad, as though someone had walked up and shot the park in the back of the head and dropped its remains in the vacant lot. You should see it yourself."

On a gloomy, drizzly Wednesday afternoon I hiked south on Clark Street until the sidewalk turned into a dirt utility road, crossed the railroad tracks, and slipped beneath the Roosevelt Road bridge. I found the disassembled Pritzker Park just where Gillam had said it would be--lying in the weeds near the Chicago River, about 100 feet south of Roosevelt Road, roughly where Wells Street would be if it extended into the vacant land.

I saw the plaque honoring Cindy Pritzker--"in recognition of her important contribution to the development of the Harold Washington Library Center"--two urns, pieces of the council rings, and, most unsettling, the marble plaque with the names of the dead people in whose memory the trees, now gone, had been planted.

Beneath the Roosevelt Road bridge was a car whose driver was sleeping. On the other side of Roosevelt, near the River City housing complex, stood a line of big trucks and earthmoving equipment. A sign announced the development of something called LaSalle Park: "24 acres available, residential, hotel, office, retail. Where the city begins."

The first few city officials I called about the remains of Pritzker Park were baffled. "We don't have anything to do with that park," said a spokesperson for the libraries. "Try Planning."

A spokesperson for the Planning Department promised to "look into it and get back to you."

Finally Mike Lash, director of public art for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, told me that the field of weeds is only a temporary storage place. Until recently, he said, the pieces of the park's art had been stored in the department's warehouse, which is also beneath the Roosevelt Road bridge. "That's our storage facility," he said. "We keep everything there, from the base of the Christmas tree to the giant toy drum that goes under the tree each year. You should see it--it's sort of surreal."

He went on, "From time to time we have to move stuff when new stuff comes in. In this case we have a 17,000-pound head. It's a replica of a giant stone head carved by the ancient Olmec people who lived where Mexico is now. The anthropologists call it Olmec head number eight--as you can see, anthropologists are not the most romantic people in the world. Eventually it's going to be outside the Field Museum. Until we unveil it in October, this is where it stays. We'll bring the Pritzker Park stuff back in once we have the room."

He didn't know what had happened to the park's trees. But, he said, "I know the city has a policy of saving trees whenever possible."

Lash was a fan of the old Pritzker Park. "I like Ronald Jones's work," he said. "It's very low-key and quiet and contemplative--you don't even see it until you think about it. And that was a neat idea--to create a surreal landscape--and an interesting experiment in urban design. But it had its problems. The paths meandered, and people don't meander--they cut straight across, creating cow paths in the grass. And there were drainage problems. I think it will always remain a park. Yes, it's valuable land, but it's been decided that green space is also valuable. And with the new universities--DePaul, Roosevelt--and all the youth culture down there, we felt it was time to re-examine the park."

He said people like Gillam shouldn't be offended to find pieces of the old park in the field. "Actually, we didn't move all of the park stuff out," he said. "Some of the elements are still in the warehouse. We intend to reuse parts of it, particularly the resting rings. We hope to integrate those in some new schools. One stipulation from all this is that the donors will be acknowledged at the new park--because they did put in a lot of money."

He added, "Listen, things get moved. The Fort Dearborn massacre [relief] is in the warehouse. Alexander Hamilton--it's in there too. Art gets moved around. The urban landscape changes. We do our best to preserve it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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