Nathan Walbert, a non-native resident of Chicago, recently remarked that he only realized how much he took advantage of Chicago’s park system and its many free activities after he responded to interview questions for this article. His list of activities includes much of what other Chicagoans do in the parks: stroll through the Japanese Garden in Jackson Park, swim at Loyola beach or at the pool in Portage Park, roller blade the trails. So far all of the activities mentioned are free. One activity Mr. Walbert has participated in which is not free, however, is Chicago’s annual picnic, the Taste of Chicago in Grant Park.
Grant Park has been called the city’s front yard and attracts thousands of tourists and residents annually. It has also been a draw for protestors (the infamous 1968 riots which took place during the Democratic Convention) and political supporters (Barack Obama’s November 4, 2008 presidential election victory speech, attended by over 100,000, was given at Grant Park).
Before it was called Grant Park in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, general of the Civil War, 18th president of the United States, and erstwhile resident of Galena, Illinois, Grant Park was called Lake Park (in 1847); and before it was given a name in 1847, Chicago’s citizenry had declared in the 1830s that the land east of Michigan Avenue would become “public ground forever to remain vacant of buildings.”
However, it didn’t take long for developers and city officials to ignore that decree. It took a rich mail-order catalog magnate called Aaron Montgomery Ward twenty years of court battles and $50,000 of his own money to keep the park “open and free.” He lost a couple of battles. He tried to have the Art Institute evicted, and fought against the construction of Marshall Field’s Museum of Natural History. But he won the war. In 1909 Illinois’ Supreme Court upheld a court ruling that had given Mr. Ward victory and the park remained free.
Perhaps another war needs to be waged today. Yes, residents and tourists have free access to the beaches and parks, but Grant Park’s museums are not free except for a few days out of the year, even though they sit on park land. Taste of Chicago is not free if you actually want to sample the food, and most recently the city added pay boxes in parking lots at several of the city’s beaches and parks.
But to be fair there is much to enjoy in Grant Park and Chicago’s other parks that is free. Nathan Walbert describes trying to go to a beach in Evanston, the city just north of Chicago. ”I think they were asking $8 for a day pass.” At least Chicagoans don’t have to deal with that … not yet.