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Northerly Island's new city 'escape' opens to public

Like a theatrical dream of a bird, a great blue heron spreads its enormous wings and takes flight over the lagoon. A chorus of crickets quell the not-so-distant city growl.

Pivot around, and there’s McCormick Place Lakeside Center, floating like a giant aircraft carrier in silhouette.

At the re-imagined Northerly Island, which officially opened Friday, Chicago’s cityscape is both present and not present.

“We used the earth to sculpt the landscape, to play this game of hide and seek with the skyline so you can really feel like you’re remote and then sometimes it reveals itself,” said Jeanne Gang, the famed Chicago architect whose firm helped transform the former airport site.

NOT INVITED: Former mayor who closed Meigs conspicuously absent at official rebirth

Actually, the 40-acre park, with its 5-acre lagoon and hummocky expanse brings to mind another Gang creation — the Aqua Tower — tilted onto its side.

On Friday, with mist-shrouded skyscrapers in the distance, invited dignitaries waxed poetic about the new park, which cost about $9.7 million to build — two-thirds federal funds and a third from the Chicago Park District.

“To think that you are just a short distance away from the downtown of one of the greatest cities in America,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, standing beside Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Durbin described the park as “an escape.”

“It’s also an opportunity for recovery, spiritual recovery,” he said.

Durbin joked about his connection to the island’s recent past.

“I can remember the old days, when this was a boutique airport for state employees like me to fly back and forth to Springfield. Those days are gone,” Durbin said, chuckling.

Ribbon cutting for the Northerly Island Nature Preserve. Friday, September 4, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times)

In March 2003, Mayor Richard M. Daley famously sent in bulldozers under cover of darkness to carve giant X’s into the island’s Meigs Field runway. Daley initially said the stealth operation was to protect the city from a terrorist attack. He later admitted he wanted the land for a park.

The first visitors Friday were glad Daley — who wasn’t at Friday’s ribbon-cutting — got his way.

“He did some good things, he did some bad things,” said Jonathan Abarbanel, a North Sider out for a stroll with his partner, Dan Au, 49. “This is one of the really bright ideas…. It will be better next year and even better three years from now as the vegetation really matures.”

Teresa Goodhue, 46, was walking the 12-foot-wide concrete trail with her two children.

“We live in Pilsen and have a very small back yard — and we’re one of the fortunate ones, actually,” Goodhue said. “So to have this green space so close and with close proximity to downtown, it’s wonderful.”

The mile-long concrete trail that links the park to nature trails, boardwalks, camping areas and viewpoints could pose a challenge during winter months.

Ribbon cutting for the Northerly Island Nature Preserve. Friday, September 4, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times)

Traditional snow removal won’t be possible for at least a year. That’s how long it takes for the concrete to cure.

On Friday, Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly was asked what he plans to do with the trail after snowstorms.

“We’re certainly going to do cross-country skiing. However, we’ll have to figure it out” how to remove snow, Kelly said.

“There are environmental ways of taking care of pathways without damaging the curing concrete and the plantings. We’ll figure out a way of getting people out here. I’m not just going to let this sit with snow. You use [calcium chloride.] It’s a liquid.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman