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Park District takes the wrong path to protect Jackson Park’s Wooded Island

The park district’s installation of grim-looking wrought iron gates at the island’s entrances is wrong.

A new gate stands at Wooded Isle in Jackson Park.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

Jackson Park’s Wooded Island is among Chicago’s most remarkable public spaces: a tranquil three-block long isle — surrounded by a lagoon — featuring oak trees, beautiful plantings and a stunning Japanese garden.

Created as part of the famed 1893 World’s Fair and the subject of an $8 million restoration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016, we can understand why the Chicago Park District now wants to keep the grounds of this special, internationally recognized place safe and protected after hours.

But the park district’s installation late last month of tall, dark and grim-looking wrought iron gates on the north and south bridges to the island is wrong.

And we fear the move will encourage the district — an agency known to choose expediency over public benefit as of late — to just close off park spaces in response to complaints of vandalism and loitering, rather than find creative ways to keep these areas safe and open.

People have been ‘doing damage’

The park district says the gates were installed following incidents of after-hours vandalism on the island, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

Jackson Park Advisory Council President Louise McCurry told the newspaper her organization’s volunteers have found the island’s plants pulled up, and turtles and koi fish allegedly stolen, garbage cans burned and evidence that motorcycles had been driven through the area.

“People have simply been there, doing damage, and it’s a place that once it’s destroyed — these are artifacts from history. You can’t bring it back again,” said McCurry, whose group supports the gates.

Another backer of the gates is Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who told Block Club Chicago about the fish thefts and other alleged damage, including graffiti.

The park district said the Wooded Island gates will be closed from dusk to dawn. The barriers “will help secure the area and protect these historic and valuable assets from off-hours activity.”

An alternative needed

We’re not fans of physically closing off public park space. And maybe the gates could go down a little easier if they were designed with some beauty, grace and care for the surroundings the park district claims it wants to protect.

Instead, the gates are ungainly, overscaled and unadorned — with spike-like appendages on the sides. Entering the pleasant little island now feels more like going inside an encampment.

Besides, now that the gates are up, there’s nothing to prevent the park district from restricting access to the island during daylight hours for whatever reason — or from closing off one side or another.

Ahmed Zaki, a senior at the University of Chicago, reads a sign on Sept. 9 calling for the removal of gates at Wooded Island. Zaki said the money for the fence could have been better spent to make improvements to Jackson Park.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

We don’t mean to dismiss the concerns about people entering and possibly damaging the island after hours. (In fact, we’re seeking more detailed information from the police on misdeeds at Wooded Island.)

But at the risk of sounding cavalier, part of the business of running public parks is the reality that people will sneak in after hours and occasionally do unwanted things.

Such was the case for years at Auburn Park, a two-acre linear park north of 79th Street between Vincennes Avenue and the Rock Island Metra embankment.

The park sits in the middle of the circular street called Winneconna Parkway and is surrounded by homes. But rather than close it off, the park district in the 1990s physically improved it and let it remain ungated.

This is what should have happened at Wooded Island.

There are enough cops and private security forces — including the agency now guarding the Obama Presidential Center construction in Jackson Park just a stone’s throw west of the island — to address the issue without throwing up iron gates.

We encourage the park district to reconsider the gates and find a sensible way to protect the area and uphold the ideal of public spaces.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.