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Park District says Friends of the Parks report on discrimination ‘distorts’ data

Rahm Emanuel and Michael Kelly

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly. | Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

In its recent report alleging that racism still tinges Chicago Park District distribution of resources 30 years after a consent decree, Friends of the Parks “manipulates and distorts to highlight its own agenda,” park district officials say.

In a 40-page response, Park District Supt. Michael Kelly called the report from Friends of the Parks “incendiary and divisive,” adding: “In an attempt to make their organization relevant, FOTP intentionally cites old data and manipulates and distorts the analysis and methodology of current data.”

The district’s response, dated Dec. 21, addresses point by point, page by page, the report that alleges more resources are funneled to parks in wealthier white communities while neglecting parks in poor black and Latino communities — 30 years after exiting a U.S. Justice Department consent decree.

The Friends of the Parks report is the first such comprehensive analysis of district spending in decades, by the same group that filed a 1982 discrimination lawsuit leading to the 1983 decree. The decree was dismissed in 1989.

Friends of the Parks says it found significant inequities in programming and capital investments correlating with race and income levels across the city, including:

• Programming on the predominantly white North Side significantly greater than that on the predominantly black South Side.

• South Side parks of similar size and type to those on the North Side — but with smaller budgets.

• Capital investment requests in black communities approved at half the rate of those in white communities.

• Latino communities had the least amount of parkland and investment in their parks.

“The report is inaccurate and blatantly disregards important capital and programmatic gains that have been made in parks across Chicago. As a result of massive expansion of park acreage and facilities since 2011, 99.6 percent of Chicago residents are within a 10 minute walk of a park,” Kelly writes.

He notes unprecedented growth over the past eight years earned the district the prestigious Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management from The National Recreation and Park Association in 2014.

“Notable investments that have been made in predominantly African-American and Latino communities in the last three years,” said Kelly, include the $19 million La Villita Park serving Little Village and Lawndale; $17.5 million Ellis Park Community Arts and Recreation Çenter serving Douglas and Oakland; $16 million Big Marsh Park in South Deering; $56 million Gately Indoor Track Facility in Roseland; and $28 million Addams Sports Complex in the Near West Side.

“Meeting with us monthly over several years, but never raising these issues, shows FOTP’s agenda for what it is — an attempted smear campaign, rather than any real intent on improving the parks,” Kelly charged.

Juanita Irizarry, president of Friends of the Parks, speaks at a Dec. 12 press conference where the group released “State of the Parks,” a new report finding significant inequities in spending by the Chicago Park District on programming and capital investments, correlating with race and income levels across the city. | Provided photo

In releasing the group’s report, Friends President Juanita Irizarry had said it followed complaints from community members who have urged a new lawsuit. On Wednesday, she maintained the report is based on the district’s own data.

“We’re glad for any actual or potential progress. But imagine how bad the situation has been if those gains the Chicago Park District brags about bring us to the state of the parks that we outline in our report based on their data,” she said. “There’s still an awfully long way to go to get anywhere near equity.”

The report’s author, Daniel La Spata, noted the district gathers no data on whether local residents are being served at facilities like those Kelly listed.

“When Supt. Kelly recently made a claim in the media that the overwhelming majority of those who will benefit from such new facilities will be neighborhood kids,” La Spata said, the group requested more data.

“Since he also publicly spoke about the leagues and competitions that would take advantage of these new facilities, we sought data on the demographics of participants in similar activities that increasingly dominate such spaces,” said La Spata, the group’s policy and planning associate. “We found that the park district currently doesn’t require those entities who provide programming through privatized contracts to track racial/ethnic demographics. So how would they know who they are serving?”

Kelly notes in the district’s response that race is not considered in budgeting.

“The Chicago Park District prioritizes capital spending based on community needs, and not according to race. That said, we recognize the importance of dividing resources equitably,” he wrote.