Score one for the neighborhoods, and it’s a win that’s way overdue.
The Chicago Park District is moving its headquarters to Brighton Park on the Southwest Side, miles away from its current location in tony Streeterville on the North Side.
That means goodbye — and good riddance — to 17 acres of overgrown, vacant land at 48th Street and Western Avenue.
And hello not just to an administrative building, but also to a new field house, playground, spray pool and turf fields for a neighborhood that ranks as one of the top five “park-deficient” neighborhoods in Chicago.
Relocating a major city agency outside downtown is a big victory for activists and citizens who have repeatedly called on City Hall to spread the development wealth beyond the Loop to neglected, economically destitute neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Mayor Rahm Emanuel hasn’t done enough to balance the ledger completely, but this project adds a big plus to his legacy.
There’s historic significance to this move, and it speaks to our city’s legacy of racism, segregation and inequality.
Move the Park District’s headquarters and 200 workers to a predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhood? Decades ago, that would have been unthinkable — and the numbers were there to prove it.
Park facilities in white, wealthier neighborhoods routinely received more money, more staff and more programs than facilities in black and Latino areas, as the Chicago Reporter found in a groundbreaking investigation in the 1970s.
Stephan Garnett, the black reporter who first worked on the story in 1975, was badly beaten when he went to photograph facilities in then-white Marquette Park. A mob torched his car. The Reporter’s managing editor, Tom Brune, picked up this story of unequal park services, and when it finally was published in 1978, it caught the attention of the Justice Department and sparked a federal investigation.
That doesn’t happen unless the facts involved are pretty airtight.
Eventually, a consent decree forced the Park District to equalize its spending. The Reporter continued to investigate inequality in a range of city services, forcing the city to confront its entrenched racial disparities.
In a 2014 follow-up investigation of park spending, the Reporter found that “race no longer defines whether a park will have staff or programs. Parks in African-American wards now have more money for staff and maintenance than white ones.” But Latino neighborhoods still spend less on park improvements, which now are typically funded by outside grants and other funding that doesn’t come directly from the Park District.
Erasing inequality isn’t easy.
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