New play areas, sculptures and presidential center come to local parks

“Skylanding,” Yoko Ono’s largest permanent public art installation in the world and the first of Ono’s in the U.S., was unveiled on Monday, Oct. 17 during a ceremony in Jackson Park. -Marc Monaghan
“Skylanding,” Yoko Ono’s largest permanent public art installation in the world and the first of Ono’s in the U.S., was unveiled on Monday, Oct. 17 during a ceremony in Jackson Park.

Marc Monaghan

By TONIA HILL
Staff Writer

2016, saw proposals and new attractions that were given the green light to revamp and reshape parks on the southside. Major projects are underway that could boost the local economy and attract global tourism for Jackson Park and the surrounding South Shore community. Some but not all are backing the changes that could permanently alter some parks.
Bixler Playlot

In July, Bixler Playlot, 5600 S. Kenwood Ave., reopened to the community after being renovated. New features include rope-climbing equipment and structures on which children can stand or hang while spinning. The park is a result of Mayor Emanuel’s “Chicago Plays!” program.

Shortly after, Chicago Park District (CPD) representatives attended an advisory council meeting in September. Reps apologized, “for the abrupt nature in which the Chicago Plays initiative without any prior notice, fenced off Bixler and removed the existing, beloved play equipment,” according to a previous article in the Herald.

Parents were frustrated in changes made that do not reflect the needs of all the children who use the park, most of whom are under the age of 5.

“We are glad they paid the south side parks some attention, the equipment they put in is very nice and made of great quality, but that’s not the problem,” said park regular Marcy Schlessinger, who brings her grandchildren to Bixler. “They didn’t speak with any of the park users to see what was actually needed. They replaced things no one had any complaints about, they took away the tunnels, playhouses, and shade and didn’t fix things we needed.”

Schlessinger said, “They put in equipment for kids ages 5-12 and left nothing for the kids under 5. There are even fewer baby swings than before.”

Mila Jameson, president of the Bixler Playlot Park Advisory Council said the parents are angry.

“Before they made any changes our regional manager, Art Richardson, toured the park and said he didn’t find anything that needed to be replaced,” she said.

Jameson said this lack of community engagement speaks to the broader issue of Chicago’s bureaucracy and budget problems.

“If they’d just spent an hour talking to us they would have been more informed and made better choices,” Jameson said.

Bixler Advisory Council members are still attempting to get the Park District to address issues that need to be improved at the park.

“A broken water feature, crumbling soft surface, the see saw that’s falling apart), as well as improve functionality of the equipment they put in, (e.g. reduced number of swings, most structures being unsafe/uninteresting to the vast majority of babies and toddlers who comprise most of Bixler’s users),” wrote Jameson by email. “The Park District’s Board of Commissioners has been less than sympathetic so far, but it’s a work in progress.”

Cornell Nature Play Park
Cornell Nature Play Park, opened to the public Saturday, Nov. 5. The park’s play area is located on the east side of Cornell Avenue between 54th and 55th streets and was in need of restoration.

Last year, the Cornell Park Advisory Council (CPAC) came together to devise a plan to renovate the small pocket park that previously held deteriorating playground equipment.

Instead of purchasing new playground equipment for the park, the CPAC opted for a nature play space, a natural play area surrounded by plants and vegetation that will give children the opportunity to learn about the environment as they play.

Funding for the project came from a $2,000 Neighborhood Enhancement Grant from the South East Chicago Commission as well as funding from Hyde Park Bank and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference.

Cornell Park Shooting
Just a month after the opening of the the nature play park in Cornell Park, 33-year-old, Curtis Nowells was shot and killed while he was at Cornell Park, 5473 S. Cornell Ave.
On Friday, Dec. 2., Curtis Nowells was walking in the park with his girlfriend when a black male offender wearing a mask approached him from behind and fired multiple shots before fleeing on foot northbound on Cornell Avenue to a nearby car and driving away, said Chicago Police.

According to police, Nowells sustained a gunshot wound to the head and multiple gunshot wounds to the back. No one is in custody and police are still investigating.

The shooting was discussed during an East Hyde Park-Kenwood Coalition meeting Monday, Dec. 12, hosted by Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) at Montgomery Place, 5500 S. Shore Dr. According to police, the shooting was not a random attack.

During the meeting, which was attended by CPD Wentworth Police District Commander Crystal King-Smith and UCPD Deputy Chief Joanne Nee, King-Smith said the victim’s murder was not a random attack.

King-Smith said that police believe Nowells’ murder was planned and likely the result of conflict within a group using the park as a drop spot for drugs.

The Cornell Park Advisory Council dedicated a day to make the park more lively. They hosted a holiday celebration in the park Thursday, Dec. 22. There was hot chocolate and deserts as well as a bonfire and caroling. Children also had the opportunity to the make winter bird feeders for birds.

Norman Bell, president of the advisory council said that the shooting in the park is on people’s minds, but the celebration is not a direct response to the shooting. Bell said the holiday celebration is in continuation of predated activities for the council to encourage use of the park.

“We hope that this event will bring more people to the park and make people feel more comfortable about being in the park,” Bell said.

Nichols Park
Two new playground complexes are up and running at Nichols Park. The new parks will replace both the park’s ‘baby playground,’ at the park’s southwest corner near Kimbark Ave., and ‘big-kids playground,’ near 54th St. and Kenwood Ave.

Funding was provided by the Chicago Park District, which offered a choice between five playground options for each of the two locations in Nichols Park, 1355 E. 53rd St.

The new playgrounds were completed in mid July.

Jackson Park
Barack Obama Presidential Center

Last year, proposals for the location of the Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) were being considered at Washington Park 5531 S. King Dr. and Jackson Park, 6401 S. Stony Island Ave.

In late July, Jackson Park was named as the location to house the OPC. The OPC will be situated right across from Hyde Park High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave.

The OPC is in the early stages of development. As of yet, there aren’t any concrete plans for what the structure will look like or what exhibits the center will feature. Groundbreaking for the OPC, which will house a presidential library and museum, will begin in 2019 and is scheduled to open to the public in 2021.

Residents have expressed both concern and excitement about the upcoming project. The concerns were based in and on inclusion in every step of the process.

Community members sought to make their opinions known, and some are eager to lend their support to help shape what will become the OPC.

After the announcement had been made in July, a town hall meeting was held calling for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the OPC.

The CBA would require the Obama Foundation to set aside jobs for community members, protect affordable housing and homeowners, support and create Black businesses and strengthen neighborhood schools.

The meeting was hosted by Southside Together Organization for Power (STOP) in partnership with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and Prayer Action.

In August, those groups gathered again to discuss other topics of importance in regards to the OPC. People attending the meeting split themselves off into small groups with particular interests in the benefits for the OPC.

As previously referenced in the Herald, housing, economic development, education, and jobs were the areas of importance in the meeting.

Members, “recommended that profits from the OPC could be allocated to area teen centers or low-income housing, as well as a demand for a property tax freeze since it is expected that property values and taxes will go up,” referenced from a previous article in the Herald. Additionally, in the meeting education, economic development, and jobs were also a focus group.

And in September, the Community Benefits Agreement Coalition compromised of The Bronzeville Regional Collaborative (BRC), Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Prayer in Action Collective (PAC) and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) launched an official campaign identifying six areas of development that they would like to improve.

The areas included employment, economic development, education, housing, transportation, and sustainability.

“We universally agree that the Obama Presidential Center has the power and duty to help restore suffering south side communities in innovative ways, and to begin leveling the playing field historically pitched against African Americans,” read the CBA in a previous article. “While we recognize the old ways of redeveloping black communities have not created community wealth, we see the exciting potential to develop differently now. We aim to catalyze measurable and sustainable increases in our community wealth and well-being through sustainable, inter-generational land ownership and transfer, increased revenue streams through neighbor-owned businesses and buildings; and revived resources for vibrant lifelong learning.”

In October, the Obama Foundation announced the creation of the Obama Foundation Inclusion Council.

“The council will provide detailed input, analysis, and recommendations for developing, monitoring and executing diversity and inclusion and initiatives and strategies,” according to, a previous article published in the Herald. “The council will convene regularly to review foundation initiatives and assess potential strategic partnerships.”

“Additionally, the council will regularly communicate with the community ensuring that it is held accountable to high standards and transparency in its recommendations and the progress towards fulfilling those recommendations.”

Transparency and dialogue with the community have been what the Obama Foundation desires, and this was apparent when the foundation met with senior residents in late November at Montgomery Place, 5500 S. Shore Dr.

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of Civic Engagement at the Obama Foundation said the Obamas are seeking to incorporate the community in every aspect of the center.

“There is so much deep, rich history that is here [Jackson Park],” Strautmanis said. “I want [people] to understand and appreciate and be able to experience the community that the center is in. We can create a world-class presidential center, but the opportunity is to have this center to be another part of this vibrant, beautiful, exciting neighborhood.”

“Ten Thousand Ripples Emerging Buddha” and Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding”
In celebration of World Peace Day, Wednesday Sept. 21, Jackson Park unveiled the “Ten Thousand Ripples Emerging Buddha” sculptures near the Iowa Building, 1750 E. 56th St., the sculptures were presented by the Chicago Park District and Changing Worlds, an education and arts organization.

The emerging Buddha sculptures were created by artist and nonviolence educator Indira Johnson.

They are made of fiberglass and resin and can be found at sites across Chicago and Evanston, Ill. First designed in 2010 for an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center.

In a previous interview, Johnson said she noticed visitors to the exhibit contemplating the sculptures, some even going so far as to tell her that they felt a sense of peace while viewing the work.

According to the Chicago Park District, Johnson‘s “Ten Thousand Ripples Emerging Buddha” sculptures are displayed as a catalyst to foster dialogue about peace and non-violence to create innovative solutions that address contemporary issues.

In October, Yoko Ono’s largest permanent public art installation in the world and the first of Ono’s in the U.S., “Skylanding” was unveiled Monday, Oct. 17 during a ceremony at Jackson Park.

The sculpture is in collaboration between Ono and Project 120. Ono visited Jackson Park’s garden in January and was inspired by the park’s Garden of Phoenix. “Skylanding” includes 12 large steel lotus petals that extend from the ground towards the sky.

At the October event, Ono said, “Beauty is something that tells us what actually things are.”

“Parks give us a sense of place…urban parks are essential cornerstones for building communities,” said Suzanne Kopp-Moskow, the director and executive vice president for Project 120. “Art is vital to a neighborhood’s quality of life.”

“Skylanding” joins other public art sculptures in Jackson Park such as “Ten Thousand Ripples Emerging Buddha,” which was dedicated in September of 2016.

“Skylanding” is situated near the future home of the OPC.

Wooded Islands
In October, Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) in collaboration with community leaders, business partners, and volunteers, held a grand opening to celebrate the Jackson Park Wooded Island Restoration Project at 6300 S. Cornell Dr.

The park was opened for the first time since June 2015. In a previous issue of the Herald, Lauren Umek ecologist of the Jackson Park Wooded Island Landscape Project said, “We are now a hybrid between ecological and historical restorations,” “The park will feature a tremendous amount of biological diversity with over 600,000 thousand plants coming soon.”

Umek added that the project involved balancing what different members of the community wanted the park to look like, in addition to what the Historical Preservation Society thought was important, “which was to keep the historical significance of the area intact,” Umek said.

Wooded Island is in its third year of a five-year Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration project.

The project hopes to preserve the work by legendary architect Frederick Olmstead, the man responsible for building and designing Jackson Park, Washington Park, and Midway Plaisance for the Columbian Exposition in 1893 for Chicago’s Word Fair.

New park signs were also installed before the reopening of the park.

“These new signs now include historic and nature-oriented photos of the park, maps, a description of the recent park improvements, and the park rules. These rules include Park District-wide rules (i.e. permits required for large gatherings and no littering, alcohol, smoking, vehicles, etc.) as well as site-specific rules that are determined by park staff,” wrote Lauren Umek.

Jackson Park Watch (JPW) remains skeptical about the changes on the horizon for Jackson Park.

JPW is asking for transparency and claim that new additions at Jackson Park and restrictions at Wooded Island continue to raise ongoing questions specifically in regards to signage at Wooded Island. In the last meeting of the year for JPAC, JPW asked the council to protest restrictions at the park district.

“Who made these up, when and why? What about community input? What happened to the promise, repeatedly voiced by Louise McCurry and others, that the GLFER project would make fishing better than ever? (After all, GLFER stands for Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration.) And what!, no dogs on Wooded Island???,” wrote JPW in an email.

Umek responded to those inquiries by email and said that, “these rules are not new and were posted on signs to the island for several years, and were replaced with new, improved signs so that they would be more visible. Fishing has been and will remain prohibited from Wooded Island,” said Umek. “There are currently no fish stocked in the lagoon at the moment (only small fish introduced for migratory birds), and will not be stocked for game fishing, so this rule is new but not really applicable at this time.”

There has been concern amongst members of the community who felt left out during the conversations surrounding revitalizations at Jackson Park.

In June Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was joined by Bob Karr and Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly.

In the meeting, the proposed Phoenix Pavilion by Project 120 was discussed.

Project 120, is non-profit organization led by Chicago lawyer Bob Karr. The Phoenix Pavilion would act as an art exhibition and performance space south of the Museum of Science and Industry.

The pavilion according to, Heather Gleason, Director of Planning and Construction for the park district, the proposed Phoenix Pavilion would take up 15,000 square ft., the equivalent of two and a half tennis courts.

This is intended just to be a small building, a meeting space, restroom space and art exhibition and performance space,” Gleason said.

Kelly chimed in, “It’s really conceptual and just an idea at this point.”

In 2013, Project 120 began partnering with the Chicago Park District to raise funds for Jackson Park revitalization efforts and to develop framework plans aimed at restoring the original vision of park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.

Another major project on the horizon, which will be led under the direction of Tiger Woods, former professional golf player is a new multi-million dollar golf complex in South Shore.

Woods’ TGR Design will revamp the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses to host premium Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour events such as the BMW Championship.

The $30 million dollar project, will be funded by the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA), a nonprofit, which will support the $30 million project. The CPGA will work to improve Chicago Park District courses and golf facilities and expand youth golf programs and raise money to make the project at the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses possible.The project will also create a tunnel at 67th Street to connect the courses under South Jeffrey.

While most back the ongoing projects in the works for Jackson Park, there are some community members feel that the Chicago Park District should just focus on maintenance to the park and steer away from redevelopment projects.

t.hill@hpherald.com