Environmentalists defend Nature Sanctuary

“There is no excuse for any black elected official to say that a living system, that has been cared for, for over twenty years by people who are brown, Black and everything in between, to claim that it is dead. It is not dead,” said Environmentalists of Color spokesperson Mila K. Marshall (center, wearing grey) during a press conference at the South Shore Cultural Center. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Contributing writer

The advocacy group Environmentalists of Color (EoC) held a press conference on Aug. 17 to respond to Ald. Leslie Hairston’s (5th) recent comments about the South Shore Nature Sanctuary. Last week, Hairston was quoted as saying said that the sanctuary is “actually all dead. And it’s been dead for some years…. The reason that the current sanctuary is in the condition that it is is because there was nobody to maintain it.” 

At the conference, speakers pushed back against the alderman’s claim. “There’s no excuse for any black elected official to say that a living system that has been cared for for over 20 years by people who are brown, Black, and everything in between is dead. It is not dead,” said Mila Kellen Marshall, an EoC member and urban ecologist.

Flanked by young people in T-shirts that read “Plant Freedom,” Marshall spoke just down the hall from the Monarch Festival that was being held at the Cultural Center. (The sanctuary is a stop-over point for migrating monarch butterflies, who eat the milkweed planted there.)

“The quality of your life increases exponentially with having access to fresh water…. You take a space that is accessible — just because we don’t use it how other people think we should use it, does not mean we are not using it,” said Marshall. “I challenge every elected official around this area to come here. Bring your family. Come out here on a Sunday…. The fact we don’t engage in nature and then make decisions about it is going to be to the detriment of the Black community.”

The area in question has been part of controversy from its inception. Twenty years ago, a 3- to 4-acre area of South Shore Park, located at the east end of the South Shore Cultural Center beach, was proposed by the Park District to become a children’s golf facility. In response to community pressure and the South Shore Cultural Center Advisory Council’s suggestion that the area be cultivated as a natural area to accommodate area birders, the Park District’s plans changed. As reported by the Hyde Park Herald, the site was dedicated in late June of 2002 as the South Shore Nature Sanctuary by Ald. Hairston and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Hairston’s original comment came as part of a larger push to regain a measure of momentum for the planned Tiger Woods golf course. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been slow to back the idea, telling the Sun-Times in April that “it feels like it’s not a well-thought-out plan.” 

When asked Sunday about her statements reported by the Sun Times, Hairston said she didn’t want to talk about that, but then added, “It’s an addition, not a subtraction,” referring to the 7 plus acres the proposed championship level golf course would add to the total area of the nature sanctuary.

Hairston then said that she would work with the Park District, the golf course designers and the South Shore Park Advisory Council as the process moved forward.

Woods himself was in Medinah this past weekend for the BMW Championship. (He finished tied for 37th.) “We’re excited about it. The project still continues. It’s still going forward. It’s exciting to bring something for the public right there in President Obama’s front yard, back yard,” he said to reporters. 

The $30 million course, designed by Woods’s company, TGR Design, would merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses. It also would entail significant changes to the area—creating two new underpasses, threatening to displace a popular dog park, and breaking up the existing nature sanctuary into a series of smaller green areas spread out around the course. It’s this last point that’s a particular source of consternation to many South Side residents. 

“What the park and the designers want to do is add 11.6 acres of natural area, but it’s in patches, small patches, which you really can’t utilize,” said Walter Kindred, president of the South Shore Cultural Center Advisory Council. Kindred said that, a couple of years ago, the advisory council submitted a different plan for the golf course to the Tiger Woods team that would retain the nature sanctuary as is, but the council did not receive a response. “I think if we all sit down at the table, we can work something out,” he said. 

“Now, some people say it’s ugly, it’s unkempt, there’s trash. I go out there frequently. I spend hours out there at a time. And we bring groups together to clean up. I go out there and it’s clean 95 percent of the time,” Kindred added. 

One of the main reasons for the relocation of the sanctuary is that, under the current plans for the new course, the green on the 15th hole will be located at the tip of the sanctuary, giving golfers a scenic view of downtown Chicago. But Kindred argues that there is another location slightly to the north that would provide a near-identical outlook. “You put a hole there, the angle is a little different. But it’s the perfect shot of downtown.” 

At the press conference on Saturday, speakers also used Hairston’s comments as a segue into a broader discussion around access to green space for people of color in Chicago. 

“If you compare city expenditures on the north lakefront versus the south lakefront, you’d see almost an apartheid-type financial scenario,” said Naomi Davis, found of the Woodlawn nonprofit Blacks in Green. “We have not heard the numbers…that would make a case for an economic return on the investment from the taxpayers [for the golf course]. Who are the beneficiaries going to be? Caddy jobs are not enough justification.” 

“What is the internal state of a Black or brown body? Your heart is beating faster, or the internal stress of your body is causing you to deteriorate faster. I am seven to 10 years older internally in comparison to a white woman my same age,” said Marshall. “Considering we are 100 years after the race riots, where Black and brown people were being chased out of natural areas, we’re right back at the shores trying to advocate to retain access to a natural area.”  

“We have to reflect on how these natural areas are meant to reflect their community,” she added. “If we want it to have health benefits, how is it that we’re promoting it?”

Marc Monaghan contributed to this story.