Jack Spicer, long-time HP activist, opposes OPC in Jackson Park

Jack Spicer poses on the northern side of Promontory Point. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Jack Spicer, a Hyde Parker and landscaper whose advocacy for the conservation of Promontory Point won it a spot on the listing on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, has a cultivated sense of what green space can do for a community, from residential landscape architecture to public parkland.

This makes him suspicious of the planned construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Spicer was not eager to discuss the OPC during a late September interview on his beloved Promontory Point, cognizant of the passions it has spurred in Hyde Park. He campaigned for president Obama in 2008 and 2012, noting with pride that Obama was the first president in decades to come from a city.

He identified three types of urban parks: formal, derived from palatial European architecture; “amusement parks,” which include athletic fields and Millennium Park, where the goal is “to get as many people in one place as possible to have fun;” and naturalistic parks like the Point. Cities have liabilities and restrictions, he said, and naturalistic parks are where people can reconnect with “what was once wild … or some version of what’s wild.”

“I’m happy that (Obama) wants to have some kind of center. I’m glad that he wants to have it in Chicago. I wish he didn’t want to have it in a park,” he said. “Jackson Park is one of those natural parks, and I think it needs to stay that way.”

“Every time we take one away or remove part of it, we have less — and will continue to have less,” he said. Using his defined terminology, he called the OPC plans an amusement park contra to Jackson Park’s current naturalism: “It’s not going to be a public space. Right now, I can walk into Jackson Park. I can walk wherever I want. If I’m miserable, I can sit down and look at a tree. If I’m happy, I can play ball with my kids or my friends.”

He called the OPC planning “a top-down process.” He said the plan for a PGA-level golf course “has nothing to do with this community or this particular park.” And he is opposed to the planned elimination of Cornell Drive, the multi-lane road that cuts along the western edge of Jackson Park in a largely unrealized attempt to link Lake Shore Drive with the Chicago Skyway.

“Why close it?” he asked. “If you weren’t going to build the Obama tower in Jackson Park, would you close Cornell Drive? No, you wouldn’t. It’s strictly to serve the needs of the OPC, which shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Even if it would end the division of two sections of the park and provide more green space?

“There’s plenty of green space now,” he answered. “There’s going to be less green space after the Obama Center is built.” He said he has no idea if the OPC, with its myriad legal, political and financial points of contention, will be built.

Spicer, 72, is no stranger to playing politics with grassroots activism. He was born in Peoria and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, culminating his education at a long line of Catholic schools with two years at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he studied English and classics.

But by the late 1960s, a religious institution no longer suited him. He transferred to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, near Dayton. Its punchy motto — “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” — epitomizes its left-wing ethos.

“There was good politics, and there were also women,” he quipped. “It seemed like a winning combination to me.”

Antioch requires a work program of its students, and Spicer taught at an alternative high school in Palo Alto, Calif., before the rise of Silicon Valley.Curriculum included training students to protest the Oakland Army Induction Center, then swelling with Vietnam War conscripts.

“I was living with people who were involved with the Panthers; I was living with people who were living in various kinds of Hispanic, countercultural and political movements,” he recalled. For a while, he also lived with five students at a time at rented house in Berkeley, finding them jobs by day and teaching them by night.

After graduating, he wrote for a progressive education magazine that sent him to Chicago to do a piece on cooperative schools with students mostly from Hyde Park and South Shore. Parents hired him to run a high school along the same lines as where he worked in the Bay Area.

“I was trying to let kids discover what adults might be doing with their time, hopefully passionately,” explaining his principle that “one of the important jobs of being an adolescent is to fall in love with something.” In so doing — teaching did not pay much — Spicer found a part-time job work for landscaper Patrick Stuckey in 1971 and fell in love with the work.

He likes the predictability of domestic landscape design over condominiums, companies or the University of Chicago: “Making a long-term relationship with actual, genuine people seemed really important to me, and I have customers now in 2019 that I had in 1976.” And that, he said, is a symptom of the neighborhood where he works.

“Hyde Park is a very stable neighborhood. There are lots of rich people in Hyde Park; there are a lot of rich people in Lincoln Park — but Lincoln Park is a lot more transient: people move in, move out,” he expounded. “Partly because of the University, which is a very stable jobs source, people stay in Hyde Park. They raise their kids. I know families that have three generations in Hyde Park — very few neighborhoods with any social class where you can say that anymore.”

“That’s made my business wonderful, because I can know people and gardens for a long period of time — and that’s important.”

Like many parents, Spicer re-engaged with public life once his children left the home. In 2000, he attended his first meeting around the historic preservation of the Point, when the Parks District was proposing to line the peninsula in concrete, as it is in many other places along the lakefront.

“Look!” he said, gesturing at the concrete lakefront north of 55th Street, which he compared to a parking lot. “Is anybody over there? No. Is anybody over there on Saturday or Sunday? No. Is anybody over here? Hundreds of people swimming. What does this look like? It looks like Maine.”

The group, which became the Community Taskforce for Promontory Point, wanted to preserve the Point’s character, commissioning a study finding that preservation would be cheaper, more durable and more aesthetic, all while preserving its historic integrity.

“It was a wonderful fight,” he said. In 2004, he helped form the Promontory Point Conservancy. In 2005, then-Sen. Barack Obama convened the two sides together. The federal government paid their share of the renovation costs, but money from the Parks District is forthcoming, Spicer said. At present, Promontory Point is largely the same engineering-wise as it was in the 1930s, the last repairs having been done in the 1950s.

“Somehow or another, the feds need to come up with money — or accept money — to do a redesign that the Arms Corps Office of Preservation would do for this,” Spicer said. “They have agreed that his can be done; they have agreed that this can be durable; and they agreed that it would be affordable. But they haven’t got the budget to do the work, and they haven’t since 2007.”

While he named accessibility as a key point of need for the Point, Spicer gave no list of demands for the renovation, trusting the Army Corps of Engineers to do the work based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. But he said the agency does not have the time or appropriations to do so.

As it stands, the Point’s structure — two wooden slats bound by bands and 25-foot steel rods, filled with sand and gravel and covered by the limestone blocks — is disintegrating. Permeable, plastic geotextile fabrics lining the Point’s shoreline would theoretically do the trick, but Spicer again said he trusts the Arms Corps to choose the best strategy.

A look of absolute calm spread over his face on the balmy September day of the interview. “There are south side Point people, and there are north side Point people,” he said as swimmers enjoyed the lake and walkers circulated the paths. “I’m a north side Point person. I think the view of the Loop is so fabulous, I can’t resist.”

And the water is calmer on the north side, too, making it better for swimming — in summertime, at least, when southwestwardly winds make the Indiana-facing water choppy. Children and families, Spicer said, prefer the Point’s north side, while serious swimmers appreciate the southern waters, where no lifeguards on rowboats order them back nearer to the shore.

In spring and fall, the wind shifts. “That’s one of the wonderful things about the Point: you’ve got two sides,” he said. “One side or the other is going to be warm enough to swim almost always. And that’s kind of cool.”

He explained that the tiered limestone blocks that line Promontory Point come from the famous quarries in Bedford, Indiana, which also produced the stones that clad the Empire State Building and the Pentagon. The ones on the Point were unsuitable for building, having failed tests for color and imperfections. They were sold to entities like the Park District — or the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, which helped build the little, 1937-opened peninsula off 55th Street.

“These stones were worthless. You could come and pretty much get them for the cost of transportation to get them wherever you needed them,” Spicer explained. “If you go down to Bloomington (Indiana) now, you’ll find them stacked up. If you could put them in the trunk of your car and bring them home, you can have them. Nobody wants them. They’re still there.”

While the issue of OPC-spurred displacement comes up mostly in Woodlawn, Spicer sounded the alarm for Hyde Park, as well.

“One of the things that I think is really important in Hyde Park is that it has always been a home to marginalized people, and it continues to be,” he said. “And that’s a little bit in threat. As we get more and more upper middle class in Hyde Park and it’s more expensive to live here, we will find that there will be fewer and fewer different kinds of people living here — and that’s unfortunate, because it’s always been the case.”

He recalls going through, with the Hyde Park Historical Society, the Nancy Hays archives. The 1960s and 1970s were one community meeting after another, he said, concerning how to make the neighborhood better, followed by drinks at the Eagle bar.

“There’s this activity and this consciousness about how to get Hyde Park to serve as many people’s needs as possible,” he said. “Everybody is struggling with how to be equitable, how to be just, how to take care of their neighbors. And I hope that that persists. I think that’s a really important part of Hyde Park and should last.”