Protest in Jackson Park

POP members mark trees threatened by OPC

Hyde Park resident Mary Anton, a supporter of the construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, cuts a ribbon off a tree that had been tied to the tree earlier by supporters of Protect Our Parks (POP). In the background, POP supporter Carol Hitchie ties a second ribbon to a tree after the first had been removed by Anton. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

About two dozen members of Protect Our Parks (POP) tied red ribbons around hundreds of trees they say would be cut down to make way for construction of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, but counter-protesters removed the ribbons.

Herb Caplan, the president of POP, which on Friday filed its appeal of its case against the city and Chicago Park District seeking to block construction of the OPC in the park, said the protest was a recreation of the Daniel Burnham Brigade protest, in which Hyde Parkers chained themselves to trees slated to be cut down for the creation of Cornell Drive, a largely unrealized effort by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley to link Lake Shore Drive with the Chicago Skyway.

Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) member Mary Anton followed protesters and cut the ribbons down, explaining that she also was picking up litter around the trees’ bases.

“I feel strongly that the Obama Presidential Center belongs on this site, that they have a very skilled team who are very serious about balancing the Olmsted legacy with a landscaped plan that will be here 25 or 50 years from now when none of us who are cutting down or putting on ribbons are around,” she said.

Caplan said POP got a map from the Obama Foundation that indicated the proposed scope of development. “We were able to earmark all the trees,” he said, not only at the planned site of the OPC campus, “but at the lakefront and around the golf course.”

The protest marked POP’s first direct action in Jackson Park, and Caplan said that the group will do educational programming in Hyde Park, “calling attention to the changes that are being proposed and the impact it’s going to have on public parks.”

Protesters also marked trees at the Women’s Garden at the eastern end of the Midway Plaisance between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue, which the Obama Foundation has pledged to preserve and expand accessibility.

Jon Rice, a West Englewood resident, said he feared that building the OPC in Jackson Parks would open parks to further development, recalling the lakefront campuses of Loyola University in Rogers Park and Northwestern University in Evanston.

“Here you have U. of C. right next to the lake, except for this!” he said. “If you break the law for the Obama Center, do you not open the area for other people?”

Hyde Parker John Clement — the son of Burnham Brigade protester Kay Clement — said, “I think it’s a shame, that we’re going to destroy this portion of the park for a private entity that should be located somewhere else.”

“Everybody wants the presidential center to be located on the South Side, but many don’t want it in the park,” he said.

They were sentiments many of the protestors echoed: that the 19.3-acre OPC campus was inappropriate for a public park, and that it — and its associated traffic — should go elsewhere.

Janice Misurell-Mitchell, a Hyde Park resident, called parks “a necessary, natural refuge for the people who live here” and compared the OPC to “a commercial museum that could be in the neighborhoods.”

“There’s no room, in the first place,” she continued. “There’s lots of land it could be in, and, as many of us have said, west of Washington Park is great.”

Misurell-Mitchell said a site in the Washington Park neighborhood would be better for the OPC because of its access to the ‘L’ and because “there’s no need to reroute anybody to close streets or open streets.

“And that neighborhood is much worse economically, and it could really use it,” she continued. “Traffic would be horrible” if the OPC is built in Jackson Park, she said. “If they’re going to close Cornell Drive — it’s bad enough as it is now; it’ll be impossible. And they’re unrealistic about making Stony Island more of a highway, and they’re unrealistic about widening Lake Shore Drive — especially with the lake.”

Nevertheless, “The main objection is that it does not belong in a park,” Misurell-Mitchell said.

Charlotte Adelman, the former POP lawsuit litigant and funder, also protested. District Court Judge John Robert Blakey removed her from the lawsuit in February on First Amendment grounds, before he dismissed the case in June, because she lives in Wilmette and does not pay Chicago taxes.

On Saturday, she said she was no longer funding the lawsuit, as the Logan Foundation donated $100,000 to the group to fund the case and Protect Our Parks’ attorney, U. of C. Law School professor Richard Epstein, took on the appeal pro bono.

“I am now watching it with great interest,” Adelman said. “I spent thousands of dollars on this case, and I’m very anxious not to have these trees destroyed. They’re fabulous, beautiful trees, and they’re in an age-old flight path of migrating birds that have been passing through here for thousands of years.”

The OPC’s illuminated 235-foot-ball museum tower “means that these birds will be invited to collide with the building to their deaths,” Adelman said. “It seems to me that the Obama Center, which I heartily support, should be built in an area within the city that will not be directly in this flight path. It will not replace these trees that were planted in furtherance of Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for this park.”

In antebellum dispatches for The New York Times, Olmsted, who designed Jackson Park and later became known as “the father of American landscape architecture,” took a dim view of the slave economy between recounting the institution’s innumerable horrors, recounting the South’s inefficiencies and the large share of its wealth that went to rich planters while most White people lived in poverty.

“I find it egregious that now the idea is to destroy Frederick Law Olmsted’s design and plantings by a person who benefitted, namely Mr. Obama, from Olmsted’s efforts 100 or so years ago against slavery,” Adelman said.

But South Shore resident Juan de la Rosa admonished protesters, saying that the OPC would bring economic investment to the area. “There’ll be people from all over the world here,” he said, recalling disparagingly the aborted establishment of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art near Soldier Field on the lakefront and Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, which would have been based in Washington Park. “This has to end: the city needs the money.”

“This is totally disrespectful to President Obama,” he said. “If he wants it here, it should be here. He’s done a lot for the people, a lot for Black people, a lot for everybody!”

On Wooded Island, three volunteers who were not associated with the protest gave their perspectives as they participated in the naturally landscaped section’s monthly workday.

Andy Carter, who is also a JPAC member, acknowledged the charged opinions of the OPC but said it will ultimately benefit the community, particularly anticipated cooperation with the Obama Foundation and the transition of slated-to-be-closed Cornell Drive to green space. John Stoddart, who is not a JPAC member, lauded the possibility of connecting two parts of the park by eliminating Cornell.

And Jerry Levy, a JPAC member and volunteer steward of the Wooded Island, surmised that only around 10 trees between Cornell and Stony Island “are worth keeping,” the rest being “scrub trees.” He additionally pointed out that establishing the OPC elsewhere would also require the elimination of trees.