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Open Letter

Look, I hate Navy Pier as much as the next guy. I don't blame you for deciding to blow that joint. You're probably tired of the insane parking rates.

However, I am puzzled by the widely-promulgated theory that the Children's Museum must move to Grant Park, and only Grant Park. I gather from your supporters that if you are prevented from building an approximately 100,000 square foot, largely subterranean new museum on the site of Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park, all hell will break loose.

The children of Chicago will be irrevocably harmed, perhaps forced to snack on lead paint chips and play exclusively with recalled toys made in China. A mob of uppity rich people from East Randolph and the developing Lakeshore East will wrest control of Grant Park in a bloody midnight coup, keeping the rest of us at bay by waving hundreds of The Best Flaming Torch from Hammacher Schlemmer.

No, I'm sorry. I'm just not feeling it. You've successfully turned the narrative of this issue, as the spin doctors would say, into "poor children of Chicago versus rich selfish high-rise dwellers." Mayor Daley got in on it too at a Monday press conference with one of his trademark nutty rants, no doubt hoping to steer attention away from the CTA. "You mean you don't want children from the city in Grant Park?" he demanded. "Why? Are they black?"

However, to buy into that scenario, one must believe some manifestly untrue points:

* That the Children's Museum is and will be largely patronized by needy children, rather than the mainly middle-class and wealthy people one generally sees there;

* That the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum don't offer vastly superior exhibits for children, anyway;

* That no other parcel of land in the entire city is available, and if the Children's Museum can't move to Grant Park, it will spontaneously wink out of existence;

* That when Grant Park was declared "Forever Open, Clear and Free" in 1836, a declaration buttressed by four subsequent Illinois Supreme Court rulings, they just forgot to add "except the Chicago Children's Museum";

* That the only possible reason to oppose the Grant Park move, then, is to keep underprivileged kids away from high-rise dwellers, which is simply code for keeping blacks away from rich whites, and;

* That the Children's Museum is not itself an institution backed by extremely wealthy and clout-heavy people - even though Allstate Insurance has already pledged $15 million toward construction of a new home, and the museum's chairman is Gigi Pritzker Pucker.

Let's not skip over that middle name. Perhaps the real narrative here is "well-connected institution and its ultra-wealthy backers versus anyone who stands in their way." According to a 2006 Tribune article on Children's Museum president Peter England, "England would not say who first proposed moving to Grant Park, but Gigi Pritzker Pucker, the museum's chairman and a member of the powerful Chicago clan, is believed to have advanced the notion with city and park officials . . . Pritzker Pucker declined to comment."

So this is how the process has gone: First the Children's Museum got the nod from Mayor Daley to take over Daley Bicentennial Plaza, in the northeast corner of Grant Park - probably via Gigi Pritzker Pucker. As an Oct. 8, 2005 Tribune article put it, "City Hall sources said that museum representatives have discussed with Mayor Richard Daley the institution's possible move . . . They are believed to have gotten a positive response from the mayor . . ." The plan was publicly announced in January 2006.

Enough people objected by May 2006 to persuade even then-Ald. Burton Natarus, notoriously pro-development, to oppose the museum move. The Tribune reported the neighbors gathered about 2,100 signatures against the museum, which said it would go ahead anyway.

Instead, Mayor Daley announced in September 2006 that the Children's Museum would move further south in Grant Park to Monroe and Columbus - supported by Natarus, and farther away from the wrath of Randolph Street neighbors.

Children's Museum, you obviously have clout. Now don't be modest, admit it! Few institutions could persuade Mayor Daley to give them a second, different spot in Grant Park, and announce it himself at a press conference.

As it turned out, though, civic groups such as the Grant Park Conservancy and Friends of the Park opposed the Monroe site, and Natarus was replaced in the last election by new Ald. Brendan Reilly. By spring 2007, you again favored Daley Bicentennial Plaza, at Randolph and Columbus. Reilly will decide his position on that site by the end of September.

So where does that leave us? Most recently, with a well-written editorial in the Tribune on Sept. 2 opposing your move to Grant Park. The Tribune pointed out that ever since 1836, "well-intentioned citizens have coveted parts of Grant Park for the fulfillment of each generation's grand civic dreams." Naturally, the Trib assented, the Children's Museum is a fine endeavor: "No one will ever suggest a sheep slaughterhouse for Grant Park," it slyly noted.

The Trib's most salient point was this: "And there is only one reason the Children's Museum can even imagine its new buildings in the park's unobstructed space: Because for 171 years, special protections have stopped influential people and civic groups from intruding on that sacred space."

Influential people like . . . Gigi Pritzker Pucker, perhaps?

No doubt Ms. Pritzker Pucker would enjoy having her own pet civic institution next door to one of her family's other prominent Chicago landmarks, Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by an architect named Frank Gehry. Millennium Park has made Grant Park a more chic destination these days than, say, Navy Pier.

But there's a problem, Chicago Children's Museum. We can't shoehorn every worthy museum into Grant Park. Letting you in makes it that much harder to say "No" to the next Pritzker in line.

Have you noticed that the Museum of Science and Industry does quite nicely in the thoroughly unfashionable location of Jackson Park? Would you believe MSI is actually on the - gasp! - South Side? Of course, if you move to Daley Bicentennial Plaza, we may be talking MSI down off the Grant Park ledge next year.

Now let's talk about Daley Bicentennial Plaza. This area - bounded by Randolph on the north, Lake Shore Drive to the east, Columbus to the west, Monroe to the south - could certainly use some work. I know it fairly well, because my brother has lived on East Randolph since 1984.

The fieldhouse, which peeks out from the hillside sloping to upper Randolph, is no prize. Everyone agrees it needs to be replaced, though no one has questioned why a building only 30 years old is this decrepit already. Who slept with a park district official for those contracts, hmmm? I remember thinking what a moldy place it was back in the late 80s. I had no idea it was practically new at the time. It's ugly enough, I assumed it was left from the 50s.

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin examined the area in a piece on Sept. 11. He reported that the membrane underneath the soil, protecting the East Monroe Garage below the park, is crumbling. The Chicago Park District says the whole thing will have to be torn up and redone in the next few years.

The playground is fairly decent; nothing special, and nowhere near big enough for the neighbors, now numbering about 10,000 and expected to grow with construction in Lakeshore East to about 25,000. That's not counting the influx of outside visitors on nice summer days, and it's a much-needed respite for small children and their families during the Bataan Death March of festivals called "summer in Grant Park."

There's a skating rink adjoining the fieldhouse, nondescript but heavily used. Kamin points out that four nearby tennis courts and their windscreens block some views of the lake, and he doesn't like the miniature golf course along Monroe. On the other hand, the people who use these features like them very much. These are facilities that draw people into the park, and a Sept. 9 piece in the Tribune by Gigi Pritzker Pucker and Peter England specifically endorsed "active" parks over "passive" ones. Of course, they feel a museum would be the correct activity.

To be worthy of Grant Park, this area definitely needs a new fieldhouse and an integrated design. Right now it feels like an outfit thrown together by someone who got up late for work, fighting a nasty flu. This is, in fact, one of the main arguments made for the Children's Museum move: Here's our chance to have the whole thing redone, all funded by the museum!

However, when something needs replacing, it doesn't automatically follow that we should bring in a museum as well. Other fieldhouses around the city are redone, or built from scratch, without any mention of a museum.

This fieldhouse and area, in particular, shouldn't need a museum to get rehabbed. It's Grant Park, for crying out loud. It's across the street from Millennium Park, connected by a Frank Gehry bridge. You'd think someone like a Pritzker or a Crown could help round up corporate and individual donations. Architects would fall all over themselves for the privilege of seeing their design realized in the city's front yard. Surely there are a few more rich people who'd like to see their names inscribed in something close to the lake.

What about Bicentennial Plaza's neighbors and their desire for as much open park space as possible? The current museum design is much improved. According to Kamin, one old plan included "a 32-foot-high, 270-foot-wide facade of faceted glass on the museum's south end." Now, a glass entrance pavilion on upper Randolph is slated to be 20 feet high, and four large "skylights" will rise out of the ground in the park. Kamin notes that two of the skylights will be "as big as houses" - 32 feet high, about 50 feet wide. This isn't an inconsequential imposition on the park, and as Kamin points out, it's still not part of a larger plan for the entire area.

Should Bicentennial Plaza remain a usable neighborhood park space? I haven't seen anyone suggest that there should NOT be a fieldhouse and basic amenities like a playground there. Even you, Children's Museum, have pledged to include a new fieldhouse as part of a relocated museum.

Yet for some reason, you and your supporters appear very conflicted about letting even this one corner of Grant Park serve the burgeoning downtown community. Failure to install a new tourist attraction there is characterized as capitulating to a bunch of rich, snobby high-rise tenants. Simultaneously, you assume normal park amenities somehow exclude anyone who doesn't live within walking distance, unless there's a Children's Museum attached.

Even Kamin writes that while the museum hasn't made a good enough case for taking over this site, to deny the museum would be "a dangerous victory" for the neighbors, would let them "colonize" the precious space. Kamin looks into all the hearts of these downtown dwellers and sees that "their real concern is keeping the hordes of Millennium Park from inundating their little-used sanctum." St. Sabina's Father Michael Pfleger, writing in the Tribune, says the neighbors believe "that Grant Park is 'their' park, and should not be used by 'outsiders.'"

Father Pfleger calls these neighbors "generally privileged and of high socioeconomic status," which is apparently a bad thing to be, even though most people fervently wish to be included in that group, and influential backers of the Children's Museum like Gigi Pritzker Pucker already are.

Father Pfleger labels the position he ascribes to the neighbors "elitist," "narrow-minded" and "morally indefensible." Kamin calls the neighbors' alleged views "selfishness" which "perverts the civic vision of (Montgomery A.) Ward."

If all the opposing residents on East Randolph and in Lakeshore East truly desired to simply keep out Chicago's underprivileged hordes, this might make some sense. In fact, no one is turned away. This park area is not a "little-used sanctum." Neighbors report waiting up to an hour on weekends to get a child on a swing there. (My sister-in-law says only two swings have been functional for most of the summer.) The skating rink is nearly as crowded as Millennium Park's - so much so, I'd rather have my niece come skate at my neighborhood rink. The Bicentennial rink is free - except skate rental - and wide open to all comers. Particularly in the summer, the area is used by many people who don't live anywhere near downtown.

In contrast, Children's Museum, you cost $8 for adults, and $8 also for children. That's right, no discount for kids. Seniors save a whole dollar, paying $7 for admission. Kraft sponsors a Free Family Night from five to eight on Thursday nights. I wonder how many of Father Pfleger's parishioners find that timing convenient.

I'm sure there must be some Bicentennial Plaza neighbors who don't want to mix with anyone of a different background or income level. How could it be otherwise? There isn't a block in this city where you won't find people like that. The rest of the park's neighbors, however, have legitimate concerns about welcoming a museum already drawing about a half million people per year to an area buzzing with traffic - and in the process of adding 15,000 new residents.

As the Tribune editorial put it, "Downtown Chicago, already so gridlocked and stressed that a proposed fee for driving there drew serious discussion, doesn't need more school buses and cars on Randolph, Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive."

I know, Children's Museum. You'll say you commissioned a traffic report showing "limited impact." You claim a new museum will use all three levels of Randolph, keeping traffic on upper Randolph to a minimum. Excuse me, have you ever driven around that area? I can navigate the three randomly interlocking levels because I've been driving there for more than 20 years. Experienced urban drivers, if they are unfamiliar, are unlikely to figure it out on the first try. Suburbanites? I think not.

Half the traffic on upper East Randolph is already composed of lost drivers who turn east from Michigan Avenue thinking they'll find Lake Shore Drive, panic when they don't, and make sudden U-turns anywhere they can. With a Children's Museum whose main entrance and parking garage are on the middle and lower levels, we can probably bring the number of panicking, lost drivers on upper Randolph to 75 percent or more.

I guess it's easy to demonize the residents of East Randolph and Lakeshore East if you don't know any. I know several families there besides my brother's, and they're all decent people who are not attempting to blockade Grant Park against anyone with less money or darker skin. Let's give them the consideration due any citizen: consider the merits of their actual arguments, rather than inventing nefarious and non-existent motives to debate instead.

Privileged people aren't the only ones who may have a hard time accepting the common humanity of anyone different themselves. Look how easy it is to objectify Bicentennial Plaza neighbors by referring to them as "high-rise dwellers." Yikes! Who knows what those high-rise people are capable of? They have more money than us! They live up in the sky! They don't have yards!

You need not worry. I have met these high-rise people. I have walked among them, sat in their lobbies, used their elevators and even broken bread with them. They are not cannibals, though they do have a predisposition for shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

It's true that these high-rise dwellers tend to have more money than most of us. The relevant point here, however, is that these people could easily buy much larger, much more comfortable and much, much more isolated houses in the suburbs. They could pay their taxes in those suburbs, send their kids to school there, and go to private beaches. They could blissfully forget about the city's problems, driving downtown now and then in SUVs to enjoy the restaurants, theaters and museums.

Instead, they've chosen to throw their lot in with Chicago. They understand that cities are important, that you can't just leave them behind like an old sweater when one piece starts unraveling. They think cities are worth putting up with smaller living spaces, bad traffic and crime. They are the people who have fueled the recovery and reinvention of downtown Chicago, which is nothing short of a miracle to anyone who remembers when the Loop, South Loop and North Loop were ghost towns after normal business hours.

I remember those years, and I'm happy the high-rise people are here. But where you go next, Children's Museum, doesn't have anything to do with the downtown population. That's just a red herring your avid supporters have thrown across the Grant Park trail. The real issue is that you believe you are above the law, the one that declares Grant Park should remain open, clear and free. I don't think that's a very good lesson to teach Chicago children.

Sincerely,

Cate Plys

*

Comments? Open Letter is open to letters. Please include a real name to be considered for publication.

*

1. From Michael O'Connor:

Cate Plys certainly has a grasp of the localized issue surrounding the Children's Museum move. It's a pattern now - that Daley rants like this anytime he really wants something. He was just as self-righteous when opponents cried foul on his Meigs Field land grab. Perhaps the Pritzkers feel that they gave so much $$ toward the construction of Millennium Park that they should just be able to take a piece of it. There's precedent here, too, since former Ameritech CEO Dick Notebart gave a bunch of cash so his wife could have a butterfly museum in Lincoln Park.

Could this also be a way for the city to drive up revenues from the Millennium Park garages? The ones that were going to open early to defray the cost overruns of building the park? That is, until the support pillars holding up the roof began to crumble.

One side thought: that skating rink at Bicentennial Plaza was little-known for years. It was always a favorite haunt for a filler picture in the paper, capturing some lonely, stoic soul out there gliding peacefully in the depths of a brutal Chicago winter. Fifteen years ago, if you told people there was an ice rink downtown, many would not have believed you.

2. From Beth Murtagh:

Can you say "Gigi Pritzker Pucker" five times fast?

3. From Peg Burke:

I'm among the legions who think that the museum in Grant Park is a lousy idea. One thing I haven't seen on the subject:

Has anyone mentioned the likelihood that the land would be given/leased/whatever to the museum developers at no or little charge? This looks like another situation where Daley's pals profit handsomely
at the expense of the taxpayers. As always, I'd love for someone to follow the money, since I'm sure there's money to be followed already.

And I agree that the Field and Sci & I do a much better job of catering to kids. Not only do they cater better to kids, the exhibits are of such high quality that they're interesting to adults as well, so it's not like having to waste another day dragging your kids to another crappy kids' entertainment venue.

4. From Prescott Carlson:

"A lot of kids who come to our museum don't even know there's a lake."
- Gigi Pritzker on Chicago Tonight (see Gigi Gags item)

Is "Gigi" Pritzker really trying to float the bullshit that kids attending the current Children's Museum location on a giant pier that sticks out into, uh, the lake, don't happen to notice the giant body of water surrounding them as they go inside? And that moving it underground in Grant Park will somehow make the lake more apparent?

"Chumbolone," indeed.

*

See who else Cate has been writing to in the Open Letter archive.



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Posted on September 18, 2007


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