In recent days, Grant Park has been in the news as the site of a demonstration against a Christopher Columbus statue. Some park advocates say that Grant Park needs attention not only for its monuments, but also for its crumbling infrastructure.
With more than 300 acres in a prime downtown location, it’s no wonder Grant Park is sometimes referred to as Chicago’s front yard. But if you ask the leaders of the Grant Park Advisory Council, some yard work is in order.
“As you can see behind me there are a lot of areas where, especially in the south end of the park, the historic infrastructure is just falling apart,” said Leslie Recht, the advisory council’s president, pointing to things like plywood planks covering pedestrian bridges, crumbling balustrades and bridge supports with exposed rebar, and cracked, uneven paved pathways.
Park advisory council leaders say they understand that money is tight, but they warn these aren’t just aesthetic issues. They see safety hazards, too, like damaged and collapsed steps on staircases and fallen pieces of stone.
“It’s truly a liability issue for the Park District,” Recht said.
Park advisory councils work with the Park District, but are independently elected. So far, Grant Park’s council hasn’t gotten commitments on the infrastructure issues they’ve flagged.
The council has also put together a group to look at Grant Park’s art, monuments, and markers “to include not only reviewing exhibits that were being proposed for placement in the park, but also review exhibits that were in the park where opposition had been raised,” said the council’s Vice President Jim Wales.
Even before the most recent protests, the Columbus statue was at the top of the group’s list to discuss.
“We have people with expertise in the arts, in history, in cultural affairs, the local residential component … an array of people that we believe will bring in a very diverse set of opinions,” Wales said.
The council also wants to look at the overall plan for the park, last updated in 2002, as well as things like improving signage, ensuring Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and elevator access, and improving the dog-friendly area used by nearby residents, “Because it is not only the front yard of the city,” Wales said, “it’s also a neighborhood park.”
In a statement, the Chicago Park District said it was aware of the infrastructure issues and is developing a plan:
“Grant Park, like many parks across the city, is over 100 years old. Though treasured gems, these parks and their celebrated features have withstood generations of use. The Chicago Park District is aware of the aging infrastructure in Grant Park and the concerns expressed by the park’s advisory council. The District is currently developing a plan to address safety issues related to crumbling stairs and pavement. However, full restoration of features including the historic Harrison Bridge will require more substantial work and significant funding.”
Advisory council leaders say they’re happy to help raise money to fix up the infrastructure at the park’s south end, and think the state or private foundations could pitch in.
“Do a full evaluation of all the necessary work in Grant Park, do an estimate of the cost to repair, and then we’ll have something in hand where we can go out and tell people these are the funds we need,” Recht said.
As the site of music festivals, the start and finish lines of the Chicago Marathon and myriad other events, Recht says the park is an economic driver.
“Grant Park can continue to be a generator for the entire city on into the future,” Recht said. “But in order to do that, you can’t have people falling through holes in the stairs or the sidewalk.”
As for the Columbus statue in Grant Park — and another at a park in Little Italy — Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the city will inventory and examine monuments around Chicago and has promised more information later this week.
Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Chicago Park District.