Juanita Irizarry, Who Took on George Lucas and Won, Is Stepping Down From Friends of the Parks

Video: Juanita Irizarry joins “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices” on Dec. 7, 2023. (Produced by Emily Soto)

George Lucas may have sensed a disturbance in the force today.

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Friends of the Parks, which led a rebel alliance to beat back Lucas’ bid to build a museum on Chicago’s lakefront, announced the resignation of its longtime leader Juanita Irizarry.

After eight years as the nonprofit organization’s executive director, Irizarry told WTTW News she was ready for “radical rest,” and looking forward to family time and just plain old relaxing.

“I feel like the battles we have taken on represent a couple of 100-year storms back to back,” Irizarry said, referencing not only the fight over the Lucas Museum, but also the controversy surrounding the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, as well as an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a bid to halt the Corps’ continued use of South Side lakefront land as a dump for toxic sludge.

“I’m tired,” she said.

With Friends of the Parks approaching its 50th anniversary in 2025, Irizarry said she felt the time was right for a changing of the guard. She told the board in October that she was ready to leave.

“We have deep appreciation for Juanita’s impactful leadership to ensure equitable access to Chicago’s parks,” Bronwyn Nichols Lodato, board chair, said in a statement. “She’s made an indelible impression on the organization and how the city engages parks’ policy in service to everyone.”

To many Chicagoans, Irizarry will be remembered as the public face of the opposition to the Lucas Museum, but beating back the “Star Wars” creator’s plan is not her proudest accomplishment.

Instead, Irizarry named the 2018 “State of the Parks” report as a crowning achievement, specifically the way it caused the Chicago Park District to place greater emphasis on equity when allocating resources.

“I hope to be known for that,” she said. 

A onetime advocate for affordable housing, Irizarry brought many of the same sensibilities to Friends of the Parks. 

Having grown up five blocks from Humboldt Park, she said the “green space ... was part of my every day existence.” But when gentrification pushed her further west and she no longer lived within walking distance of the park, Irizarry began to fully appreciate the impact her neighborhood oasis had on her sense of community and mental health, and how that connected to housing, she said.

Her personal experience is one reason Friends of the Parks joined the coalition calling for a community benefits agreement with the Obama Center, Irizarry said, to ensure that long-time residents would be able to enjoy any improvements to Jackson Park. 

While Friends’ relationship with the Chicago Park District was frequently contentious, under the leadership of Rosa Escareño, “we were experiencing a new openness,” Irizarry said.

“It’s hard to leave that” after finally gaining a collegial partner, she admitted, but when her tenure draws to a close at the end of 2023, Irizarry said she will be happy to “not be part of the conversation” anymore.

As for what comes next, Irizarry said that beyond some much needed R&R, “I very much hope to be in a park somewhere.”

Note: This article was published Dec. 5, 2023, and updated with video Dec. 7, 2023.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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